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- Noise-cancelling headphones are a must-have for anyone who commutes or flies frequently.
- While regular headphones passively block some outside noise, active noise-cancelling headphones work differently, and are more effective.
- I hardly ever fly without my wireless Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones.
Forget the crying baby in row 22 — when you’re on an airplane, there’s a constant bombardment of sound. On top of things like people chatting and rattling service carts, engine noise levels inside the cabin can be as loud as 85 dB at cruising altitude — that’s nearing levels that can be dangerous with extended exposure.
With all that sound, it’s no wonder that noise-cancelling headphones have become so popular for travel. Traditional closed-back headphones, which “passively” block noise just by covering your ears, are no match for those engines. Active noise-cancelling headphones work differently. They use microphones to listen to the ambient noise around you, and then play sounds that are the exact opposite frequency.
Active noise cancelling headphones have been around in one form or another since the 1986, when a prototype was finalized by Bose and used by the pilots of the first around-the-world flight — the aviation headsets became commercially-available in 1989. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that the first noise-cancelling headphones became available for music-listening consumers.
Since the original QuietComforts, the Bose noise-cancelling line has gotten even better with each iteration. While many other companies make their own active noise cancelling headphones, Bose remains the gold standard. Even though most noise-cancelling headphones carry a hefty price tag — including the Bose models — they’re a must-have for anyone who commutes or flies.
I’ve been using Bose’s wireless QuietComfort 35 (or “QC35”) headphones since August, and they perfectly demonstrate why the brand is so popular.
Bose has basically perfected the noise-cancellation, which performs almost flawlessly. It’s incredible to put the QC35s on my head, flip the power on, and listen to the sounds of the plane engines vanish. It’s almost like magic. The active noise-cancellation works best for low frequencies and steady, droning noises, like airplane engines, train sounds, or motors. However, the ear cups have a dense, foam padding that blocks other sounds — like people talking or babies crying.
The only time I’ve noticed the noise-cancellation having trouble is when there’s air blowing directly on the ambient noise microphones, like wind, or from an overhead vent on an airplane. It makes occasional skipping or gusting sounds. However, this is easy to fix on a plane by just repositioning the vent even slightly.
Aside from the noise-cancellation, the sound quality is excellent. Some audiophiles complain that Bose sounds too “flat,” though I disagree. With a relatively neutral sound profile, the QC35’s are ideal for watching TV or movies and listening to just about any genre of music. The bass isn’t boosted, but it’s definitely present, while the mids and highs are clean and tight, without sounding harsh on the treble.
The headphones are comfortable enough to wear for hours — vital for a long flight — with soft, plush earpads and large cups that fit all the way around your ear. While the unit is heavier than previous models, since it’s the first wireless version, the weight isn’t noticeable, partly thanks to a soft, padded headband. I haven’t had any issues with my head or ears overheating, which is a common problem with around-the-ear (or “circumaural”) headphones. The right ear cup has buttons to control music, volume, answer calls, and pair the headphones to your device.
The headphones come with an optional wire to connect to devices without Bluetooth, like an airplane’s in-flight entertainment system. You can also use the headphones with the wire — though without the active noise cancellation — if the battery runs out. That’s unlikely to happen, though, since Bose quotes battery life at 20 hours. I haven’t tested them for 20 hours straight, but I’ve gone about 18 cumulative hours of listening in between charges without running out of juice.
The headphones also come with a carrying case, a micro-USB charging cable, and an adapter for old two-prong in-flight entertainment systems.
As of this fall, there are two versions of the QC35. The new version comes with a new button that lets you control the level of noise cancellation, although you can also configure the button to enable Google Assistant. Version two is $20 more, but doesn’t come with the airplane adapter. I have version one and have never missed a noise-cancellation control feature, so unless you rely on Google Assistant, I’d suggest saving the money and going for the earlier model.