Solitude XCS Active
Noise Reduction Headset
Still more steady
improvement from Solitude
The Solitude XCS headphones continue the steady enhancement
that each successive Solitude product has represented over
the previous to date.
Part of a series on noise
reducing headphones - click the links on the right for extra
reviews and articles.
Solitude Design has been making headphones for
nine years now, with each year seeing a new model and an improvement over its predecessors.
New for 2012 is the latest in
their high end Solitude range, the XCS. A slightly reworked
set of features and even better noise cancelling make these
appealing, while the nine years of design experience help to
ensure a solid functional and reliable approach to the headphones
that should give you years of valuable use and enjoyment.
The Solitude XCS is the
latest in the high-end range of headphones designed and
distributed by the company formerly known as 'Outside the Box'
and more recently as 'Solitude Design'.
It replaces the previous model
Solitude X headphones which we reviewed when they were released
back in March 2011. We note that the Solitude X
headphones are currently on sale as presumably the company
is quitting its stock of the earlier Solitude X product in favor
of the new Solitude XCS, just now released.
The company also makes the
middle of the market Plane Quiet headphones too, with the current
model being the 'Plane
Quiet Platinum with Solitude Technology' model - click the link
for our review of that product, too.
This means the company is
currently offering three models of headphones :
The major competitor to the
Solitude line are the two Bose models - the QC15 (priced at $300)
and the QC3 (priced at $350).
These days there are an
abundance of other products on the market, from low priced and low
quality entry level sets of headphones costing as little as $27.50, and ranging up to products selling at even more inflated
prices than the two Bose products, but as best we can determine,
offering little extra improvement, such as the
Sony MDR-NC500D which we also reviewed and which cost $400.
If cost is no object, and you
absolutely must have the very best noise cancelling available, the
Bose QC15 (reviewed here) is your best choice.
If you want noise cancelling
that is nearly as good, but at a much better price and tremendous
value, then the Solitude X (while still available) is your best
If you want a basic set of
headphones with some noise cancelling, but are buying primarily to
a budget, the Plane Quiet headphones would be your best bet.
The new Solitude XCS is only
very slightly better than the previous model X. While the
clearance priced model X remains, we'd recommend you save money
and choose that over the XCS.
What to Look For When Evaluating
Noise Cancelling Headphones
There are three main features
of a pair of noise cancelling headphones, and these vary depending
on the price point you select. The three features are the
level of 'background hiss' that is present in the headphones when
the noise cancelling is activated, the amount of noise cancelling
that is performed, and the overall sound quality of the
The most important of these
three features is the amount of noise cancelling. That is,
after all, why you are buying the headphones in the first place.
As for the background hiss,
this is something you'd hear if you were using your headphones in
a normally quiet area rather than in a normally noisy area such as
on an airplane, where the hiss tends to be masked by all the other
constant noises also present. But it is counter-productive
to be using technology to cancel some noises but simultaneously
introducing other noises, so clearly, less hiss is always better
than more hiss.
As for the sound quality, we
rate this as moderately unimportant. Even with great noise
cancelling, you're presumably in an environment with some
remaining background/ambient noise which interferes with your
appreciation of the pure sound, and you're also probably playing
some sort of compressed music source (whether it is from an MP3
type audio player like an iPod, or from a tablet or cell phone, or
from a movie soundtrack, or from the airplane's own in-flight
entertainment system) which frankly is way distant from true
audiophile quality to start with.
No noise cancelling headphones
give high end audio, because you'll only get high end audio if
playing CDs through a high quality sound system in a very quiet
environment. Almost all noise cancelling headphones give
sound playback quality which is more than adequate for the purpose
and environment in which you'll be using the headphones.
So where is the value
sweetspot and ideal compromise between cost and performance?
While it is true you will get
some noise cancelling, even from the $27.50 headphones (made by
Kensington), it is also true that you will get perceptibly very
much more noise cancelling with the Plane Quiet headphones at $70,
and very much more noise cancelling again with the Solitude
headphones at either $130 or $180.
There are also clearly
apparent differences in background electronic hiss levels between
the lowest price and the moderate price units.
But as between the Solitude
and the Bose Quiet Comfort headphones, you transition into the
area of diminishing returns. Both have whisper quiet
background hiss levels. Both have acceptable quality audio
fidelity. And both cut a big chunk of the background noise
You will still hear a
difference in noise reduction between the QC15 and the Solitude
headphones (the QC15 is better), but you also have to ask yourself
whether you'd prefer to buy two pairs of Solitude headphones or
one pair of QC15 headphones for almost the same money.
The Solitude XCS Active
Noise Reduction Headset - What You Get
The Solitude XCS headphones
are attractively packaged and presented in a black and silver box with
a clear mylar plastic window allowing you to see the headphones
Inside the box is a nice
collection of goodies - the headphones themselves of course, and a
5' connecting cord with gold plated connections at each end that
plugs in at one end to the headphones and at the other end to
whatever music playing device you might wish to listen to.
Both ends use standard 1/8"
This connecting cable comes
with a bonus additional capability. It has a built in
microphone and the connector is compatible with the headphone
socket on iPhones and some other types of phone.
So you can be listening to
music on your iPhone then take a call when one comes in without
having to swap from the Solitudes to another headset or the phone
itself. That is a nice extra feature.
There is also a gold adapter
to grow from the 1/8" connector on the cord to a 1/4" connector
such as is often found on home stereo systems, and a double prong
adapter to work with the in-seat connectors on some airplanes.
Although the box implied that
batteries were included, ours came without batteries. The
unit requires two AAA batteries.
Other inclusions and paperwork
There is also a lovely
semi-hard sided protective carry case made out of molded
material with some sort of woven nylon finish to it. It
has a zipper running around three sides, and inside is a molded
support to cradle the headphones on one side, and a couple of
pouches on the other side; one a zip pouch to hold spare cables,
batteries and adapter, and the other for a business card or two.
The two booklets are a
warranty card and a user's guide.
The warranty is for a one
year period, and is voided if you bought the headphones from a
non-authorized Solitude retailer, and is non transferable.
This warranty doesn't win
any prizes for excessively liberal generosity, but is similar to
the Bose and all other warranties, and from reader feedback over the years, it
seems Solitude provide generally excellent service and
support for their products.
The user manual is well
written in English and explains the few things that need
explanation. Although well written, we noticed with mirth
that instead of referring to the Bass Boost option, it instead
talked about a Base Boost.
The Solitude X active noise
canceling headphones are attractive and appear to be well made.
The ear-cups tilt and
swivel (just like the Bose), and can rotate flat for carrying purposes.
The headphones weigh 8.1 oz
on the head with batteries included (the same as the predecessor
model X). Complete with cable, adapters and carry bag, they weigh
16.8 oz (slightly less than the previous model due to cutting
down from two to one included cable). In comparison, the
QC15 weighs 6.7 oz and in its carry case, 14.7 oz.
The headphones have a
faux-carbon fiber pattern on the outside of the ear cups but don't
show their name prominently anywhere (other than very discreetly
embossed on the top of the headband). We have to think this
was a marketing mistake - missing out on the ability to promote
itself when on the heads of users on planes.
The right ear cup contains
the battery compartment. The headphones require two AAA
batteries to power their noise cancellation circuitry, and you
can expect to get about 35 hours of noise cancelling out of a
pair of batteries, according to the manual, or perhaps 40 hours
(according to the website). The actual amount of time will
vary depending on usage conditions, of course. so maybe both
claims are simultaneously correct.
We have to note, cynically,
that the website's claim for a 15% longer life than their
competitor (ie the Bose QC15) overlooks the fact that the Bose
uses one battery whereas the Solitude uses two.
The red power LED dims when the
batteries are about 30 minutes short of total exhaustion (we
prefer the longer notice and more obvious indication on the QC15
which has a flashing LED about 5 hours prior to battery
exhaustion). It is best to always travel with a spare set
of batteries, 'just in case'.
The left ear cup has the
connecting point for the cable, plus a three position switch
that toggles between Off, Noise Cancelling, or Bass Boost (but
no noise cancelling). A power LED illuminates for both the
Bass Boost and Noise Cancelling positions.
There is also a volume control
wheel next to the switch. In the Model X, this wheel
actually controlled the amount of noise cancellation applied; a
ridiculous concept (when would you ever want less than full noise
cancellation?) and a concept now happily abandoned. The
wheel now acts as you'd expect, as a volume control.
Normally you should keep this
volume control on maximum, so as not to waste the power and
battery life of your music playing device. But if two of you
are sharing an audio feed, it becomes helpful to balance out the
volume levels that you are each comfortable with.
Using the Headphones
Comfort and Convenience
The headphones are
comfortable to wear for many hours at a time, such as you will
wish to do on long flights.
Solitude have always had
slightly smaller ear cups than the Bose QC15s, and this latest
design seems to be slightly smaller than the previous model
Solitude in terms of the length and breadth of the oval cups.
However, the depth seems to possibly be slightly larger.
So if you have normal sized
ears that stick out, you'll be happier with this model, but if you
have ears that lie flat alongside your head but which are of large
size, you might be less happy.
Seriously, if your ears are of
larger than normal dimension, be sure you buy the headphones from
a place that will allow a full refund on return if you deem them
to be too small for comfort.
Background Noise (hiss)
Solitude have thoroughly
mastered the art of designing low noise electronics and these
headphones are close to totally silent with almost no
perceptible background hiss.
This latest model in the
Solitude series continues its tradition of playing sound with
the noise cancelling turned on or off; and - more significantly
- whether the batteries have charge in them or not.
The Bose products require
charged batteries to work. There is no passive pass-through
mode with the Bose headphones, so if your battery dies, you lose
all capabilities, not just sound reduction.
Clearly this is a plus point
for the Solitudes. We have sometimes had our QC15s fail in
the middle of a 10+ hour international flight, and that is very
annoying when it happens - indeed, these days we have put
ourselves in the routine of always replacing the battery at the
start of a lengthy series of flights, and trying to remember to
always travel with a spare battery, 'just in case'.
A new feature for the Solitude
XCS model is a bass boost setting. Curiously, if you wish to
turn the bass boost on, you have to simultaneously accept the loss
of the noise cancelling. Why is this? We've no idea,
and it seems counter-intuitive.
On the other hand, bass boost
in general is counter-intuitive. While we can understand the
sensational fun of having stomach and shelf shaking bass in a home
theater scenario, that doesn't happen with headphones, and upping
the bass merely reduces the sound fidelity and muddies the overall
Our clear recommendation -
leave the bass boost off. It adds nothing to your listening
experience, apart from distraction.
Talking about bass, we were
curious to see if the Solitude headphone drivers were capable of
handling extra bass to match their bass boost feature, so -
feeling naughty - we played a CD with so much bass it is a
caricature of a recording - one of Decca's (in)famous Phase Four
Stereo recordings, this one dating to 1973, and to ensure it was even more
ridiculously over the top, we chose a Stokowski recording (of the
Egmont overture). The double basses that are close-miked for
the first 3½ bars of this piece will overload (or even
destroy) most amplifier/speaker combinations.
So we fed that into the QC15,
the earlier Solitude X and the new Solitude XCS to see which would
do best in the torture test.
The good news - all three
performed very similarly in terms of the point where the speakers
became 'non-linear' in their response. The bad news - none
of the three could play this passage at moderately loud levels
without breaking up in the right channel.
As for 'normal' music and
other audio sources, the Solitude headphones performed adequately
well. And to our delight, the annoying tonal coloration
introduced in earlier models of the Solitude headphones (two
generations ago and earlier) is now almost completely absent, with
just the slightest loss of sheen when the noise cancelling is
switched off, much the same as the Solitude X model.
We hesitate to say if we
preferred the QC15 or Solitude XCS headphones more. Both
were perfectly acceptable from a sound quality perspective.
The specifications suggest a
frequency response of 20 Hz - 20 kHz, but we're not told the +/-
dB envelope this frequency range spans, so the claim is
The headphones are said to
have a 96dB sensitivity +/- 3dB at 1 kHz. This
contrasts with a claim of 112dB sensitivity (with the same
parameters) for the earlier model X headphones, but listening to
them side by side, we struggled to detect even a 3dB difference in
sensitivity, and certainly not what should be a profoundly obvious
16 dB difference. We accordingly treat this number with a
large grain of salt. Suffice it to say it was easy to drive
the headphones at more than adequate volume/listening levels.
They are said to have a 50 Ohm
impedance. We were unable to measure this.
Leaving the most important
feature to last, we now come to the noise cancelling
Noise cancelling, with all
active noise cancelling headphones, is made up of a combination of
active and passive technologies.
The passive is as important as
the active, and is represented in largest part by the ability of
the headphones to seal tightly on or around your ear. Most
people will get a better seal and a more comfortable wearing
experience with headphones that cup around your ear rather than
with ones which squash onto your year, and in recognizing this, we
automatically disqualify the Bose QC3 product from our typical
comparisons, because not only are they more expensive than the
QC15 model, but they're also not as good.
In the past, Solitude for a
while went a bit overboard with headphones that pressed much more
tightly against the ears than is normally accepted. The new
models X and XCS have 'normal' tension/pressure, while giving a
reasonably good seal.
You will probably find it
helps to slightly press the headphones in against your ear for a
minute or so, accelerating the rate at which the memory foam type
material in the ear cushions adapt to your head shape.
Once a good seal has been
effected, the Solitude headphones do a great job of noise
cancelling. We swapped back and forth between the earlier
model X and the new model XCS, finding very little between them,
before eventually agreeing that the newer XCS headphones were
slightly better at keeping the noise out.
The newer model quotes a
revised claim for greater than or equal to 18dB of noise
cancelling between 150 Hz and 400 Hz; the earlier model said 'up
to' 18 dB of cancelling across the same spectrum.
Noting the discrepancy between
some of the other specifications and the observed reality, all we
can say this time is the same as last time - we've no easy way of
testing the claim, other than to compare them against other
The headphones were
appreciably better than the Plane Quiet headphones, and almost as
good as the Bose QC15 headphones. The QC15 headphones really
did represent an extraordinary leap forward from their predecessor
QC2, as did the QC2 represent a positive step forward from the
original QC1. We've yet to encounter any other headphones,
from any manufacturer, and at any price, that perform as well as
the QC15 model.
But is it worth paying almost
twice as much money for the QC15 headphones as it is for the
Solitude XCS? That probably depends on how much spare cash
you have and how keen you are to minimize sound pollution on
Our guess is that most people
would rather spend a comparable amount of money to get two sets of
XCS headphones - one for them and one for a traveling companion -
rather than buy just one set of QC15 headphones.
But if only the best will do,
then you'll be making a trip to your local mall's Bose store, or
to Amazon, or wherever else. Note that Bose forbids
discounting, so there's no need to shop around for a better price
- there isn't one.
Where to Buy
The headphones have a retail
list price of $179.95 and can be
purchased direct from the manufacturer, Solitude Designs,
Summary and Recommendation
The Solitude XCS headphones
represent a very small improvement over the X model they will
replace. Their list price is lower than the model X, but
the manufacturer is currently remaindering off their stock of
the model X at a great price ($130) and at that price we feel
most people would be prudent to choose the model X rather than
the model XCS.
When the model X has been sold
out, the model XCS, at little more than half the cost of the Bose
QC15, offers very good but not quite as excellent performance, but
at a much lower cost.
Most people will see them as
an ideal compromise between cost and performance, accordingly.
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24 Aug 2012, last update
19 Dec 2013
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