Review of an Excellent Noise Cancelling Headset with an Awful Name

I recently got an email from a marketing guy who wanted to send me a pair of Denon noise cancelling headphones in order to give them a try and review them here on the blog. I told him that he was welcome to send them along, but I wouldn’t promise to review them and of course I wanted him to know up front that I’d write whatever I thought. He was confident enough in the product that he sent them to me anyway.

A few years ago someone sent me a set of PlaneQuiet noise cancelling headphones, I tried them on a trip and my take was that they were better than not having noise cancelling headphones, they did cancel some noise and it was better to watch movies with them than a pair of regular ‘ol headphones. But that I wasn’t going to recommend them. I meant to blog the experience but never got around to it, figuring that I’d tell folks that if they were only willing to drop $49 on a pair that the PlaneQuiets were probably worth getting but that they didn’t come close to replacing Bose.

And I realize looking back that I’ve never reviewed noise cancelling headphones. I guess that’s because I never found anything that compared to Bose, that those are so standard as to not need discussion or comparison. What would anyone gain by my telling them that if they travel frequently a staple of their laptop bag ought to be a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones?

I received the Denons and it immediately struck me how similar they appears to the Bose, the case seemed in many ways the same and of course the little pouch inside for various cords and attachments. Although I liked the compact design of the Denon, they folded up and the case fits nicely into the front pouch of my Tom Binh Checkpoint Flyer laptop bag.

After taking the Denons out on a trip for the first time, my initial impression was that sound quality was better with the Denon but that noise cancellation was better with the Bose. But first impressions aren’t always enough, so I decided to bring both Bose QC2s and Denons along for a side-by-side comparison. And I admit I was surprised by the comparison.

First, in fairness, I’m comparing them to an old set of Bose. In fact, the ear pieces are fraying on the Bose QC2s, these seem a prime candidate for lucky’s advice to trade in for $90 QC15 replacements.

But head-to-head the Denons really shine. The sound of movies and .mp3s off of my laptop is louder with the Denon headset. That’s a big issue for me, I love my Lenovo x200s but it doesn’t broadcast sound at a particularly high volume. Onboard an aircraft I need the volume. And with noise cancelling on, the sound quality of the Denon headphones was just excellent.

My second caveat is that my wife tells me that I don’t hear very well, she speaks to me and I don’t listen. I maintain it’s my hearing, though doctors tell me I’m fine. 🙂 But I may not be the best to contrast subtle differences in sound. To me, side-by-side, I couldn’t tell the difference in noise cancellation between the two high-end headphones. They both did a good job, but neither really crowds out screaming babies so you can enjoy the solitude of the aircraft.

One feature I didn’t ‘get’ and that may be because I’m not enough of a connoisseur to notice the difference, but Denon offers not just noise cancellaton but also a “restorer” mode. They explain that compressed file formats get rid of some sound ranges in order to save on file space. And their restorer mode is supposed to bring back the richness that the files otherwise strip out. Honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference between the two modes, they sounded exactly alike to me.

One minor negative for the Denons is that With noise cancellation on, if the earpieces come close to touching each other you’ll hear high pitched feedback. I can’t just take them off my head and leave them on because they’ll invariably touch. So when I take them off I need to turn them off.

Noise cancelling headphones are a must for a road warrior. Good ones aren’t inexpensive, but they’ll last for many hundreds of thousands of miles. And if there’s a frequent flyer in your life who won’t splurge on a pair for themselves, they make a very cool, impressive, and practical gift.

These are expensive. They run around $340, which is about 10% more than the Bose QC15s. And if they’re going to command that price, then at a minimum the Denon headphones need a better name. Bose has established themselves as the frequent flyer’s go to for noise cancelling headsets at the high end. Their name is recognizable, and their “QuietComfort” brand resonates. Denon may we well regarded for sound quality generally, but they’re unkowns in frequent flyer circles and their “AH-NC800” name just doesn’t tell you anything useful. I had to look it up about 5 times just to make sure I had it right, how is anyone going to recommend one to a friend? AH-NC800. Really??

Bose has stood the test of time, but the new pair of Denons are outstanding and I’m thrilled with them. Caveating that I don’t yet know how they perform over years, and for that matter I haven’t run through the battery yet so I can’t make a comparison of battery life, I can say that I’ll be using these as my primary headphones. Still, they were free so the real question is would I buy them? Since I think high-end headphones are worthwhile for frequent travel, and I think that they’re the equal or the better of the Bose, yes I would.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Thanks for the review, Gary. Sounds like a good pair of headphones, though seems idiotic to me to price them higher than the Bose headphones. We all know these cost next to nothing to produce, and while many might consider them if they were priced the same as Bose headphones, pricing them higher doesn’t seem like a bright move to me.

  2. Great review Gary. While Bose is certainly a good product, I stopped using mine on trips a while back because it was just another thing i had to carry that cluttered up my limited carry on space. Plus, my ears just get tired after a while and Bose has a hissing problem too when I lean the side of my head against the headrest. Not a complaint, but am just more comfortable now using a set of good old fashioned ear plugs.

  3. Experienced a hissing issue with the Bose about 10 years ago and haven’t used since. I fell asleep against the side of the seat and woke up to an intense deafening high pitch shrill. Felt like it could cause hearing damage. Does anyone know if that problem was fixed in a later version?

  4. I’ve not had the hissing sound in over a decade, with about five pairs of QC1,QC2, QCMkII and now QC15 coming through the tech kit. There WAS and will continue to be an issue if one covers the EXTERNAL SPEAKER opening, at that point the device doesn’t understand what the noise cancel and produces some feedback, but it isn’t a hissing or high pitched sound in any way.

  5. I loved my QC15s but grew tired of their bulk, both from packing them and while wearing. I sold my QC15s on Ebay and bought a set of Shure SE535 IEMs. These are the in-ear monitors and take up no space in your travel bag and should be far more comfortable to use when sleeping. (will have plenty of opportunity to try next week DEN-FRA-DXB)

  6. I’m still partial, all these years later, to the in-ear Sony NC-22s (used to be NC-10, then NC-20). A tiny fraction of the space in the laptop bag compared to the over-ears, plus you can sleep well on your side in lay-flat seats with them in.

    Best part is that while FAs now make Bosers turn off their headphones for taxi and takeoff, no FA has ever approached me about my NC-22s! ^

  7. I purchased a set of headphones from Shure for under $100 and I think they are way better than Bose

  8. These are available for 299 at . Denon also makes an in-the-ear model for 199. This is just FYI. I am still researching NC headphones and can’t recommend either.

  9. The Bose NC headphones are overhyped. Their NC does not really work, are bulky, uncomfortable to wear and pricey. Otherwise, I really like my Shure High Fidelity earphones for under $150. Their use a foam or other soft material to hold the earphone in the ear canal is key in isolating it from ambient noise. The advantages are that less volume is required, and audio quality is typically better.
    Shure is well known in the High Fidelity space & used in Music recording studios.

  10. I was in the audio business for years and left some years ago
    There isn’t a pair of headphones worth more than 100 dollars
    However companies know price it and market it wisely and they will buy
    Bose spends relentlessly on marketing and those that buy into it support the machine
    There are better headphones than Bose but as in any industry that doesn’t really matter perception does
    I admire Bose as a marketer less as great product producer
    I have some great stories about their product failures (speakers)but to long to go into here

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