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Posted: 09:22:36 PM, 23/11/2014

Head-to-head: $400 headphones and $25 Earmuffs

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Do you remember my blog from a couple of months ago, Check this out: Really annoying music suppressors, about my desire to find some effective way of preserving my sanity whilst driving in the car with my wife, Gina the Gorgeous, who is partial to Christian rock and who likes her music on the loud side of things? The real problem comes when we are on a long journey, such as an 8.5-hour road trip to Louisiana to visit Gina's mom.

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I've tried using my MDR-NC500D digital noise-cancelling headphones from Sony. When I turn on the noise cancellation, however, although the rumble from the ground almost completely disappears, they have no effect whatsoever on the music. Much to my disgruntlement, in fact, the end result is to make the songs Gina is playing sound clearer and -- paradoxically -- louder.

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MDR-NC500D digital noise-cancelling headphones from Sony.
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After our most recent trip to Louisiana, I started cogitating furiously. There had to be some solution to this dilemma. Eventually, I came across a pair of 3M Peltor H10A Optime 105 Earmuffs from Amazon, which weigh in at 12.3 ounces, have an NRR (noise reduction rating) of 30dB, and are an absolute bargain at only ~$21. However, I actually ended up purchasing a pair of 3M Peltor X5A Earmuffs as illustrated below.

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3M Peltor X5A Earmuffs.
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These little rascals are a tad more expensive at $25.92, but their claim to fame is that they boast an NRR of 31dB. All I can say is that when it comes to my listening to Christian rock, every extra dB of noise reduction is worth its weight in gold.

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Happily, I can easily wear my iPad earbuds under these ear muffs. I've given them a test drive in our family room while Gina is watching dross on television like Dance Moms or 19 Kids and Counting and they work incredibly well in that environment -- I literally can't hear a thing from the outside world, even if my iPad isn't playing anything.

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My next thought was to wonder how these two alternatives would compare in an airplane setting. My first opportunity to evaluate this came last weekend when I flew out to the UK to visit my dear old mom (in fact, I'm penning this column whilst sitting at the table in my little bro's dining room).

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Sad to relate, the results were a bit of a mixed bag as it were. The X54 Earmuffs do an outstanding job of removing the higher frequencies from the background noise, including neighbors talking to you, babies wailing, and the pilot announcing that the engines have failed and it's time to put your head between your legs and prepare to shrug off this mortal coil. On the other hand, these earmuffs don't manage to remove all of the low-frequency noise from the engines.

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By comparison, the noise-cancelling headphones perform magnificently with regard to removing the low-frequency engine noise, but they do tend to leave some of the higher frequency noise.

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I kept on swapping back and forth trying to make up my mind which solution was best. I eventually stopped when I realized I was getting thoughtful looks from some kids who were seated across the aisle from me (it may be they were lost in admiration for my Hawaiian shirt of the day, but I sort of doubt it).

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In the end I opted for my noise-cancelling headphones because they are lighter and more stylish and -- all other things being equal -- I have to justify buying them to myself. Having said this, if someone were to ask me to advise them whether to spend $400 on noise cancelling headphones versus $25 on a pair of earmuffs, I think I have to say that the earmuffs would win the day.

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Of course, technology continues to move on. I purchased my noise-cancelling headphones three years ago. Consider how far things like tablets and smartphones have progressed since then. It may be that today's noise-cancelling headphones can totally out-perform the ones I own. Do you have any tidbits of trivia, nuggets of knowledge, or pearls of wisdom to share on this topic?

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Max Maxfield

EE Times

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