We live in a noisy world. Lawnmowers, leaf blowers, jackhammers, and motorcycle engines all have a way of disrupting the peace in our homes at this time of year when the windows are wide open. When you step outside, the din gets even worse. And, for some reason, this assault on the ears always seems to happen right when you're in the mood for a little mellow music or a nap.
That's the great appeal of noise-canceling headphones. Not only do they deliver the sweet sounds of a Sam Smith or a Nora Jones, but they also seal out the commotion, whether you're at home, on the street, in a busy cafe or a bustling airport.
How do they pull it off? In some cases, they simply plug your ears with a nub of rubber or a spongy cushion. That's what's known as passive noise cancellation. In other cases, they actively erase the clamor, using a built-in microphone and circuitry to isolate the ambient sound and replace it with a noise-canceling frequency 180 degrees removed from the offending one. Amar Bose, founder of the Bose Corporation, invented that technology himself.
In fact, his company is still a pioneer in the field. A few days ago, it introduced four new models, all wireless, including the $300 Bose QuietControl 30, which lets you determine with a mobile app just how much outside noise gets to your ears. During your lunch break in the heart of a major metropolitan city, for example, it might be better to hear those car horns. On the other hand, it's awfully nice to tune out Phil the Mailroom Guy when he launches into his politics routine right outside your cubicle.
Bose says the QuietControl 30 won't be available until September, though. In the meantime, you may want to try the QuietComfort 25 recommended in our Ratings. Then again, if you've got your heart set on wireless, here are three pairs of noise-canceling headphones that performed well in our test labs.
Phiaton BT220NC, $180: A smart choice for those who value excellent sound quality and a Bluetooth wireless connection to a smartphone or tablet, these headphones offer good active noise reduction with the added benefit of an isolating in-ear design. Not only does that muffle the mayhem in your midst, but it also keeps the acid rock in your music collection from escaping into the ether, disturbing your fellow Frappuccino fans in the Starbucks line.
Definitive Technology Symphony 1 Executive, $400: The over-the-ear design and noise-canceling tech make these wireless headphones excellent at blocking out the world beyond your airplane seat. The very good sound quality guarantees that you remember to pack them before your next trip.
Parrot Zik 3, $400: For those who like function and fashion, this slightly retro, minimalist-looking model created with the help of famed industrial designer Philippe Starck delivers excellent active noise reduction and very good sound quality. (Be sure to avoid the unpowered model, though, since the sound in that one rates just fair.)
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