Headphones Promise Ear Relief for Gamers, Flyers
By Jim Bray, with Christopher Bray
Headphones. You can get them big and small, snuggling in your ear, on your ear and around your ear – some that cancel outside noise and some with microphones built in so you can talk with them as well as listening with them.
What to choose? Well, naturally, it depends on the job you're trying to do. And for that reason, I'm focusing this column on two very different types of headphones for two different applications. Both work well, and both are easy on the ears.
Able Planet's TrueFidelity PS500MM multimedia stereo headphones sell for a hundred bucks and claim to be focused on preventing hearing loss among young people – a laudable goal considering all the youth wandering around, plugged obliviously into their headsets these days. In fact, Able Planet says its raison d'être is to preserve hearing, though I'm sure profitability enters into the equation somewhere…
Anyway, the company says its PS500MM "high-fidelity multi media headset for PC gamers" delivers quality audio with "convenient one touch features for controlling volumes and microphone functionality at an affordable price." And it does. In fact, though convenient one touch volume may not sound like much of a selling point, I liked how the company has mounted the volume/mute control down on the cord rather than up on the headset itself, where you have to reach around to find it.
I'm not much of a gamer, but I use Skype and its Pamela add-on all the time for recording interviews I do over the phone, so the idea of a microphone/headphones combination that's comfortable to wear over lengthy sessions (and which still sound good) appeals to me – and in that environment the PS500MM does a fine job.
The reason, according to Able Planet, is its use of patent-pending Linx Audio technology to create high frequency harmonics that "enhance sound quality and speech clarity of difficult to hear words or notes", while increasing the perception of loudness without increasing the volume. This means, according to the company, that the phones provide rich, full sound and clear speech even at lower volumes – so you will (at least theoretically) be less tempted to crank 'em up to ear bleeding levels.
The company also claims Linx Audio gets rid of undesirable sounds and noise, so it's easier to hear high frequency sounds "maximizing full rich sound for music, and enhancing clear voice for speech intelligibility." It's also said to reduce distortion by "soft-clipping" it.
All this technobabble translates in the real world to a lightweight pair of on-the-ear phones I can use for hours at a time with no real fatigue, and they sound very crisp and clean – as advertised, without me having to crank them up to hear.
I also like the USB adapter the company includes in the price, the latter of which makes it a lot more convenient for me to use the headphones, since I have a USB extension cable on my desk and therefore don't have to go poking around for the mic/headphones jack input on my PC.
So while I didn't do a lot of gaming with the phones, I did find them useful – and good performers – for more mundane tasks that require a headphone/mic system.
Noise cancelling headphones have been around for a few years and it's getting to the point where nearly everyone and his dog makes them. Still, some are better than others, and some are easier to live with than others. That's why you can get over the ear, on the ear and ear bud-type versions.
I've been playing with Audio-Technica's $220 QuietPoint ATH-ANC7b Active Noise-Cancelling headphones, the second Audio-Technicas I've tried – the previous being the ATH-ANC3 QuietPoint in-the-ear ("ear bud") model that I liked a lot. The new ATH-ANC7b's sit on your ears rather than in them, though, which makes them a little less gross – but also a little less manageable from a transporting point of view, since they don't fit into your pocket easily.
Audio-Technica says the new model has the same 85% noise-cancellation performance of the previous model, which means they supposedly get rid of 85% of outside noise, while incorporating improvements that make them sound even better than the old model, as well as being more comfortable and convenient.
Alas, while I've tried the buds, I haven't tried Audio-Technica's previous over-ear type, so can't comment on that claim. But I have no reason to doubt it; other Audio-Technical products I've tried have all worked well. These headphones work well, too, as I tested recently on a plane trip to New York City. They're comfortable and isolate you from the outside world much better than the ear bud type (if that's something you like; some people don't like being so isolated), while cutting most of the deep "thrumming" noise you get in the cabin of a jetliner.
Of course there's more to noise cancelling headphones than just noise cancelling. After all, if they can cut away all the stuff you don't want to hear but do a lousy job of what you DO want to hear, there's little point. Fortunately, the ATH-ANC7b's do a good job of audio reproduction. They aren't the best headphones I've ever heard, but they're a very good blend of audio performance with noise reduction.
I tested them using my iPhone, listening to some MP3 files that, while still dumbed down compared to the raw original digital files, sound darn good on their own, and I was quite happy with the Audio-Technicas' performance. The sound was nice, smooth and rich – very natural. Bass, midrange and the highs all sound very accurate, with good imaging.
The earcups are padded nicely, too; I wore them for hours at a time without fatigue or discomfort.
A nice touch is two detachable cords of varying length, designed so you can use the phones for noise cancelling alone – conveniently, without having to get tangled in wiring. Another nice touch is adapters for airplanes and home audio systems that means the phones will work pretty well anywhere you want them to, from portable music and movie players to computers, airplane entertainment systems and the like.
They play pretty loud, too, so perhaps I shouldn't be talking about them in the same column as the Able Planets reviewed above, but to each his own. Audio-Technical claims a sensitivity of 109 decibels for the phones, which should be loud enough for all but the most head banging head banger.
Frequency response is listed as 10-25,000 hertz.
The ATH-ANC7b's also work with the noise-cancelling is turned off, at which time they become "garden variety", albeit quite good, headphones and you can operate them without batteries then as well.
As mentioned, one disadvantage to this type of headphone is that they won't slip into your pocket like the ear bud type will, so when travelling you'll have to carry them on as part of your carry on luggage or use the little ring on the case to hang it from a nipple ring or something, though that might hurt!
On the other hand, the phones fold flat, which minimizes their depth, and there's enough room left inside the case for you to smuggle small quantities of stuff.
I think in the grand scheme of things I liked Audio-Technica's noise cancelling ear buds better for travelling because I don't want the whole world shut out – how will I know when to head for the emergency exit or, more importantly, to order that scotch, if I'm blissfully unaware of planet Earth.
But I liked the ATH-ANC7b's better than the full, over the ear type of headphones I've tried in the past – whether for noise reduction or merely for music. The smaller and lighter cup isolates you enough to keep the sounds around you out (and the noise cancelling takes out a lot of the rest), while the larger drivers offer sound quality that, as good as they are, most ear buds have trouble matching.
Copyright 2009 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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