On almost every flight I board, I see the telltale blue LED of the Bose QuietComfort 15 noise canceling headphones on the heads of a few fellow flyers. I sampled the 15s when Bose first unveiled them and, yes, they are clearly superior to Bose's previous QuietComforts and are ears-down the best noise canceling headphones on the market. They maintain dynamite dynamic range even though noise canceling circuitry is designed to chop off noise at the high end where soft passages, violins and sopranos live.
Even though the QuietComfort 15s are great (although the name makes me think of a fancy mattress), I want to shake some sense into these Bose-wearing technocrats. Saying that the QuietComfort 15s are the best noise canceling headphones is like saying a Ferrari is the fastest car in which to drive cross country. That may be true, but it'd be faster and, with the right deal, cheaper, to fly, so what's the point of spending a week-plus squeezed into a gas-guzzling sports car?
So it is with noise canceling headphones. The Bose Quiet Comfort 15s may be, SHHHH!, quiet, but they are far from the best way to eliminate ambient noise on a plane or a train or even strolling down a noisy city street.
Stick it in your ear
Judging by the subheads herein, you know where this is heading – in-ear buds. If you are already muttering to yourself that you can't stand pushing those rubber tips into your ears, you may now don your mattress…er, Bose headphones, and tune out the rest of this tome. But, if you have an open mind and open ears, read a bit further.
Yes, I say in-ear buds are the better-than-noise-canceling answer, but – no, before we but, here's three reasons why in-ears are better:
- In-ear buds don't need batteries – your earphones will never run out of power, and none of the pressure suck some noise canceling phones produce when turned on.
- Choosing the right-fitting ear tip – and most good in-ears include multiple size and shape tip choices – creates a stopper-in-a-bottle seal in your ear canal, more effective seal than the cover-the-ear QuietComforts, blocking all but the loudest of nearby expositions to get through.
- In-ear buds are smaller and easier to tote. Just slip 'em in a pocket and deal with a bit of entangling later. Not only do you have to jam the bulky Bose into your already over-stuffed carry-on, you have to remember to pack yet another charger.
Molding a quiet solution
Here's the but. I'm not suggesting just any pair of in-ear buds. I'm suggesting a pair of custom in-ear buds from either the aforementioned Ultimate Ears or, better for the iPhone-owning music lover/noise hater, Etymotic.
Custom in-ear buds are just that. You make an appointment with a local audiologist, usually one Etymotic or Ultimate Ears recommends. Said audiologist shoots some silicon putty stuff into your ears to make a mold of your canal zone – you'll be deaf for about five minutes (during which the audiologist, like a dentist with your mouth filled with Novocain, cotton and that saliva sucking thing, will attempt to have a conversation with you). The audiologist sends the molds away and, a few weeks later, you get your custom in-ear phones. Ultimate Ears, in fact, sends them in an aluminum case with your name imprinted on it, like the one in the photo.
I've gone through the molding process three times, twice with Ultimate Ears and once with Etymotic. It's not only painless and yucky-less, but you may get an audiologist who has performed the procedure on a rock star. All performers wear these in-ear buds while performing – they replace stage monitors – and nearly all are from Ultimate Ears. My second Ultimate Ears audiologist molded David Bowie's ears. Apparently he was as strikingly sexy in person as he is on stage. But I digress.
Makes and models
The hard plastic Ultimate Ears custom buds not only fill your ear canal but the immediate surrounding lobe as well to create a wide seal. I use these on planes to completely shut off engine noise, even if I'm sitting over the wing. I have the cheapest Ultimate Ear model, the 4 Pro, priced at $400, which may seem a bit pricey until you compare them to the 18 Pros, which are $1,350. But if you can afford $300 for a pair of headphones, $400 shouldn't be a huge burden (of course, it's not my money I'm suggesting be spent – but it was).
By comparison, Etymotic's softer silicon buds fill the canal only, so are a bit easier to extricate. Each pair comes with a small tube of aloe to smoothly insert your buds and create a moisture seal, but a tiny bit of moisture from any source will work as well.
Unlike Ultimate Ears, which are for music listening only, each Etymotic model includes an in-line iPhone mic and volume controls.
Custom tips can be matched with all but the lowest priced Etymotic "earphone" and "headphone" models, priced from $79 to $299, or with its Bluetooth earphone, because all of have twist-off removable tips. The audiologist molds will run you an additional $100 over the cost of the model you choose. You download a voucher from the Etymotic site to bring to the audiologist.
Etymotic supplied me with both the mc3 ($99) and the hf3 ($179). I found it difficult to discern any significant aural difference between the two (thank-you, tinnitus), but the mc3 lie flatter in the ear, which means you can lean your head on a pillow without impaling your head as you may with the more angular hf3.
So, if you're considering a gift of noise canceling headphones for a frequent flier, train consumer, or even yourself, consider a more personalized gift – no batteries included or needed.