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How noise cancelling headphones make aeroplane travel better

Flying is full of headaches, but noise cancelling headphones might just be the cure.

Wherever you’re going, you can count on an aeroplane to get you there quickly. But not quietly.

Dr Amar Bose realised that in 1978 aboard a flight from Zurich to Boston. Since 1963, airlines had been delivering in-flight audio entertainment to passengers via pneumatic headphones—tubular headsets that looked like stethoscopes. In the late 1970s, however, they began swapping pneumatic headphones for electronic ones. When Dr Bose donned his first pair en route to Boston, he was both excited and disappointed. Electronic headphones could deliver superior sound to fliers, but aeroplane cabins were too noisy to hear it.

Dr Bose had an audio epiphany: Using physics, he conceived of a headset that uses a microphone to detect external noise, and electronics to generate an equal and opposite signal that cancels it out before it reaches the listener’s eardrums. Noise cancelling headphones were born.

More than four decades later, noise on aeroplanes is still a problem. In 2018, the online travel agency Agoda asked more than 10,000 global travellers what they found to be the most annoying travel habits—the top pet peeve is noisy passengers.

Fortunately, travellers today have something those in 1978 didn’t: an arsenal of the best noise cancelling headphones for travel. Although they can’t help with crowded overhead lockers or ill-mannered seat-kickers, here are four irritating air-travel problems to which they’re perfectly suited:

Problem: Noisy engines that drown out in-flight entertainment

One of the in-flight sounds that inspired Dr Bose to create noise cancelling headphones to begin with was the perpetual din that fills every aeroplane cabin. A mix of engine whirring, wind whipping and air-conditioning humming, it inundates passengers’ ears with a soft but steady stream of white noise that makes it difficult to hear in-flight entertainment, like television and movies. Noise cancelling headphones vanquish that ambient noise pollution while also delivering superior sound quality compared to the complimentary in-flight headphones most airlines provide. QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones, for example, have active equalisation technology that ensures clear audio, while Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and QuietComfort 35 wireless headphones II have volume-optimised equalisation that does the same. The combination of excellent audio and active noise cancelling means you can more clearly hear music, movies or, if you prefer, nothing at all.


But the worst thing about ambient cabin noise is that it never stops. Whether your flight lasts for 1 hour or 15, the “buzz” just keeps on buzzing. The best noise cancelling headphones for aeroplane passengers, therefore, are headphones with a long battery life. QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones have up to 16 hours of battery life, while QuietComfort 35 wireless headphones II and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 each have up to 20 hours—enough for even the longest international flights.

Problem: Chatty seat neighbours

Aeroplane seating is a gamble: Will you be sitting next to Silent Sam or Nattering Nate? Noise cancelling headphones can send a polite message that you want to sleep instead of speak. And if your gabby seatmate chooses to speak to their neighbour on the other side? Your headphones won’t just suggest that you want to relax; they’ll help you do it by tuning out their conversation.

Still, there are some conversations you shouldn’t tune out. When the pilot or a flight attendant is speaking, for example, you should take note. Doing so is easy with Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, which have 11 levels of noise cancellation, including a “Conversation Mode” that you can use to pause noise cancellation when you need to. Likewise, QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones have an “Aware” mode that you can activate with the touch of a button in order to hear what’s happening around you.

Problem: Flight anxiety

Many people are anxious about flying. And some—as much as 20 percent of the population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America—are so afraid that they avoid going on holiday or taking jobs that might require travel. If you have a flying phobia, noise cancelling headphones might help. In a 2013 study, for example, scientists found that listening to classical music and nature sounds can reduce stress or improve the body’s response to it. In a 2017 study, British neuroscientists likewise found that music can diminish anxiety by up to 65 percent. In particular, they identified 10 stress-busting songs that they concluded are the most relaxing on Earth; you can listen to all 10 courtesy of a free Spotify® playlist compiled by Inc.com author Melanie Curtin.

Music and nature aren’t your only option. Because they have Bluetooth® connectivity, you also can use Bose noise cancelling headphones to listen to mobile apps, such as Headspace, that walk you through breathing exercises or even guided meditation sessions.

Problem: Trouble sleeping

For many people, in-flight sleep is elusive. Neck pillows and eye masks can help, but won’t quiet the crying baby a few rows back, the flight attendant taking drink orders or the snoring passenger beside you. Noise cancelling headphones can.

It’s not just about which sounds you cancel out, however. It’s also about which sounds replace them. With the Bose Music app, you can easily access and control your music in order to induce sleep. For example, you can use in-flight Wi-Fi to stream a soothing station from your favourite streaming music service. Or, you can make and play a tranquilising playlist from your own music library.

Comfort also is key. For instance, QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones feature advanced eartip technology that ensures they’ll stay in comfortably while you snooze.

However you want to spend your time in the clouds—taking a nap, watching a movie or just relaxing in audio solitude—noise cancelling headphones can help you do it.

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