Sony's noise-cancelling headphones let listeners tune in without dropping out

Sony's new sensitive headphones allow users to customize what they hear and what they don't.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps enters the Rio aquatics stadium for the men's 200 meter individual medley semifinals wearing a set of headphones. Many athletes wear headphones to block out the roar of the fans before competing.

Today at IFA, Europe's largest tradeshow for consumer electronics and home appliances, which is held in Berlin this year, Sony announced its newest line of audio products, including a pair of headphones that lets listeners turn on and tune in to their favorite music without having to drop out of the world around them.

As headphones have become increasingly ever-present, on the street, on buses and subways, and even in the office, so have concerns that listeners are inattentive to other people and potential dangers around them, such as traffic. The MDR-1000X, a pair of selectively noise-canceling headphones seeks to find a middle ground by allowing the wearer to choose what aspects of the background noise they would like to tune out.

For example, when you’re on the metro and you want to hear the conductor announce the stops but not the screech of the rusty wheels attempting to turn a corner, you can adjust the settings accordingly. Or when trying to concentrate at work, you can opt to tune out background chatter but still pick up the voice of a coworker stopping by your cubicle. 

The headphones function with the help of noise sensors and sound deadening pads, and Sony claims that they tune specifically to your head, adjusting sound quality to account for hair or glasses that change the way headphones rest against your head.

The headphones' “Quick Attention” mode allows the wearer to cancel the sound coming from their headphones by placing their hand over the right headphone in order to listen to an announcement or participate in a quick interaction without removing the headphones. This is an alternative to the "Ambient Sound Mode" that enables you to enjoy the music while hearing bits of the conversations going around in the background.

“While the headphones didn’t make voices loud and clear, voices did come through enough that I could tell when someone was talking,” Jacob Kastrenakes wrote in a review for The Verge. “Making out what people said was a bit more difficult, however. And while I could manage that when paying close attention, it wouldn’t be a comfortable way to hold a conversation.”

These new functions will likely add to the debate around many of the arguments against the proliferation of headphone use: that they are a safety hazard, create isolation in the workplace, and lead to rude social interactions. 

A 2012 study published in the journal Injury Prevention linked a small but not insignificant increase in pedestrian deaths to headphone use.

“The actual sensory deprivation that results from using headphones with electronic devices may be a unique problem in pedestrian incidents, where auditory cues can be more important than visual ones,” lead author Richard Lichenstein of the University of Maryland wrote in the paper.

With the selective noise-cancelling ability, these headphones offer a solution, at least in theory, which considers the counter argument rather than just telling the entire Millennial generation to take out their earbuds. After all, sometimes you just need peace and quiet.

“We're also allowed, every now and then, to provide ourselves with enforced alone time – to put up barriers that shut out distractions, make ourselves appear less approachable to strangers, and close off the world outside our own heads,” Stephen Thompson wrote in a post for NPR’s All Songs Considered.

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