Active noise-cancelling headphones often cost more than $200, which can strain the budget of any traveler as much as a crying baby on a plane can strain your ears. While the $139 i-Mego Walker Junior headphones are light on extra features -- there's no smartphone-friendly inline mic/controller, for example -- you'll save quite a chunk of change over more expensive models.
Click to EnlargeThe matte-black finish and cool "X" design of the Walker Juniors make these circumaural cans suitable for the style conscious, and the detachable 4-foot cable will be good for accident-prone users. We like the folding, padded headband and swiveling earcups; the Walker Juniors fold up into a tight, little ball just a bit bigger than a large man's fist.
The package includes a soft case, an airplane adapter, a quarter-inch adapter and a triple-A alkaline battery. The battery inserts inside a hidden compartment on the left earcup, and you flip a switch on the bottom of the right earcup to activate the noise cancellation.
Click to EnlargeThe Walker Junior's faux-leather earpads are soft enough for long listens, and they fit fairly easily around average-sized ears. However, the Junior's overall comfort is nowhere near that of the head-cradling Bose Quiet Comfort 15 ($299). Basically, at about half the price you get about half the comfort, but we didn't experience anything that made us want to take the cans off while watching a feature-length movie.
Click to EnlargeWhen you put the Walker Juniors on, they offer a little bit of passive noise blockage, but the active noise-cancellation (NC) makes a very noticeable difference. However, while the headphones are fairly good at blocking the continuous din of an engine or A/C unit, they introduce a fairly strong hiss.
When we went back and forth between the Walker Juniors and the Bose QC15's, there was no contest; the Walkers still let a fair amount of noise through compared with Bose's tomb-like (and hiss-free) silence. Logitech's UE6000 ($199) fell right in between the two.
To be fair, the Walkers' hiss is easily washed out (along with other noise that sneaks past the cancellation) by music. So if you're planning on using your headphones just for the noise cancellation, without listening to anything, these won't really cut it.
We do appreciate that the headphones still play music when the battery runs out and they stop canceling noise, something the QC15's can't do. The company rates the battery life from an "average" alkaline battery at about 10 hours, which isn't particularly impressive, though you can likely double that time with premium lithium batteries.
The Walkers' audio performance is slightly below what we'd been hoping for at this price, with muddy upper bass that sounds like it's boosted a little too much. The most problematic thing about the audio is that, although these headphones are very sensitive and get loud very easily, they distort at higher volumes. For comparison, we used the Bose QC15s with our MacBook Air's system volume and iTunes volume all the way up, and we got a very listenable volume level with good overall balance.
When we swapped in the Walkers, we had to turn the iTunes volume almost all the way down to achieve the same volume level -- and to keep the upper bass and lower midrange from distorting and overwhelming the rest of the music. Tom Waits' "Who Are You" and the Alabama Shakes' "Hold On" sounded bloody awful on the Walkers until we turned the volume way down. The extra bass was somewhat helpful on songs such as Tom Petty's "Zombie Zoo," a track that isn't already bass heavy, but the overall balance is still noticeably off compared with other cans we tried. Again, here, Logitech's UE6000 was slightly better, with exaggerated bass but less distortion and better overall balance than the Walkers.
We also listened to the Walkers without the power on, and the volume dropped to a more reasonable level, but the tonal balance gets thrown even further off and vocals nearly disappear into the background. While it's good that the Walkers work at all with the power off, Logitech's headphones do a better job at maintaining audio quality.
As long as you keep the volume down, the i-Mego Walker Junior headphones make an affordable and comfortable companion on a cross-country flight without taking up a lot of space in your bag. Just don't expect Bose-level noise cancellation or audio quality at this price. Logitech's UE 6000 ($171 on Amazon) are about $30 more expensive, but offer better audio and noise-cancellation as well as a cable with inline iPhone controls. Still, those looking for an inexpensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones will find that the Walker Juniors will do the trick.