Noise Cancel or No? Sound Experts Sound Off on the Best Headphones

Headphones Split - Publicity - H 2019
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Composers and movie-music pros — divided over the benefits of noise-reducing features — share their recommendations for their favorite headphones for work and leisure.

Noise-canceling headphones — available commercially since the mid-1990s — are now go-tos for flights and loud offices. But they aren't beloved by everyone. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with prominent composers and sound designers to get their recommendations for the best headphones and discovered that while some pros love them, many don't — because, as composer Diane Warren puts it, "I want the true sound."

Eight-time Oscar nominee Wylie Stateman (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) wears headphones for hours, and he finds noise-canceling options fatiguing. "Unless you're listening in a noisy environment, I would not use them," he says. "In order to cancel outside noise, they produce anti-noise that reduces the sound that is entering your ear." He prefers Sennheiser's HD series ($80 up to $2,400, en-us.sennheiser.com), which are "designed to isolate noise rather than cancel." He goes for their wireless options that also fit over the ear. (On-the-ear headphones, he finds, "get hot.")

Composer and orchestrator Jonathan Beard (Us, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) favors the "extremely comfortable" non-noise-canceling Listen Professional ($299, focal.com) headphones from French brand Focal for personal and professional use. "The sound quality is really good but also really flat, frequency-wise, so it's not hyping any certain signals more than any others," he says. "That's valuable because I can trust what I am hearing."

Oscar-nominated composer Terence Blanchard (Harriet, BlacKkKlansman) recommends two sets of non-noise-canceling headphones: the AKG K701 ($449, akg.com) and the Beyerdynamic 880 PRO ($249, north-america.beyerdynamic.com), relying on them for their "honesty of sound, tonal balance and clarity."

Fans of noise-canceling headphones include Oscar-nominated sound editor Julian Slater (Baby Driver) and composer Marcelo Zarvos (Fences), both of whom use Sony's WH-1000XM3 headphones ($280, sony.com). "I really like to mix score when there's noise around me, and the noise canceling helps me have a kind of audio bubble," says Zarvos. "I find that if the music can cut through the environment I'm in, whether a plane or the subway, it's part of my process."

Ben Wilkins, who won a sound mixing Oscar for Whiplash, also goes the noise-canceling route. "It's a very intimate thing. Think about someone whispering in your ear," says Wilkins, who likes the Bose QuietComfort 35 ($280, bose.com). "They're not the newest ones, but they just work better." He uses them for travel, watching films in flight and listening to music. "And they're not super-fancy," he adds, "so you don't feel as self-conscious putting them on as you would putting on a $900 pair of headphones on a plane."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.