Low End Theory: Tightwads Need Tranquility, Too



By Brendan I. Koerner

I'm in the middle of writing a book, an activity that requires a near ungodly level of concentration. Just my luck, then, that I live in a rollicking neighborhood where the day is routinely punctuated by sirens, barking pit bulls, and men accusing one another of welshing on debts. You try writing a lyrical, 1,500-word passage about the sinister beauty of the Indo-Burmese jungle while a St. Ides enthusiast hurls racial epithets at the mailman—not easy.

The solution, I recently decided, is a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Alas, I don't have the kung-fu required to build my own, nor the scratch necessary to buy a pair of Bose QuietComfort 2s or Sony MDR-NC50s. In fact, after recently blowing most of my disposable income on a post-victory bottle of Champagne, anything more than $40 is gonna hurt.

There are options out there that fit the budget, no doubt. But are the likes of the Philips HN110s (pictured at right) really any better than foam earplugs? Click forward, fearless reader, and share some thoughts. PLUS: The fakest-yet-most-alluring Sony knock-off you'll ever see.

To be honest, the high price of active noise-canceling headphones has always struck me as odd. In purely mechanical terms, the technology doesn't seem that complicated—the good folks over at CNet brilliantly summed up the mechanism here, in a single paragraph. The trick seems to be designing mics that can accurately detect, and then counteract, incoming signals, rather than just bathing your ears in indiscriminate sonic pudding. Let me state for the record here that I have no doubt the Bose engineers—er, "scientists," as they seem to prefer being called—have developed a superior system for the QuietComfort, though I'll never stop scoffing at the company's price-to-quality ratio. (I am, of course, hardly the only one to arrive at this grim conclusion.)

My hunch going into this was that, although the $100-and-up headphones would certainly perform better than the sub-$40 units, the latter group would perform adequately for the money. My criteria? All I asked for was that, when activated sans music, the 'phones would block out enough sonic pollution so that I could focus on work. A humble enough request, right?

I started off by trying out a pair of Coby CV191s at a local discount electronics shop. As the Newegg.com reviewers so bluntly put it, save your fifteen bucks; when the unit was switched on, it was like standing next to a mosquito zapper. Not sure how they designed these, but it sounded like they just took the innards of an antiquated Sharper Image wave machine and somehow squeezed them inside some really cheaply constructed headphones. So much for the dream of having change left over from my Jackson.

I went downtown to try out the Philips HN110s. Believe me, I wasn't expecting much after my Coby experience. But y'know what? They worked pretty well. High frequencies were definitely dulled, and after a few minutes of keeping them strapped to my head, I got in that noise-canceled zone where you feel slightly less manic than normal—exactly what I was looking for. The store I was doing the testing at had 'em priced northward of $50, but they can be had online for $15 less. As soon as I pay off my next credit-card bill, I'm going to order a pair. (Note to several previous correspondents who've taken issue with the ethics of my online shopping: No, I'm not going to buy the HN110s from WalMart.com.)

Now, I know what you're thinking. Yes, I realize they probably provide lousy sound quality for the money. And, yes, anytime you buy a curiously low-priced item, you're risking bad construction. But my priority here was noise cancellation, and as I've established before, I'm a gambler when it comes to low-end products. Considering that these are going for roughly 90 percent less than the QuietComfort 2s, it seems like a risk worth taking.

My only qualm isn't that I'm going too low-end, but rather that I might be getting ripped off. The CV191 debacle soured me on cheaper alternatives, but there's a good chance I'm missing out on an even greater bargain. The IceTech CD-788Vs, perchance? Tips in comments, or directly to your abbot of all things cheap.

THE KNOCKOFF TO END ALL KNOCKOFFS: Nothing makes my heart smile like a reader tip about a laughable knock-off. The latest? A "Sony" digital camera that also plays MP3s, MP4s, and WMA, and uses an SD memory card. The tipster says he's seen the gizmo (pictured at right) on sale in Brooklyn's Chinatown for $120.

Low End Theory: Tightwads Need Tranquility, Too

I poked around the Internets and thought it looked most similar to this camera sold under the Digiboy brand. Could they both be from the same Guangdong factory? Did a middleman decide to emboss the scrunched-together Sony brand on the schwag?

Most importantly, has anyone else seen this digicam in their hometown? Extra karmic points if you've actually tried it out. Given the specs, it actually seems like a pretty good deal—though, obviously, I wouldn't think the warranty would be worth the paper it's printed on. (Thanks, Allan!)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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