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May 02, 2003

Sometimes I Just Like to Shut Out the World

The items in this blog that get more hits than anything else are unquestionably the occasional product reviews I do. People seem to search a lot on product names. So I thought I would drag discussion of my brand-new headphones out of the comments thread and do a proper review. It's the Sony Fontopia MDR-NC11, a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds that get mixed reviews, and they're Not For Everybody.

The first group of people that they're not for is the poor. At $150 retail (though you can get them for less, Super Shoppers), an immediate reaction of how much??? seems pretty forgivable. But it's only a small proportion of the cost of my iPod, and regular readers will know that I didn't much get on with the iPod earbuds, so I was going to buy some new phones in any case.

The second group of people that they're not for is those who don't like sticking things in their ears. For these are the contact lenses of headphones; to get a decent sound you have to shove them sufficiently far into your ear canal that they form a seal; without it, the NR circuits feedback and eliminate the bass. To facilitate this, Sony give you three differently sized pairs of earbuds so you can experiment and find the ones that fit you best. Nevertheless, there are lots of reviews of these phones that say, roughly, 'I put on the earbuds and the sound was crap'. This is a not-sticking-the-plug-in-the-ear issue; and I know, because I too was overly cautious with Dr Plokta's regular Fontopias. It's that earwax oversharing thing, you know.

The third group of people who'll hate them are the active; the problem with earplugs is that the sounds of your own body are amplified, and that happens here. Even when walking down the street, my breathing and footsteps were horribly intrusive. And I found it hard to maintain the seal. And outside, you run a serious risk of getting mown down by a double decker London bus.

They're rubbish in quiet environments, too. Although you can turn off the NR circuits and have passive headphones, the sound quality is no better, and may be slightly worse, than the much maligned iPod earbuds. Certainly it's no better than the Fontopias that don't have noise reduction.

Finally, you won't want them unless you're someone for whom Size Is Important. They're tiny; the phones are scarcely larger than other earbuds, and the circuitry fits in a little triangular box that could be a personal stereo remote control. If you're prepared to go for bigger phones, there are several other options. But at this size, the only real competitor are the non-nr Etymotic earplugs.

OK, so who's left? I'm a regular Tube commuter; having bought these in America, I tried them out on the plane, but you know, planes are a pretty quiet environment by comparison with my daily journey. They weren't bad on the plane, but they're astonishing on the tube. I can't hear station announcements. Train noise is hardly noticable. On the other hand, I can hear my music. Thoroughly, completely, as much as if I sat listening carefully to my proper stereo. Yes, it plays in my head, and no, the bass isn't fabulous. But I can hear it; all of it. I'd considered setting up a tube playlist for the iPod that didn't include subtle music because I simply couldn't hear it over the noise of the tube. And now I don't need to.

Now, part of the noise reduction is delivered by the earpluggy nature of the headphones, and part by the NR circuits. I can get a feeling for the proportions by putting my fingers over the earbuds' microphones to cancel the noise reduction; and I'd guess that the phones' basic design delivers about 60% of the reduced noise, and the circuitry the rest. In practice, this means that without the active circuits, I'd still be thoroughly irritated by tube noise.

Although these are best for reducing loud ambient noise, and I was warned they wouldn't reduce conversation, I can't hear someone talking directly to me while music is playing, and overheard conversations are much less irritating. Interestingly, I'd never previously noticed how many people have sign language conversations in noisy environments. Turns out they're everywhere.

And of course, I love this technology because it's purely sfnal. Tucked into each of my ears is a tiny Fenton Silencer. As we know, science fiction isn't a predictive genre; but Clarke does appear to have had a particular talent in that line.

Posted by Alison Scott at May 2, 2003 11:26 PM

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I'll have to admit, I USED to be a fan of earbuds. I had a pair of Shure E1's which I loved. However, on my last flight, one of the buds got stuck in my ear when I went to pull them out!!! Fortunately, there was a doctor on the flight who was able to use a flight attendants tweezers to get them out (a very painful experience).

This is how I got to your site, I'm now looking for a good set of regular noise cancelling headphones. Though I loved my earbuds, they are not worth the chance of loosing your hearing because if a bug comes off.

Posted by: Scott Ratliff at April 27, 2005 02:55 AM

Scott -- I later replaced the Fontopias with Sennheiser PXC-250s, because I was getting fed up of in-ear phones (ear wax problems, kept losing the buds, etc.). The sound is great; clear and detailed. The noise cancellation is not as complete as with the in-ear phones (no ear plug effect), but it's still good at removing annoying notes from the , the noise isolation is much less. They're larger, though not excessively large, and the noise-cancelling battery pack is irritating. But I like the sound well enough that I'm content.

Posted by: Alison Scott at May 1, 2005 09:42 PM

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