FOX11, Los Angeles - This is a noise cancelling headphone super fight! 5 headphones. 5 different noise cancelling options. All in the same price point. Today we pit the Beats Studio3 Wireless against the Sony 1000XM2 against the Bose QC35II against the Sennheiser PXC550 against the Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC. Up until now the Bose QC35II's have been the internet reviewer's gold standard in noise cancelling tech. Let's see if they hold their shine!
WATCH THE VIDEO REVIEW:
For this test, and with the results I came out with, I enlisted extra ears. I enlisted the help of a couple colleagues with backgrounds in sound. Patrick is our Digital Director, but outside of FOX he's a musician baking up some delicious beats and synth over at @obrienmedia. Then I pulled in Craig Else who is one of our audio engineers and is also a musician, having played professionally around the world with some pretty famous folks throughout the years.
Where do we begin? Well, this is primarily about noise cancellation, so let's start there. I have a test I put headphones through when I'm attempting to determine the efficacy of their noise cancellation technology implementation. I call it the "machine room" test. Here at FOX11 we have a server room which contains not just switches, but racks full of data drives for backup, playout and capture. There is a variety of equipment for a variety of uses since we're in a multimedia environment. All of this equipment puts out a hum of just under 70 decibels that is a combination of low frequency and high frequency droning and humming noise. There's your background for how we tested this round of headphones. It works because unlike airplane engine hum which tends to be more at the low end of the frequency spectrum, I get bombarded by a good mix of soundwaves which really test how well a pair of headphones actively and passively cancel noise.
I took all five of these headphones to the noise room and to the gym. The gym is also a great place to hear how well a pair of noise cancelling headphones work because the clank of the weights and the chatter of people carrying on conversations between sets tends to sit on the high end of the audio spectrum. Why do I keep harping on the high end? Well the way noise cancelling works is -and this is simplified- by using microphones to take environmental sound and create an inverted version of that sound, thus cancelling it. Think of sound as a wave of peaks and valleys and what noise cancelling does is mute the valleys better than it does the peaks. This is why low end sounds are cancelled effectively and high pitch sounds still tend to get through to some degree.
So, how'd the headphones do? All of the headphones tested fall within the same price range and, to be honest they all did about the same job of cancelling noise in the machine room test. They had different sound signatures but ultimately the difference in noise cancelling was marginal, except for one set. That set, the one which surprised the heck out of me and did what none of the other four could do was Beats' Studio3's. They were the only pair which effectively cancelled out the low and higher frequency hum (really in the upper mids for the sake of clarity). Remember my audio engineer pal, Craig? He's actually a very smart dude when it comes to the science of sound, so watch the video to hear his explanation of why Beats is able to do this, while others aren't. In short it has to do in part with Beats new Pure Adaptive Noise Cancelling and how it works. We figure that with the other headphones, some of that high end of the spectrum is actually making past the passive noise cancelling the earpads on all the headphones produce but with the Beats, you get a pair of earpads which seem to prevent leakage and, maybe technology which adapts the noise cancelling to also accommodate for "leakage." That's the amount of sound which leaks out AND gets into the earcups. They adapt the noise cancelling for glasses, hair styles which keep the earpads from sitting right over your ears, or even having ears or a head shape which keeps those cups from sitting around your ears and getting a good seal.
So, let me be clear… there's a new king of noise cancelling and it's Beats Studio3 Wireless headphones. All three of us, listened to Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes in the machine room with the volume only a little more than half way up. All three of us walked away with which pair of headphones were our favorite sound, but all three of us noticed that undeniably the Beats were the only pair which completely silenced that 70dB banshee, the machine room. Again, with the music volume only a little louder than half way up.
In terms of all around noise cancelling, they all did a great job of cancelling chatter. People would walk up to me at my desk, talking and I couldn't hear a peep. All did a pretty good job of cancelling most of the noise at my gym. You really can't go wrong with any of those choices in this roundup and I think for most buyers it's going to come down to price, or sale price at the time of purchase, and sound preference. I will say this, if you didn't like the way Beats sounded in the first gen and chose to stay away as a result, now is the time to give them a try again. I only bring htis up because a friend of mine said he stays away but hasn't tried them for some time. 3rd generation Beats Solos and the Studios are very different from 1st gen units.
In terms of sonic qualities, Craig preferred the flatter sound the QC35II's produced over the tuned, bottom favoring Beats. I preferred Beats over everything, with Sony and Plantronics tied for second. Bose's QC's sound quite good as well, but I like my music a bit more tuned and "warmer." Bose was next on my list with the Sennheiser's rounding up the pack.
When it comes to looks, I think the Beats, Bose in silver, and Plantronics' sets take it for those who want that urban swag, but if you're looking for a bit more understated corporate chic, you'll want to look at the Sennheisers, Sony or Bose in black.
In terms of long wear comfort, the Bose and Sennheiser headphones felt lightest on my head with the least amount of clamping. The Beats felt heavier but were just as comfortable over extended periods of wear due to their abundance of soft padding. The Sony headphones were comfortable but felt heavier than the Beats. The Plantronics felt like they were the heaviest with the most clamping. Four of the five felt like they fit completely over my ears with the Sennheisers feeling like their earcups were the smallest and only barely completely fit over my ears.
There are some features which each pair have which may seal the deal for you, so let's take a look at those. For Apple fanboys and fangirls, the Beats feature the W1 chip which will get you better battery life, instant pairing across your iOS and OSX devices. Battery life is amazing with the W1 and Pure ANC turned on. If you're in the Google ecosystem, the Bose QC35II's now have a Google Assistant button which allows you to actually control some of the functions of the headphones from the GA button right on the headphones which means you have to touch your phone and the headphone less. Instead, you can just talk to them. For example, you can tell the headphones to turn noise cancelling on and off. For the business power user, the Voyager 8200 UC features multi-point connection capability and the Universal Communications and Collaboration standard which means it will work with your computer via the included USB dongle. You can use it for a variety of communications tools, like Skype for business, Avaya, Cisco Jabber and more. Additionally, since you're plugged into the computer via dongle, you can actually watch video without latency issues. I've even done some editing in Premiere Pro with the Voyagers and they were able to keep up. Like the Voyager, the PXC are meant for serious jetsetters and businesspersons. You get the superior quality of Sennheiser microphones built into the PXCs so that if you need to take a call at a busy airport you should be good to go!
I've included a few notes below. These are my observations as I listened to lossless music files with these headphones. They're more about tone than noise cancelling, but give you an idea of what I was testing as I reviewed each unit. Speaking of reviews, I will have a solo review of each pair in the coming days and weeks.
The Son of Flynn (Moby Remix) has an orchestral element, along with the electronic aspect which makes it a good cut to hear how large a soundstage a pair of headphones can reproduce while also testing the mid and bass response. Beats had the largest soundstage and the most vibrant reproduction of the sonics of that cut. The Sony was actually a very close second. I had to crank them up more to get to the same level as the Studio3's. I maxed the volume of the PXC to get them to compete.
Rinzler Kaskade Remix Daft Punk- Sennheiser, you really have to crank them up while Sony has nice thump at ¾ max volume. Beats are nice and loud with solid thump and just sound more open, more airy.
Skrillex Kill Everybody all 5 pairs handled this thumper pretty well.
Down by the River off the O' Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack shows off how well headphones handle the highs, the vocal track. Beats were the most airy, and seemed to have the most presence, while Sennheiser's PXC were the most crisp. Sony's 1000XM2's just a hair off Beats tail on this one as well.
Fugees The Score can sound muddy on some headphones. Beats were the most clear, the most crisp. Thump was good across products, but the Studio3's really are magnificent where clarity is concerned. They just don't sound muddy with anything I've played through them.
Disclosure: All the product manufacturers in this review provided us with demo units of their headphones for the purpose of this review.