Have you ever been on a bus, train or airplane and heard squeaky sounds coming from someone's headphones sitting five rows away? Doesn't that drive you...

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Have you ever been on a bus, train or airplane and heard squeaky sounds coming from someone’s headphones sitting five rows away? Doesn’t that drive you nuts?

Me too, but not because of that person’s often-dubious choice of music.

I want to tap that person on the shoulder and say, “Stop! You’re killing your ears!” Then I’d politely suggest an investment in a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

With noise-canceling or sound-isolating headphones, you don’t need to listen so loudly to hear clearly. The biggest reason people pump up the volume is to drown out the sounds around them — the noisy chatter on the bus, the screaming baby on the plane — or simply to tune out after a rough day.

But exposure to loud music is very bad for one’s hearing — besides the annoyance it causes the surrounding populace.

Noise-canceling headphones have been growing in popularity for the past several years. Headphones are among the most popular accessories for iPods and other MP3 players, and this is an emerging subcategory, one worthy of attention.

I’ve recommended other noise-canceling headphones in the past, particularly those from Niles, Ill.-based Shure Inc. But I’ve just tested two models — one from Audio-Technica and the other from Able Planet — that I like very much. Based on your particular tastes, either is recommended.

Both models offer excellent sound, certainly much better than what is shipped with most portable music players. To my ears, the Audio-Technica model is better for treble, while the Able Planet excels with bass.

Because I prefer the earbud style of headphones, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 QuietPoint is my choice. The buds don’t go very deep into the ear canal, making them extremely comfortable.

They are light and, even with a very aggressive shake of the head, didn’t move. Audio-Technica ships the QuietPoint with three sizes of soft ear covers to improve the fit.

These are affordable at $170 (available at Amazon.com, Apple stores and various audio retailers), compared with other noise-canceling models. If that sounds high, consider that Shure sells a pair, the SE530s, for $500.

The Audio-Technicas are a bargain by comparison. Designed for use in noisy areas, they include a control unit with a monitor button you press to mute the sound if, say, a neighbor on the bus or a flight attendant taps you on the shoulder to ask a question. This is convenient, but it is just as easy to pull out the earbuds.

The drawback is that the control unit requires a battery, which means the mute function won’t work without that AAA. And since batteries are often not required for headphones, a user can forget to turn the control unit off. But the battery, whether dead or alive, won’t affect the sound quality in these headphones.

That’s not the case with the Able Planet’s Clear Harmony. It requires two AAA batteries, and when the noise-canceling function is turned off, you still hear sound but it is muted. The effect of flipping on the function is quite dramatic: The sound is suddenly very rich and vibrant. Able Planet calls it Linx Audio technology.

This model also has a control unit that I like better because it adjusts the volume instead of just muting the sound.

Yet the Clear Harmony model is not as portable as the Audio-Technica product because of its ear-cup style of headphones, similar in looks to those you may have used in the ’70s and ’80s.

The Clear Harmony product is really for the business traveler. It ships with a case to hold the headphones and a dual-pin adapter for airline seats that don’t use the standard 3.5-millimeter headphone jack. Nice touch.

They are also comfortable but, at $350 (AblePlanet.com), they are not cheap.

Are they better than the Audio-Technica earphones?

Let me say this first: I love the confidence that Able Planet has in its headphones. My review unit shipped with an adapter, or splitter, to allow for two pairs of headphones to share the same outlet. It was a “dare to compare” challenge and, as a product reviewer, I wish more companies had such gumption.

Did they win?

It was very close, but I’ll opt for saving about $200 and go with the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 Quiet Point. But, again, if you don’t like the ear canal-hugging bud style, Able Planet’s Clear Harmony model is a winner.

I wish I could give all those noisy-music-listening commuters either pair.