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Published July 1, 2006

 

NoiseBuster NB-FX Noise-Canceling Headphones

Take a walk down a busy New York City street and headphones are ubiquitous. Judging by the number of white earbuds, so is the Apple iPod. The ever-increasing popularity of portable digital audio devices means that people are spending more time listening through headphones, and while many are happy with the earbuds supplied with their player, some are seeking out better ways to enjoy their private listening. Luckily for you in that latter group, there are many options available, and paying careful attention to the features of the various types of headphones is the best way to pick the phones that are right for you. NoiseBuster’s NB-FX noise-canceling headphones ($69 USD) have some interesting features that might make them the right choice for many readers.

Design

In many ways, the NB-FX resembles the average headphone: black plastic with bronzish grilles near the earpieces, soft black cushions on the earpieces where they meet the ears. The earpieces are not circumaural; that is, they don’t cover the ears but rest on top of them. The cord extends to each earpiece, which is standard with headphones. I greatly prefer when headphones have a single cord going to one ear (as in the AKG 501), but that is the minority of headphones, so the NoiseBusters can’t be faulted for this.

On closer inspection, the NB-FXs do distinguish themselves from other headphones. First, they fold in two places -- each earpiece can fold up, and the top of the headband folds in half, to make a compact package that fits into a nice little travel pouch (supplied). Other headphones fold up -- the Sennheiser PX 100s and PX 200s come to mind -- but the NB-FXs are much bigger and, as we’ll see, offer more features. Second, the NoiseBusters come with an airplane jack adapter, making them ready for travel without an extra trip to RadioShack.

Third, above the right earpiece is a small compartment that houses one AAA battery (supplied) to power the NB-FX’s noise-canceling circuits. You don’t need a battery for the phones to work, but you do need it to use the noise-canceling feature. On the rear of the right earpiece is a switch to turn the noise-canceling on and off, and a small light above the switch to remind you that you’ve left the circuit on when you remove the phones. The system isn’t foolproof; early in my trials, I left the noise-canceling circuit on for up to a couple of hours because I hadn’t noticed the warning light. Still, the battery lasted a very long time.

The engineering behind the noise-canceling feature is enough to make any technophile geek out. Inside each earpiece is a microphone that picks up the noise that would enter the ear. The microphone transmits that information to the noise-cancelling circuit, which then creates a soundwave identical but in opposite phase to the detected noise. This new "anti-noise" is then output through a speaker in the earpiece. When the "noise" and "anti-noise" meet, they cancel one another out, which greatly reduces the outside noise heard by the wearer.

I was skeptical about the effectiveness of all this. When I received the NoiseBusters I inserted the battery, put the phones on my head, and turned on the noise-canceling. (When you do this, you hear a high-pitched whine in the headphones, but this is masked as soon as music starts to play, with some exceptions discussed below.) I then called my wife, who was in another room. I didn’t hear her answer until she entered the room I was in, and even then, she was much less audible than when I turned off the noise-canceling. If you tire of music, you can use the NoiseBusters as a SpouseBuster.

Listening

Because headphones are most often used with a portable player of some kind, I auditioned the NoiseBusters with my iPod playing Apple Lossless files. I used the NB-FXs in all the places I use my iPod and Etymotic ER-4P phones: walking the dog, working out at the gym, relaxing in my backyard. I found the NoiseBusters too big and bulky for the gym, where they tended to slip forward while I was using cardio machines. But when I walked the dog, they made it easier to talk with people because I could easily slip them off my ears.

When I listened to The Prodigy’s latest release, Their Law: The Singles 1990-2005 [CDs, XLCD 190], two discs of the dance/rock hybrid’s greatest hits, the NoiseBusters did well at keeping the music pounding forward, with bass that played deep but lacked a little refinement. On the title track, for example, the heavy bass and drum line that begins 30 seconds or so into the song certainly got me moving a bit quicker, but the bass and drums were also relatively indistinct from one another. "Firestarter" presented Liam Howlett’s vocals cleanly, and the relentless drive of the entire album flowed nicely.

I don’t usually like to listen to orchestral music on headphones, so I have very little of it on my iPod. However, John Williams’ orchestral score for Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith [CD, Sony Classical SK 94220] is one of my son’s favorites, so I keep it on the iPod for those times he borrows it. The all-too-familiar opening theme seemed a bit bland: the soundstage was more two-dimensional and lacked some of the dynamic punch than I’ve heard through more expensive headphones. Still, the sound was polite and detailed, each instrument clearly delineated from the rest. On "Battle of the Heroes," the opening horn line had a decent timbre, and single vocal lines from the chorus could be easily distinguished.

I’ve had a soft spot for Duke Ellington & John Coltrane [CD, Impulse! IMPD-166] ever since I first heard it. The concerns I had when listening to symphonic music through the NB-FXs disappeared with small-scale jazz. The sound was much more three-dimensional, and the piano-cymbal-sax opening of "In a Sentimental Mood" immediately relaxed me. The piano and cymbal had a nice texture, and Coltrane’s tenor had a nice warm, round tone. Instruments weren’t as precisely delineated as they can be through more expensive phones, but I was using these to listen to music, not to master a recording. Keeping that in mind, the NoiseBusters did their job well.

I had a slight problem when I used the NoiseBusters to listen to podcasts consisting solely of people speaking: the high-pitched whine from the noise-canceling circuit remained audible in the background. That won’t matter if you don’t listen to audio books or podcasts, but it’s something to keep in mind if you do. Whether or not the whine will be too annoying or a small price to pay for the added isolation is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. And you can always turn the noise-canceling on for music, and off for books or podcasts.

I let my son use the NB-FXs to watch a DVD in the minivan during a long car trip. When he uses his usual headphones he often complains he can hear the car stereo while he watches the movie. That complaint disappeared with the NoiseBusters. They might be too expensive and too isolating to encourage their regular use by your children, but on long car trips, the NoiseBusters could lead more toward family harmony than to discord.

Comparing

I compared the NoiseBuster NB-FXs with Etymotic’s ER-4P ($330, often significantly discounted) and Grado’s SR-60 ($69). The Etymotic is an in-ear model; the Grado, like the NB-FX, rests on the ear and doesn’t encircle it. To keep things simple, and to use the headphones as most users probably will, I used my iPod playing Apple Lossless files.

The Etymotics are expensive, and usually I wouldn’t compare a product to something costing more than four times as much, but the ER-4Ps provide an alternative kind of isolation. Instead of using electronics to keep the noise out, the Etymotic approach is to provide a tight seal between the in-ear speaker and the ear. Outside sounds simply can’t enter your ear to bother you. This passive approach worked better in my tests, but it has some disadvantages: Whenever anyone speaks to you, you have to unseal at least one ear to hear them. If you’re listening at home and your spouse asks you a question every few minutes, this can get annoying and has occasionally left my ear a little itchy. Perhaps the best thing to do is to simply ignore the questions, but eventually the spouse will shake or poke you, as I know from experience. And if you’re out for a walk with in-ear monitors, not only is the level of isolation a bit creepy (you’ll never know if someone is behind you), but the design is also inconvenient.

The Grado SR-60s offer a livelier sound than the more polite NoiseBusters, but forget about isolation. Playing The Prodigy’s Their Law through the Grados gave more defined bass, but also a brighter overall presentation that favored the treble region. This could produce listening fatigue over the long haul. My concerns about soundstaging and dynamic shifts were lessened with the Grados. However, my wife hates them -- whenever I use them and she’s in the same room, she can hear the music too. I don’t listen to music at high levels, so this leakage makes it impossible to use the Grados in public places, such as the subway or the library. But your spouse won’t have any trouble getting your attention.

Conclusion

The NoiseBuster NB-FX occupies an interesting place in the headphone landscape. At $69, they’re the same price as the Grado SR-60s, which I preferred on sonic grounds. But the Grados leak sound like cut arteries, and in both directions. If you need isolation, that leaves the NoiseBusters, other noise-canceling phones, or in-ear models to choose from. The other noise-canceling phones I’ve seen are all significantly more expensive than the NoiseBusters, and in-ear designs are also usually more expensive and are a pain in the neck to take in and out. So if you want isolation but also want to be able to quickly converse with others (for instance, if you’re wearing them at work, traveling, or out for a walk about town), then the NoiseBusters seem to be the best choice.

...Eric Hetherington

Prices of equipment reviewed


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