A couple of years ago I bought a pair of Panasonic active noise cancelling headphones from Heathow duty free, and after using them on a transatlantic flight my only regret was that I’d made two trips prior to purchasing them. They were cheap (£55) compared to the $300 Bose ones advertised on a previous flight and so I thought they couldn’t possibly be any good: I still can’t compare them to the Bose as I’ve never had the chance to listen to a pair, but they dropped virtually all of the bass rumble of the aircraft and lead to me actually being able to hear the in-flight movies for the first time. An unexpected side effect was that they didn’t mask much treble at all, so I could still mostly hear the flight attendants (and so didn’t miss any meals). Unfortunately they are bulky and require a AAA battery to operate but because of that treble leakage they’re not great for use at home when I want to block out the TV, and when cancelling is on the bass of the music also suffers somewhat.

The Shure E2c‘s are different in concept and are basically earplugs that can make a noise. I ordered mine from iPodWorld at around 10pm on Thursday night for £59 with £3.99 for 1st class recorded delivery and a full, sealed retail blister pack turned up on Saturday morning in a nice sized jiffy bag. Excellent.

So far I’ve only tried the foam adaptors as I read that they are the easiest to fit correctly for novices and only listened to 192kbps MP3 files (ripped from my own CD’s with {iTunes}) on Nicci‘s iPod Shuffle. I’ve not noticed any discomfort, nor have I found them to be lacking in bass which seem to be the major complaints against them: The bass will disappoint if you’re used to the sound from ‘walkman optimised’ headphones as it isn’t large and intrusive, but because of the lack of background noise it doesn’t need to be boosted to be heard, original balance is preserved and there is no boom to the bass to mask out other more subtle sounds.

When no music is playing it is possible to make out sounds from the real world as the isolation isn’t as great as pure foam earplugs (earplugs don’t have a hole in the centre) but as soon as any music starts the relative volumes mean that everything apart from the music simply vanishes. The sound response is one of the most linear that I’ve heard, certainly at this low price point: The Chemical Brothers‘s Under the Influence has a great diving bass that sets my sub (and occasionally pictures) rumbling but rather than being a note that drops off in volume as it falls it retains it’s relative place in the mix. The Scribes narration in Philip Glass‘s Ahknaten really stands out, with every vocal nuance apparent. The stereo image is also quite remarkable when the sound is just in one channel as the lack of any noise at all in the other ear is most unusual; I hadn’t realised until now the amount of subtle ambient noise that still intruded into even the most engaging track.

The main drawbacks so far: I’m going to have to listen to my original CD’s to decide if 192kbps MP3 is now too low a quality setting for these headphones, which could be expensive in both time and disc space. The other is a much more immediate one: it’s not possible to eat a digestive biscuit whilst listening to music as it sounds as though half a ton of gravel is being dumped right next to my head. Still, that might save some money on snacks…