Thursday, September 14, 2017

Softs Review: Noise Cancelling Wireless Ear Buds

I want to tell you about my latest cybernetic enhancement: Sony’s new WI1000X noise canceling earbuds. (I’m not getting paid for this, I’m just excited.) Since a bunch of my friends use Bose Quiet Comfort 20 noise canceling ear buds, and that’s what I’ve used for the past year, I’ll do it by comparing the two.

Verdict: I prefer Sony WI1000X ear buds to Bose Quiet Comfort 20 ear buds.

My Sony WI1000X ear buds arrived yesterday. I’ve been traveling around today switching back and forth between them and my old Bose QC20s, deciding whether to keep the Sonys, or return them and stick with Bose.

Notes On Noise Cancellation In General

I’ve tried several over-ear headphones with active noise cancellation, a few over-ear headphones with passive noise cancellation, a couple kinds of high-quality earmuffs, and many brands of ear plugs. For me, in-ear active noise cancellation was best, and the Bose QC20s in particular won out last time I was shopping for noise control (which was a bit over a year ago).

Both the Sony WI1000Xs and the Bose QC20s are in-ear headphones with active noise cancellation (meaning they do some kind of high-tech electronic thing to cancel out incoming sounds, rather than just plugging your ears like, well, earplugs.). The first thing I want to say about both of these is that I find them woefully inadequate for noise cancellation. As far as I can tell, they’re the best options currently available; current tech just isn’t up to the job of granting me sufficient control over my auditory experiences. They do not come close to creating artificial silence, unless the natural soundscape is already nearly silent.

But they do substantially soften audioscapes. A car engine sounds more like an annoying clickety thing and less like a scary monster. A crowd sounds more like an incessant murmur. Screechy bus brakes sound like somewhat quieter screechy bus brakes. And to me, that’s worth a lot.

Bose QC20

The Bose QC20s are The Wirecutter’s top rec, and they’ve gotten quite popular among my friends. They really are shockingly effective, and represent a substantial QOL boost for me. But they are not exactly a delight to interact with, for two main reasons.

First, there’s a battery that hangs at the end of the cord close to my phone. Whenever I move around, and especially when I walk anywhere, the cord tugs on my ears. I find this unpleasant. I’ve always had this problem with wired earbuds, but the battery pack makes it worse. Running with them is nearly impossible, since it’s the same tugging I get with walking, but harder. Worse yet is when I try to use them in a supermarket, because the cord invariably gets caught on the handle of the basket, or on some item I’m trying to put in the basket, and the ear buds are yanked out of my ears. (I’ve actually given up on going to the supermarket, for the most part.)

Second, it makes a quiet high-pitched whine, presumably a result of the active noise cancellation. Which is HORRIBLE. It’s a lot better than the screechy bus brakes I’m trying to block out, but it’s just infuriating that I have to choose between the sounds of my environment, and the awful sound of this device that’s supposed to be keeping me safe. It’s like, “Would you prefer street sounds, or complimentary tinnitus?”. And the only thing you can do about it is exactly what you do if you’ve got tinnitus: Play music or white noise. Again, better than screechy bus brakes, but still not ideal when I’m trying to get away from sound.

For these two reasons - ear-tugging and artificial tinnitus - I’ve taken to carrying the earbuds with me, and only putting them in at the last possible minute, when I just can’t stand the harshness of the environment any longer. (Sometimes that’s five seconds after I leave my house, but I often last much longer.) Which is a hell of a lot better than waiting until the last possible minute and then not having noise-canceling ear buds to rescue me. But it’s a far cry from making me a care-free autistic cyborg.

My other criticism of the QC20s is more minor, but it’s put me back on the market for new noise-canceling ear buds: They’re not super durable.

The rubber stuff that used to cover the battery pack started to tear shortly after I got them, and after a few months it was bad enough that I just removed the covering entirely. The battery pack isn’t as nice to touch anymore, and it makes a slightly louder sound when I set the ear buds on the table. Which is whatever.

What finally did it is the l-shaped connector. The rubber that covers the wires at the neck of the connector has severed, so now the wires are exposed. I covered them with electrical tape, but it’s just a matter of time before the wires themselves give out. Thus, I seek a replacement.

There’s one more thing to note about my experience with the QC20s, and I almost left it out because I can’t put my finger on what’s causing it. But somehow, using them feels… stuffy.

Maybe it’s the specific frequencies they block, or the shape of the ear buds, or the high-pitched whine. I can’t tell. Whatever it is, it feels a little like being under water, and if I use them for very long, especially if I’m not playing music or an audiobook, I start feeling dissociated.

I figured this was just a property of noise control in general, a result of divorcing my audiotory experiences from my other sensory experiences. But so far, I’m not getting this with Sony.

Sony WI1000X

The Sony WI1000Xs are not obviously better at canceling noise. Nor are they obviously worse.

If you told me that you’d measured objectively and found that one blocked more noise than the other, my money would be on Bose. But I wouldn’t bet very much. They’re close enough to equal on that front that despite switching back and forth dozens of times in a few different noisy environments today, I can’t tell if theres a difference in degree of noise cancellation. I suspect they block slightly different frequencies, but I can’t tell which ones. With respect to noise-cancellation, they’re equivalent in practice.

Which is a big deal, since there really weren’t any rivals for the Bose QC20s a year ago. QC20s even outperformed other products in the Bose Quiet Comfort line, including the over-ear QC25s. I haven’t tried the wireless in-ear QC30s myself, but Amazon reviews suggest that people who bought them after owing QC20s were disappointed.

Besides matching the Bose QC20s for noise cancellation, I’m excited about three things with the Sony WI1000Xs.

One, they’re wireless. They’re not as weightless as my ordinary wireless earbuds - I’ve been using Jaybird X3s for running and biking - because there’s still a battery to fuel the noise cancellation. But rather than hanging on the end of a string that tugs at my ears all the time, the battery is a collar that rests comfortably around my neck. It’s very light, and doesn’t bother me at all when I’m walking.

Turns out it’s even light enough that I can pin it to my head with hair clips and use it while working out. It works for inverted yoga poses and everything. Makes me want to replace part of my skull with a battery pack, like a proper cyborg.

Two, THERE’S NO WHINE. There’s a very small static-like noise that I can just make out if I listen for it, but it doesn’t hurt. This tiny static thing is by far the least annoying auditory byproduct of active noise cancellation I’ve encountered so far, and I’m pretty ok with it.

Third, the sound quality is astounding.

High sound quality is something I neither require nor expect in ear buds of any kind, let alone wireless ones with active noise cancellation. But I do care about sound quality; I know it doesn’t matter at all for many people, but I’m one of those music geeks with five hundred dollar audiophile headphones, which I treat like a sacramental religious object. I have a Spottify playlist called “immaculate classical”, and I only listen to those songs on my Sennheiser HD 598s because it sounds blasphemous on any other audio device I regularly encounter.

There’s a specific song I use to test sound quality in headphones: Leopold Stokowsky’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor. (That’s a link to Youtube, where the audio quality is too low and WARNING it will probably auto-play. I actually use the Spottify recording, but not everybody has Spottify.) It’s a perfect song for this, because the orchestra comes in a little at a time, instrument by instrument, weaving a few phrases in and out over and over again. You get to hear how the headphones deliver the same melody in different ranges one after another. Then they all come together at the end and you can listen to the whole range of orchestral frequencies at once.

When evaluating headphones with this song, the main questions I ask are, in chronological order, “Are the oboe and clarinet broad or squished?”, “Is the horn rich or muddy?”, “Are the strings warm or cold?”, “Are the flutes shrill or soft?”, “Does the whole bass section lay flat or rumble?”, and “What is the emotional impact?”.

When I hear this song with broad reeds, rich horns, warm strings, soft winds, and rumbling bass, the impact is the same every time: I giggle, gasp, and shiver with awe. But every part has to be in place. On low-quality headphones, this song does nothing for me.

With the QC20s, the oboes and clarinets are squished, the flutes are sharp, the mi-range instruments are muddy, the bass absolutely does not not rumble, and the whole thing sounds thin. Which is, ya know, par for the course with ear buds. They’re not supposed to be audiophile headphones. The sound quality isn’t bad for ear buds in general - in fact it’s quite good, ordinary $40 earbuds are significantly worse at sound quality - but listening to Little Fugue on them feels sad and empty.

Which is exactly the experience I expected with the WI1000Xs. So when I played Little Fugue on them and found that it sounded more like it does on my Sennheisers than on my QC20s, I was more than a little surprised. It doesn’t match the Sennheiser HD 598s, but honestly it’s not that far behind. I am willing to listen to my immaculate classical list on these, and although that’s not what matters to me in a noise control device, it is certainly the most impressive feature of the WI1000Xs from my perspective. Warm oboes, crisp horns, and god damn rumbly bass on tiny little ear buds! I did not know that was currently possible.

There are only two things I so far disprefer about the Sony WI1000Xs compared to the Bose QC20s. The first is that when the battery cut out, Sony didn’t give me a warning beforehand. Bose says something like “battery level low” around twenty minutes before you actually run out of juice, and while I really wish they’d communicate such info by texting my phone or something rather than saying words directly into my ear, I do appreciate the chance to adjust my plans.

The second is that the audio cuts out sometimes. It happens about as often as with my wireless sports ear buds (I use Jbird X2s). It’s super annoying when it happens, but it depends a lot on how far the phone is from the receiver and what’s in the way, so I have some control. If I keep my phone in my back pocket while I’m wearing a backpack that contains a laptop, the audio glitches multiple times a minute. But if I keep my phone in my front shirt pocket, or in my bra, it never glitches.

Hopes For Future Tech

Here are the things I most want to see in my next auditory cybernetic enhancement.

  1. Better noise cancellation, obviously, especially for the higher frequencies.
  2. Let me turn off spoken announcements from the device, and send the info to my phone as text instead.
  3. Sound recognition. I’d like to be able to point at a particular source of sound, like a single person’s voice, and cancel everything besides that. Which is exactly what Orosound’s Tilde ear buds are supposed to do (though using directionality, not actual sound recognition as I’d like), but I just heard about them for the first time today. I’m pretty skeptical and don’t expect them to measure up to the Sony/Bose standard in noise cancellation overall, but if I try them out I’ll add a note here.
  4. A completely wireless hearing-aid-like design. These exist, but the tech is young and they’re still pretty glitchy.
  5. Precise, highly customizable, speech-focused equalization. Some people’s voices are grating to me, and I hate this because it means I can’t stand bodyspace interactions with certain people I’d otherwise get along with just fine. If I could adjust which frequencies are sent through to my ears, perhaps it would solve this problem. Earbuds with built-in equilizers do exist - Here One looks pretty exciting, plus it’s truly wireless - but so far everything I’ve seen “tunes into speech while tuning out the plane engine”, which doesn’t sound precise enough to control my experience of individual voices.