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Hearing is believing. Or rather, with the new Bose QuietComfort 2 headsets, it’s not hearing that’s believing. Slip on this headset, turn on the power to activate the QC2’s noise canceling circuitry, and you’ll suddenly hear less of the background noise around you. Less ventilation equipment, less street noise, less people talking in the background-less everything. Keep the headset on, and you’ll soon start to notice your breathing and your beating heart. It’s as if someone behind your back reached out, found the volume control for the world, and turned it way, way, down.

There is nothing new about active noise-canceling technology, of course. Developed in the early 1980s, these systems rely on the fact that sound is a pressure wave that moves through the air. Active noise cancellation systems measure that pressure wave with a microphone located near your ear, reverse the signal, and then feed the resulting “antinoise” into the headset. The outside noise and the antinoise signals cancel each other out, leaving silence. Commercial headsets with active noise cancellation became available for airplane pilots in the early 1990s and hit the music scene by the end of the decade. Today you can buy a pair of noise-canceling headsets from Sony for under $100.

But until now, all headsets with active noise reduction have shared a common problem: in the process of erasing the background noise, they added their own unmistakable hiss. These new Bose headsets are the first on the market to eliminate that audible artifact.

But Bose has a long history of charging a hefty premium for its technology. Is it really possible to justify paying $299 for a pair of QC2 headsets when active noise suppression is available in headsets from Sony and other companies for half that price or less? The results of my side-by-side comparison are unmistakable: the Bose headsets are dramatically better than Sony’s. If you care enough about your headsets to purchase active noise suppression in the first place, then you probably care enough to pay for the best.

It’s not surprising that this sort of breakthrough should come from Bose-which, after all, pioneered this technology in the marketplace. When Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan made the first around-the-world flight in an aircraft without refueling back in 1986, they each wore a pair of antinoise headsets-the first to make it out of the laboratory. At the time, Rutan and Yeager said they could not have withstood the psychological stress of the trip without the peace-and-quiet that the headsets provided. Soon Bose introduced the technology for pilots. Three years ago, the Company brought the technology to consumers in the form of its QuietComfort noise canceling headsets.

I never could justify spending the $299 for the original QuietComfort headsets. They were big and didn’t fold very easily. Another disadvantage was that all of the electronics and batteries were in a little side box about the size of paperback book. This made traveling with the QuietComfort headsets somewhat difficult. That was a problem-wasn’t using them for traveling the whole point?

This spring, Bose introduced its QuietComfort 2 headphones, a dramatically improved version. Still priced at $299, these headsets boast such an advance in quality that they finally crossed my tipping point: I went out and bought a pair with my own money.

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