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Noise: it's a fact of modern city life. You go to work: it's noisy on the train. You get to work: the phones are constantly ringing and the air conditioning is always on. You go on a business trip: you're assaulted by the constant roar of your plane on the way there and back. And finally, when you get home, you've the all sorts of background chatter to content with, from neighbours doing DIY at ungodly hours to the constant hum of the boiler.
Excess noise batters our poor old eardrums from every conceivable angle, and it's hard to get away from it unless you regularly haul yourself out of bed at four in the morning. So it's nice, from time to time to take refuge, from the clatter and clang of everyday life, block it all out seal yourself into a world of your own. It's something that noise-cancelling headphones like Panasonic's latest RP-HC500 headphones do brilliantly - they allow you to listen to your own music but without having to turn the volume up and compete with the outside world.
I'm a big fan of the type of noise-blocking earphones that go deep down in your ear canal and create a physical seal - but they're not for everyone. Some people just can't get comfortable with stuffing little bits of plastic down their lugholes, and for these types, external headphones - either supra or circumaural in design - active noise cancelling is the only way to go.
This is what these new Panasonic headphones use, and its a similar technology to that employed by Sennheiser's top-end PXC-450 headphones I reviewed earlier this year. It works by monitoring external noise with microphones and countering that with 'anti-noise' or phase-inverted noise inside the headphones.
The result, at least with these Panasonics, is very impressive indeed. I tested them on the noisy London Underground (a recent survey found that sound levels were in some parts louder than a jet taking off at Heathrow Airport) and found that I was able to listen to gentle classical music and jazz without having to turn the volume right up. To see how much noise they'd cancel I turned the music off and stood next to a six-lane A-road in rush hour - the incredibly busy A406 in north-east London - and I was immediately impressed with the large amount of low rumble and wooshing traffic noise that the RP-HC500s suppressed. The technology can't quite cut out the very high frequency noises, but it will effectively take the edge of everything else.
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