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The Solitude XCS noise cancelling headphones set a new 'best' for this company's ongoing range of headphones.

Great performance and a good price make them appealing to people seeking high end performance at middle range price.

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Solitude XCS Active Noise Reduction Headset

Still more steady improvement from Solitude

Solitude XCS Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Solitude XCS headphones continue the steady enhancement that each successive Solitude product has represented over the previous to date.

Part of a series on noise reducing headphones - click the links on the right for extra reviews and articles.



Solitude Design has been making headphones for nine years now, with each year seeing a new model and an improvement over its predecessors.

New for 2012 is the latest in their high end Solitude range, the XCS.  A slightly reworked set of features and even better noise cancelling make these appealing, while the nine years of design experience help to ensure a solid functional and reliable approach to the headphones that should give you years of valuable use and enjoyment.

Executive Summary

The Solitude XCS is the latest in the high-end range of headphones designed and distributed by the company formerly known as 'Outside the Box' and more recently as 'Solitude Design'.

It replaces the previous model Solitude X headphones which we reviewed when they were released back in March 2011.  We note that the Solitude X headphones are currently on sale as presumably the company is quitting its stock of the earlier Solitude X product in favor of the new Solitude XCS, just now released.

The company also makes the middle of the market Plane Quiet headphones too, with the current model being the 'Plane Quiet Platinum with Solitude Technology' model - click the link for our review of that product, too.

This means the company is currently offering three models of headphones :

  • Solitude XCS - $180

  • Solitude X - $130

  • Plane Quiet Platinum - $70

The major competitor to the Solitude line are the two Bose models - the QC15 (priced at $300) and the QC3 (priced at $350).

These days there are an abundance of other products on the market, from low priced and low quality entry level sets of headphones costing as little as $27.50, and ranging up to products selling at even more inflated prices than the two Bose products, but as best we can determine, offering little extra improvement, such as the Sony MDR-NC500D which we also reviewed and which cost $400.

If cost is no object, and you absolutely must have the very best noise cancelling available, the Bose QC15 (reviewed here) is your best choice.

If you want noise cancelling that is nearly as good, but at a much better price and tremendous value, then the Solitude X (while still available) is your best bet.

If you want a basic set of headphones with some noise cancelling, but are buying primarily to a budget, the Plane Quiet headphones would be your best bet.

The new Solitude XCS is only very slightly better than the previous model X.  While the clearance priced model X remains, we'd recommend you save money and choose that over the XCS.

What to Look For When Evaluating Noise Cancelling Headphones

There are three main features of a pair of noise cancelling headphones, and these vary depending on the price point you select.  The three features are the level of 'background hiss' that is present in the headphones when the noise cancelling is activated, the amount of noise cancelling that is performed, and the overall sound quality of the headphones.

The most important of these three features is the amount of noise cancelling.  That is, after all, why you are buying the headphones in the first place.

As for the background hiss, this is something you'd hear if you were using your headphones in a normally quiet area rather than in a normally noisy area such as on an airplane, where the hiss tends to be masked by all the other constant noises also present.  But it is counter-productive to be using technology to cancel some noises but simultaneously introducing other noises, so clearly, less hiss is always better than more hiss.

As for the sound quality, we rate this as moderately unimportant.  Even with great noise cancelling, you're presumably in an environment with some remaining background/ambient noise which interferes with your appreciation of the pure sound, and you're also probably playing some sort of compressed music source (whether it is from an MP3 type audio player like an iPod, or from a tablet or cell phone, or from a movie soundtrack, or from the airplane's own in-flight entertainment system) which frankly is way distant from true audiophile quality to start with.

No noise cancelling headphones give high end audio, because you'll only get high end audio if playing CDs through a high quality sound system in a very quiet environment.  Almost all noise cancelling headphones give sound playback quality which is more than adequate for the purpose and environment in which you'll be using the headphones.

So where is the value sweetspot and ideal compromise between cost and performance?

While it is true you will get some noise cancelling, even from the $27.50 headphones (made by Kensington), it is also true that you will get perceptibly very much more noise cancelling with the Plane Quiet headphones at $70, and very much more noise cancelling again with the Solitude headphones at either $130 or $180.

There are also clearly apparent differences in background electronic hiss levels between the lowest price and the moderate price units.

But as between the Solitude and the Bose Quiet Comfort headphones, you transition into the area of diminishing returns.  Both have whisper quiet background hiss levels.  Both have acceptable quality audio fidelity.  And both cut a big chunk of the background noise out.

You will still hear a difference in noise reduction between the QC15 and the Solitude headphones (the QC15 is better), but you also have to ask yourself whether you'd prefer to buy two pairs of Solitude headphones or one pair of QC15 headphones for almost the same money.

The Solitude XCS Active Noise Reduction Headset - What You Get

The Solitude XCS headphones are attractively packaged and presented in a black and silver box with a clear mylar plastic window allowing you to see the headphones within.

Inside the box is a nice collection of goodies - the headphones themselves of course, and a 5' connecting cord with gold plated connections at each end that plugs in at one end to the headphones and at the other end to whatever music playing device you might wish to listen to.

Both ends use standard 1/8" type connectors.

This connecting cable comes with a bonus additional capability.  It has a built in microphone and the connector is compatible with the headphone socket on iPhones and some other types of phone.

So you can be listening to music on your iPhone then take a call when one comes in without having to swap from the Solitudes to another headset or the phone itself.  That is a nice extra feature.

There is also a gold adapter to grow from the 1/8" connector on the cord to a 1/4" connector such as is often found on home stereo systems, and a double prong adapter to work with the in-seat connectors on some airplanes.

Although the box implied that batteries were included, ours came without batteries.  The unit requires two AAA batteries.

Other inclusions and paperwork

There is also a lovely semi-hard sided protective carry case made out of molded material with some sort of woven nylon finish to it.  It has a zipper running around three sides, and inside is a molded support to cradle the headphones on one side, and a couple of pouches on the other side; one a zip pouch to hold spare cables, batteries and adapter, and the other for a business card or two.

The two booklets are a warranty card and a user's guide.

The warranty is for a one year period, and is voided if you bought the headphones from a non-authorized Solitude retailer, and is non transferable.

This warranty doesn't win any prizes for excessively liberal generosity, but is similar to the Bose and all other warranties, and from reader feedback over the years, it seems Solitude provide generally excellent service and support for their products.

The user manual is well written in English and explains the few things that need explanation.  Although well written, we noticed with mirth that instead of referring to the Bass Boost option, it instead talked about a Base Boost.

Headphones Description

The Solitude X active noise canceling headphones are attractive and appear to be well made.

The ear-cups tilt and swivel (just like the Bose), and can rotate flat for carrying purposes.

The headphones weigh 8.1 oz on the head with batteries included (the same as the predecessor model X).  Complete with cable, adapters and carry bag, they weigh 16.8 oz (slightly less than the previous model due to cutting down from two to one included cable).  In comparison, the QC15 weighs 6.7 oz and in its carry case, 14.7 oz.

The headphones have a faux-carbon fiber pattern on the outside of the ear cups but don't show their name prominently anywhere (other than very discreetly embossed on the top of the headband).  We have to think this was a marketing mistake - missing out on the ability to promote itself when on the heads of users on planes.

The right ear cup contains the battery compartment.  The headphones require two AAA batteries to power their noise cancellation circuitry, and you can expect to get about 35 hours of noise cancelling out of a pair of batteries, according to the manual, or perhaps 40 hours (according to the website).  The actual amount of time will vary depending on usage conditions, of course. so maybe both claims are simultaneously correct.

We have to note, cynically, that the website's claim for a 15% longer life than their competitor (ie the Bose QC15) overlooks the fact that the Bose uses one battery whereas the Solitude uses two.

The red power LED dims when the batteries are about 30 minutes short of total exhaustion (we prefer the longer notice and more obvious indication on the QC15 which has a flashing LED about 5 hours prior to battery exhaustion).  It is best to always travel with a spare set of batteries, 'just in case'.

The left ear cup has the connecting point for the cable, plus a three position switch that toggles between Off, Noise Cancelling, or Bass Boost (but no noise cancelling).  A power LED illuminates for both the Bass Boost and Noise Cancelling positions.

There is also a volume control wheel next to the switch.  In the Model X, this wheel actually controlled the amount of noise cancellation applied; a ridiculous concept (when would you ever want less than full noise cancellation?) and a concept now happily abandoned.  The wheel now acts as you'd expect, as a volume control.

Normally you should keep this volume control on maximum, so as not to waste the power and battery life of your music playing device.  But if two of you are sharing an audio feed, it becomes helpful to balance out the volume levels that you are each comfortable with.

Using the Headphones

Comfort and Convenience

The headphones are comfortable to wear for many hours at a time, such as you will wish to do on long flights.

Solitude have always had slightly smaller ear cups than the Bose QC15s, and this latest design seems to be slightly smaller than the previous model Solitude in terms of the length and breadth of the oval cups.  However, the depth seems to possibly be slightly larger.

So if you have normal sized ears that stick out, you'll be happier with this model, but if you have ears that lie flat alongside your head but which are of large size, you might be less happy.

Seriously, if your ears are of larger than normal dimension, be sure you buy the headphones from a place that will allow a full refund on return if you deem them to be too small for comfort.

Background Noise (hiss)

Solitude have thoroughly mastered the art of designing low noise electronics and these headphones are close to totally silent with almost no perceptible background hiss.

Sound Quality

This latest model in the Solitude series continues its tradition of playing sound with the noise cancelling turned on or off; and - more significantly - whether the batteries have charge in them or not.

The Bose products require charged batteries to work.  There is no passive pass-through mode with the Bose headphones, so if your battery dies, you lose all capabilities, not just sound reduction.

Clearly this is a plus point for the Solitudes.  We have sometimes had our QC15s fail in the middle of a 10+ hour international flight, and that is very annoying when it happens - indeed, these days we have put ourselves in the routine of always replacing the battery at the start of a lengthy series of flights, and trying to remember to always travel with a spare battery, 'just in case'.

A new feature for the Solitude XCS model is a bass boost setting.  Curiously, if you wish to turn the bass boost on, you have to simultaneously accept the loss of the noise cancelling.  Why is this?  We've no idea, and it seems counter-intuitive.

On the other hand, bass boost in general is counter-intuitive.  While we can understand the sensational fun of having stomach and shelf shaking bass in a home theater scenario, that doesn't happen with headphones, and upping the bass merely reduces the sound fidelity and muddies the overall effect.

Our clear recommendation - leave the bass boost off.  It adds nothing to your listening experience, apart from distraction.

Talking about bass, we were curious to see if the Solitude headphone drivers were capable of handling extra bass to match their bass boost feature, so - feeling naughty - we played a CD with so much bass it is a caricature of a recording - one of Decca's (in)famous Phase Four Stereo recordings, this one dating to 1973, and to ensure it was even more ridiculously over the top, we chose a Stokowski recording (of the Egmont overture).  The double basses that are close-miked for the first 3½ bars of this piece will overload (or even destroy) most amplifier/speaker combinations.

So we fed that into the QC15, the earlier Solitude X and the new Solitude XCS to see which would do best in the torture test.

The good news - all three performed very similarly in terms of the point where the speakers became 'non-linear' in their response.  The bad news - none of the three could play this passage at moderately loud levels without breaking up in the right channel.

As for 'normal' music and other audio sources, the Solitude headphones performed adequately well.  And to our delight, the annoying tonal coloration introduced in earlier models of the Solitude headphones (two generations ago and earlier) is now almost completely absent, with just the slightest loss of sheen when the noise cancelling is switched off, much the same as the Solitude X model.

We hesitate to say if we preferred the QC15 or Solitude XCS headphones more.  Both were perfectly acceptable from a sound quality perspective.

The specifications suggest a frequency response of 20 Hz - 20 kHz, but we're not told the +/- dB envelope this frequency range spans, so the claim is meaningless.

The headphones are said to have a 96dB sensitivity  +/- 3dB at 1 kHz.  This contrasts with a claim of 112dB sensitivity (with the same parameters) for the earlier model X headphones, but listening to them side by side, we struggled to detect even a 3dB difference in sensitivity, and certainly not what should be a profoundly obvious 16 dB difference.  We accordingly treat this number with a large grain of salt.  Suffice it to say it was easy to drive the headphones at more than adequate volume/listening levels.

They are said to have a 50 Ohm impedance.  We were unable to measure this.

Noise Cancelling

Leaving the most important feature to last, we now come to the noise cancelling capabilities.

Noise cancelling, with all active noise cancelling headphones, is made up of a combination of active and passive technologies.

The passive is as important as the active, and is represented in largest part by the ability of the headphones to seal tightly on or around your ear.  Most people will get a better seal and a more comfortable wearing experience with headphones that cup around your ear rather than with ones which squash onto your year, and in recognizing this, we automatically disqualify the Bose QC3 product from our typical comparisons, because not only are they more expensive than the QC15 model, but they're also not as good.

In the past, Solitude for a while went a bit overboard with headphones that pressed much more tightly against the ears than is normally accepted.  The new models X and XCS have 'normal' tension/pressure, while giving a reasonably good seal.

You will probably find it helps to slightly press the headphones in against your ear for a minute or so, accelerating the rate at which the memory foam type material in the ear cushions adapt to your head shape.

Once a good seal has been effected, the Solitude headphones do a great job of noise cancelling.  We swapped back and forth between the earlier model X and the new model XCS, finding very little between them, before eventually agreeing that the newer XCS headphones were slightly better at keeping the noise out.

The newer model quotes a revised claim for greater than or equal to 18dB of noise cancelling between 150 Hz and 400 Hz; the earlier model said 'up to' 18 dB of cancelling across the same spectrum.

Noting the discrepancy between some of the other specifications and the observed reality, all we can say this time is the same as last time - we've no easy way of testing the claim, other than to compare them against other headphones.

The headphones were appreciably better than the Plane Quiet headphones, and almost as good as the Bose QC15 headphones.  The QC15 headphones really did represent an extraordinary leap forward from their predecessor QC2, as did the QC2 represent a positive step forward from the original QC1.  We've yet to encounter any other headphones, from any manufacturer, and at any price, that perform as well as the QC15 model.

But is it worth paying almost twice as much money for the QC15 headphones as it is for the Solitude XCS?  That probably depends on how much spare cash you have and how keen you are to minimize sound pollution on flights.

Our guess is that most people would rather spend a comparable amount of money to get two sets of XCS headphones - one for them and one for a traveling companion - rather than buy just one set of QC15 headphones.

But if only the best will do, then you'll be making a trip to your local mall's Bose store, or to Amazon, or wherever else.  Note that Bose forbids discounting, so there's no need to shop around for a better price - there isn't one.

Where to Buy

The headphones have a retail list price of $179.95 and can be purchased direct from the manufacturer, Solitude Designs, at their website.

Summary and Recommendation

The Solitude XCS headphones represent a very small improvement over the X model they will replace.  Their list price is lower than the model X, but the manufacturer is currently remaindering off their stock of the model X at a great price ($130) and at that price we feel most people would be prudent to choose the model X rather than the model XCS.

When the model X has been sold out, the model XCS, at little more than half the cost of the Bose QC15, offers very good but not quite as excellent performance, but at a much lower cost.

Most people will see them as an ideal compromise between cost and performance, accordingly.


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Originally published 24 Aug 2012, 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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