When we reviewed a group of entry-level noise-cancelling headphones a few months ago, we noticed that the sound quality was surprisingly variable across the group. In fact, it seemed to us that you were largely paying for the noise-cancelling features, rather than high-quality audio output. So we decided to revisit noise-cancelling headphones and look at some top-of-the range models that aim to provide really high-quality sound.
The results were pretty impressive, with all four sets of headphones providing extremely good audio quality, and with only relatively minor differences to set them apart. But, if you're paying £250 or more for a set of headphones, then even minor differences start to seem important, and we found ourselves paying close attention to details such as comfort, construction, and even the accessories supplied with each set of headphones.
Price: £275 More info: Bose Accessories: carrying case, airline adaptor, 2 rechargeable batteries, six international power adaptors
Bose Quiet Comfort QC3
Bose are so confident that you'll be impressed by their QC3 headphones that they actually slip a little batch of Bose business cards into the case so that you can distribute them to people you meet on your travels.
We don't blame them for being so confident, though, as the 'phones really do sound lovely. They produce a strong, warm sound on higher frequencies, underscored by a rich, full bass. In fact, if we were nit-picking we might say that the bass is actually a bit overdone at times. Some people do like 'phones with a strong bass, in which case the QC3s will fit the bill nicely. However, audio purists may prefer the clearer, more realistic sound of the Sennheiser PXC 450.
One interesting aspect of the QC3's design is that they're actually compact 'on ear' headphones, rather than full-size 'over ear' cans. The cushioned earpieces sit lightly on the ear, so they're quite comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Bose also provide a good selection of accessories for frequent fliers. Along with the standard carrying case and airline adaptor, you get mains adaptors for six different regions around the world, and two rechargeable batteries, each of which provides a healthy 20 hours of playing time. And, if you buy before the end of this year, they'll even throw in a free iPod Shuffle. The QC3 headphones aren't cheap, but their noise-cancelling features, excellent audio quality, and full set of accessories will justify the price if you spend a lot of time on boring plane flights.
Plus points: Excellent sound quality, comfortable on-ear design, good set of travelling accessories Minus points
Expensive, bass can be a little heavy
Like the Bose QC3, Denon's AC-NC732 headphones use an 'on-ear' design, with small padded earpieces that are light and comfortable to wear on long journeys. In fact, we'd give these the award for 'most comfy headphones' in this group. The disadvantage to this is that the lightweight plastic construction does feel a little flimsy when compared to some of its rivals, and we wouldn't risk travelling without the protective carrying case to keep them safe.
The small earpieces don't cut out anywhere near the 99 per cent of external noise that Denon claims, but we did notice that they're particularly effective at cutting out lower frequency sounds such as the rumbling of a plane engine, so they're particularly well suited to air travel.
The sound quality is also extremely good, with an almost crystalline clarity on the mid and higher frequencies. The only minor disappointment is that they're a little light on bass. They're a bit light on accessories too - all you get is a carrying case, airline adaptor and a spare audio cable. There's not even a rechargeable battery included - although Denon do at least throw in an AAA battery to get you started (which they claim will power the 'phones for almost 40 hours).
The sound quality and lightweight design of the AH-NC732 means that they're a good choice for listening to music while you're travelling. However, the slight weakness in their bass output and limited accessories prevent them from grabbing top honours in this group.
Good audio quality, comfortable light-weight design Minus points
Slightly weak bass, limited set of accessories