Pros: Modest external noise exclusion.
Cons: Bulky, inexpensive feel with mediocre audio quality and little improvement over cheaper options.
An hour late leaving the gate and full of irritated passengers, the plane’s engines finally begin to rumble. And almost simultaneously, a pleasant but nearly robotic voice drones through the passenger compartment’s flickering speakers: “in preparation for take-off, please discontinue the use of all portable devices, including CD and MP3 players.”
As you contemplate whether you really need to comply – how exactly does this iPod interfere with the plane’s navigation system, again? – a stewardess gently taps you on the shoulder as she walks by, leaving you to remove the headphones from your ears. Seconds after the plane’s wheels lift off of the ground, the baby in the seat behind you begins to wail, and all you can think about is filling your ears with something – anything – to drown out those screams.
One possible solution: Plane Quiet from Outside the Box, a set of active noise canceling headphones that might appear to be perfect for this sort of situation. Pop them on, flip a switch, and turn on your music to cancel out up to 17 decibels of exterior noise. Sounds good, right? A godsend, perhaps? Not exactly.
Active Noise Cancellation: Conception Versus Reality
The marketed difference between Plane Quiet and a comparable pair of earcup-style headphones – say, Sony’s various Eggo models – is “active noise cancellation.” It’s a technology that sounded pretty cool when we first heard about it: microphones are added to devices that can listen to certain sounds and create inverse sound waves to cancel them out. Active noise cancellation has been applied in aircraft and consumer products such as car mufflers for years, reducing apparent noise to acceptable or even quiet levels.
More recently, several companies have released headphones (and even in-ear phones) with noise-sampling microphones and canceling circuitry built in. The stated purpose was to create a quieter listening environment around the ears so that volume levels wouldn’t have to be turned up to ear-damaging levels in order to really hear music. And people were excited about the technology for technology’s sake – sort of like 2.4 Gigahertz phones.
But once the dust settled, people realized that active noise cancellation offers only limited advantages: under most circumstances, it blocks low-frequency noises like rumbles and growls – the sounds of mufflers and airplanes themselves, but provides less protection against high-frequency sounds like screaming babies. And it has serious disadvantages versus, say, quality in-ear buds: it draws extra battery power, and takes up extra space because of those microphones.
In the Box
In Plane Quiet’s case, black plastic and padded faux leather come together to form a headband that holds two silver-painted, black-padded earcups embedded with small microphones. The headphones are comfortable but feel inexpensive, and even when adjusted provide an adequate but not perfect ear seal with an average-sized head. Trace amounts of metal are used decoratively to give the adjustable left and right sides the appearance of more substantial accessories.
At the end of the headphone cable is an interesting but large adaptable stereo plug – one that starts with a single 3.5mm jack but can transform into a dual-jack output for use with old-fashioned in-flight audio systems. A second lengthening adapter is also included to extend the reach of the headphone jacks if necessary.
In between the headphones and the plug is a medium-sized amplifier box – one that contains an AA battery, a volume knob, an “on/off” switch, a red power LED and a belt clip. The amplifier box itself is larger than the total size of a pair of in-ear buds, and the earcups are average sized. A thin vinyl carrying bag is included, and probably necessary given the bulk of items and cord to be carried around. The included instruction manual stops in mid-sentence at the end of the seventh page, but then, we really didn’t need it for anything, anyway.
On the Head
Because we wanted to see whether the Plane Quiets with active noise reduction delivered better quality than inexpensive or expensive audio gear, we tested the Plane Quiets against our two sets of reference headphones – a pair of Etymotic ER-4Ps ($300) and a pair of cheaper Sony MDR-EX70s ($40) with a deserved reputation for muddy low-end frequency response but excellent in-ear fit and thus substantial passive noise reduction.
Although we could drag out the test results for several pages, they come down to a few simple conclusions: while the active noise reduction works, it performs comparably to the passive noise reduction in the cheaper Sonys and worse than the passive noise reduction in the Etymotics. More importantly, the audio quality of the Plane Quiets was no better than the cheaper Sonys and substantially inferior to the Etymotics, despite consuming additional battery power, considerably more space, and offering only moderate comfort for the listener.
Active noise reduction in the Plane Quiets proved to be less impressive than we had expected. We popped the headphones on and tried screening out various types of loud, normal noise from engine rumbling to television broadcasts and normal conversations. In each case, while there was a fair decrease in noise just by putting the earcups on, the difference between turning the Plane Quiets “on” and “off” was modest. Never could we stand next to something truly loud and have the sound completely blocked, and the volume level on the Plane Quiets was surprisingly low.
During testing, we were surprised to find that the Sonys by virtue of their comfortable in-ear silicone buds blocked more outside noise than the Plane Quiets even when the Plane Quiets were turned “on,” consuming battery juice. The Sonys were, by comparison, running without any external power. The Etymotics were less of a surprise, also running without external power and excluding even more noise than the Sonys or Plane Quiets. (Etymotic rates the ER-4Ps at 20-25 decibels of outside noise exclusion compared with the Plane Quiets’ 17 decibel rating.)
Leaving the noise reduction features aside, the audio quality of the $79.99 Plane Quiets is still mediocre on an absolute scale, comparing roughly with the quality of the cheaper Sonys – but only when the Plane Quiets are turned “on” and detracting from their 12-hour battery life. When “off,” the Plane Quiets are tinny and scratchy, quite unlikely to be worth outside of an airplane. We weren’t surprised that the Etymotics blew both sets of headphones away, but the real story as we saw it was that the Plane Quiets didn’t deliver better sound or exclusion than a $40 pair of in-ear buds.
While it would be comforting to leave the review on a positive note and recommend the Plane Quiets for at least airplane use, we can’t think of a good reason to suggest them to our average user for even that purpose. Cheaper and smaller devices achieve the same effect without drawing extra battery life, and the only type of person we can see using these big, average-sounding headphones is a person who loathes in-ear bud designs. Even then, there are other brands we would consider first, as the fit, finish and audio performance of the Plane Quiets left enough to be desired that we’d be willing to spend a little extra money to step up to something better.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school -ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.
Company and Price
Company: Outside the Box Group
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo, iPod shuffle