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August 10, 2006 6:23 pm

Looking for peace and tranquility

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Noise, particularly the constant drone of traffic or the whine of jet engines, can be both annoying and exhausting. But experts caution that cranking up the volume on a cheap set of headphones is not the answer.

Instead they suggest investing in a set of noise cancelling headphones designed to ease the pain. By blocking or cancelling out extraneous sound, these headphones enable users to comfortably listen to a digital music player, film or audio book without risking damage to their eardrums.

The leading noise cancelling headphones use tiny microphones to sample ambient sounds; electronic circuitry then generates equal but opposite sound waves to cancel out the original noise.

I became a convert about five years ago when I bought a set of Koss Noise Reduction Stereophones, which cost about $200 at the time. I still have that set, though I switched some time ago to a pair of Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones. Bose (www.bose.com ) helped redefine the market with the QuietComfort 2 (QC2) headset, a very comfortable over-the-ear cup design.

The QC2 headphones were a big hit in spite of a hefty price tag – they now cost $299. But Bose recently introduced a new and even more expensive flagship model dubbed the QuietComfort 3 that I have been testing. The new headphones cost $349.

Aside from the higher price, the most obvious difference between the QC3 and its predecessors is size. The latest headset is significantly smaller than its predecessor and is supraural (the cups sit on the ears rather than enveloping them).

In spite of that, I found the QC3’s soft leather-clad cups to be just as effective in cutting out noise on my morning rail commute, though I personally prefer the circumaural design of the QC2s.

No noise cancelling headphones eliminate all background noise, but I found the new Bose headphones did an impressive job of reducing most reasonably constant noise sources including traffic, the neighbour’s lawnmower and the drone of a generator. While I have not yet tried them while flying, I expect them, like the QC2s, to make the experience much more pleasant and less tiring.

Like the QC2s, each ear cup rotates and folds flat for easy storage in a semi-rigid carry case. The headphones come with a detachable 1.5m extension cable (important to prevent damage should the cord get tangled or snag) and a set of audio jacks that enable them to plug into almost any audio source.

Unlike the QC2, which uses standard alkaline batteries, the right ear cup on the QC3 houses a proprietary rechargeable battery pack designed to power the headphones for about 20 hours before recharging.

Bose claims the QC3’s audio quality is identical to the QC2. I could not tell the difference, though some reviewers have complained that the latest headphones sound a little “bass heavy” and are more suited to listening to rock and roll than classical music.

If you are looking for noise cancelling headphones, the Bose QC3s should be near the top of your list. But if you already own the QC2s, I would not upgrade.

Bose is not the only company in the market. Others include JVC, Sennheiser and Logitech. The Sennheiser PXC 250 headphones in particular are a good and much less costly alternative at $129.

On a recent trip round Asia, I also tried out a pair of new Turtle Beach ANR-20 noise protection headphones which cost just $99 (they are not yet available in Europe). Although these traditional-style headphones are bulkier and not as comfortable as the Bose headphones, they proved effective. They also fold up, making them easy to carry in a pocket.

The other option is to choose a set of passive noise reduction ear buds, which reduce noise by fitting snugly in the ear without the fancy electronics. Among my favourites are the Etymotic ER6i earbuds from Etymotic Research (www.etymotic.com ) which cost $130.

They come with both distinctive three-flange rubber eartips and foam eartips and proved highly effective at blocking outside noise while producing excellent sound quality.

Audiophiles may also want to consider Shure’s new flagship earbuds – the Shure E500PTH Sound Isolating Earphones (www.shure.com ). These beautifully designed earbuds produce seriously good audio but cost $550.

BOSE QUIETCOMFORT 3

Pros: very comfortable, effective noise cancellation, excellent design and build.

Cons: expensive, some users may prefer the earlier Bose
model.

SHURE E500PTH

Pros: superb audio quality, fits in the ear snugly.

Cons: very expensive.

paul.taylor@ft.com

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