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Active vs. passive noise canceling in portable headphones and IEMs


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I'd love to hear some discussion from you folks about active vs. passive noise canceling, especially with respect to compact headphones and IEMs.

 

My understanding (from my experience with my Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7s) is that active NC is good at blocking continuous, low-frequency noise, but not very good at blocking irregular and/or higher-frequency noise -- like talking and some of the clatter on the subway. And, of course, you give up more (in cash or sound quality) for it.

 

By way of context, I'm quite happy with my ANC7s and their active NC, but I'm looking for something more compact and with Bluetooth for use on the go in noisy environments, like airplanes and the subway. What I at first had in mind was something like Sennheiser's MM 450-Xs (foldable on-ear with Bluetooth and active NC), but I wanted to make sure I wasn't being too restrictive in my requirements. I figured I ought to consider sets like Bose's Soundlink On-Ear Bluetooth, which are similar but don't have active NC, in case their passive blocking was as good as or better than the Senns with active NC. And then I thought I should consider Bluetooth IEMs like Sony's SBH80s as well, in case they'd do even better at blocking with no need for active NC.

 

So what I'd really like to know is how good purely passive NC can be in compact over-the-ear headphones or IEMs. Even my over-the-ear ANC7s don't passively block out that much, so I do rely on their active NC. Can I really expect something like those Bose ones to be so much better passively that I don't need active NC?

 

Or, should I really be looking for good isolating Bluetooth IEMs, rather than at something like those Senns? My concern with IEMs is that they just wouldn’t be as good at blocking noise (actively or passively), as good in sound quality, and/or as durable (I've never owned a set where one ear didn't crap out after less than a year) as on-ear or over-the-ear sets for the same price. But maybe that's just because I've never owned actually good IEMs.

 

I'm not necessarily looking for specific product recommendations, although I'd be happy to hear those too, but just in general discussion of this topic, as my experience with it is admittedly limited.

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I have been using Bose for several years, flying 2h30 every weekend commuting with home.

My last Bose was the QC15. I can say the noise cancellation is very good for in-flight conditions. However I was facing a major problem, which is the acoustic pressure you feel when the Noise Cancellation system is active. I was not hearing it (no sound) but feeling the pressure of "inverse" frequency in my ears. Therefore after 2-3h you really don’t like the sensation in your ears.

 

I then recently moved to IEMS Ears Vision VE6 (after having compared with few other IEMS). And my feedback is :

- the cancellation is better than with the Bose (cover a larger range if frequencies) and as soon as you play music you can really forget the external world.

- the sound is excellent, Audiophile and better than the Bose.... And so far I'm just using the standard output from my MacBook+Audirvana... I’m waiting for The Hugo ;-)

- they are of course very confortable and can use them during hours

 

So for my personal usage, I do not regret at all the move to IEMS. Passive is far better than QC15 in that case.

However is you plan to walk with IEMS the sensation in ears is a bit odd (same if you eat)... May be I need to get us of them as they are my very first IEMS.

 

My last advice is to try your IEMS before buying, because there are huge differences and you cannot rely on forums only. According to Head-Fi my initial choice was actually not the best one, the VE6 were far better (even in the same price range).

 

Cheers

Frank

Frank

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Thanks for the reply. The VE6s look great, but it looks like they're way out of my price range, unfortunately. Do you think there exist any IEMs in a price range similar to the QC15s/QC25s that could do something approaching as good a job as the QC15s in terms of isolation?

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All Custom IEMS will give you a good isolation, it is not a matter of price, just the quality of the impression.

And may be the material, as it seems that silicone gives better isolation than acrylic but I did not compare.

 

Frank

Frank

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You might consider Shure IEMs. I tried the Bose QC20 but found the active noise cancellation very distracting.

 

I started with the Shure SE215 and then moved up to the SE535. They are very comfortable and extremely well built. The cables are also replaceable which is a big plus for me as I've destroyed the cable on various IEMs.

 

The Shures come with a number of tips that provide various degrees of isolation and comfort. Comply also makes tips that are compatible. I am currently using the Comply Comfort Series with my 535s:

 

Comfort Ts-Series - Comply

 

The Shure yellow foam tips do a slightly better job of isolation but aren't as comfortable. I also tried the Comply Professional Series but my left ear canal is too short for these.

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife, baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley
Through the middle of my skull

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Thanks for the suggestion. Do you know if Shure (or anyone else) makes something with similarly good isolation but with Bluetooth? I'd been looking a bit at the Sony SBH80s, but I'm not convinced they'd provide enough isolation.

 

I don't think Shure makes a Bluetooth model. My gut feeling is that you will take a hit on sound quality if you go with Bluetooth but I could be wrong about this.

 

Update:

 

You may find this article of interest:

 

http://lifehacker.com/does-bluetooth-audio-still-suck-1505063323

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife, baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley
Through the middle of my skull

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Yeah, I'm sure that's true, but the convenience factor is more important to me for what I plan to be using these for.

 

Looks like the Sony SBH80s are well respected by folks over at Head-Fi:

 

Can we talk about Bluetooth IEMs?

 

Sony SBH80: Wireless to the Next Level: Review

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife, baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley
Through the middle of my skull

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Yup, that first thread is how I found out about 'em. What I'd really like to know is whether they might isolate as well as or better than the Sennheisers (on-ear with active NC) I mentioned earlier. If so, that would be awesome, but I'm dubious that a (non-custom) IEM could compete. Any thoughts?

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Yup, that first thread is how I found out about 'em. What I'd really like to know is whether they might isolate as well as or better than the Sennheisers (on-ear with active NC) I mentioned earlier. If so, that would be awesome, but I'm dubious that a (non-custom) IEM could compete. Any thoughts?

 

My guess is that the Senns will probably provide better isolation. I wasn't happy with what active noise cancellation did to the sound quality though so I went back to a passive approach with the Shures.

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife, baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley
Through the middle of my skull

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CIEMs will, of course, provide the best isolation and sound. But they start at about $350, plus fee for audiologist to make your molds. Note: I just found these that are $150 customs, I have no idea how they sound.

 

I like IEMs, but it is difficult to find a pair that are truly comfortable for extended listening. I suggest that if you find a pair you like, you invest in something like the Comply or other aftermarket add-on that will make for a better, more comfortable fit.

 

To my taste, a good fitting IEM does a very good job of noise blocking. I have a relatively inexpensive pair of customs (JH-5) which fit like a glove and do a great job of blocking noise.

 

Another option is to buy a relatively inexpensive IEM that you like the sound of, and turn it into a custom later on. You can get quite a good sounding custom this way for less than many bespoke customs. There are several companies that will do this for IEMs from major brands. (Just search for "custom +your model). Here's one link to such a service, there are others:

 

In Ear Central

Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>QuietPC Low Noise Server>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>Stack Audio Link II>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: Server with Audiolense RC>RPi4 or analog>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)+Schiit Freya>Kii Three .

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup.
Living Room/Kitchen: Ropieee (RPi3b+ with touchscreen) + Schiit Modi3E to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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thanks for the link firedog, I have westone 4rs and have tried unsuccessfully to find a custom supplier in Holland; your link do international shipments !

cheers, mike

Aurender X100L > Audiophilleo USB/SPDIF > Devialet 200 > Verity Audio Parsifal Ovation

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Thanks for the suggestion. Do you know if Shure (or anyone else) makes something with similarly good isolation but with Bluetooth? I'd been looking a bit at the Sony SBH80s, but I'm not convinced they'd provide enough isolation.

 

You can use a Noble BTS as your Bluetooth solution with any IEM.

 

If custom IEMs are out of your price range, a lower-cost solution may be to go with universal IEMs and get custom tips made. A long time ago I had a set of Westone custom tips to use with Etymotic IEMs. IIRC, they cost me about $100, including the audiologist's fee.

Office: MacBook Pro - Audirvana Plus - Resonessence Concero - Cavailli Liquid Carbon - Sennheiser HD 800.

Travel/Portable: iPhone 7 or iPad Pro - AudioQuest Dragonfly Red - Audeze SINE or Noble Savant

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Well I ended up ordering both the SBH80s and the Senns, and to my surprise the SBH80s really did give better overall isolation even compared to the Senns with active NC on (tested on the subway). I'm probably going to keep the Senns instead anyway though, mainly because they came with a nice case and I'm concerned about the long-term durability of the SBH80s.

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Well I ended up ordering both the SBH80s and the Senns, and to my surprise the SBH80s really did give better overall isolation even compared to the Senns with active NC on (tested on the subway). I'm probably going to keep the Senns instead anyway though, mainly because they came with a nice case and I'm concerned about the long-term durability of the SBH80s.

 

Thanks for sharing your test results. I'm glad you found headphones that you like.

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife, baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley
Through the middle of my skull

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