Noise Canceling vs Noise Isolating

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I have spent thousands of dollars in my quest for the perfect earphone. I travel a great deal and love music, so I need a high-quality phone which can transcend the noise problems associated with subways, trains, and planes.

Noise-canceling phones utilize an active noise reduction system. They electronically produce a frequency which, with varying degrees of success, cancel out white noise (constant mid-level sounds like airplane engines and track noise). They require a power source (a single AAA battery in one earphone or two batteries in an external case).

Noise-isolating (in-ear) phones use a passive system, simply sealing the ear with a variety of foam canal tips. To the 30db or so reduction in all outside noise this alone provides, sound is enhanced by being sent directly into the ear. The ratio of music to outside noise in the ear is, therefore, extremely high They need no batteries, are lightweight and compact.

I went through just about every noise-canceling earphone (Sennheiser, Sony, Panasonic, Philips, etc.). I didn’t buy the Bose, but I tried a friend’s set. They are all cumbersome, needing to be large enough to cover the ear completely. They are very hot, and virtually unbearable, in summer (they make great earmuffs in winter, though). They’re even more cumbersome if an external power source is used. Noise reduction is a decided improvement over standard phones, but still require a very high setting on your portable device to hear soft passages – if, indeed, you can hear them at all.

I knew I was home when I put on my first pair of noise-isolating phones (Shure E2 - replaced by the new Shure SE215). Even this entry-level phone provided amazing sound isolation. Quite moderate volume settings provide complete audibility. They are small, fit in the ear, and add no heat to your ears which make summer listening easy. I immediately moved up to the top-of-the-line E5 and was completely blown away by the clarity and definition of the dual-drivers. I could hear sounds usually embedded in the recording – inaudible with ordinary phones – like orchestra members turning pages, the occasional dropped items,or stifled coughing. It was eye-opening. Such things really bring a recording to life. But the main thing is they even cover the most annoying noise of all: loud, obnoxious cell-phone users! Heaven. The fit, being crucial to appreciate this type of phone, may take some ingenuity, common sense, and care.

One big problem: what do I do with all those other earphones??


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