Travel Companion: Passive vs Active Noise Canceling Headphones

For frequent fliers finding the right pair for headphones is crucial. The right headphones can make all of the difference in whether you are able to sleep through the wails of the crying infant a few rows back or the chatter of the couple sitting next to you. When people hear that you fly frequently they immediately suggest active noise canceling headphones but is that always the best route to go?

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To further complicate my search for the "perfect" travel headphones, I have tiny ears. My small ears mean that almost every pair of headphones that exist, with the exception of in-ear headphones, provide passive noise canceling and sometimes in a rather uncomfortable way. So what's the difference between passive and active noise canceling headphones, what would I gain by switching to active noise canceling?

Passive noise canceling headphones work to block out sound waves from the environment by the materials that they are made out of. Just like how ear muffs soften outside noise, so do headphones employ passive noise canceling.

Active noise canceling headphones also use the materials they are made of to block out outside noise but they take things one step further by creating their own sound waves. The sound waves they make mimic the outside noise but are the "mirror image" of each other and cancel each other out.

The headphones pictured here are my current travel headphones, the Bowers & Wilkins P5s ($299). They employ passive noise canceling technology and while the fit is not ideal thanks to my small ears, they sound fantastic (when not in the air and pretty good when flying) and have been my go-to choice for some time. Recently, however the amount of flying I've been doing has been stepped up exponentially and after yet another noisy 10 hour+ flight I'm thinking it might be time to re-examine my intense dislike of active noise canceling headphones.

My experience with active noise canceling headphones has not been great. I tried them several years ago and because they were not perfectly in sync with the outside noise the artificial sound waves drove me a bit batty. It felt like someone was tapping the inside of my ear and it was most unpleasant. A year or so later I tried the technology again and it felt like I was off balance, the noise from the canceling technology sounded like someone whispering "whoosh, whoosh" and they made me feel like I was underwater. Needless to say I have not exactly been eager to put on another pair.

After reading a bit more about how they work and listening to other frequent fliers rave about them I've decided to take another look at active noise canceling technology. I've started my search by checking out this roundup of options from last autumn and now I'd like to hear from the Apartment Therapy Tech community. What headphones do you use when you fly?

(Images: Joelle Alcaidinho)

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Tech, Audio, Travel

Joelle loves technology and making things and is in an almost perpetual state of problem solving. She's quite fond of airplanes and coffee and is pretty sure she will eventually read all of the books in her library.