Over the past few weeks, I let my small, fluffy, cuddly Yorkie/Poodle pup go on a wild barking attack against the billions of dollars and the decades of accumulated research into the physics of active noise cancellation. As will come as no surprise to anyone who has met our very good boy, the dog won.
The idea behind active noise cancellation (ANC) is that since sound travels as a wave, it’s possible to introduce a matching counter-wave that can dissipate or mask the sound. To do this in real time, devices like noise-cancelling headphones need to be able to analyze audio signals to generate the counter-sounding wave.
This works great on an airplane when the pattern of the engine sounds and air flow are reasonably consistent. The processor inside the headphones can identify the signature of the offending sound over the course of a few seconds, and then generate the appropriate countering sound. But when a dog like Pixel yaps, it’s a sudden spike of sound. By the time the earbud’s processor realizes there’s a sound to be cancelled, the spike is gone. If there is a long string of yaps, they tend to vary far too much for the earbuds to be able to take action in time.
And that’s how my little guy managed to defeat the work of 85 years of scientific research.
Early work in active noise cancellation began as far back as 1936 when German physicist Paul Lueg first proposed the idea. Unfortunately for Lueg, his theory was never fully realized in his lifetime because the vacuum tubes of the day weren’t up to the task of countering the offending sound waves in real time.
As microphones get better and smaller, and processors get faster and smaller, active noise cancellation becomes more and more practical. In years past, only large earmuff-style headphones had active noise cancellation. In the past decade or so, we’ve seen smaller earbuds (like last year’s Apple AirPods Pro) come out with ANC capabilities.
True Wireless Earbuds
Monoprice, the company many IT managers know as a source of inexpensive cables, has recently introduced an active noise cancelling earbud set called the Monolith M-TWE True Wireless Earbuds. They’ve sent me a set, which I’ve been looking at for the past few weeks.
Before I start, let me be clear: these are simply earbuds for listening to music or other audio content. They do not have a mic for phone calls. You’re listening only. If you’re looking for something that includes a microphone, you’re going to want to look elsewhere.
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When I review headphones or earbuds, I use a couple of relatively subjective criteria. Fundamentally, I want to know about sound quality, comfort, and battery life. With noise-cancelling phones, it’s also important to test how effective they are. So let’s look at each of these in turn.
My take on sound quality is going to be different from that of many users. I listen to music on Spotify, sure, but the bulk of my listening is spoken word. I binge watch educational and maker YouTube videos, listen to Audible books (right now, I’m listening to The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway), and podcasts (J Squared: Two Nerds Talk Tech is my favorite, ‘natch).
Voice quality is fine. Period. There’s not much more to say about it other than that. Nothing sounded too tinny or too bassy. It was pleasant to listen to and was, essentially, a non-issue.
Music quality was good as well. My current favorite Spotify playlist is Spotify’s own Electro Swing, and that sounds great with these little earbuds. I ran it through some Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Preservation Hall Brass Band, and the theme songs to Hunt for Red October, JAG, and a variety of Star Treks. All sounded strong and balanced. Bass wasn’t too overdone, but it wasn’t weak either.
There is an odd little feature that Monoprice touts with these buds called SoundID. This is what they call “personalized audio” and, well, I just couldn’t bring myself to care. If you read some of the reviews on the Monoprice site, neither could some of the other users. Basically, you have to load a specialized app on your phone, go through the process of tuning your audio for your preference, and you get a pile of wacky shapes on the screen. I’m sure it took a lot of work to make this feature, but it seems more like a marketing gimmick than anything else.
My only complaint about sound quality was that the buds do seem to drop out intermittently. I found that once every other listening session or so, the connection just sputtered. In all but one occasion, the sound came back. One time required a reset and a repairing. If these were $29 earbuds, that might be forgivable. But for $135 earbuds, the inability to trust that the sound will always play is a bit disturbing.
Since I’m not the only one who had connectivity troubles (there are a number of user comments on this as well), my advice is to make sure you test these heavily in the 30 days you’re allowed to return them and if they crap out for you, return them.
I am not an earbud fan. Earbuds often just fall out of my ears. That said, these come with five sets of silicon ear tips, and I did find a pair that generally stayed in place.
The M-TWE True Wireless Earbuds (M-Twees? Emtwees?) are a bit larger than most earbuds I’ve used and a bit heavier and chunkier than AirPods. That said, they were comfortable enough and I generally found them unobtrusive during use.
The M-TWE buds come with a little charging case, very reminiscent of AirPods, but in black. It works and is small enough to comfortably fit in a pocket or bag.
The company claims that the earbuds themselves have a 10 hour playback time, and the case can deliver another 20 hours once charged. So, essentially you can get three full charges between the case and the buds.
I did not find I got 10 hours of playback time. I’m actually at three weeks and counting. But, to be fair, I only listened to the Emtwees for a half hour or so a day. That said, for intermittent listening, it was nice to pretty much have no issues with worrying about power. I’ve been sticking the buds back into their case between uses and so far, about three weeks in, I have yet to need to plug the case in and charge it up. That’s kind of cool.
Do be aware, however, that users who use these non-stop all day are unlikely to see similar results. If you’re planning on taking these to work and use them from the time you arrive until the time you go home, you probably won’t make the full day. Some other users have reported about six hours, which is still not bad. Once again, you’ll need to test them with your own usage before you decide whether to keep them or return them.
Active Noise Cancelling
I haven’t been on a plane in a while, and given COVID-19, I don’t expect to be on one for the foreseeable future. But I did test the noise cancelling feature with a number of different scenarios. Let’s look at each:
In the Fab Lab: The noise cancelling made the slightly screechy sound of 3D printers fade into the background. The spoken audio was clear and crisp and while I was aware the printers were printing, they didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of listening to a podcast.
Also in the Fab Lab: When the fan and the laser on the laser cutter are both on, the sound level is bothersome. I usually wear earmuffs, but tried the M-TWE’s with one laser run. They did okay, but not great. There was still considerable noise. That’s because the buds don’t actually physically block sound and with high-decibel sound, you need some physical sound blocking as well as inverse wave action.
In the workshop: The same was true testing with my miter saw and table saw. My normal earplugs do a better job of reducing the sound hitting my ears. That said, it was possible to listen clearly to music using the M-TWEs and their active noise cancelling, but everything was loud and that was a bit painful. Honestly, I just did this as a test because I don’t recommend using earbuds (which could fall out) during the operation of something as inherently dangerous and scary as a table saw. Plenty of people listen to music in the shop, but there are better and safer ways to do it.
On the couch: With my wife watching TV and me listening to music while coding, the active noise cancelling did a pretty good job. I could hear the TV through the music, but it wasn’t intrusive. It was much more as if the TV were in the other room. Workable, but not perfect.
With Pixel yapping: Nada, nothing. No yap cancelling at all. His barkfest blasted right through the active noise cancelling, rendering the entire feature as if it didn’t exist. The only way I’ve found to block Pixel’s noise when he’s offended by the existence of a cat or squirrel is to wear industrial quality earmuffs. And even then some sound does break through.
I’d say if you want noise cancelling for a flight, these are fine. If you’re in an industrial setting like a shop, they’ll help but the ambient noise level might be too high overall. But if you want to block out the sound of the lawn mower across the street and still listen to your tunes or watch your TV in peace, these will do the trick.
These are not AirPods Pro. On the other hand, the Emtwees are not $249. At $135, they’re pricey enough that if you don’t need noise cancelling, you might want a different solution. The SoundID feature is a gimmick. But if you want to cancel out generally bothersome white noise like that of airplane engines, these will do the job quite nicely.
Definitely didn’t hate them. Definitely not a fail. But not going to be at the top of my favorites list either. That said, if you’re willing to spend $135, they’re generally worth the money, although the dropped connection issue is annoying. If I were giving these a letter grade, I’d say they’re a solid B+.
What are you doing for earbuds these days? Are you all AirPods all the time? Or are you using another brand? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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