During countless flights this year we tested the 3 possible solutions to blocking out noise:
- Active Noise Cancelling Headphones
- Passive Noise Isolating Earphones
- Ear Plugs
Active Noise Cancelling Headphones.
Active noise cancelling works by listening to the ambient noise around you and generating a sound wave in your headphones that tries to cancel out this noise. For a more detailed explanation of noise cancellation see this guide at How Stuff Works.
Active Noise Cancelling headphones use a combination of foam cups that cover your ears to passively block out higher frequency sounds. Microphones on the outside of the ear cups measure sound around around you and generate white noise in the headphones to cancel out the outside sound so all you hear is the music or podcast that you want to listen to. The noise cancelling electronics requires batteries that can be stored in the ear cups or cable depending on the headphone design.
We prefer the Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC7b's because they cost less than the Bose QC15's and still work as normal headphones even if their batteries run out. With the QC15's when the battery runs out, the music stops immediately.
CultofMac liked Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC7b so much they exclaimed "they’re so good, I’m probably never taking them off". CNET said that "while they're no bargain, the Bose QuietComfort 15s currently offer the best sound and silencing capabilities in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones."
Passive Noise Cancelling Earphones
They are called noise isolating because they work by creating a snug fit in your ear that physically stops a lot of sound from reaching your ear canal.
Benefits of the passive approach to blocking noise includes small size and light weight. They are also offer the best audio quality of all 3 noise blocking solutions and are cheaper than headphones because active noise cancelling circuitry and batteries aren't required.
The differences in approach balance comfort with effective noise isolation. Ultimate Ears use ear buds that fit in your ear like any other earphone and will therefore be comfortable for most people. Etymotic on the other hand uses a canalphone design that literally goes quite far into your ear which makes them more effective but likely to cause discomfort for more people.
CNET's review says "The Ultimate Ears 700 Noise-Isolating Earphones are a stunning set of in-ear headphones that supply detailed sound, class-leading isolation and a good fit". Noise Addict was "happy to report that the noise isolation of the these [Etymotic mc5's] is simply remarkable".
Foam Ear Plugs
3M foam ear plugs will cost you spare change from your wallet at your local pharmacist. They are hands down the most effective way to block out mechanical noise from the plane as well as conversations between your fellow passengers.
While they are dollar for dollar the best solution to block noise, if using them while you're awake doing work it means you can't listen to music or podcasts.
We suggest keeping a few pairs of spare ear plugs as they are small and light so easy to lose.
What have you found works best for you?