I’m sitting on an Alaska Airlines flight up to Seattle right now and figure it’s a good time to put my two headphones to the test. I’ve owned both the QuietComfort I and II headphones for the past few years. Recently I purchased the Etymotic ER6’s and love them but I have not had a chance to test out Etymotic’s claims that they perform better than active noise canceling headphones (like the Bose). In short, they are right. The ER6’s kicked Bose but.

Etymotic ER6

Even though the ER6’s do not produce any kind of active noise canceling I found them to reduce the airplane noise more than the Bose QuietComfort IIs when no music was playing. However, where they really excelled is when I turned on my tunes. The ER6’s produced a much cleaner sounds that was not distorted, amplified, or distracted from anything else. In fact with the volume set appropriately I completely forgot about the cabin noise. With the Bose I have always felt that there was some sort of background noise that I could hear.

The trick for me was really spending a few extra seconds to make sure that my ER6’s had a good snug fit in my ear. In the Etymotic manual they recommend yawning while inserting the earplugs. This actually works fairly well as it expands the ear canal enough to allow the earplugs to get a good tight fit. Additionally, after a few minutes of being in your ear, the snug fit seems to improve a bit.

The best part about all this? Well the ER6’s weigh 1 oz and fit in my pocket. The Bose headphones are huge, require batteries, and are very difficult to sleep with (which is what I tend to do on long flights).

Ever since I started using noise canceling headphones I’ve found that they SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the amount of stress on the body when flying. This is especially true for flights over 4 hours. When you arrive at your destination you don’t feel the wear from the drone of the engines.

Now, here is the thing. Bose has sold thousands of these headsets to people like myself because they flew on an American Airlines flight where they give out the headsets to Business and First Class passengers on International flights. I purchased my first headset when I returned from a 1999 trip to Japan. I was upgraded to first class and they gave me these headsets. Having used them the entire 9 hour flight, I almost cried when I had to return them. Since then I purchased the QuietComfort IIs and gave my wife the Is. You see a lot of frequent flyers bring on their own pairs of these headsets, and since I only fly American/Alaska I see them everywhere. Furthermore, Bose does a lot of advertising in all the in-seat magazines like Alaska’s and American’s. They even price the $300 headsets in installments of $30 a month with zero interest. I bet that they sell like hotcakes to frequent travelers.

The Etymotics earplugs are a better product. I wish they sold to more folks. The problem is: 1) it’s hard to notice people have them, so they aren’t going to sell themselves, 2) since they are earplugs, you can’t really hand them to a friend to try them out. That makes it rather difficult. I think they could improve their “reach” by:

  1. Partnering with an OEM to include their headsets. Figure out a clever name and brand them as such. Call them noise canceling or whatever.
  2. Give your users lots of extra earplugs. This will allow them to let their friends try them out.
  3. Give you users little information cards to hand to their friends like Bose does. My QuietComfort II case includes 15 pre-printed information cards to hand to people who ask about the headphones. Clever.
  4. Make your headphones look different. Put some bling bling on them or something. Get people to notice that they are not your normal headphones. Sony does a decent job of this. How about making the cable metal? What about a cool case for them? I notice Apple's White headphones, all they did was change the color.

Anyway, if you fly at all, spend the dough and get these puppies. If you were thinking about getting the QuietComfort or other kinds of Active Noise Canceling headphones think twice and try the ER6 or ER6i. However, if you are one of those people that does't like putting things in your ear, then maybe these aren't for you.