Maxell HP/NC-IV Deluxe Noise Cancellation Headphone

Air travel is such a hassle these days. Seriously, who really enjoys flying anymore? Any way to make that experience just a bit more pleasant is a welcome relief.

For example, noise-canceling headphones have become almost a necessity for frequent air travelers. However, I'll let you decide if that's more for reducing the roar of the engines or just a signal to the Chatty Cathy next to you to back off with the small talk.

When an opportunity to try out the Maxell HP/NC-IV headphones ($129.99, MSRP - Note: We had previously incorrectly listed the price as $99) came up before a recent trip, I jumped on it. Not only was I traveling alone and not interested in making new friends (see Chatty Cathy above) but I was flying into Durango, CO from Atlanta. I took a regular jet from ATL to DEN, but then a small, noisy twin-prop plane from Denver to the small regional Durango airport. I couldn't imagine flying that leg next to propellers without some sort of noise-reduction.

The Maxell HP/NC-IV headphones come in a nice package, very similar to another famous brand's carrying case (rhymes with "hose"). The HP/NC-IV folds flat into its thin, hard-sided carrying case, which slides nicely into a briefcase or backpack. The case has a nice touch: Velcro'ed inside is a removable MP3-sized pouch with a headphone cord port. Makes it really easy to keep track of your gear, especially while traveling.

There's also another pouch (again, attached with Velcro) that holds the usual assortment of adapters for 1/4-inch plugs and airplane jacks, along with a six-foot headphone cord extender. The extender cord and the regular (three-foot) cord are also deluxe. With a fabric coating, they seem much more durable and more tangle-free than the usual plastic-coated cords.

On the cord is an inline three-volume selector, which I found handy to quickly raise the sound when the person next to me started getting louder than my in-flight movie. The cord is removable for times when you're not listening to anything but still want the noise-cancellation - no cords in your way. But be careful when you re-insert the cable. It doesn't seat properly every time, creating a very odd effect that effectively removes anything panned to the center, like vocals.

The headphones have padded earcups and the headband is padded just across the top. The band is adjustable, but at their smallest setting, they might be a bit large for the small-headed. And this isn't just a comfort factor: By being too large, they sit too low for a close fit, which hurts sound quality and noise cancellation.

You can use the HP/NC-IV with or without noise cancellation, but the cancellation circuit requires two AA batteries to work (the phones work just fine without batteries for playback only). Those two AAs will provide cancellation for up to 50 hours - more than adequate for most trips.

These headphones use a combination of active and passive noise reduction. Passive reduction is achieved simply by the tight-fitting ear-cups, which eliminates some sounds, but is less effective with lower frequencies. Active cancellation relies on phase cancellation, in which a small microphone in the earcups picks up the ambient noise, determines which sounds to remove, flips the phase, and reintroduces it to cancel out the sound. The HP/NC-IV headphones perform this fairly well - even with low frequencies. On the jet from Atlanta to Denver, the low frequency rumble of the engines was eliminated, and I could still hear the conversations around me, for better or worse. And on the puddle-jumper from Denver to Durango, they really proved themselves. Admittedly, the props weren't as loud as I expected, but the HP/NC-IV reduced the rumble and the higher-pitched whine of the engines.

For some folks, noise canceling isn't tops on their priority list. For them, it's all about the sound, and with a name like Maxell, you would expect said sound to blow you away. On the ATL/DEN flight, I splurged for the movie What Happens In Vegas (that Cameron Diaz /Ashton Kutcher flick that won't sweep the Oscars next spring). Dialogue cut through nicely, even during the club scenes. The music sounded good too - well, as good as airplane movie sound can be.

Once I got home, I was able to really check out the sound. Cueing up Paolo Nutini's "New Shoes," I found - as with most headphones - the separation to be excellent. The HP/NC-IV has a clean sound, but the high-end is a bit veiled. Some folks prefer this dark, pulled-back sound, but I feel they could have a bit more sparkle. The vocals just didn't cut through, though I was able to get the song's acoustic sound, its natural bass tang, and the kick drum, which is in a rather high register, but still had a nice snap to it.

For a bass reality check, I listened to Duffy's "Mercy." Deep bass felt a little light and unfortunately, lacked serious impact. Meanwhile, this song also has a great low piano line, and fantastic breakdown section that features an incredible kick drum sound, and it just didn't have the punch and attack it should.

Given that these are designed for use in noisy situations such as on an airplane, the limitations of the sound quality can be overlooked. To wit, when I did use them airborne, I didn't notice any of the sonic shortcomings. And with a 10-22,000 Hz frequency response and 106 dB/mW sensitivity, they play louder than I'd ever want.

The Maxell HP/NC-IV headphones are an affordable way to get noise-cancellation - for which they work well. And while sound quality's adequate for noisy environments, it's just not as top-notch as other, higher-priced noise-cancellation headphones.

Either way, it's a small price to pay for a peaceful travel experience.