I guess there are other applications for noise-cancelling (NC) headphones, but they are truly in their element in air travel. Planes are noisy and NCs do their best work in environments of constant, predictable noise. You hardly notice the low-level thrum of the engines and the hiss of the air conditioning, but take them off after a few hours down the back in economy and the cabin noise hits you so hard you genuinely wonder how your fellow travellers can stand it.

It seems logical therefore that NCs should be designed for air travel. They should come with a universal plug to hook into the in-flight entertainment system, they should have a removable cord so you can go to the bathroom without taking them off, and the noise cancelling should keep operating even when there’s no music coming through so you can sleep in them.

DefinThus I am confused by Definitive Technology’s new Symphony 1 NCs ($699). These are brilliant headphones, but not for flying. They have a removable cord but there’s no universal plug. Their big problem is when NC is turned on and there has been no music or no button pressing for three hours; that is, you’re finally pushing out some serious zeds, the headphones automatically turn off. It’s a power-saving measure about which you will form a view when all that cabin noise hits you like a number-four shovel.

There’s another thing; battery life. These have a rechargeable that lasts ten hours with the NC on depending on volume level. The flight to LA is 14 hours and Dubai is about the same. You can charge up with a USB cord, but competitive products last much longer. And with Bose QC25s ($399), instead of a time-consuming recharge you just slip in another AAA which lasts around 35 hours, or here to New York with 15 hours to spare.

Philips has entered the noise cancelling game with its new Fidelio NC1 headphones at $349. These also have a rechargeable battery by USB but it lasts 30 hours. And neither the Philips nor the Bose turn off until you turn them off, so you’ll sleep. Note: both the Definitive Technology and the Philips keep playing music after the power runs out, but you don’t get NC. With the Bose everything stops.

I put both the newcomers against the Bose, which have been my standard for noise cancellers for years. I wouldn’t go near an airport without them.

PhilipsPhilips usually gets sound right, so I was a bit disappointed the Fidelios. Without NC the high notes seem to be lacking and the music is less than inspiring, rather like listening to MP3. It all comes alive when the NC is on, but even then the highs are indifferent and there’s some muddiness with softly pronounced vocals, such that you wonder where the consonants have gone. Put on the Bose after these and you want to turn the volume up and get into it again.

They fold into a very tight carry case that leaves room for little else, but it’s rugged enough to give them solid protection. Comfort is brilliant for on-ear headphones with clamp pressure high enough to keep them in place but low enough to prevent cabbage ear syndrome.

The Symphony 1s also come in a hard pack and despite being big enough to be cumbersome there’s precious little room for anything else. But protection is first class and a soft silk bag is also provided as an alternative. Like the Bose these are over-ear models and nicely comfy despite weighing substantially more than the Bose.

But oh, the sound. Wonderful. Delicate and clear highs and beautifully controlled bass that is generous and thrilling without overpowering everything else. They’re accurate and consistent across the audible range and have a delicacy and finesse that makes music joyous. I’ve heard better headphones but they cost twice as much.

boseThe QC25s win on value hands down. Excellent sound quality, although not quite as good as the Symphony 1s, but better for long-haul travel in every other respect. A good carry case, everything you need and nothing you don’t, and high comfort.

The Symphony 1s are for domestic air routes only, or for home if you live somewhere noisy. Buy the Philips only if you can’t afford the Bose.

Published May 2015


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