August 21, 2005
Noise-Canceling Headphones
Posted by Victor Fleischer

Eric Goldman properly complains about airline announcements and notes,

I mention all of this because, on my last flight from San Jose to Chicago, I saw at least a half-dozen passengers using noise-canceling headphones. I tend to be a late adopter of technology (i.e., I still don't own a cellphone), but I've already queued this up on my wish list. With these headphones, I wouldn't care how many announcements the airline made; I could just tune them out and blissfully sleep/work away. I'm waiting for the price to come down, but I will definitely be getting a set.

I hate to break the news, Eric, but noise canceling headphones do not completely solve the problem of unnecessary airline announcements.

I have had a set of Bose headphones for about a year (I have heard that cheaper brands work as well, but I have not verified the claim), and they do a very good job of canceling out the hum of the airplane engines.  But the headphones are designed to cancel out white noise, not voices. So if the lawyer in the row behind you is screaming into his cell phone while you sit delayed on the runway, you will hear him.  And often you will hear the unnecessary announcements (Do I really need to know everyone's gate connection?  Is it that hard to find a monitor?).  In fact -- this is what makes the technology so interesting -- you can pretty much have a conversation in a normal tone of voice with the person next to you. 

My solution is to beat the airlines' white noise with better white noise.  You can plug the headphones into your Ipod, and with the noise of the airplane engine dimmed, you can listen to music at low volume and still concentrate on work.  (Incidentally, tablet PCs are esp. good for airplanes; when fIying coach, it's difficult to open up a full size laptop on the little tray table.)   

During takeoff and landing, however, when electronic devices must be turned off, there's nothing you can do but suffer. 

I have noticed that Mark Tushnet, who sits across the hall from me, works all day with his Bose headphones on.  Maybe that's the secret to his amazing productivity ...

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Comments (3)

1. Posted by anonymous on August 21, 2005 @ 16:46 | Permalink

What about ear muffs like those used by construction workers or shooters at a shooting range? How well would they do compared to the noise-canceling headphones or nothing at all?


2. Posted by Dave! on August 21, 2005 @ 18:59 | Permalink

It would be dangerous (not to mention, probably a product liability--c'mon here, law profs!) if they cut out *all* noise, wouldn't it?

The Bose really are fantastic, however, the Sony models are pretty darn good, and literally a 10th of the price... being on a student budget and all. :)


3. Posted by Nigel Pond on August 23, 2005 @ 13:29 | Permalink

Actually I prefer the in-canal type of headphones such as the Etymotic ER4 model -- they are expensive but with custom earpieces made from moulds of your ear canals (by an audiologist) they work much better than any of the noise cancelling models -- much better bass etc.

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