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Noise-canceling headphones with a DO NOT DISTURB light can't silence your critics

Jabra's Evolve 80 will hush your office, but the red warning ring is mere bling

Ears-on test The Register's Sydney eyrie will soon be demolished, so Vulture South needs a new office and we're probably going to nestle into a shared workspace.

Which is why I decided to try out the Jabra Evolve 80, a pair of noise-canceling headphones that feature red lights on the earpieces designed to warn people you do not wish to be disturbed.

The headphones ship with a small round “puck” that has a few functions. Firstly, it charges the headphones, courtesy of a USB cable intended to lodge in your PC or Mac. There’s also a volume control and a mute button. The star of the show is a button that when tapped turns on a scarlet LED to enable the Do Not Disturb function.

Tapping the puck also turns on an angry red DO NOT DISTURB ring on each earpiece.

Sadly, those red lights look like bling, not a warning to back off and leave the wearer alone. So colleagues and visitors to Vulture South just saw me wearing pretty headphones rather than receiving a visual signal that I wanted to work without interruption.

The Evolve 80s' noise-canceling is excellent. So excellent that colleagues resorted getting in my eyeline and gesticulating to demonstrate their frustration with my inattentiveness. Explaining the concept of the red lights produced unsympathetic half-apologies for their frenzied attempts to get my attention.

There's a second or two of lag before noise-cancellation kicks in, but once it does a very pleasant hush descends over the world. I found the cans killed noises like heater fans or aircon. Music smoothed out without losing contrast. At home, where my teenaged kids turn our floorboards into drums every time they walk, the thump smoothed to a thud, my dishwasher was silenced and birdsong banished. Even the low-flying aircraft that keep my neighbourhood affordable were pleasingly muted.

Speaking of planes, I adore wearing noise-canceling headphones on them because I emerge feeling considerably more refreshed than when my ears are assaulted by hours of noise. The Evolve 80s don't ship with a plane adapter, but I had one to hand and took it and the headphones aboard an A330 for the eight-hour hop to Singapore. I found the plane's twin engines lost most of their low-end rumble and roar, leaving just my tinnitus and a bit of hiss to contend with.

The phones are, however, a little plasticky and over eight hours made my ears sweaty at times. I was glad to remove them on arrival.

The Evolve 80 also feature an an artfully-concealed boom mic that hides on its headband and swings down over your cheek. I used it to record a podcast and for about a week's worth of conversations with zero complaints about voice quality. Sadly folding the mic away twists the earpiece into a position from which the whole device no longer fits easily into the supplied neoprene case.

I liked the Evolve 80, although as their list price of US$329 is more expensive than Bose's $US280 QuietComfort 25 wired headphones, and the same price as Bose's wireless model 35, the microphone and warning lights don't come cheap.

For what it's worth, Jabra's Evolve 75 have the same lights and microphone as the 80 but add dual Bluetooth radios. The idea is that one connects to your phone, the other to your PC, so you can listen to whatever's happening on screen and handle phone calls without having to mess with configurations. While Bluetooth-to-airline-seat-three-pin-headphone-socket adapters exist, such a device would have to be turned off at various moments of the flight and represent an extra layer of hassle I'm not willing to wear. But the Evolve 75 is cheaper – list price $US279 – so look a sound alternative if you don't fly a lot.

Either pair of Evolves would, I suspect, make a shared workplace easier to endure. But I suspect explaining the warning lights to a revolving cast of hot desk-using casuals will be more hassle than just putting up with the occasional interruption. ®

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