Extreme Shop Test of Noise-Cancelling Headphones


I spend a fair amount of time in a noisy professional wood shop where we use a robotic router, industrial sander, and huge vacuums. The router makes noise, and so does the sander, but it’s the vacuums that are really loud and obnoxious. The sawdust generated by the router and sanders has to go somewhere. We collect barrels of sawdust every day, all of it sucked up by noisy shop vacs and a huge noisy dust collector. My point? It’s very loud. We have to protect our hearing.

We could wear ear plugs but by the end of an eight-hour day, our ears get tired of being packed with foam. Over-the-ear hearing protection is more comfortable. But both leave you listening to your own thoughts… hour after boring hour. What is a woodworker–or anyone who works in a noisy environment–supposed to do to maintain sanity and focus?

Invest in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones so you can listen while you work–to podcasts, books, or music. A good pair of headphones, preferably with Active Noise Cancelling, is just as important as supportive and protective shoes.

Dennis in the shot

When we get noise-cancelling headphones at GeekGirlfriends.com, I take them to the shop. Working in a noisy environment for eight hours quickly reveals the difference between headphones that claim to be awesome and those that are must have.

Here are the headphones I have run through the wood shop. (And when possible, worn on an airplane.) They all sound amazing when I’m wearing them and listening to music, books, or podcasts. It’s not just the sound quality, but the extra features that set them apart.

A Audio Legacy ANC

A super nice feature in this pair of headphones is that the ear covers swivel. This means the A Audio Legacy ($124) headphones are a little more comfortable over your ears, and more importantly you can pull them down around your neck so that you can listen to something or someone while your headphones rest comfortably against your chest, leaving you free to turn your head from side-to-side unobstructed. The problem with these is that they require batteries (2x AAA) instead of being rechargeable, so you will be burning through batteries. And since they are not wireless, I had to run the cord down my shirt to keep it out of the way of my work.

JBL Everest Elite 700

This pair of headphones has two features I really appreciated in the shop–they are wireless and rechargeable. The JBL Everest Elite 700 ($300, currently on sale for $225) includes the ability to customize the sound equalization for your ears. That means when I put them on, I can run through a quick sound-check, and microphones inside the ear pads listen to the response of my ear canal, tweaking the equalization to balance the sound just for me. Since they are wireless, I really appreciated being free of a cord, but I had to charge the headphones every night. If I forgot, they would not make it through a second day. And when they run out of power, they emit a spine-tingling sound right as they shut off which I find frightening and terrible. The biggest problem with these, though, is the ear covers do not swivel. If you pull them down around your neck, you can’t turn your head from side-to-side at all. So in order to have a conversation with someone, you have to pull them off all the way and hold them, or else set them down.

Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2

These are my favorites!


The Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 ($200) are wireless, connect quickly and easily, and stay connected. If you have the new iPhone, you’ll need something wireless, because the iPhone doesn’t have a headphone jack. (Get these.) The ear covers are low profile and swivel, so if you put them around your neck, they get comfortably out of the way. I hate setting headphones down in a dirty shop, so I really like this feature. They are rechargeable, and the batteries can easily make it through two full workdays. If I forget to plug them in one night, they are still ready to go for a full second day. When the batteries die, you can plug in a headphone cable but the noise-cancelling won’t work if they are out of power.

The BackBeat PRO 2 also has a few great bonus features: An easy-to-reach switch that allows you to choose between active noise cancelling, regular listening, and open listening mode which takes the ambient sounds and plays them right into your headphones. So if you need to hear what’s going on in the shop or someone walks up to tell you something, all you have to do is flip the switch and your music is paused and you can listen to the room instead. This takes a little bit of explanation to reassure others that you can hear them even though headphones are over your ears, but everyone gets used to it quickly. Plantronics got their start making headsets for the space industry, so these headphones–like all their products–include a microphone so you can use them like a headset to take a phone call. And, finally, a feature that I thought was excessive at first, but came to realize is pure genius: The auto-pause feature. If you pull these headphones off your head, they instantly sense that you removed them and pause what you are listening to. When you put them back over your ears, they hit play again. This may not matter much when listening to music–I usually don’t care if I miss half a song while my boss tells me which job to work on next–but if I am listening to an audio book or a podcast, missing two or three minutes drives me crazy. Now I don’t have to fumble for my pause button or rewind thirty seconds at a time until I find my place again when the conversation is over. This is an unbelievably nice feature. And check out the price! How they fit so many features into a comfortable package, and at this price, is beyond me. Thank you, space age!

They are out of stock on Amazon at the moment but the BackBeat Pro 2 Special Edition is available. The exact same features with a more stylish aesthetic for a few dollars more. An excellent gift for anyone who works or plays in a noisy environment.