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Headphone Shootout #2 - The Details

Our second headphone shootout using the Crutchfield Listening bar focused on noise-cancelling headphones. It featured a three person panel: Dave Bar, audiophile and headphone expert; Marshall Chase, whose specialty for Crutchfield on the web and in the catalog is receivers and audio components; and Ralph Graves, blog editor and former writer for Crutchfield's headphone category.

As with the first headphone shootout, each panelist had much more to say than the space allotted to them in the results chart. Here are their complete comments, along with an introduction by Dave.

Opening thoughts:

Dave:

I haven't had much hands-on experience with noise-cancelling headphones, so this was a welcome opportunity to acquaint myself with them a bit. After a couple hours of swapping back and forth, listening to each pair while seated on a busy corner of our Telephone Sales Department, the overall impression I got was that each of these 'phones did a pretty commendable job of blocking out the steady drone of a noisy office environment. What they didn't do was totally eliminate loud, one-time events such a keyboard being dropped on a desk, or someone close by making a loud noise (although the Bose® QuietComfort® 15 Acoustic Noise-Cancelling® headphones came close).

I kept the noise cancellation feature switched on for virtually all of my listening, although both Sennheiser models and the AKGs allow listening in the passive mode, handy if you run out of battery power on the road. The Bose® and the Beats™ Studios simply pass no signal at all when the active electronics are off, so make sure you have fresh batteries if you're planning an 18-hour flight with these babies.

I also discovered that I prefer having the electronics built into the earcups rather than "in-line" on the headphone cable - there's less "stuff" to hassle with in this configuration (although I did appreciate the in-line volume control on the PCX 250-II). As I finished my listening session, I came to believe that dollar for dollar, one may wind up paying a small premium and possibly sacrificing a bit of sound quality with these headphones compared to standard models in a similar price range. At the same time, if you really need them, the added noise-cancelling benefits they provide to help maintain your hearing and your sanity are priceless.

Ralph:

Although there are many situations where noise-reduction headphones come in handy (like if you work in a cube farm), for the most part I consider them to be travel headphones. In addition to sound quality, I was also looking for the effectiveness of the noise-reduction and also how comfortably they fit on my head. During a cross-country flight, I generally don't listen to music non-stop, but I will keep my noise-reduction headphones on to minimize the drone of the aircraft's engines. So with each set of headphones I took time to listen to them with their noise-cancellation circuitry activated, without playing any music.

The Commentary:

AKG K 480 NC

Dave:

Small and lightweight, the K 480 NC packed a pretty solid low-end punch. Piano sounded full on the Finzi and Art Blakey tracks. I heard good impact and clarity all around. The soundstage was reasonably wide on the Little Feat cut (as it should be), but  I noticed a slight loss of definition at times on the bass and synthesizer lines.

The high end was slightly rolled off, but overall these little fellas were well balanced and pleasant sounding. Overall impression: A respectable set of 'phones with good, full-range sound and decent noise reduction capability. The downside, the small on-the-ear pad design tended to press uncomfortably on my ears, making them less than an ideal long-term listening choice for me. Your results may vary, depending on your physiology.

Marshall:

This has a single wire with a removable input on the ear cup. I like the convenience of the in-line switch but wished for volume control as well. They also folded down to a compact size and offered good noise reduction.

Finzi: Eclogue for Piano and Strings; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor - The headphones took a moment to warm up and at 30 seconds into the piano intro became a bit livelier, though I still didn't find them offering great magnitude on the sound stage.

Dixie Bee-Liners: Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain - Nice reach on the bass end delivered roundness on the stand-up. I found that this got a little lost on the midrange and highs, to the point where the tiny cymbals of the tambourine sounded like they were played inside of a bag.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin' - The detailed resonance of the piano was out front, but the attack on the keys felt muted. The reeds came through well, down to an occasional throaty sound, but the brass sounded a bit withdrawn.

Little Feat: Fat Man in the Bathtub -Most of the instruments came through nicely, but I noticed a bit of a drop back on a guitar riff that I think stands out a bit more on the recording.

Black Eyed Peas: BEP Empire - The lead vocal and its response came through well. But the tone of the bass was fuzzier than what I'd heard on the other phones.

Overall: This was the fifth place finisher in my evaluation. While I don't think they're bad headphones I simply didn't feel too enthusiastic about the overall tone quality or closed feeling.

Ralph:

Without any music playing, the AKG headphones effectively flattened the ambient sound of the room. Steady-state rumbles were muted, while the sound of conversations and ringing phones — while still audible, had the edge taken off them.

Musically, the classical track had a well-detailed sound, although with a bit of sharpness in the upper register. Bass generally sounded good, especially in the Little Feat and Black Eyed Peas selections. The slap bass of the Dixie Bee-liners seems somewhat undefined, though. I thought the Blakey track sounded the best, perhaps because it's a 1950's recording and has a softness around the edges that suited the headphones. In general the top end seemed a little rounded off.

The headphones were very light and comfortable. According to my notes, they were a close second in overall comfort (and there wasn't a lot of difference between low and high in that category for me, anyway).


Beats™ by Dr Dre™ Studio

Dave:

Although a bit heavier than most, these sturdy, full-size 'phones fit well and distributed the weight so nicely I scarcely noticed. Their sound was clear, dynamic, and very detailed without being overly analytical. They had great definition and weight in the low end, while managing to avoid the boominess that I heard with their cousins, the Beats PRO.

Looking back at my listening notes, I have but a single negative comment awash in a sea of glowing praise. And even that was only a mention of what I thought may have been a slight lack of definition of the upright bass on the Dixie Bee-Liners track. I loved the sound of these 'phones.

Overall impression: I found the Beats Studio to be the best sounding headphones in the group. Their warm, rich sound was totally open, with lots of "air" around the instruments and vocals. Their ability to cancel outside noise was also respectable, but not on par with the Bose. (To be fair, neither were the others.) And while they were never uncomfortable,  they were a bit large and hefty as portables go. This may make them less suitable to some for traveling light.

Marshall:

While these headphones were a bit on the heavy side I still found them to be comfortable. The center of their weight didn't really rest on the ears. The noise cancelling capability was quite good.

Finzi: Eclogue for Piano and Strings; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor  - I found their reproduction of piano and strings to be more than competent with a wide span of definition.

Dixie Bee-Liners: Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain - The bass came flavorful without being too strong and was well fleshed out. There was an excellent separation of the various instruments, which is tough to do sometimes with a lot of strings. I thought there was some loss of detail at the high range of the lead vocal.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin' - The elements of the ensemble remained well in-tact throughout the piece, though the finer details of the instruments didn't come through when each took the stand.

Little Feat: Fat Man in the Bathtub - I thought the Beats did just okay with Feat. I didn't really hear the width of the live performance and seemed to lose some of the detail on the guitar lead.

Black Eyed Peas: BEP Empire - The articulation of the vocals was a real strength for the Beats on this track. The bass was well balanced and unpressured.

Overall: Good all around noise-cancelling headphone, fairly comfortable wear, decent amount of detail throughout but enough loss in some instrumentation and vocals to make me think twice.

Ralph:

The Beats did a great job with noise reduction. Ambient rumble and low-level sounds virtually disappeared. Other sounds, such as people talking and phones ringing were effectively muted. The headphones did very well across the genres. The orchestra in the Finzi work had plenty of detail. I could even hear the scraping of the bows across the string in their very soft entrance. The Bee-Liners' bass sounded  full, but still with nice definition. The rest of the ensemble (mandolin, fiddle, guitar) had a slightly electronic sheen to it, though.  These headphones were made for the Black Eyed Peas. The vocals were nice and tight, while the bass had the kick it required. And the same was true for Little Feat, where the low end really rumbled.

The Beats Studio rested comfortably on hy head. They were perhaps a little bit heavier than the others, but still well-suited for extended wear.


Bose® QuietComfort® 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones

Dave:

Putting these headphones on was like taking  a breath of fresh air. Light and exceptionally comfortable, the Bose® QuietComfort® 15's really lived up to the name. Their soft padded earcups fit firmly, yet gently around my ears with just enough pressure to keep them in place to form a good seal, but without feeling oppressive. The noise cancellation was also exceptional. Switching them on without any music playing was somewhat like stepping into an anechoic chamber, almost disorienting. The only outside sounds that got through were  the occasional loud noises made by people nearby. Otherwise, nada.

Looking at my listening notes, I could quibble about a touch of bass shyness here or a bit too forward midrange sounding on a few tracks there. But the overwhelming majority of comments I wrote were mainly along these lines: "well-balanced sound" or "great bass definition" or "wide soundstage and very clear vocals." Overall impression: The QuietComfort® 15's are a standout in terms of comfort, noise cancellation, and sound quality. These were my favorites of the bunch.

Marshall:

These were the headphones I started with for this shoot-out and frankly, they set the bar quite high.

The Bose® QuietComfort® 15's are quite comfortable to wear and were the only ones I could see wearing for a long stretch of a flight. The noise canceling capability was very good, knocking out the voices and ringing phones of the sales floor.

Finzi: Eclogue for Piano and Strings; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor  - These offered distinct musical accents throughout the piece making for a pleasant listening experience.

Dixie Bee-Liners: Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain - I thought that the clarity of the bass on this cut was magnificent with a great all around sound, close to actually being present for the performance. I thought the same of all the instruments with a little bit of a natural reverb to the finger snapping.  The vocals sounded beautiful, retaining individuality even in harmony.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin' - Excellent reproduction of sound, even to the recording's own imperfections. The reeds shined through with a breathiness and tonality to a high level of realism. I could even hear subtleties in the articulation of the brass notes.

Little Feat: Fat Man in the Bathtub - Cowbell! Even the click of the sticks knocking together came through so well. Tons of detail on percussion. Even the back-up vocal growls shined through Feat's wide instrumental backdrop.

Black Eyed Peas: BEP Empire - I never thought I'd say these words, but even the scratching sounded real! I think electronics are tough to reproduce and get lost easily in a typical multi-track mix. The Peas were distinct all the way through the track, instruments and vocals.

Overall: My favorite of the bunch. Good comfort, noise reduction, excellent sound stage, and fidelity.

Ralph:

No question: the Bose® QuietComfort® 15's were the best for noise reduction. Listening without any music playing, it seemed that all the constant ambient sound had completely disappeared, while conversations and phones were pushed so far away as to be almost indistinguishable. It felt like a great pressure had been removed, and my ears seemed to be straining to hear something, anything!

I soon started playing music. There's an overall softness to the sound coming from these headphones that's not a bad thing. It made the acoustic tracks, such as the Finzi and the Dixie Bee-Liners seem very natural in tone. The Blakey track didn't fare as well. This old recording was already a little soft around the edges, and the QuietComfort® 15's seemed to lose a little bit more detail to my ears. That's not to say the sound was muddy, just a little more muted. The Black Eyed Peas came through clean, and with plenty of detail, although with not quite the edge they had with the Beats Studio. Little Feat's track seemed a little restrained, and some of the fine detail in the ensemble was a little more difficult to pick out.


Sennheiser PXC 250II

Dave:

A very lightweight, and portable design, these Sennheisers would certainly be easy to travel or commute with. However, I also  found the sound to be somewhat lightweight. They were able to muster decent levels of detail on our classical track, but the low end seemed missing in action, leaving the piano and bowed double bass violins without much body. The bluegrass track came across with a highly midrange-forward sound, making the vocals a bit glaring at times. I could also hear the slap of the strings on the upright bass, but not much else from that big, deep-voiced instrument.  The trumpet on the Art Blakey track, however, sounded perfect. And the drum kit came across loud and clear. Our rock and hip-hop tracks also fared pretty well. I heard respectable high-frequency extension with no unwanted brightness, clear vocals with a slight forwardness to them, and good bass articulation, but again, with somewhat reduced low frequencies.

Overall impression: Mid-forward sound with reduced bass levels compared to the rest. The earcups were a bit too small to form a good seal around my ears without constantly fiddling with position, negating some of the benefits of (the otherwise effective) noise cancellation. Depending upon your ears, you may or may not experience the same. I liked the in-line volume control, but having the electronics module built into the cord was a bit of a hassle.

Marshall:

These headphones had a dual sided wire that I thought would get in the way but they didn't. They also had the only in-line volume control, a feature I liked a lot. I didn't think that they folded at first, until Dave pointed out that they did. I was thinking they should fold right above the ear cup piece, but they were hinged instead a couple of inches above that, which actually made them more compact. While I have rated other headphones similar in noise reduction capability, the differences between them were subtle and these were about as good as the Bose for keeping out random sound while listening to music.

Finzi: Eclogue for Piano and Strings; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor - These Sennheiser headphones had about the warmest tone of the bunch when it came to the sound of the cello on this cut. No other set gave this instrument such depth. Although the instrument itself did not assume prominence in the piece I could find its detail here, and that made these a close second to the Bose.

Overall: These were the second-place finishers for me on performance and comfort. If budget were part of our deliberations, I daresay I would have to go for these as a first pick, or certainly my wife would encourage it greatly.

Ralph:

Very good at noise reduction, especially as they rested on, rather than over, my ears. I think these headphones did better with the rock and hiphop tracks then the acoustic ones. The orchestra had a nice, full sound stage, but it sounded a little bright. The piano on the Finzi track also had a slight edge to it. The same was true for the Dixie Bee-Liners. While the bass had good definition, it sounded to me like I was hearing the ensemble through a good PA system in a club, rather than live in the studio. The trumpet solo on Moanin' had a nice sound, an example of where the headphones' tendency towards brightness was a plus. These were very light headphones, as I expected such a compact set to be. I could easily wear them for long periods of time.


Sennheiser PXC 450

NoiseGard noise compensation headphones

Dave:

These were the heaviest and bulkiest headphones in the group. Their over-sized earcups and generously padded headband helped them fit comfortably enough to mitigate the extra size and weight. But you're not likely to hit the road anytime soon with these perched on your noggin. They would probably be a better bet for a noisy home or office environment, instead. Soundwise, they managed well with the lighter acoustic classical, bluegrass, and jazz fare in our test track selection: creating a wide soundstage and delivering ample levels of detail. But I also found them a bit light on the bass and a touch rolled-off at the top.

Overall impression: They did a decent job of reducing outside noise. And they enjoyed being invited to the party - even made a good showing. But, they didn't really want to get down and boogie or get their hair messed up on the heavier tunes.

Marshall:

These were the least comfortable headphones for me to wear. They felt awkward on my ears. Their noise cancelling ability was very good.

Finzi: Eclogue for Piano and Strings; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor - Good reproduction of piano and strings, clarity and warmth came through.

Dixie Bee-Liners: Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain - I could hear the slap of the bass and the fullness of a snapping finger with excellent maintenance of instrument detail as the ensemble assembled. Vocal harmonies were distinct and the sound of guitar properly resonant.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin' - Excellent reproduction of the key attacks on piano. The definition level of the reeds was equal to that of the Bose, with a crackle and breathiness that you hear in person or on a fine recording, but with the entry of the snare it felt like these held something back.

Little Feat: Fat Man in the Bathtub - The rhythm intro sounded reserved until Lyle's voice kicked in and seemed to shove it out front a notch. Bass was good without overpowering.

Black Eyed Peas: BEP Empire -The scratching sounded rough but not the good rough, if you can even think of scratching having a natural sonic quality. I thought the vocals were a bit clipped, though the electronic instruments were distinct and had real depth to them.

Overall: I thought that these headphones performed admirably overall, but I didn't feel terrific excitement for them. They didn't feel quite right on my head but they had some excellent musical highlights.

Ralph:

I liked the noise-reduction on these headphones. It was very effective, and seemed to take out whole frequency ranges. Most background sounds were quashed by these babies

The overall sound was very warm, and perhaps a little soft, but not as much as on some of the other 'phones. The classical selection sounded very rich, although some of the finer detail was missing from the ensemble. That softness really helped with the bluegrass selection, especially with the bass (which still had plenty of definition), mandolin and guitar. Art Blakey and company sounded just fine. I could tell it was an old recording, but it still had enough detail to satisfy. For some reason, I thought these headphones worked best with the Little Feat live track. According to my notes, this was "right in the pocket." The Black Eyed Peas sounded pretty good, although not as good as they did with the Beat Studio headphones. The top was clear, although not crisp, while the bass hits were just a little muted.

The earcups were very comfortable, and I think they would do well on a long trip.

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