Xanax for your ears
Noise on an airplane can make a sane passenger look longingly at the exit door, with or without a parachute. Anyone with sensitive ears should consider investing in a pair of noise-canceling headphones, which use tiny microphones to convert repetitive sounds and frequencies into white anti-noise--meaning you don't hear chatter or the constant whine of a 747 at 35,000 feet. While headsets in the early '90s did the job for upward of $1,000, top models today are available for under $300.
Even the best headphones, however, won't completely block out loud-talkers or toddlers mid-meltdown. But when connected to an iPod, DVD player, or the in-flight movie, these headphones can actually help make flying pleasant. I tested three models on a recent New York--San Francisco flight, and one thing's for certain: I'll never go back to those flimsy freebies.
Beyond the headphones' ability to cancel out noise, I was looking (or rather, listening) for good sound quality and comfort. As you might expect, the most expensive model--Bose's QuietComfort 2 ($299)--had the most effective noise reduction. The Bose set is the Cadillac of the category, enveloping the wearer's ears in plush faux leather. But, also like a Caddy, the headphones are big--you look like one of those guys out on the tarmac. And for the price, the sound quality was a bit flat.
At the other end of the price spectrum was Sony's MDR-NC6 ($50). The noise reduction just wasn't up to snuff, as the jet whine was still fairly audible. The set also exerted too much pressure, and my ears felt sore after 45 minutes.
For my money, the Sennheiser PXC 250 ($170) wins outright. This sleek pair is collapsible and compact, with the best sound of the three--rich and deep, with plenty of bass. Even though the pads don't surround the entire ear, they still keep most noise at bay (if not quite as effectively as the Bose ones). The only downside is the cigar-size battery pack, which sits awkwardly in your lap.