I’ve flown more than 40,000 miles in 10 months. Needless to say I’ve filled much of that plane time with handheld games, movies and music, and I’ve wanted to maintain my focus on the entertainment at hand rather than the drone of the jets. As our business-traveling readers will attest, that largely requires a set of active noise-canceling headphones. The latest entrant in our headphone review series is coincidentally also one of the latest entrants to the noise-canceling headphones scene: Velodyne. Known predominantly for its top-of-the-line speakers, Velodyne makes an impressive debut with its vQuiet active noise-canceling headphones, putting Velodyne well on its way to possible dominance in the space.
It’s clear that the engineers for the Velodyne vQuiet active noise-canceling headphones surveyed the landscape before starting development. The vQuiet headphones include many of the best creature comforts one would expect, as are a few that I hadn’t previously seen. For instance, it isn’t new to have collapsible arms that keep the folded-up footprint small, but Velodyne has made a fresh and ingenious addition of a 3.5mm jack on both earpieces to accommodate any device position. Likewise, removing the need for batteries by having a micro-USB charging jack has been done before, but Velodyne gets serious innovation points by having the headphones charge completely in just 60 minutes. A full charge lasts about eight hours of continuous noise-canceled listening.
The Velodyne vQuiet active noise-canceling headphones excel well beyond creature comforts. Frankly, they have the best audio quality of any active noise-canceling headphones I’ve reviewed or used personally. Better than Bose. Better than Harman-Kardon. Better than QuietPoint or AblePlanet. Listening to classical music is akin to sitting in the middle of the orchestra’s strings section. Turning up the top-40 tunes will make you feel like you’re in a live concert. Playing a game or watching a movie makes the whole experience more immersive than you’d expect from a set of $299 headphones.
Perhaps most impressively, though, bass-heavy hip-hop or dance/electronica tracks will thump your ears as if your pillow is a subwoofer. Truly, Velodyne’s vQuiet headphones must be heard to be believed, especially where bass is concerned. The audio quality of is simply impeccable, as one might expect from a company of this heritage, and Velodyne’s vQuiet headphones are jaw-droppingly good.
It therefore broke my heart that the noise-canceling elements weren’t quiet as impressive in the air. In an office or home environment, the vQuiet headphones are on par with or better than all other noise-canceling headphones. Whenever you turn on an active noise-canceling headphone there’s a notable hiss, regardless of brand. The Velodyne vQuiet active noise-canceling headphones are no different. In fact, their hiss is actually a bit louder than other sets, but the depth of the audio and overall fidelity make up for it once the music starts. But that active noise-canceling is surprisingly inconsistent when you take to the skies.
I first took Velodyne’s headphones on a Bombardier turbo prop, arguably one of the louder airborne experiences business travelers will have. On that craft, the vQuiet headphones performed just as well as the QuietPoint, which was previously by standard-bearer for noise canceling excellence. Rich audio and great NC; so far so good. Yet when I tested the vQuiet headphones on a Boeing 737, which is arguably quieter than a turbo prop, the noise-canceling didn’t perform as well. Background noises were still muffled, but the frequency of the 737’s jet engines didn’t cancel out as well as I’d hoped. On one red-eye flight, in fact, I reverted to another pair of active noise-canceling headphones just to bring the background decibels down and get some sleep.
Now, that other pair (the QuietPoint set) isn’t as stylish as the vQuiet headphones, which have an industrial design that’s both fresh and fashionable. So, if you’re really into appearance, it’s hard to go wrong with the vQuiet headphones. The vQuiet do surprisingly lack a hard case, though, which may cause a bit of concern for travelers who are hard on their carry-on bags or want to ensure that the visual appearance remains scratch-free. The vQuiet also feel a bit flimsy at their collapsible joints, although even after extensive testing those joints never showed signs of wear. The risk of breakage did stick in the back of my mind, though, probably because there’s no hard case in the package, as many other active noise-canceling headphones in this price range offer.
On the whole, I’d rank the Velodyne vQuiet active noise-canceling headphones second overall in the headsets I’ve reviewed this year. Their audio quality is incredible, but the noise-canceling inconsistency is disappointing. Still, this is Velodyne’s first entry into the NC headphone space, and if the vQuiet headphones are any indication, Velodyne will be a major, award-winning player in the active noise-canceling headphone arena for years to come. I can’t wait to see (hear?) what Velodyne has up its sleeve for its encore performance. If they can improve the noise-canceling aspects at different jet-engine frequencies and include a hard case for frequent travelers, Velodyne could quite possibly have the perfect NC headset on its hands.
Score: 9.1 — Velodyne’s sound engineers have delivered an outstanding audio experience, marred only by an active noise-canceling technology that doesn’t perform consistently in certain airplanes.