The Noise-Cancelling Earphones Scam


I travel for work essentially every week, so much of my best music listening time happens on trains, in cars, on airplanes, shuttling about.  In the imagination of marketers, I am the dream customer, the audiophile business traveller who you can sell $300+ earphones to as often as you need to, as often as they break.

There are two ways to block background noise from the ear.  One is to use molded rubber pieces weighing nothing and costing $5 or less:  these are called ear plugs, and they go back as long as industrial society has required them.  Shure, a company best known for the manufacture of professional-quality microphones, sells earphones which employ this advanced technology by wrapping high quality in-ear phones inside foam earplugs that adhere to the sides of your ear.  You can select from various sizes and styles of earplugs, so anyone who can bear to wear an earplug that doesn’t have a speaker in it can bear to wear one that does.  Because “noise-cancellation” is accomplished through this straightfoward means, the earphones weigh an ounce or two, do not require a special pouch or most of the space in your laptop bag to carry them, and — most importantly — the money you pay for them is devoted to woofers, tweeters, and other sound-producing elements. 

The other way to block background noise is to combine your sound system with a a piece of large, heavy machinary that produces a countersignal to the background noise around you.  This machine actually blocks out half or less of the amount of noise that ear plugs block, is large and heavy enough to make carrying it around difficult, and — because it has moving parts, parts that are themselves larger and more complicated then the encased speakers — can be felt knocking against your ears while you are listening.  If that wasn’t enough, these machines are known to break, leaving you with just regular, non-noise-cancelling earphones.  And, of course, what you get in woofers and tweeters and such is the more basic product, since the earphones have to be marketed at a competitive price. 

As it happens, I have owned Bose speakers in my various dorm rooms, apartments and houses since the mid-’80s and have always considered them a terrific investment, so I can’t be accused of being anti-Bose.  But there is no word for noise-cancelling earphones — whether marketed by Bose, or all the knockoffs you can get at Best Buy these days — but scam. 

To Amar Bose, who first conceived of noise-cancelling headphones in the 1970s, a decade before he died and two before the company he founded decided to market them, it was no doubt a legitimate intellectual challenge to figure out whether noise-cancellation technology was possible.  It is, it works to some extent, and verdict should now be obvious:  it is inferior technology.

One does not need to be a luddite to understand that sometimes pencils are more useful then computers. 



2 Responses to “The Noise-Cancelling Earphones Scam”

  1. 1 David

    I don’t think I’ve ever used noise-cancelling headphones — from Kenny’s post it sounds like I’d know it if I had. My main concern with the noise around me isn’t so much that I’m hearing it but that I turn up the volume louder to hear what I want to hear, which concerns me because I suspect it means I’m slowly making myself deaf. If noise cancellation means countering one noise with another, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to help me anyway.

  2. 2 kmostern

    Update: As I discovered on my way to see Youssou N’Dour the other day, Bose is now advertising in-ear headphones on the San Francisco BART, and perhaps elsewhere, though because Bose is a San Francisco company it wouldn’t surprise me if they are starting in SF. They seem to have gotten word that there is an alternative to their high-end product they might just want to be competitive with.

    Certainly my comments on this issue are late — they should have been written years ago, but I wasn’t blogging then. (And Bose is still actively marketing noise-cancelling headphones at Airports, with listening stands where we can make impulse purchases all over the country.)

    For all that, my wife asked whether this is actually a Bose issue at all, and I’d like to make clear that it is. Not only did Bose invent the technology, but they are the company that has invested the most in convincing consumers that noise-cancellation technology is the luxurious way to travel. Everyone else in the market, the Sonys and Panasonics and Toshibas, offer noise-cancelling earphones as one tiny piece of their market; Bose, up until now, has offered them as their only headsets. And of course Bose has a special reputation for being the high end of the consumer market. So even if the technology isn’t exclusively theirs, the scam is.

    I’m glad to see they may be getting over it.

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