I once had a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort 2 noise-canceling headphones. So luxurious, but…stolen.
Noise cancellation circuitry does its work by effectively generating an out-of-phase “anti-noise” response to the ambience: to negate it. In so doing, it actually does not entirely cancel out the “energy” of the noise even though the “sound” of the offending ambient noise is no longer audible (one paper on the subject refers to it accurately as “destructive interference”). It still creates a slight sonic pressure over the ears that impacts the eardrum—to me it is not without artifacts as I think consumers might imagine.
Most people don’t seem to complain about this but it has always bugged me that even though I can’t exactly hear such anti-noise I can still feel it and that causes what is called listening fatigue; after a while you need a break for the ears to recover and breathe.
Enter Beats Executive by Dr. Dre (and music producer Jimmy Iovine). Through a colleague, I was asked for my opinion of a pre-release pair (available in retail stores now). Having never heard Beats before I was interested to know why they have become so popular on the street heads I pass everyday. This new model is solidly built—at least as solid as the Bose but more sturdy with heavier metal parts rather than plastic. Slipping them on they are handsomely comfortable: maybe moreso than the Bose(?) Good first impression with the feel factor.
Now I turn on the noise-canceling switch. I hear a high frequency pitch in my left ear. I’m annoyed. I really hope it’s an anomaly specific to this pair but my gut says it’s a design flaw, and if it is then it’s really a sore point. My hearing has taken some punches over the years (I have some tinnitus) yet I can clearly hear this tone that you’d think was intended for dogs or pest control. Two other colleagues tried them on; one heard the same sound, the other did not. I’ve heard this before, when I did a round of testing before I settled on the Bose. Sony and other lesser-priced models all had it—this much hyped yet not entirely noise isolating experience that was marred by the noise-canceling circuitry itself, leaking back into the headset.
I start walking through the office. I switch the noise-canceling on, then off and on again, and there is now a hush replacing the normal jumble of reflected ambient sound. The difference is appreciable. Out on the street, they damp the prevailing ambient whir to allow you to hear well enough what’s most important: people talking, passing traffic and everything other than the drone of constant street noises. The high pitch in the left ear is more or less effectively masked by the distractions of street life.
Indoors at Starbucks, the rumbling white noise of the AC was completely damped so I could hear the music over the in-store speakers while I enjoyed my chai and wrote this note. I pulled out my iPod, plugged in and flipped through samples of songs by Buffalo Springfield, Caetano Veloso, Charlie Hunter, Pat Metheny, Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Great Lake Swimmers, Jude, Keb’ Mo’, Mingus…. The only exception to hearing that noise-canceling annoyance in the left ear is when music plays loudly enough such as with pop or rock. Then the high pitch is naturally masked by the listening volume.
This is a shame because I really like the Executive Beats otherwise. The sound is full and well balanced—that is, considering that they are not for studio (pro) use but for walkabouts, sitting in cafes, commuting and traveling and such.
I’m still betting on the problem of the high pitched tone as a flaw in the cancellation circuitry and a pre-release imperfection at that, and that it’ll be resolved when you go out to try on your’s. After all, I want an excuse to buy them rather than the Bose and to be taken into that realm on the streets that my Audio Technica ATH-M50s do when I’m listening in my hush-hush apartment. The little bit of extra weight appeals to me even though my memory is that the Bose actually do have a better (i.e. more comfortable) fit.
Dre and Jimmy: you are close to perfection with the Beats Executive and I suspect we will happily give you our money in exchange for just a bit of this nirvana: a sound temple and personal traveling sanctuary.