back to article Ten of the best... noise-isolating earphones

One of the reasons that noise-cancelling headphones tend to be so expensive is that they use sophisticated electronics to generate their own sound waves that can cancel out background noise such as the drone of an aircraft engine. Noise-isolating earphones take a much more low-tech approach. They simply use rubber or foam …


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  1. Scott
    Thumb Up

    Where's the Sony's?

    I just wondered why there is no mention of any of the rather excellent Sony range of earphones... their EX series is most certainly worth a mention here...

  2. jake Silver badge

    Is it just me?

    Surely folks should have noise MAGNIFYING cans, right?

    I can't count how many times I've had to lock up the brakes when someone more interested in their music than traffic has stepped out in front of me ...

  3. Tom Richardson


    No mentioned of Sennheiser's CX300, 400 or 500s? You've failed.

  4. Jack Harrer

    Or just

    Head to ebay (just an example):|65%3A15|39%3A1|240%3A1318

    There are thousands of them, most under 2 quid. Sound quality is rather unimportant as you will probably use them during commuting which is not a nice soundproofed room, anyway.

  5. Jay
    Black Helicopters

    Nothing from Ultimate Ears?

    No products from Ultimate Ears? I got a pair of Super.Fi 5 Pro just over a year ago, and they're great. Every so often I hear stuff in a song that I've never heard before (no, not any subliminal messages like "ID cards are good").

    Black helicopter as I wouldn't be hear them (though they'd probably be running in stealth mode like Blue Thunder).

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    seconded, cx300s, about £15 when i bought them, do the job well enough to block out the noise of a train going past 6 feet in front of you

  7. OpenSauce

    Philips too

    I have a set of in ear Philips ones, with active noise cancellation.

    They are great for outdoor/travel locations, as you don't have to crank the volume up, so saves your hearing.

    They cost low £20 range; bargain IMO.

  8. Richard Sloan
    Paris Hilton

    Sennheiser CXx00

    Agree with Tom,

    These sennheisers are pretty cheap and are very good for what they cost. The only problem that I had I assume would be the same with all of these ear canal headphones - when you catch the wire on something it really hurts your eardrums when you rip them out of your ear at speed...

  9. Lee T.


    Also no mention of the Creative EP-630s, which are apparently absolutely identical to the CX300, but half the price? I have them, they sound and isolate brilliantly.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wot no Ultimate Ears?

    Surely Ultimate Ears deserves a mention in an article which mentions Shure and Etymotic? Cheap stuff is interesting, but if you *really* want to enjoy your music it's the high end stuff (expensive) stuff which matters - mid range is always unsatisfying, not cheap enough and never quite good enough. You guys have reviewed UE stuff before, so why not mention the professional quality in ear monitors if you're after sound isolation?

  11. Bod

    Shure e2c (or similar)

    Cheaper and work damn well. Enough to seriously reduce noise on a plane (enough to get some sleep even, using them as earplugs if not listening to music or watching a film), and work so well in the office that I'm unaware if someone's trying to talk to me... which is a good thing! :-)

    But opt for the foam earpieces, not the rubber things. They give lots of choices and sizes in the pack. The rubber things can be cleaned and reused but they're not as good a fit in my experience. The foam ones mould to fit the ear perfectly. They do gunge up though over time with wax and need replacing.

    The downside is the foam pieces are very expensive. You can get better value from a bag of 100 (50 pairs), but they aren't available in the UK, only by importing from other countries. Of course 100 is a lot to go through, but you can always flog some to friends or on ebay ;)

  12. Richard Gadsden

    I can't wear in-ear phones

    I can't wear in-ear phones; any suggested alternatives? I use Sony clip-ons (MDRQ66 and MDRQ68) which are OK, but they pack in after a year or so - either the ratchet for the cable spool fails so the wires hang out all the time, or one ear gets a loose connection.

    They are nice, but they leak quite a lot of sound and don't isolate well from noise.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Yes, I've no idea how deaf people cope in the outside world...

  14. Pete Silver badge

    but they still play "compressed to hell" MP3

    Warble on all you like about sound quality, but it's all wasted. No matter how much you spend, you can't turn the pigs ear of a 128KBps compressed stream into the silk purse of high-end audiophile sound.

    Yes, you can filter out extraneous sounds (confession: long-time user of Etymotic ER6i's here) and that's their single, best, overriding, feature: you can't hear the screaming child in the seat behind, or the inconsiderate "I'M ON THE TRAIN" idiot, either. Plus you don't risk permanent ear damage as the accoutic seal means the volume can be kept down - while still hearing all the (compressed) good bits of the music itself.

    However, don't kid yourself that you're hearing sound quality that represents the £150+ tag of these top-end puppies. Apart from the inconvenient truth that very few people have ever heard top-end kit (away from passing traffic noise, over-flying aircraft, or even other people moving around in the house) and so have no real benchmark to compare these with, the sound of your own body functions (oooh, err,) for example your hearbeat gets amplifed by these devices and detracts from the "quiet bits". You'll also find that wearing these while running, or even walking, is not a nice experience as the "thump thump" of your footfall is so loud.

    If you do buy these, buy them to remove external sounds - but be under no illusions that they'll improve a poor quality sound source. Finally, don't *ever* wear these while driving.

  15. Murray-Mint


    +1 for the Sony Headphones. £15 at Tesco and quite good.

  16. s
    Thumb Down

    Noice cancellation are not that expensive...

    You can get a good pair of sony nc headphones for 50 quid from Amazon. I brought a pair a few weeks ago and can't fault them yet... The cancellation works great and even my other half (who hates me spending money on 'pointless' things like quality audio stuff) things they are great.

    Why spend a ton on headphones that don't work as well...

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Price bracket

    Surely such article should take into consideration the price. I will help.

    At the top end we have Shure SE530, Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10, Etymotic ER4, Westone 3 and Sennheiser IE 8.

    Then we have the middle bracket which includes the likes of Shure SE420, Westone UM2, Klipsch Image X10, Klipsch Custom-3, Head Direct RE1, Denon C751 and Sony EX700.

    Then the low end stuff like Shure SE210, Sennheiser CX 95, Denon C551 and Etymotic ER6i.

    And finally the bottom feeders for crappy ears: Bose and Skull Candy

  18. Tony Smith, Editor, Reg Hardware (Written by Reg staff)

    @Richard Gadsen

    Watch out for our upcoming round-up of noise-cancellation headphones, Richard.

  19. Francis Vaughan

    Serious fidelity

    This review only touches the edges of where you can go.

    The starting point and the origional isolating headhone is the Etymotic ER-4. These were around before iPods were an itch in Steve's pants. Nearly double the price of the HF-2's reviewed they are very very hard to beat. Air travel, even down the back of the bus, becomes a pleasurable, near HiFi experience. There isn't an active noise cancelling headphone that can touch them. Then you can go right up to beasties like the Ultimate Ears UE11Pro. Some change left out of your first born. Possibly worth it.

    What no consumer review ever does is explore the value in an external amplifier. Which is a great pity. The improvement in sound quality with even a simple one is quite amazing.

  20. Whitter

    Back in the real world

    What bugs me about earbuds is the impulsive noise if the cable gets hit by anything, or even so much as rubs a bit against clothing in the wind.

    Do any of these decouple the cable from the earbuds properly, or are they all similarly afflicted?

  21. The Jon
    Thumb Down

    @ open sauce

    Bought the phillips £20 "noise cancelling" headphones. Shite. The noise cancelling box adds a bass boost and hiss, but doesn't remove anything. Also the rather large box hoding an AAA battery is in the middle of the headphone cord, so would hang at about mid way down to your jeans pocket where your generic MP3 player would be. Fairly useless design - the box (which doesn't hold a microphone as far as I could tell) should be at the jack end to be stowed in the same pocket as your player.

    Swapped for £20 sony MDR-EX32s which are isolating instead, and sound just great with my crappy generic MP3 player.

  22. Joe Harrison Silver badge

    One Seven Four??

    Don't think much of the Reg's "find the best price" link at £174.57.

    A bit of searching easily turned them up at £109.95

    It's still over a ton too expensive for a pair of headphones if you ask me.

    For those who disparage 128K MP3s - Sandisk do a nice range of players with .FLAC support.

  23. Mr Spoon


    Seriously, who the hell listens to 128k MP3 these days? All the MP3s I buy are 192k avg VBR or 320K CBR. To the vast majority of listeners both these formats are completely transparent when compared to CD.

  24. Joel


    I use the iPhone FMJ as I wanted headphones with a mic for use when the phone rings.... works on BB Curve as well as iPhone.... really impressed with them, plus they offer an "Aggressive Listening" warranty:

    Aggressive Listening: Skullcandy products that fail or break due to a crazy crash on the mountain or a violent head-banging session... or any other reason that is not a product defect, we will still hook you up! Send in whatever remains of your product, and we will send you a coupon good for 50% off any product in our Online Shop.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    yeah, cause everyone uses 128k mp3s these days, no-one actually owns CDs or decent quality MP3s, or, god forbid, FLAC files

  26. bluesxman

    RE: Or just

    I'm guessing you've never owned a decent pair of earphones, because you've got it arse-about-face.

    You don't need to use them in a soundproof room; they provide you with a near-soundproof room, on the go.

    I use Shure E2c earphones to *block*out* the sound of the commute. No more do I have to overhear the inane minutiae of some random conversation, or the music of the jackass sitting next to me playing his dross at such ear-bleeding volume on his £2 headphones that I can hear it in spite of my own music.

    Do yourself a favour, ditch your shitty eBay-tastic cans in favour of some that don't look like they fell out of a cracker and get back to me.

  27. James


    I have a pair of CX300s and they're crap. The only failure here is them.

  28. Dick Emery


    If you use open backed headphones outside in noisy places you inevitably crank up the volume to compensate. You could be damaging your hearing and not realise it. I now have permanent chronic LOUD tinnitus because of this.

    Get some good in ear or closed back noise cancelling headphones so you don't have to crank up the volume to overcome external noise. Protect your hearing folks!

  29. W


    that anyone would even consider spending so much on *earphones* for use with an MP3 player whilst out and about.

    *Head phones* for use at home, in a quiet environment? Yeah, sure, splash a little cash and treat yourself.

    'Standard' Sennheiser's MX460 earphones for £10 from Richer Sounds do me just fine. Can't be doing with these ram-em-into your ear fellas.

  30. jake Silver badge


    "Yes, I've no idea how deaf people cope in the outside world..."

    Actually, not having music to distract them, quite nicely ...

  31. Chris

    @Jake & Tom


    Nope, people should just start being taught the Green Cross Code again - I've lost count of the number of times idiots have simply stepped into the road without looking, without there being any indication that their attention was being distracted by mobile phones, MP3 players etc. And don't get me started on the subset of these idiots who pull stupid moves like this with a pushchair in front of them...


    Yep, got two pairs of CX300's here, and not only do they do a wonderful job of blocking external noise, but they're also the most comfortable earbuds I've tried. As a bonus, the length of cable provided with them also seems to work quite nicely as a personal DAB radio aerial, unlike the shorter cables found on many earphones/buds.

  32. Tom Richardson


    While what you say is true, you're making an assumption that everyone's using these in exactly the same way. Yeah, I do listen to some 128kbps mp3s through my Sennheisers CX500s, but I also use them for listening to FLACS, and for auditioning mixes from my studio in .wav format to get an idea what they're going to sound like on consumer earbuds as opposed to my monitors. But that aside, I don't see anyone claiming that they are going to magically improve the quality of your source. They do a great job of filtering outside noise and I haven't seen anyone claim anything more than that. That filtering of noise greatly enhances the *perceived* sound quality.

  33. Mark Marsh

    Custom Fitted

    If you really want noise isolation try Elacin custom moulded earphones. It's a bit of a faff getting the moulds done but the comfort and sound quality are well worth it. There are several to choose from but I got the T15s as they are reasonably cheap and can take filters as well as the earphones so they can be used as sleep plugs or for reducing noise levels without affecting sound quality.

  34. Bad Beaver
    Dead Vulture


    "This approach is generally less effective – we’ve seldom come across a set of noise-isolating earphones that block background noise as effectively as a nice big set of ear-covering noise-cancelling headphones."

    You don't come across much then, do you? NC headphones and IEMs are totally different approaches with totally different fields of application. IEM solutions are way more effective than consumer NC HPs. Big, circumaural NC HPs might be nice to reduce the background drone of an airplane turbine or office noise, and they are great when you are looking for comfort and/or need to take your phone on and off a lot. Conversely, IEMs easily block out "real" levels of noise, which is why they are used as stage monitors, while operating loud machinery, when commuting in public transportation etc.. Deep, well sealing insertion is key for both isolation and sound quality. This is why the Etymotic-style flanges that go in deep and seal tightly will get the best results but are also not everybody's cup of tea.

    Oh, and Pete: try a lossless codec.

  35. Andrew Kemp
    Thumb Down

    Review = fail

    Seriously, what is the point in reviewing £10 plugs?

    And as others have said, where are the UE's?

    Got a pair of SuperFi 5 Pro EB's myself 'cause I like the extra lows they give. Am contemplating a pair of UE 10's as well...

  36. Steven Raith
    Paris Hilton


    On idiot pedestrians staggering into the road; I find when I have my Shures in, I pay *more* attention to the road, as my normal hearing is impaired by the buds [which is their purpose]. Extremes of treble and bass [alarms, horns, approaching buses etc] get through a little, but still, better safe than sorry.

    128kbps - you really are a bit thick, and have completely missed the point, haven't you? *pats iRiver running Rockbox with a large collection of FLAC rock and metal*

    On th subject of big, ear covering phones - I could never wear those in public, when I see people on the tube or train pulling out a big set of cans, I instantly have to supress a bit of a snigger. Just. Looks. Weird. That's just me though....!

    Jack, soundproofed room - you have got to be shitting me - do you really not understand how noise insulating phones work? Bloody hell...

    RE Sony EX range - last EXs I used were EX-71s, when they were about thirty quid. In my experience, the Shure E2Cs blew them out of the water in every respect, and were well worth the extra £20 at the time [couple of years ago now]. If they have moved on or are cheaper now though [say, £20 for the same quality] then they'd do the job for me as a spare pair.

    Which is handy as my SE110s foam buds are coming apart after a year of day in, day out abuse. Not bad really...must try to find the rest of the bud set, or just get some 210s or whatever the next ones up are, with the 25% replacement discount thingy that Shure do, which as I recall, is good for any model of any age providing you have original proof of purchase - none of this 'extreme warranty, ride the walrus' toss....

    This article will make me shop around a bit first though, but then again, how do you audition in ear headphones? It's a bit minging, isn't it?

    Paris, because she doesn't mind having slimy things inser...oh, never mind, it makes itself up, that one.

    Steven R

    PS: Been up for 30 hours, excuse me if I make no sense whatsoever or have missed any points entirely...

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Etymotic ER-4Ps are sweet

    I agree about the £10 headphones, it's a waste of time to review bottom-end junk, you may as well review the barrel scrapings you get with MP3 players, and media mobiles!.

    Etymotic ER-4Ps are the best earphones I have ever bought, the best Sony earphones I tried were nasty in comparison. The reviewer is a wus about wetting the ear inserts, it makes them easier to insert, and improves the seal, I don't understand why only the Etymotic hf5s were mentioned.

    I have binned loads of nasty earphones, and it was such as waste of money, so it is better to pay a bit more, to get a decent pair, to keep a while.

    I suggest you check the price of earphones via Amazon, including the new/used supplier prices, I ordered my ER4Ps from a USA supplier (admittedly before Gordan's Crash), and got them MUCH cheaper!

    The ER4Ps are currently £148, which isn't that expensive, if it saves you buying lots of tinny earphones, and micro speakers.


    The lesser HF5's are only £80, and are probably much better than the Sonys':

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    when you review noise cancel headphones

    I'd like to see passive cancel headphones, and see how they stack up agains the koss qz5

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another solution for cheap in-ear phones

    I have gotten good results by getting cheap in ear headphones $20 cdn and sticking on etymotic style plugs. It greatly improves the bass response and the isolation of every headphone i've tried it with and you can usually get the plugs for $20 for 10 pairs.

  40. Gary Shapiro

    Cheap homemade solution

    I happened to have already some decent over-the-ear headphones. I also had on hand some foam earplugs.

    Instructions: Insert earplugs. Wear headphones and crank up the volume to get past the earplugs.

    Not sure about frequency response, but worked great on the last air trip when I had this setup. Also not sure how this might impact the people sitting next to me.

  41. Andy Worth

    Fail and this list.....

    I won't claim to be an expert on all types of headphones and won't profess to know what else has been missed from this list. However, there is a great injustice to having the Apple phones at number 3 on the basis that they have the remote/mic for iPhone. They have relatively poor sound quality compared to the Sennheiser or Denon equivalents and don't really cost any less.

    The Sennheiser mm50ip phones have some nice in-ear buds - not sure if they are officially noise cancelling but I can't hear a thing when I have them on (even without music playing). They also come with the mic/remote for the iPhone and better sound quality than the Apple ones. Not only that, but most online retailers were selling them for around £35 last time I checked.

    I also saw some Denon phones (with mic/remote) which were about £60 online and I suspect offered (like most Denon products) an even better sound quality. I just couldn't justify spending £60 on a pair of earphones!

  42. Sridhar Ayengar
    Thumb Down


    Many high-end isolators outclass noise-cancelers. I've tested them, and not subjectively either. I tested them using a computer with professional metering software and a binaural microphone set.

    And how come there's no mention of full-size circumaural isolators? Not all full-size cans are noise-cancelers.

    The level of bullshit in the beginning of this article is startling.

  43. Haku

    Re: Is it just me?

    You raise an excellent point there, I've been pondering trying some noise-isolating earphones, right now I use some cheapie Philips Eargear HE205 which sound brilliant (good low & high frequency response and don't need much volume to sound good) compared to other cheapies, but as I always listen to music when I'm cycling I rely on them not completely cancelling out the sound of cars - if I were to use noise-isolating buds it might isolate me just a little too much from the outside world...

  44. Adrian Esdaile
    Thumb Down

    Sorry, what?

    I might not have got the point of this article...

    "you might have to pay up to $100GBP for a good set of noise cancelling earphones" - yes, they cost that much, but some of these glorified earbuds cost $150GBP and above! Does the GBP use some sort of wierd inverse-scaling law above $100? It seems to me a $180 set of earhpones with no active noise cancelling is only for Apple fans or audiophile Nathan Barleys with too much money to spend.

  45. KenBW2

    To all the people moaning about low-end headphones

    Some of us use them on cycles, buses etc where they inevitably end up snagged and broken. Wouldn't want to risk £200 of my hard-earned like that. Just because you're music snobs doesn't mean everyone is.

  46. john doe
    Thumb Down


    Only a tosser would spend that much money on a pair of earphones

  47. Anonymous Coward

    Apple Phones...

    I have these phones, and although the sound quality is fair to middling, they are not designed specifically for the iPhone!

    The remote volume control does not work with the iPhone 3G.

    Trust Apple to produce equipment that is not compatible with their own kit!!!


  48. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    My weapons of choice...

    Shure e2c! Love them, using the foam buds, they cut out all the crap I really don't want to have to hear on the bus, train and plane. I previously spent a lot of time with the kind of 'clip-on' efforts because I could never use the standard 'sit-in' things and was dubious about the price and realistic gain of upgrading to the sound isolating ones.

    After listening to a handful of my old clip-ons deteriorate after a couple of months each the rule of false economy also came into play and I finally made the jump and never looked back. Shure's 2 year warranty is a nice reassurance as well, I have had to use it once due to earphone break down which disappointed me but the turn around was only a day or two. I rarely leave home without them so it was £60 worth spent in my opinion.


  49. David Mayne
    Thumb Down

    Sony - bollocks

    I splashed out about £50 on a pair of sony in ear headphones as I'd been so delighted with their old range of standard plug sort.

    They were awful - tinny, uncomfortable, quiet and when I took them back to the shop I was told firstly that it was my player, my ears, and then that the sound quality was wonderful and I just didn't appreciate it, and how much he'd want to own a pair himself.

    Strangely, when I offered to sell said £50 earphones to the chap behind the counter for £5, he declined.

    Don't be conned by the name - they really are crap. I gave them away in the end.

    I've gone back to the old "wedge them in your ear" type and full sized cans, and I'm much happier. Feels good to have a bit of a flame rant about a company that has persisted in ripping me off time and again.

  50. Liam Nagle

    EP-630s and Ultimate Ears shoulda been contenders

    After decades of disappointing cassette/CD/Minidisc/MP3 player headphones, I've settled on Creative EP-630s (good sound and comfort, and dirt cheap via Amazon) for everyday commuting and Ultimate Ears 5s (great sound and often available around half RRP) for recreational use (holidays, etc.)


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