A Comparative Review of High-End Noise Canceling Headphones Page 3

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 (MSRP $349)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_ATHANC9Audio-Technica's recent release of a new top-of-the-line noise canceler had me quite excited. This new model sports an advanced DSP that allows you to select from 3 different noise canceling modes: airplane noise; crowd noise; and a mode to make quiet spaces like libraries even quieter. I found that changing modes helped quiet different types of noise, and that the overall noise canceling ability was fairly good.

The problem I had with the ANC9 was the missing mid-range response, yielding somewhat lumbering lows and strident highs with withdrawn voices between. At just over half the price (street price), I'd take Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC7B over these in a heartbeat.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 product page.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b (MSRP $219)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_ATHANC7BMy intention with this article was to review all the high-dollar noise cancelers, but I've long known the ANC7b to be a very competitive headphone, so I included it in this listening comparison. As usual, it did quite well against headphones almost double its price. The sound is a little thin with not quite as much bass kick as I'd like, and the treble is a little artificial sounding, but given its ability to quiet a loud environment and still sound decent, the overall listening experience in loud environments is quite enjoyable.

No, it's not quite as comfortable, not quite as quieting, and not quite the sound quality of the Bose, but the little 7b does manage to deliver the second best listening experience of the bunch for me. I definitely recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b, a competent noise canceler with good sound at a very good price.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b product page.

Beats by Dre Studio ($299)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_BeatsStudioThe firstest with the mostest of the rapper can world, I think the Studio is the best of the Dr. Dre line-up. As you'd expect, the Studio has fairly strong bass response, but it's done quite unexpectedly with good taste. The mid-range is good if a bit uneven, and the treble is a bit hyped up and splashy. Overall, the listening experience is fairly good. Unfortunately, the noise canceling performance is pretty poor, making the Beats Studio a pretty poor choice for planes and trains.

Let's be truthful: these headphones were not designed with the serious traveler in mind. The Beats Studio was as much designed to be worn as bling around the neck as it was to deliver thumping bass. There's no big surprise they don't measure up to the more serious noise canceling headphones. What is surprising is that they really are pretty good for a "celebrity headphone."

Beats by Dre Studio product page.

PSB M4U 2 ($399)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_PSBM4U2Long time Canadian speaker maker PSB produced their first entry into the world of headphones last year with the M4U 2 noise canceler. I've enjoyed my few experiences with their speakers, but there's a world of difference between designing speakers and headphones. I think they've done surprisingly well with this first offering.

In passive mode with the electronics off, this headphone sounds quite good, and I consider that quite an accomplishment for a first time maker. Unfortunately, once you turn the electronics on, I hear a significant increase in the upper-mid and low-treble regions making the headphone sound more forward and harder. Measurements show this likely has more to do with a loss of bass and lower-mids when turning on the electronics. The noise canceling and ability to isolate from outside sounds is also pretty poor with the M4U 2. Still, they're better than the Beats, and for a manufacturer's first effort I'm encouraged for future PSB product. A less expensive, passive sealed headphone based on this design, for example, might be good.

PSB M4U 2 product page.

Polk Ultrafocus 8000 (MSRP $349)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_Polk8000Holy Guacamole, do these sound good! Easily the best sounding headphone of the bunch. But again, the noise canceling is poor, and in loud environments the Bose and ANC7b ends up being a better listening experience as a result.

I'm still amazed at how good these sound, though. Polk has done a superb job on the acoustics of these cans. Unfortunately, they don't work in passive mode, so I couldn't hear how the drivers alone sounded, but I did pull out my AKG K550 for comparison and was shocked to hear how close they came to my reference sealed cans.

While I can't recommend these headphones for hard-core traveling and very noisy applications, they do get my recommendation as a good home, office, and walking around headphone for your iPhone. They will work well when a traditional sealed headphone is appropriate, and they sound very good...maybe you just have to think of the Ultrafocus 8000 as headphones with a built in amp and a bit of noise canceling thrown in for good measure.

Polk Ultrafocus 8000 product page.

Bose Quiet Comfort 15 (MSRP $299)
120620_feature_SurveyofNoiseCancelers_BoseQC15The Bose Quiet Comfort 15 dominated this test. The sound quality is better than average, failing mostly in having a rather innocuous and lispy sounding treble. But the noise canceling delivered by the QC15 was truly excellent--almost disorientingly so when I first put them on. The combination of decent sound quality and great isolation yields a surprisingly intimate listening experience in even the loudest environments.

Bose has been extremely successful with their noise canceling headphones, and the corporate competence gained over the years and numerous models developed clearly show in the Quiet Comfort 15. Not only is the listening experience very good, but the headphones are very light and comfortable; the accessories are complete; and the QC15 runs for 35 hours on a single AAA battery. I've been recommending the Bose Quiet Comfort 15 for years, and after comparing them with the latest batch of high-end noise cancelers, it looks like they'll continue to get my highest recommendation.

Bose Quiet Comfort 15 product page.

I'm a purist. I really don't like the idea of all the electronic tomfoolery going on inside noise canceling headphones, and think the sound quality is usually worse for the wear. Personally, I wear in-ear headphones while traveling on planes and trains, or when I find myself in a noisy bar or cafeteria and need some peace and quiet. My personal favorite in-ear headphones can be found here. But I do understand people who dislike putting something in their ear.

If you find yourself in loud environments and would prefer a good noise canceling headphone, there are two very good choices in my mind: the Bose Quiet Comfort 15, and the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b as a lower cost alternative. While I think the ANC7b delivers nearly the same value for the money, in the case of hard-core travelers surviving chaos and din day after day, month after month, I think the additional investment in the QC15 for your peace of mind is well worth the price.

Big thanks to the folks at HeadRoom for loaning me some of the headphones in this review! Here's the video!