Sure, you have more than a thousand songs crammed into your MP3 player, but what good is all that music if you can't hear it over the jet, train or automobile noise? Enter noise-blocking headphones designed to kill the racket while preserving the rich tones. But now there is an alternative to those bulky, hairdo-mashing headphones: noise-blocking earphones. The earphones -- or ear buds -- are a fraction of the size of headphones and fit inside your ear. There are two types: the kind that block the noise by sealing your ear canal and the kind that use high-tech circuitry to create "anti-noise" sound waves to kill ambient clamor. We tested four models for clarity, comfort and noise elimination.
First look: Otto Engineering, makers of two-way radios and other communication equipment, recently introduced "isolating ear buds," which block out noise with "passive" noise-reduction technology. In layman's terms, that means they cut noise by sealing your ear canal with soft, rubber tips that encircle the tiny ear bud speakers.
Likes and yikes: For their size (less than half an ounce), these ear buds have good sound quality, but the noise-reducing abilities are minimal. Most standard earphones rest on the outer part of the ear, but the Otto ear buds squeeze into the canal. The ear buds stay in place but form such a tight seal that, when inserted, it feels as though your eardrums are about to pop.
The 411: $69.95, available at Micro Center stores; call (888) 234-6886 or go to www.hearotto.com.
First look: Outside the Box, a company formed by an airline pilot and his flight-attendant wife, originally came up with the Solitude Acoustic Isolation System earphones so NASCAR fans could hear the radio communications between drivers and pit crews without all the ambient noise. The Solitude AIS earphones use passive noise reduction, relying on cone-shaped ear bud tips made of a soft memory foam that molds to the shape of your ear canal.
Likes and yikes: The squishy foam on the tips fits snugly in your ear without giving you that underwater, ear-popping sensation of rubber-tipped ear buds. But we found the sound quality and the noise-reducing capacity limited. Still, if you are not ready to spend more for serious noise-canceling technology, these ear buds are a pretty good deal.
The 411: $39.95, available at Airport Wireless stores; call (704) 583-1100, or go to www.protravelgear.com.
First look: With the Philips noise-canceling ear buds (model SHN7500), you get earphones that rely on technology that picks up ambient noise and creates a sound wave with the opposite polarity to cancel out the din. This is called "active" noise-canceling technology, and it works great on constant noises, like the rumble of a jet or train engine. It doesn't work as well on sudden or intermittent noises, such as talking or yelling. The circuitry fits into a battery-powered device that hangs on a strap around your neck.
Likes and yikes: The noise-canceling abilities of the ear buds are significant, working especially well on an airplane or train. The neck strap ensures that the weight of the electronic device doesn't yank the ear buds out. The sound quality was adequate, but the round, rubber ear bud tips that you insert into your ear canals give that uncomfortable ear-popping feeling.
The 411: $99.99, available at most major electronics stores, or call (800) 451-2851.
BEST OF CLASS
First look: Sony's noise-canceling earphones (model MDR-NC22) use "active" noise-canceling technology, like the Philips model, but without the neck strap. In the Sony model, the electronic circuitry fits into a 2.5-inch device that clips to your shirt. This model also has a "monitor" button on the device that temporarily shuts off the incoming sound to, say, hear someone speak to you.
Likes and yikes: Of the four noise-blocking earphones we tested, the Sony model ranked best overall for noise-canceling ability, comfort and music clarity. The ear buds are designed to rest comfortably in your ear, which means you don't have to jam them into your canal. Although the noise-canceling technology creates a slight hiss, the sound quality more than makes up for it.
The 411: $99.99, at most electronics stores; call (877) 865-7669, or go to www.sonystyle.com.
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