In the game dev world everyone wears headphones. Coders, artists, designers, producers, testers, etc. These headphones come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles. In-ear, over-ear, open, closed, cheap, expensive, and sometimes even wireless. Yet you almost never see active noise cancelling headphones.
The Great Lie
Noise cancelling headphones hit the consumer market about fifteen years ago. Most people have seen them around and are loosely familiar with how they work. Microphones pick up external sound, airplane engines most famously, and the headphones playback a phase-shifted wave to cancel out the background noise.
The great lie that we have all been told for years is that they don’t work well in an office. I’m here to set the record straight and say they absolutely do.
One Week Review
Last week I finally bit the bullet and ordered a $300 pair of Bose QC15. Quite pricey but the internet was unanimous that they offer the best noise cancellation.
When you put the headphones on, with no music, and flip the switch the sensation is weird. Your eardrums feel like they’re under extra pressure. It makes me want to pop my ears. Reactions range from mild nuisance to completely unbearable. With music playing it’s fine for most people.
When you flip the switch to enable active noise cancelation you will immediately stop hearing sounds you didn’t even know you were hearing. AC vents, whirling case fans, and all kinds of little sounds. The effect is readily apparent and quite cool.
Three Factor Cancellation
What won’t happen is total silence. You can still hear clicking keyboards and nearby conversations. However as soon as you turn on music they all wash away. What you need to understand going in is that stopping external noise is a multi-stage process.
The headphones are closed which offers decent passive cancellation. It’s a mild but noticeable effect. All sound is muffled, but highs in particular are blocked.
Active noise cancellation best handles ambient sounds and lows. This makes sense given the popular airplane use case.
That leaves the mids. That also happens to be the range voices fall into. I bought these headphones exclusively to help deal with the half dozen conversations that surround my desk every day when people get back from lunch. Much to my surprise as soon as music is turned on the remaining distractions are eliminated. The triple combination of passive cancellation, active cancellation, and music is quite remarkable.
It doesn’t even have to be loud music. Sometimes I think the programmers listen to techno because we have to. It’s the only damn way to block everything out and be able to focus.
Classical music can have problems because it’s often full of very quiet, if not silent, sections. During those moments I’d hear all the office chatter and lose my train of thought. Now that doesn’t happen. I can even listen ambient tracks such as ocean waves, rainstorms, etc.
Headphones with great noise cancellation but crap audio playback aren’t worth owning. Fortunately the Bose QC15 sound great!
To be perfectly honest I’m not a great judge of audio quality. I wore a decent pair of ~$200 Sennheisers for years. When Howard, Uber’s composer/audio guy, tried my pair he ripped them off with disgust. I think he got genuinely upset when I wanted him to give them a second shot in a quieter environment. Much to my surprise Howard’s review of the Bose set was extremely positive. If it’s good enough for him then it’s good enough for me.
There are some minor downsides to Bose headphones. They require a AAA battery to power the noise cancellation and if that battery dies so does your music. It’s all or nothing. I don’t know why they can’t work like a normal pair of headphones with no battery. For my use case it’s not a deal breaker.
The cable is also quite short. I had to get an extension to comfortably use them at my desk.
There are of course other choices. The Bose QC15 is the only set I’ve used for any length of time. The cheaper Audio-Technica set is actually what made me order the Bose. A co-worker has a pair and 30 seconds was enough to convince me to try noise cancelling in the office.
$300 — Bose QC15 $270 — Bose QC 20i (in ear) $130 — Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7B
For other headphone recommendations I strongly, strongly recommend checking out The Wirecutter. I have a very high bar when it comes to gadgets and their website is absolutely phenominal at making recommendations.
An update (12/12/14)! I wrote this post about the Bose QC15. Shortly after buying them the new Bose QC25 was released. The QC25 seems like a minor upgrade, but nothing major. Wirecutter has a decent write-up. If you’re buying new the QC25 is probably the way to go. My impression is if you already have the QC15 then there’s no real need to upgrade. But, for the record, I’ve never used the QC25. I’m still happy with my QC15 which I use every day.
The bottom line is that noise cancelling headphones work in the office. Far better than I was led to believe. I strongly recommend everyone trying a pair for an hour. If it makes you even 5% more productive then a $300 price point will pay for itself in no time.
Update: August 2016
It’s been two years and I have an update. First, my Bose QC15’s are still great! Noise cancelling headphones work great in the office.
Second, I’ve been doing a lot of virtual reality work lately. This means I take a VR headset on and off all day. Unfortunately over-the-head headphones don’t work well for this. I can’t listen to my tunes without interruption.
So I bought the Bose QC20 in-ear noise cancelling earbuds. I’m happy to report they work fantastically well in the office. As a bonus, they’re an improvement over the QC15 in an airplane.
Update: January 2019
Five years later and noise cancelling headphones are everywhere in offices. Bose has addressed most of my nitpicks. Their wireless QC35 is exceptionally popular with my co-workers. Other brands have stepped up their game and offer compelling products. My QC20 earbuds are my most treasured possession when flying.
This post is evergreen and continues to get clicks. Unfortunately my product comparisons aren't so fresh. My recommendation is to consult Wirecutter. Their list is regularly updated.
Update: August 2019
Bose just released the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. They're my new favorite headphones. Wireless, adjustable noise cancelling (0-10), surprisingly useful touch controls, and better battery life.
Are they worth the money? Ehh, probably not. The product itself is great. Truly best-in-class. But at $400 they're definitely not the best bang for the buck.
If you're paying out of pocket then maybe consider a better deal. You can get a good product for under $150 these days. But if you can convince your boss to cover some or all of the cost then go for it.