The Noisebuster Extreme

Reviewed by Peter Donnelly -- June 1997
Noise Cancellation Technologies, Inc., has come up with a low-cost addition to their line of headsets that is a remarkable introduction to this new technology.

For those not familiar with the concept, noise cancellation works by sensing ambient noise, then producing a complementary sound wave that effectively cancels out the original wave. Unlike "white noise", which is really just covering up little sounds by producing bigger ones, noise cancellation actually reduces the sound energy reaching your ear.

The Noisebuster Extreme consists of a shirt-pocket-sized battery pack and a light-weight headset. The battery pack has a belt clip, a sort of volume (or anti-volume) slider for controlling the amount of noise reduction, and a jack for plugging in a personal stereo or an audio feed like those in airliners. In fact, the device is being marketed as a means of listening to music without the interference of ambient sound. This may seem a bit ironic to those of us who see the proliferation of personal stereos as a symptom of, and contributor to, noise addiction, but that doesn't alter the fact that it is wise marketing strategy. Quiet just doesn't sell.

I didn't try the Noisebuster with a stereo, but I did spend a couple of weeks putting it through its paces as an alternative to earmuffs or earplugs. I wore it at home, at work, in the cabin of an Otter seaplane, and at a bus stop under 12 lanes of elevated expressway. I learned that although the device doesn't eliminate noise, it does an amazing job of softening the impact of certain kinds of noise.

The Noisebuster does this by reducing sounds primarily in the lower frequency range -- where the manufacturers claim attenuation of up to 15 dB. Apart from the slight muffling produced by the headphones themselves, there is little impact on sounds in the middle and upper ranges. Speech, for example, is quite intelligible.

Something I learned by wearing the headset is that, for me, the most disturbing elements of noise are in the lower frequencies. There is something particularly invasive and threatening about a low roar. Most common urban noises have this component: traffic, gardening equipment, aircraft. The Noisebuster doesn't eliminate these noises, but it changes their quality dramatically. The awful roar of a gas-powered weed-trimmer producing 90 dB at my study window (courtesy of a municipal parks crew) was reduced to an annoying chatter. Similarly at the freeway bus stop: the traffic noise was still loud, but the attenuation of the low frequencies made it a lot easier to take.

I showed off the device around my office building, where everyone works with computers in small rooms equipped with ventilators. The universal reaction was "Wow!" Fan noise simply disappears with the Noisebuster. It's one of those things where you don't even realize how much noise you're being subjected to until it stops.

On the seaplane, easily the noisiest environment that I'm regularly subjected to, the Noisebuster did at least as good a job as the foam earplugs supplied to passengers -- perhaps better, because earplugs are most effective at blocking high-frequency sounds.

The headset is light and comfortable, and it doesn't have the effect of cutting you off from the world like earmuffs or earplugs. It's not a practical alternative to industrial earmuffs in ear-threatening environments, and if it's the high-pitched whines that bother you, the Noisebuster is unlikely to provide much relief. But it's a great way of reducing the impact of the steady, low- frequency sounds that are such a pervasive part of modern life.

The only negative thing, from my point of view, is that wearing the Noisebuster in public will make you look like a noise addict. Oh well, at least you'll blend in, and you'll have the comfort of knowing that you're listening to the sounds of silence.

The Noisebuster Extreme sells for around $69 U.S. For more information, see the Noise Cancellation Technologies Inc. website.

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