Cool Tools for the Road Warriors

Columnist George Spafford has been logging a lot of time in airplanes lately. Here's what's been keeping him productive and happier.
I recently traveled to Australia and New Zealand to teach classes on regulatory compliance, risk management, and the use of controls.

The flight from LAX to Brisbane was supposed to take about 14 hours, so I took two main batteries and two auxiliary batteries for my Dell Latitude D800, figuring on getting six to 10 hours of work out of them. I also took two extended batteries for my Axim.

Lately, I had been toying with the idea of getting some of the new noise canceling headphones to reduce the deafness I have in long journeys. Not only do I battle the constant drone of the jet engines, but I have to crank up the volume in the small in-the-ear headphones to the point that I really question what I'm doing to my hearing.

After some research on the $299 Bose noise canceling unit and $199 Solitude headphones, I opted to go with the recommendations I read and bought a Solitude set. They fold down substantially to take up little space, the earcups are very adjustable, the two AAA batteries are supposed to last around 35 hours, and the frequency response from the 40mm drivers was rated at 20 to 20,000 Hz.

I really didn't know what to expect. I tried them on at home and while there wasn't much difference, the noise canceling on the plane is simply amazing. They are rated at 18db of noise reduction and excel at repetitive sound -- especially at the frequencies that jet engines make through the cabin.

The headphones are built quite solidly so even with the noise canceling turned off, they reduce some of the noise. Turn the canceling technology on and it is truly remarkable.

To add to the versatility, the headphones come with a nice nylon softcase, a standard 1/8 inch by 1/8 inch cord, and then two adapters to use audio plugs, as well as the dual-1/8 inch plugs you see on some airplanes. In fact, one of the reasons for selecting the Solitudes was the use of a standard audio cord. If I lose or break the cord that came with the headphones, all I need is a male-male 1/8 inch stereo cord to be back in business.

While I've been disappointed with airplane sound system quality in the past, listening to movies on the Qantas in-seat entertainment system was dramatically improved, as was listening to both sound files and movies through my PC.

While in Sydney, I wandered around downtown going to CD and electronics shops.

Up to then, I'd listened to MP3s on my PC and my Axim. The only beef I've ever had with the Axim X30 is the really poor music handling it has, plus I wanted something small and very portable. At any rate, I wandered around from store to store and went in one shop with a great music and player selection. I struck up a conversation with a knowledgeable fellow who showed me a lot of models. They had the big iPods, stuff from Creative Labs and all kinds of units.

Then, he showed me the iRiver T20MT with 1GB of storage. Wow! This thing is the size of a USB memory stick of a year ago and plugs straight into the USB port. Not only do you use the USB to move audio files around, but it also charges the 14 hour battery!

Between the size, easy controls and great sound, he sold me on the unit -- very easily, too, I might add. I paid about $211 U.S. for the unit, a small belt case, a set of Sony Turbo headphones and taxes. You may wonder why I bought the Sony headphones, but it was for safety and it's ultra light when walking around urban areas.

I immediately took the unit back to my hotel, plugged it in, downloaded a bunch of songs and let it charge. The disappointing catch some may encounter is that this is an Australian model that iRiver isn't marketing in the U.S. If you go to the iRiver site and look at MP3 players for Australia, you can see the specs. By using Froogle, hopefully you can find places that will sell it to you wherever you live. I am very impressed by the software used to manage the songs and the audio quality. It's a joy to use.

As I write this column, I am on a flight from LAX to Cincinnati, Ohio. The Solitude headphones are working spectacularly with the iRiver -- they make are a fantastic combination.

As an aside, I am always amazed at how fast notebooks consume the batteries even when set to low power. I wish I could get 14 hours with my notebook. But beware of taking tons of batteries when you're flying with Qantas. The airline caps you at 7KG on domestic and international flights originating from Australia and New Zealand. I wound up having to check them.

Bottom line... if you travel a lot, you absolutely need to check out the noise canceling headphones. They are definitely worth the investment for use with your MP3 player, notebook, etc.






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