Have you ever been on a bus, train or airplane and heard squeaky sounds coming from someone's headphones sitting five rows away? Doesn't that drive you nuts? Me, too, but not because of that person's often dubious choice of music.
I want to tap that person on the shoulder and say, "Stop! You're killing your ears!" Then I'd politely suggest an investment in a pair of noise-canceling headphones.
With noise-canceling or sound-isolating headphones, you don't need to listen so loudly to hear clearly. The biggest reason people pump up the volume is to drown out the sounds around them -- the noisy chatter on the bus, the screaming baby on the plane -- or simply to tune out after a rough day.
But exposure to loud music is very bad for one's hearing -- besides the annoyance it causes the surrounding populace.
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Noise-canceling headphones have been growing in popularity for the past several years. Headphones are among the most popular accessories for iPods and other mp3 players, and this is an emerging subcategory, one worthy of attention.
I've recommended other noise-canceling headphones in the past, particularly those from Niles, Ill.-based Shure Inc. But I've just tested two models -- one from Audio-Technica and the other from Able Planet -- that I like very much. Based on your particular tastes, either is recommended.
Both models offer excellent sound, certainly much better than what is shipped with most portable music players. To my ears, the Audio-Technica model is better for treble, while the Able Planet excels with bass.
Because I prefer the earbud style of headphones, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 QuietPoint is my choice. The buds don't go very deep into the ear canal, making them extremely comfortable.
They are light and, even with a very aggressive shake of the head, didn't move. Audio-Technica ships the QuietPoint with three sizes of soft ear covers to improve the fit.
These are affordable at $170 (available at Amazon.com, Apple stores and various audio retailers), compared with other noise-canceling models. Able Planet's $350 Clear Harmony model is not as portable because of ear-cup style headphones. If those prices sound high, consider that Shure sells a pair, the SE530s, for $500.
Audio-Technica's headphones are a bargain. Designed for use in noisy areas, they include a control unit with a monitor button you press to mute the sound if, say, a neighbor on the bus or a flight attendant taps you on the shoulder to ask a question. This is convenient, but it is just as easy to pull out the earbuds.
It was very close, but I'll opt for saving some cash and go with the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 Quiet Point. But, again, if you don't like the ear canal-hugging bud style, Able Planet's Clear Harmony model is a winner.