Review: Logitech Noise Canceling Headphones
Pros: A pair of nicely designed noise-cancelling headphones that combine a battery-powered active noise cancellation system with passive noise isolation from full earcups, effectively mimicking on features and comfort the design of Bose’s popular and considerably more expensive QuietComfort 2 headphones. Includes travel kit with carrying case, detachable headphone cord and airplane headphone port adapter, plus one AAA battery to power the noise canceller. Headphones still work when battery has died, albeit without cancellation.
Cons: Sound quality isn’t the equivalent of QC2s on detail or in upper range, slightly more noticeable hiss during quiet times. Small Bose frills such as headphone extension cable, large port adapter, and carrying case strap aren’t included.
Though there have been many lower-priced imitators since Bose released its original QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones back in 1989, the company has managed to stay ahead of the pack for a decade and a half, thanks to a combination of continued engineering improvements, aggressive marketing, and the inability of its competitors to produce a definitively superior product. Bose’s technology was developed to help consumers and pilots filter out engine rumbles and other noise, using earcups with built-in external microphones to sample and actively “cancel” outside sounds, thereby allowing the sound inside the headphones to be heard more clearly. Though the first QuietComfort was considered somewhat unwieldy, Bose’s 2003 followup QuietComfort 2 - especially the in-line “second edition” version with improved sound balance (iLounge rating: A-) - is widely considered to be the active noise-cancelling headphone to beat. Now two more companies have tried to do so: Logitech, with its simply-named Noise Canceling Headphones ($150), reviewed below, and Bose itself, with the QuietComfort 3 we’ve reviewed separately today.
[Editor’s note: Due to differences between these companies’ preferred spellings of the word “canceling”/“cancelling”, we use their different spellings for their product names herein, and apologize for any confusion it may cause you as a reader.]
Logitech’s message with the Noise Canceling Headphones is intended to be simple: for half the price of Bose’s QC2s, you can get an almost identical package, including the black and gray, rounded rectangular Headphones, a QC2-sized gray, semi-hard, zipper-closed travel carrying case, a detachable headphone cord and airplane-friendly double jack adapter, and a single included AAA battery. Missing are the QC2’s larger headphone port adapter, case carrying strap, and additional length of headphone extension cable. As with the QC2s, passive noise isolation is provided by soft, ear-enclosing cushions, and active noise cancellation is achieved with two external microphones found outside the earcups. You pop the battery into the left earcup, then flip an adjacent switch to turn on the active canceller; a small blue light indicates that it’s on. Unlike the QC2s, the headphones work - albeit at a low-efficiency volume - even when the switch is off of the battery is dead.
The good news here is that the Noise Canceling Headphones fit comfortably, work properly, and sound good for the price. Though they’re not as heavily padded on the top as Bose’s QC2 design, they’re just as comfortable, and the only step necessary to their enjoyment is to resize the adjustable headband to fit your head’s shape. Once adjusted, your ears will be largely sealed off from the outside world without pressure, which is just as expected. Flipping the switch results in two immediate, obvious effects in a room with low ambient noises - those noises are almost entirely muted, and replaced by a very low hiss in the headphones.
That hiss - more noticeable in Logitech’s design than in the QuietComfort 2s, which themselves markedly improved on the QC1s - suggests what else is to come from the Headphones. Like it or not, the QuietComfort 2s have become the reference standard for consumer noise-cancelling headphones, even though the second edition version follows the Bose tradition of intentionally skewing warm and soft rather than delivering neutral or especially clear audio. As with the company’s similarly warm-skewing speaker systems, and despite audiophile criticisms that they lack high- and midrange detail and clarity, average consumers rarely register major complaints about the QC2s’ design or sound quality.
Why is this? Active noise cancellation is intended for use by travelers - generally, passengers in mass transit vehicles with ever-present low rumbling engine noises - so Bose’s own low-end skew naturally fits with what’s going on outside of the earcups. Second, those earcups, currently not in vogue versus in-canal earpieces because of their large size and lower portability, provide passive isolation (read: full ear coverage) and long-term comfort that few in-canal phones can rival, adding to their specific appeal for long trips. Third, the presence of ambient and more difficult to filter high- and midrange noise naturally reduces even a serious listener’s ability to make out all the details in those parts of the audio spectrum. Under lab-like conditions, audiophiles can poke holes in all of Bose’s performance characteristics, but in real-world testing, people like them if they can afford them and don’t mind their size.
Having used the QC2s as a reference point, Logitech’s $150 less expensive package comes close enough to Bose’s mark that most users won’t care about its omissions. But those who do will point to one thing: sound quality. While the QC2s are fairly criticized for their warm skew and lack of detail, Logitech’s Noise Canceling Headphones are a little flatter, warmer, and noticeably less impressive in mid-treble. Neither of the designs does an especially good job of creating a vivid, detailed soundstage, but Bose’s sound better - a bit more dynamic and clear - without question. Add Logitech’s aforementioned slight extra hiss during quiet moments, and the picture is fairly complete.
In all candor, none of the criticisms above excuses the QuietComfort 2’s $150 price difference over the Noise Canceling Headphones: Logitech has clearly released a considerably more affordable and mainstream option, and those seeking to save a bit of cash will find this alternative to be a very good one, the reason for our strong B+ recommendation. That said, we continually hear companies boasting that they can equal or beat a Bose product for half the price, but we’re still waiting to see it happen here: the Noise Canceling Headphones only succeed in that if you benchmark against the newer, more expensive, and less directly comparable QuietComfort 3s, which we didn’t like nearly as much as their predecessors. Except on price, and assuming they care as much or more about sound quality than the frequently maligned Bose, the leader’s active noise-cancelling rivals will continue to have their work cut out for them.