Marching to the Beats of office headphones
Headphones aren’t just for the street or your home – they’ve become essential kit in any workplace. Adrian Weckler rates four of the best for budget and perfomance
A quick look around the office you work in, the flight you’re stuck on or the public transport you’re cutting through traffic in will confirm one thing: headphones are becoming part of the our daily workwear.
It’s not just access to tunes or talk radio that give the ear devices their utility. Many of us now wear full-sized headphones to keep out external noise as much as to accentuate our own digital music.
Some even wear them as a signal that they would prefer not to be disturbed.
And while donning a large pair of cans may once have been considered eccentric, indulgent or rude by colleagues and work managers, it is now often allowed to facilitate concentration.
In short, bosses agree that Beats beats distractedness. In this vein, we are buying ever-bigger, ever-fancier headphones to cut out the clatter, the chatter and the yammering.
Top of the technical pile are ‘noise-cancelling’ wireless headphones, the clever technical cans that take the noise of the outside world and cleverly invert it so that it is ‘canceled’.
For those unfamiliar with how they work, a couple of microphones on the exterior of the phones check for ambient sounds and reverse the frequencies, so to speak, for when the audio leaves the speakers to reach your ears. It works best for constant, humming noise such as when you’re in a plane or an office environment. Irregular piercing sounds, such as sporadic voices, aren’t quite muffled away as much.
There is a little bit of a compromise on music quality compared to some top headphones, but it’s worth it if you’re constantly in a noisy environment.
Because of the extra technical chicanery going on, noise-cancelling headphones tend to be around €50 more expensive than equivalent standard models.
There are lots of sets to choose from, from budget JVC models to Sennheiser to high-end Bose and Beats.
Next come general-purpose but not noise-cancelling) wireless headphones. These very greatly in size, shape, quality and cost. While they don’t ‘cancel’ out audio frequencies in the way that special noise-cancelling cans do, the over-ear models (as opposed to the ‘on-ear’ versions) still block a lot of external argy bargy.
And one handy attribute of almost all wireless headphones is that they generally include small microphones to be used for making and taking calls in a ‘hands-free’ fashion. When your job entails taking digital notes or typing on a PC while you’re on the phone, this becomes useful.
In terms of brands and cost, Sennheiser and Sony make decent models at a range of prices. Bose is another good brand, although there’s little from them for under €300. At the budget end, Philips are fine. Beats are competent but you’re paying for the fashion rather than sound.
Most have an internal battery built in that will last around 10 hours. They typically charge using a smartphone-friendly (Android) MicroUSB charger.
So which headphones are suitable for your work environment? Here are four models we have tested and ranked according to quality and noise-cancellation.
Sony h.ear 100ABN
Best for: Total noise cancellation
Price: €289 from Harvey Norman
Sony’s mid-range h.ear headphones are decent all-rounder urban headphones that do one thing very, very well: noise-cancellation. While other noise-cancelling headphones I have tried dampen sound, these knock it out almost completely.
They’re light and padded, which adds to comfort on your head over long periods. The design is modern, but stops short of being loud or showoffy. The pair I wore was a matt-finished dusky green. Other colours include a charcoal colour, red, blue or pink.
They have quick-access buttons (volume, pause, forward, back) which stop you having to take your phone out of your pocket so often when listening to music. These buttons also include an on-off switch for the noise-cancelling feature, which gives you options for battery life. Speaking of battery life, the rechargeable headphones last well over 20 hours of playback on a single (Micro USB) charge.
The h.ear headphones have comes with a carry case and can be folded up tightly enough to fit into a large coat pocket or a modestly-sized compartment in an average bag. There’s also an NFC button on the headphones that let you pair them with any NFC-enabled phone or Bluetooth product. (Apple products, however, are slow on the NFC takeup.)
For anyone interested, the Sony headphones also let you access ‘high resolution’ audio if you have a subscription to a high resolution service (such as Tidal). Even if you’re not using a high resolution audio source, the audio quality on the h.ear is still good, matching rivals from the likes of Beats.
Beats Solo 2 Wireless
Best for: Fashion victims
Price: €270 from Argos
Have we reached peak ‘rose gold’ yet? Nope. Not by a long stretch.
The colour that appeals to a whole section of Apple’s audience (iPhone, iPad) is now spreading its palette to other products.
And so Beats By Dr Dre has added the shade du jour to this fairly decent, if a little overpriced, line of on-ear wireless headphones.
The Solo2 cans are pretty reliable, acceptable Bluetooth headphones that can also be used as a hands-free phone accessory thanks to the built-in microphone.
Because they’re ‘on ear’ (as opposed to ‘over ear’) headphones, some of the audio escapes, meaning that the sound isn’t quite as immersive as larger headphones.
Nevertheless, as you’d expect from Beats, there’s a reasonable amount of bass present and they do the job nicely.
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0
Best for: All-round quality and style
Price: €399 from PC World
These noise-cancelling leather cans ooze premium construction. They connect to any phone, tablet or PC over Bluetooth while there’s also room for a jack if all you have is a cabled audio source.
They use a codec that improves the quality of audio streaming over Bluetooth. This is worth noting: wireless music streaming invariably shaves off a little quality, compared to cabled listening.
The active noise-cancelling technology used by the headphones is clever and effective. All sorts of external noise is gently muffled away, from in-flight scratchcard promotions to work colleagues shouting into their phones.
As wireless headphones, they also have the expected microphone on board to make or take calls when paired with your mobile.
As far as physical materials, Sennheiser hasn’t skimped on quality. The leather on the earcups is both super-comfortable and extremely efficient at helping to soundproof your ears from external noise, even when switched off. A slim line of padded leather coats the inner aluminium cranial covering for comfort, too. If you are very sensitive to things sitting on your bonce, you might feel it after a while, despite the padded layers. But I have managed to use them for long periods comfortably.
They fold up so you can bring them around in a bag (they come with their own molded case). Not cheap, but for what you’re getting, they’re not really expensive. They easily stand up there with the best wireless headphones you can get for under €500.
Best for: Wireless headphones on a budget
Price: €50 from PC World/Currys
While wireless overhead headphones are great, they can be more expensive than wired varieties.
This budget pair of headphones makes a good budget-friendly entry into the category.
They have fairly decent sound quality and work perfectly fine with smartphones (where you probably keep most of your music or radio stations).
You can also make and take phone calls on them thanks to the onboard microphone.
Although there’s no noise-cancelling technology on board, these are ‘over ear’ headphones, meaning they don’t leak sound (in or out) in the same way that ‘on ear’ headphones do.
Battery life depends on usage but you should get a couple of days’ use out of each charge.