Andrew P Watson

Web Developer

Noise-canceling headphones for musicians

Thu, 03/26/2009 - 20:13

I’m a guitar player and have a basement full of antiquated gear. Most of the crap I play though has had beer spilled on it, been dropped, kicked, and generally abused. My guitars are beautiful, but the rest of my gear needs badly to be updated. This was brought home to me the other day when I went downstairs to play for a bit.

I don’t seem to get much time to play these days, and when I do it seems I spend most of the time trying to get a decent sound. Usually I put both guitar and vocals through a mixer (Alesis MultiMix 8 USB Analog Mixer) plugged into a guitar amp (Crate Guitar Combo Amplifier), which is in turn plugged into a four-twelve speaker cabinet. It was great for jamming with people, but not the best sound quality.

I played for a couple hours and as it got later decided to plug my headphones directly into my mixer so I could turn off my makeshift PA and not rattle the house. Having have not played directly into headphones for years, I was completely blown away. You see, guitar amps are not designed to put out the full range of sound produced by both guitar and vocals. No matter how much I tuned the system, it would simply not have the crisp highs or solid lows that make the mix sound good – it’s not built to. You need a real PA amplifier and real PA speakers to reproduce those frequencies.

Even though I was impressed with how clear I could hear the mix, the headphones I was using where not what you would call “optimal” for this type of application. I bought them on an impulse at like a Walgreen’s a year or so ago for listening to the TV at the gym and they were not the best equipment purchase I’ve made. It’s not that they sound bad, but they hardly cover my ears and where clearly designed for someone with a much smaller head, like say a third grader. They were very uncomfortable.

Regardless of the headphones, the sound was so good; I played for like two more hours. The guitar was an active Ovation acoustic and I have never heard this thing sound so clear. It was snappy and crisp. My microphone is not great and sounded a little muddy, but after a couple minutes working the board I was satisfied. I had another pint(s) and played till my fingers where raw. I loved it.

The next day, my ears where killing me. The headphones had been pressing against them so much the night before that they were actually sore to the touch. I’m not sure if you have ever had “sore ears,” but it can be remarkably uncomfortable. I was pissed. I wanted to go back down for a couple hours and play some more, but the thought of putting those dreadful things back on was enough to deter me. The sound quality of playing through headphones was enough to fire me back up and I didn’t want to lose that enthusiasm. I knew I could easily let another few weeks go by before I pick the thing up again. Off to the store I went.

After a brief stop at the Honda dealer (I’m this close to buying a 08 civic SI) I hit up Wal-Mart. Granted Wal-Mart is probably not the best place to buy, well, just about any electronics-related item but I didn’t want to spend too much on headphones just yet. Also, if I was that impressed with the terrible pair I had used, anything would be an improvement.

I settled on a pair of JVC noise canceling cans that ran about $40. They cover the ears, rather than press against them, and were labeled as reproducing “deep, smooth bass.” Sounded good to me! Besides, I had never tried “noise canceling” technology and wanted to see what it was all about. I didn’t have very high expectations from a cheap pair of headphones, but when I got them home and plugged in I was completely thrilled with the purchase.

These things are awesome. They require a AAA battery for the active noise reduction and when you hit the little switch, activating the technology it’s pretty damn cool. I can still hear the room sounds, but all the rubbish background noise is indeed gone. The sound of the fridge, or heat vents, or any other arbitrary background sound is simply gone.

Playing and singing with these things on is completely badass. Obviously the sound quality is superior to the crappy ones I had used before, but rich tones, crisp highs, and silent background, matched with fairly good comfort for longer use made my day. I have this new found energy about playing again. I don’t need to be loud when I just play for me. Not to mention messing with my jerry-rigged PA to get a clean sound was more hassle than not. I’m pumped.

The only I issue I see is that after using headphones to practice for a bit makes it all but impossible to accept the sound of all my old gear when running through the amplifier. Keep me away from my credit cards, because I fear I may have a practice PA package in my future.

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