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An amazing $40 device that transforms travel comfort.

High tech headphones that actively cancel out background noise, rather than just trying to block it, are an essential comfort aid for people in any noisy environment, particularly airplanes.

At only $40 - probably less than you pay for a cab ride to or from the airport - these headphones can transform your flight experience. And they work everywhere, not just on a plane. I'm now using them all day in my office - they cut down on the noise of the computer fans and the air conditioning, giving a much quieter environment to think and work in.

Other brands are available costing up to as much as $300. But for most people, most of the time, there's no need to pay any more than $40 for an amazing improvement in your working and traveling environment.

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Noisebuster Noise Canceling Headphones

The Sound of Silence - The NCT Noisebuster Extreme™

Lightweight and compact, the Noisebuster headphones are easy to take with you and comfortable to wear.

Part 1 of a series on noise reducing headphones - click for Parts One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight  Nine  Ten  Eleven  Twelve

NOTE - Now superseded by the new NB-FX headphones - reviewed here.



Once a relative rarity, active noise cancelling headphones are becoming increasingly commonplace, with airline passengers recognizing the great convenience and added comfort these headphones offer when flying.

A wide range of models from a growing number of manufacturers is available, but in the seven plus years since this article was first written, prices remain high and performance varies widely, so you're well advised to research carefully before choosing the model to best suit your pocket book.

The Insidious Noise Problem

What is one of the most tiring aspects of a long plane journey? However you reply to this question, the chances are that you did not specify one of the more subtle but still very tiring aspects of a long flight - the continual background noise of the engines and the plane - it is so omnipresent that we just take it for granted and even stop noticing it - and because of this, we don't appreciate that it is a factor in tiring us out.


That background noise is louder than you think - here's proof. Try carrying on a normal conversation with a person one seat away from you. You'll quickly find you have to strain to hear what they say, and in turn you have to shout so they can hear what you say. No wonder that experts believe that the noise level on long flights contributes to the overall malaise people feel at the end of them.

For many years a common trick of frequent fliers has been to use a set of ear plugs. The reduction in constant background noise really does help you feel less exhausted and more refreshed at the end of any length of flight. Now there's a higher tech solution to this problem.

But, before talking about the solution, let's consider one other problem. Have you noticed, when trying to listen to music or watch a movie on a plane, that it is very hard to get the volume right? Half the time, it is too quiet and the sound is lost in the dreadful background noise on the plane, but then, if you turn the volume up so you can hear the quiet parts, it is too loud for the loud parts! You're either working the volume control all the time, or alternatively straining to hear, then cringing from blasting out your eardrums (and risking permanent hearing damage, too). And there's no way that a set of ear plugs will help solve this part of the noise on planes problem.

Noise Cancellation as a Solution

Relax. Enter the Noisebuster Extreme™. What look like (and work like) an ordinary pair of headphones have an amazing additional capability. Put them on, then flip a switch and an incredible thing happens. The background roaring and droning sounds fade away, almost to nothing! How does it work? Here's a simple explanation.

The Noisebusters don't eliminate all the background noise, and work better on lower frequencies than higher frequencies. They reduce low frequencies by up to 15dB, while leaving high frequencies reasonably untouched. This is enough, however, to make an absolutely staggering difference, enough to make them essential for any air traveler, or for just about anyone else in a noisy environment where most of the noise is low frequency.

When you use them, it is much easier to enjoy movie soundtracks or music because there is less background noise to fight against. And, if you're just wanting to enjoy a more relaxing peaceful environment, you'll be amazed at how much more refreshed you feel at the end of the flight (or bus ride or car ride or anything else that has a lot of noise).

The Noisebuster headphones come complete with the two AAA batteries that power them (the batteries last for 100 hours) plus also with a connector cable so you can connect them to any typical CD, tape player, computer sound card output, or stereo system. If you're connecting them to an airline sound system, they also provide a small adapter plug that converts from the two prong plugs on many airline sound systems to the standard single prong stereo plug used by Noisebuster and just about everyone else. Note that they work as 'normal' headphones when the power is switched off - if the batteries go flat, you can still use them to listen to music (unlike the Bose unit).

The small control unit has a place for the batteries, an on/off switch and indicator light, an input switch to choose between airline systems and regular sound systems, and also an 'anti-volume' control that adjusts the level of the noise cancellation. Take my advice and do what I did - drop a spot of instant glue on the volume control slider and leave it set at maximum - you're never going to want it at any other setting and the slider is prone to be accidentally bumped.

Using the Noisebusters

Although the units sit on the ear they do so acceptably lightly and are comfortable to wear, even for as much as ten or more hours on an international plane journey (I've worn them with only minor breaks on a fourteen hour flight between Los Angeles and Sydney).

I compared the Noisebuster headphones with two sets of ordinary headphones - a low end set such as you'd find on most airlines or which are often supplied with portable CD/tape players, and a medium/high end set such as an audiophile might have. The good news - $40 not only buys you the sound reduction capability, but an acceptably good set of headphones to enjoy music through as well. They were clearly better than the typical low end headphones, and not too inferior to the high end ones (they were a little weak in the high frequencies).

Noisebuster also supply headsets using the same technology to use with cell phones (what a great idea - if you're like me, you're always using a cell phone in a noisy environment!) and for regular phones too. Check out their website (update - seems to no longer exist) for more details. If you're looking to buy a set of these headphones (or maybe several sets - you'll find it very hard to travel anywhere with a friend and keep them all to yourself!) then you can buy direct from the supplier or through leading electronics stores such as Sharper Image (which also seems to no longer exist!).

Some airlines (such as American on selected international flights and Qantas on all flights) are starting to offer these types of headphones in their First Class cabins. Now you can enjoy the same experience, anywhere on the plane, or anywhere else, for just $40!

Update (June 2003 and subsequently)

NCT advised, in June, that they have discontinued their Noisebuster Extreme headphones, and will be replacing them with a new improved model in a couple of months.

I've followed up with them on several occasions, and most recently, a note to them on 2 December has been just ignored.  It is seeming increasingly less likely that their plans to replace this excellent unit will ever result in a tangible reality.

I'll review their new product if and when it is released, but, until then, the Plane Quiet headphones would seem to be your best choice.

Update August 2004

It appears that NCT had licensed their technology to Maxell, who sold the Noisebusters as their HP-NC1 Noise Cancelling Headphones.  They can still be found in some places and list for $70, and Amazon is selling them for $38.45.

Final (!) Update November 2004

Noisebuster have now released the updated replacement to this earlier product.  Their new NB-FX noise canceling headphones are reviewed here.


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Originally published 9 Nov 2001, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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