NCEight years ago I did something I would recommend to no one at all – I spent three long days at a world championship car audio competition in Greenville, South Carolina. Competitor vehicles were fitted with breathtakingly expensive sound systems that kept pumping while the nearby display hall was full of display cars belonging to car audio manufacturers, all with breathtakingly expensive sound systems that kept pumping. Between these two was the Decibel Drag Racing competition that sought to find the loudest system in the place.

After three days of being bumped and thumped by spectacular loudness (it wasn’t music, the bulk the sound was below 80 Hertz which one feels as much as hears) I was not at all happy. I was disoriented, lethargic; kind of spaced out really. I mentioned this to a guy from Alpine Electronics who nodded and said I had bass fatigue.

Bass fatigue? Turns out it’s a recognised medical condition in the states where there are lots of car audio shows. “The symptoms,” my man said, “are a lot like jetlag.”

Now as someone who suffers jetlag badly that got me thinking. What if jetlag is about more than changing time zones? What if the constant low-end drone of big jet engines for up to 14 hours at a time also has something to do with it? To say nothing of the hiss of the air-conditioning.

And so I bought my first pair of noise-cancelling headphones, Sony’s pioneering MDRNC20s ($299). These were clever things. Sound travels in waves, and a tiny microphone in the headphones listened to the ambient noise and generated sound waves of exactly the opposite amplitude. Thus when the sound waves of the jet engines were at the height of their peak, the countering sound waves inside the headphones were at the depth of their troughs. And vice versa. Which meant that when the two sound waves met they cancelled one another out. Voila, no sound at all.

Well that’s the theory. In practice the Sonys reduced in-flight noise considerably but certainly didn’t eliminate it. They also came with a universal plug that connected with almost any in-flight entertainment system so I could watch the movie while the noise cancelling was still doing its stuff. Or listen to a walkman. Or I could unplug them altogether (the noise cancelling still worked) and have a sleep. They were comfortable too – critical when one wears them from Sydney to LA – and folded up into a very handy package.

For me they reduced jetlag so noticeably that now I don’t fly anywhere without my headphones.

The technology has become far better and my headphones of choice now reduce cabin noise so effectively that if I take them off to visit the bathroom (and lately I leave them on even for that) the sudden wall of sound that hits me is nothing short of remarkable. I look at my fellow travellers and wonder how on earth they’re coping.

I have a set of Bose Quiet Comforts ($599) for long flights and Sennheiser PXC250s ($299) for the Melbourne/Sydney day trips, the Bose being simply too bulky to lug around all day while the Sennheisers fold up small enough to fit into a pouch of my day-bag designed for a mobile phone.

The Sennheisers are the type that sit on top of the ear and become uncomfortable after 90 minutes or so while I’ve worn the bigger, over-ear Bose for up to 15 hours at a stretch without problems. They’ve since been superseded by Quiet Comfort IIs (also $599) which are a bit more compact and have some worthwhile improvements, including being able to go totally wireless when the noise cancelling function alone is needed. It makes them easier to sleep in.

Noise cancelling headphones work best on constant noise. You still hear what the flight attendant is saying and you still hear the kid screaming in the row behind although it is muted. I put them on just before take off and take them off after landing and, in Australia, I’ve never been asked to turn them off under the rules banning music players and laptops on takeoff and landing. Travelling the domestic routes in the United States, however, I’ve twice been asked to keep them turned off at anything but cruise altitude.

Yes, they’re also effective on ferries and trains, and in noisy work environments.


Published May 2004