A Comparative Review of High-End Noise Canceling Headphones Page 2

Testing the Noise Cancelers
In addition to my ever growing bald spot, in the photograph above you can see my set up for testing noise canceling headphones. To the extreme left are all the headphones for testing; then my laptop for taking notes; followed by my main system headphone amp under the left speaker, which is playing music over USB from the computer and driving the headphones I'm testing; under the right speaker are the power amps which are being driven by the line output of the laptop to the far right, which is playing the sound on the speakers to create a controlled but noisy listening environment.

This rig allows me to play pink noise, crowd noise, and other sounds over the speakers while I listen to music on the noise canceling headphones and evaluate their audio quality. I'll often turn on and off the speakers to listen for changes in audio quality. I use this track of crowd noise at a pub for testing.

Noise canceling headphones go through the same objective measurement routine as regular headphones, the only strange thing to note is that the impedance and phase measurements aren't measuring the headphone driver, but the input stage of the electronics of the headphone. I've compiled a small .pdf booklet of measurements for the noise canceling headphones evaluated in this review, which you can download here.

Don't forget the video and summary on the last page. Let's get on with it!

Klipsch Mode M-40 (MSRP $349)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_KlipschModeM40You can polish this puppy all you want, but it's still gonna look like someone dropped a log on your head. Boy! This is one fugly headphone. Looks aside, they're heavy and uncomfortable, so they've got that going for them.

The Klipsch Mode M-40 does work without a battery; in that mode they sound sort of boring with rolled-off highs. Install the battery and flip on the noise canceling switch, and you're assaulted with an over assertive midrange and a remarkable lack of high frequencies giving these cans a truly awful sonic presentation. While the passive seal of these cans is pretty good, the noise canceling adds very little to rid you of outside noise. The abysmal listening experience puts them at the bottom of the list for me. Blech!

Klipsch Mode M-40 product page.

Fanny Wang 3000 (MSRP $299)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_SennheiserMX450annyWang3000Oh, how I hoped these would sound better than the Beats by Dre Studio that inspired their design. Unfortunately, they don't. They sound okay in passive mode, but as soon as you put the batteries in and turn it on, the Fanny Wangs go from "boring but okay," to peaky and strident. The "Bass Boost" mode is bloated and gruesome, and not only does the noise canceling work poorly, but it also amplifies some of the upper mid frequencies to make barroom chatter all the more audible when the noise canceling is turned on.

If they were 1/3rd the price and didn't look like they were made by Fisher-Price, I might recommend them for use without batteries.

Fanny Wang 3000 product page.

Sennheiser PXC 450 (MSRP $349)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_SennheiserMX450You know I love Sennheiser and I'd love to say their PXC 450 is groovy, but it's just not. The build quality, fit, and finish are all dandy, of course. But the sound is hard in the low treble; loose in the bass; and somewhat missing in the mids. I was pretty disappointed with Sennheiser's showing here.

The noise canceling was moderately good, but I had trouble with a tendency for the cans to start oscillating at very low frequencies. Some part of the noise canceling feedback loop is interacting with the acoustics of the headphones and providing positive feedback at about 30Hz. This phenomenon got worse when I put my head next to a wall, which I assume is reflecting some of the sound back toward the headphones and making the feedback worse. I couldn't make measurements of these headphones because of this low frequency problem when I put them in my measurement chamber. I suppose it's possible there is something wrong with this particular pair, but I have heard these at trade shows a number of times and always walked away unimpressed.

Sennheiser PXC 450 product page.