Hands on with Bose’s Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headset
By Peter Cohen
I’ve found the ultimate headset accessory for a traveler who depends on his PowerBook or iPod. They’re from
and they are called the QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Canceling Headset. The only downside is that you may end up spending what you paid for your iPod for the privilege of owning one.
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Bose Corp. has been known for years as a manufacturer of high-quality home audio and entertainment systems, and the company shares some interesting parallels with Apple. Bose systems have been featured as Apple accessories over the years, for example. Bose products cost a premium compared to other mass market manufacturers. And while some audiophiles turn their noses up at the company, Bose has, like Apple, a cadre of diehard enthusiasts who swear by the company’s products through thick and thin.
Whether it’s bookshelf or satellite systems, integrated stereos, or boom boxes that fill a room with sound, Bose has something up your alley. The QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Canceling Headset is one of Bose’s more recent innovations for audiophiles — specifically, audiophiles use their headsets in noisy environments, and especially those that travel in airplanes.
How it works
The QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Canceling Headset has an interesting story. Dr. Amar Bose first came up with the idea more than 20 years ago on a return flight from Europe, when he first tried noise reduction headphones and was bitterly disappointed with the results. Bose Corp. has been making noise reduction headsets since the late eighties for commercial aviation and military use, but it wasn’t until 2000 that this technology translated into a consumer product. I use the term “consumer” loosely, because at $300 a pop, the headset isn’t likely to attract large masses of customers, but for those folks with the lucre handy, it’s a marvel.
The Acoustic Noise Canceling Headset’s large earcups and thick, cushioned headband give it a hefty appearance, but it’s quite lightweight — less than six ounces. This is more than just a passive headset, however. Each earcup envelops your entire ear and sports microphones that actively sample the sound outside. The electronics in the headset figure out how to create a signal opposite to what each earcup’s microphone senses, which reduces ambient noise.
This is the dream of anyone who travels frequently: Airplanes, trains, buses and carpool vans all produce constant low-frequency “white noise” that can be very distracting, tiring and in some cases painful. It’s even great for mowing the lawn or vacuuming the carpet.
The Bose headset doesn’t completely deafen you to outside sounds — instead, it muffles noises that you might otherwise find distracting or unpleasant. The earcups themselves effectively muffle high-frequency noises, and the active system inside the headset filters low-frequency rumbles.
I found the most use for my Bose headset in my office, as I work near noisy machines constantly. I have a basement office, and in order to keep air circulated I use a large, aging air filter system and a desk fan. I also have a dual-processor Power Mac G4 perched only a couple of feet away from my head on a countertop (necessary because the basement has flooded before) — it’s noisy enough that I often put it to sleep when I get phone calls so I can hear folks on the other end. The Acoustic Noise Reduction Headset was terrific at filtering out those noises and bringing me some peace and quiet.
Look, feel and sound
The earcups rotate about 20 degrees from front to back, so you can get a firm fit and uniform pressure around your ears. I experienced no discomfort wearing them for several hours at a stretch. The only unusual side effect I had when the unit was active was a sensation that my ears felt “pressurized,” as if I was at a high altitude. Other users have reported similar phenomena, so I know it’s not just me. And no, this wasn’t in an airplane — it happened at sea level as well. I adjusted to the sensation after a time. When I turned off the headphones but left them on my head, this sensation dissipated.
I’ve emphasized how great the headset cancels ambient noise, and let me assure you that the headset works great at recreating sound, as well. Bass was adequate although unremarkable compared with other headsets in this price range — I expect the headphones’ lightweight composition may not be conducive to heavy bass playback. But mids and highs were recreated exceptionally well. The headset performed well for playing games (with the aforementioned caveat regarding bass performance). It also made me painfully aware of how lousy some of my MP3 collection was. Thanks to the Acoustic Noise Canceling Headset, I had to go back and re-rip about a gigabyte’s worth of my CD collection at higher bit rates to improve the sound quality! I don’t know if I just didn’t notice or didn’t care when I used loudspeakers, but I definitely noticed the difference with this headset compared to some of the less expensive headphones I’ve owned.
Because it actively processes sound, the headset requires its own power source — a pair of AAA alkaline batteries fit into a compartment about the size of a pager that rests inline on the cord. Like a pager, the battery compartment can be clipped to your belt — inconvenient and a bit bulky, but similar to other noise-canceling headphones I’ve seen. The compartment includes a LED that shows battery charge (it flashes once you’re down to about 10 percent), and a switch with three settings — Off, Lo and Hi. When it’s off, the headphones don’t work at all. Lo and Hi modulate between two volume levels that amplify the source audio, not the noise canceling attributes. The battery charge lasts about 80 hours depending on how you use the headset.
The fit and finish is terrific, but the faintly golden metallic hue of the headset and the brown accents don’t match the white and chrome accents of the iPod or the simple Titanium grace of the PowerBook. It wasn’t that big a deal for me. My trackball doesn’t match my PowerBook’s color, either — I’m more interested in functionality.
Worth the money?
For $300, Bose has given you just about everything you need, including a hefty padded carry bag with detachable shoulder sling (along with a smaller liner drawstring bag), an adapter plug that enables you to jack the headset into a home stereo, an airline stereo audio adapter (to plug into the weird two-prong plugs you’ll find on some airliners), an extension cable that provides an extra three feet of length (totaling about six feet all together), and your first set of batteries.
For travelers or other folks who are looking for headphones that can quiet a noisy world, Bose’s creation is terrific. You can certainly spend the same money as this headset costs, and more too, to get professional studio headphones that sound even better. But chances are they either won’t be noise canceling at all or won’t cancel noise as effectively, and they probably won’t be as comfortable and lightweight or as well equipped as this. And if you’re worried that you might buy the headset and not like it, Bose has taken this into consideration with a thirty-day money back guarantee. So you can give the QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Canceling Headset a worry-free try.
I’ve tried other headsets that purport to offer noise canceling capabilities, but they’ve been in considerably lower price ranges. In this case, I’m convinced that you get what you pay for. Those other headsets just don’t hold up to the performance or comfort of the Bose QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Canceling Headset. Just like your Mac and your iPod, these are the cream of the crop.