The thing that perpetually drives me to head-shaking confusion? The prevalence of those damned white earbuds. The subway, the city streets, the office cubicle, the gymthey're everywhere! Of course, their profusion is linked to Apple's (understandable) monopoly on the digital audio market, but it never amazes me that people are willing to drop $400 on the latest iPod Video only to plug in speakers that are the technological equivalent of taking an overseas phone call on twine and tin cansadmittedly, the earbuds are free, but that doesn't make using them right.
As audiophiles already know, your system is only as good as your speakers. Listen to your tunes through the noise-reducing Sennheiser PXC 300 and you too will join the ranks of white-earbud scoffers. And, unlike most noise-reduction headsets, these don't make you look like you're directing air traffic. The narrow, ultralight, ergonomic headset has circular padded speakers that fit snugly and comfortably around your ears, delivering sound so true to the original, you'll be looking around for the band. A new world of subtle details is suddenly there, from a child's voice lurking in the background of Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" (creepy) to the full orchestral power of the 15-plus-member Broken Social Scene.
This sound clarity is typical of Sennheiser's high-end audio products, and the noise reduction feature here amplifies your high-quality audio experience tenfold. The reduction comes from the NoiseGuard system, a fountain-pen-size device attached to the headset's speaker wire. Insert two AAA batteries, flick the switch, and a series of small microphones detect the external noise, then emit inaudible, low-frequency sound waves through the speakers to cancel out that ambient sound. You won't be enveloped in absolute silence, but the high-pitched squeal of that crying child across the airplane aisle will be transformed into a whisper. And, despite my expectations, the battery pack did not get in the way, even in the ever-shrinking world of digital audio; a full-swivel metal clip lets you secure the NoiseGuard to your pocket, belt, or backpack strap sans tangle. Better still, the headphones work even if the noise-canceling function is off. In other words, if the batteries drain as you're two hours into a long-haul flight, you can still fall back on that high-quality surround sound, which is, surprisingly, not a common function in other noise-reduction systems.
The PXC 300s are also ideally suited for travelthe speakers swivel 90 degrees and the headset folds to fit neatly into a soft, padded case the size of a small paperback. An airplane headset jack is also included, which brings us to the glorious salvation of the in-flight movie. If sleep has become a jetlag casualty or a farce thanks to a screaming toddler or boorish neighbor and you're longing for solace midway through a trans-oceanic flight, plug the PXC 300s into the speaker jack, dial up a mindless action movie or romantic comedy, toggle the noise reduction, and voila! But during the opening credits, do yourself a favor and turn off the noise-reduction for a few seconds to see just how good you've got it. Appreciate how much the PXC 300s numb the howling tunnel of airplane noise, then dive back in. The only thing that'll keep you from thinking you're not in a stadium theater will be the miniscule movie screen. That, and the leg room. $220; www.sennheiserusa.com
For more adventure electronics, including Apple's latest iPod, read Power Travel from the March 2006 issue of Outside.