A Sound Travel Experience
By Neil E. Wolkodoff
Bigger planes, fewer available seats, more delays, and jockeying between gates are all upping the travel sound level. What used to be some background noise here and there is now a constant assault on your inner monk.
Sound is measured in decibels (dB). For every 10 dB the sound increases, it is 10 times louder. It’s not a proportionate scale: laughter is typically 60–65 dB, with your dishwasher at 75 dB. That means the dishwasher is 10 times as loud as the “ha ha’s.” 70 dB is a sound level many people find intrusive. Once you get to 80 dB, with something like city traffic, you are at the agreed-upon level of long-term hearing damage.
Without talking, airline interiors in flight generally have a range of 56-75 dB, depending upon airspeed and seat location. Takeoffs, landings, conversations, and pilot announcements significantly raise that decibel level.
Noise Cancelling (NC) headphones and earbuds have made enormous strides in the last few years to move your travel needle back to the forest experience.
NC technology is simply an internal microphone and speaker that combine to create an opposite soundwave that cancels the disruptive sound. In mathematical terms applied to sound, plus one combines with minus one to equal zero. NC technology is better at reducing constant sounds, like the hum of flight. With acute sounds, like someone yelling across the cabin, the internal electronics will react, but not near as well as they do with constant sounds. When viewed in tests, you can expect NC systems to decrease sound by 18-40 dB.
By their very material nature providing a barrier, headphones will keep some sounds from reaching the ear. Earbuds, which fit in or cover the ear partially, are more portable, and NC is dependent on fit and internal electronics. Sport earbuds, which are exercise-tough, rarely have NC features, and a good fit is critical for earbuds to get maximum NC. Neither option with NC features will protect like industrial earmuffs in this regard. Still, it’s unlikely you are going to the jetway to retrieve your bags while the engines are still running.
My curiosity led to a comparative test where I used two decibel meters to set the sound. I put the decibels at just above 65 dB on the bottom end, using a recording of constant, standard jet noise. I added a talk radio station for acute or intermittent sounds to bring the total dB to 75. I listened to a recorded book and music to determine sound reduction from the device. I made calls and asked the other person about tone and clarity. Online research, calls, and trips to various retailers highlighted brands that had notable technical features. Audio products in this area have clear points of function & performance as you move through the good, better, and best categories.
Srhythm NiceComfort25 Headphones
If you want to try your first pair of headphones for travel and are wondering if you will like them or use them, the NC25 is the exploration ticket. They fold up, fit well, are lightweight, and have reasonably good sound quality. A plus is the controls on the right ear are simple to navigate. While they have only one NC setting, that’s adequate for your first set. $60.
Cleer Alpha Headphones
Audiophiles designed these mid-priced headphones to focus on great sound. They include a bevy of features and have an extended battery life. The fit is a little tricky, and pulling down the earmuffs to the right point is essential. The sound quality was excellent, with the NC features easy to adjust once the app is downloaded to the phone. Very good for music, with just about every genre sounding great, and calls are relatively clear. The Cleer Alpha Headphones are a feature-laden upgrade from your first set. $199.
Master & Dynamic MW75 Headphones
Smart design, an excellent fit, a well-designed swivel system, and premium leather earmuffs make these winners. They offer easy sync pairing with a phone. Controls are at the back of each ear, with a simple touch button to operate. They have outstanding connectivity, auto features, and one button NC switching between the three modes. Expect excellent call clarity, with functional sound profiles on the phone app from Bass Boost to Podcast. The MW75s have a nifty travel case and offer a rock-star headphone experience. $599.
Skullcandy Active Push Earbuds
If your main goal is to exercise with something that will keep ticking despite a sweaty assault, these are the ticket. There is no NC system except the physical barrier of the earbud itself. The anchoring system of these Skullcandy Actives over the ear will let you run, jump, lift, snowboard, and take calls without fear of losing them in the process. $60.
Cleer Audio Earbuds
For the next audio level up, Cleer has two versions of their sports earbuds. One pair can take significant punishment while the other adds NC features. The Goal Sport ($80) model has no NC feature, yet the sound was good, and a bit of background noise was eliminated just from the twist-in ear application. The Roam Sport ($99) adds NC with up to 25 dB of environmental noise reduction with reasonable call clarity. Like their Alpha Headphones, the Roam Sport can be enhanced and controlled with their useful phone app.
Master & Dynamic MW08 Earbuds
Using the same microphone and speaker components in a smaller version of their headphones in these luxury buds, you first notice the balanced, clear sound from the two versions. Their enhanced phone app gives additional sound profiles and control. Very good from calls to music. The Sport Model upgrades to shatter-resistant glass earphones and a Kevlar induction charging case. Their blue tooth connector for plane use is stellar, with a 20-hour battery life. M & D offers five sizes of ear tips, while most offer just three, resulting in a better fit with enhanced NC. MW08Standard model, $299. Sport model, $349.
QuietOn 3.1 Earbuds for Sleep/Rest
The QuietOn 3.1 earbuds are specifically designed for sleep and quiet, with no music. They fit nicely inside the ear, so even side sleepers will find these comfortable. The Active NC feature of the works specifically on sounds like neighbors, machine hums like air conditioners, snoring, talking, and even alarms in the next room. I have stayed in enough hotel properties where the noise was not an issue until party time at 11:41 p.m. The QuietOn buds are just the ticket to cancel the audio revelry. $289.
MEE Connect Air Wireless Adapter
It is always best to connect wireless to the plane’s inflight system rather than a hard wire. Simply plug the small device into the airline 3.5 mm jack, turn it on, and pair it with your headphones or buds. It works with all brands of audio buds or phones with a 15-hour battery life. You can plug two listening devices into anything with a 3.5 mm audio output jack. MEE Connect Air, $50.
Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sports Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest, and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.