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I had with the ANC9 was the missing mid-range response, yielding somewhat lumbering lows and strident highs with withdrawn voices between.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!


melvin's picture

The biggest thing that I picked up in this writeup is how noise cancelling headphones work. I agree that in-ear monitors work best in isolating noise but my friends are not 'sharp' enough to realize this.

I'm just curious because in your Wall of Fame, you have mm450 as a noise cancelling headphone. I own the PXC 310 (and I think they have the same drivers as mm450) so I was curious why the headphones was not included in this review.

Other than that, I'm not surprised that Bose edged out everyone in terms of noise cancelling

TheWuss's picture

man! some of these NC headphones have poorly matched drivers.
well, at least more deviation in FR than i've noticed before....

Mkubota1's picture

I completely agree with your assessments of the Beats Studio and QC15- the only two of the bunch I've really heard. It's also nice to see that all of the people wearing these aren't as crazy as some of us might have thought. After a while it gets difficult calling the rest of the world crazy while maintaining that we're the only sane ones around. That said, I still have no idea what those people wearing the Solos are thinking (or hearing).

SuperFocker's picture

If only Tyll knew as much about the use of semi-colons as he does headphones! haha

One thing I don't get...you seem to rave about the Polks more than the A-T, yet in the end you suggest the Bose and the A-T, not Bose and the Polks. Is this just based on relative value?

DaveBSC's picture

Thanks for covering these, but I'm sorry to see the Denon NC800 not on the list, I've heard a few of them and the Denon is my favorite. It doesn't isolate as well as the Bose but it sounds much better to my ears. It's really a very competent headphone. Bass, midrange, treble and headstage are all not bad, really nothing to complain about for a NC headphone. It lasts 40hrs on an AAA battery, and unlike the Bose it will continue to work with a dead battery or with no battery, it just loses efficiency and a bit of sound quality.

The only flaw I've noticed with the Denon is that it lets you know the battery is too low by emitting a nice 70dB squeal when you switch on noise cancelling. I've learned to hit the switch first, THEN put the headphones on.

mikes62's picture

Heard them back to back with Denon AH-nc732 and felt the Bose's did a slightly better job in NC'ing but the Denon's sounded more detailed and balanced.

bigb121074's picture

...confirmed what I've believed for the longest: If you need noise cancelling, get the QC-15's....and do NOT get noise cancelling unless you absolutely need to.

Audioaddict's picture

I know this was mainly focused on high end NC headphones but Rocketfish introduced the Atmos noise canceling headphones for 129$ and while the noise canceling isn't as spectacular as the bose QC 15 it's better then any sealed and decent in general, especially at 129$. And I didn't think the sound quality was all that bad. If you could you might would like to check them out and write a review.

maverickronin's picture

The QC15s are also great to wear over your IEMs for even more isolation.

You can do that with $20 industrial hearing protectors but those get can get pretty uncomfortable.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Great idea!
e_resolu's picture

Great Review as always...

Do you plan to include the new Zik Parrot in a near future ?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've attempted to contact them.
Lex_J_Luthor's picture

Great article! As a frequent business flyer I wish there was better variety of feasible options. ANC seems like an afterthought feature for many companies.

My $0.02...ATH-ANC7b have actually sold for as little as $100-109 whether Bose vice-grips the $299 MSRP. From owning both, I agree that Bose is a better unit, but nowhere near the demanded mark up. $50 better? Probably...$200 better? Definitely not. That money is better put towards a good IEM, which is what I did.

Any chance you can do another comparison or article on ANC IEMs (ex. ATH ANC23)?

steble's picture

AKG K490 NC has gotten some good reviews. It would be fun to read about what Tyll thinks about them.

ednaz's picture

I've been a two or more flights a week traveler for almost 30 years now, and I've dipped into the noise cancelling headphone pool several times, beginning with a pair of Sony back when the concept was fresh and new.

In every case, I wear them for awhile and think, this is OK; then during a trip I listen to some music on the one or two high quality 'phones I travel with, and my opinion of the noise cancellers starts to fade, eventually to zero. And then I would go back to wearing mostly my Etymotic universal fit ear phones, which I've had at least one set of since forever. I can hear odd sound artifacts, many up in the high frequencies, some that make my teeth hurt. (I have unusually good high frequency hearing, can hear all kinds of electronics even though I grew up and continue to be a fan of Detroit rock and roll.) Sometimes they get into a woofy wow kind of feedback loop, too.

The earphones block sound better; they don't add weird artifacts and sound signatures to my music; easier to carry and no batteries. I've got a couple more brands of universal fit earphones, too, and enjoy the sound. But the universal fits never were comfortable for long trips. Which would eventually drive me to try a new set of noise cancellers... back to the pattern.

For a couple years recently I wore my closed, but non-cancelling, headphones on my longest flights, where the earphones would get uncomfortable. I was willing to give up a bit of sound blocking to have my music sound right.

Last year I had a set of custom in ear monitors made, along with a set of custom tips for one of my set of Ety, and I should have done it a decade ago. Could have saved a lot of money spent seeking both noise reduction and comfort. The custom tips improved the sound of the Ety earphones, which work with my mobile phone as a headset. The in ear monitors are sheer bliss in sound quality and comfort. Neither cuts as much sound as the silicone multi-layer universal tips on earphones, but the difference would really only be significant if I directed jet planes to parking spaces.

For anyone disturbed by the bits of sonic weirdness that can show up in noise cancelling headphones, but has trouble with comfort on earphones - the money spent for a custom fit earphone is worth every penny. If you don't hear the sonic weirdness and like the sound, then noise cancelling phones may be your answer. Having owned a few of the ones reviewed - and many others - I agree with the assessment. The ATtoolongobscurename 'phones are great, but the Bose do a better job on noise. I used to use them for lawn work and they make John Deere's roar into a far away rumble.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
"Last year I had a set of custom in ear monitors made, along with a set of custom tips for one of my set of Ety, and I should have done it a decade ago."

One of the best things I've ever done is get custom molds made for my ER4Ps. I particularly like the ability---after getting old and worn out---of easily sliding the drivers out of the tips so I can leave the tips in my ears when I need to talk to someone. Totally cures having to take them in-and-out all the time.

But for lots of other reasons you mention as well, IEMs are really the way to go, and custom tips or custom IEMs are superb for traveling. The comfort is much better.

Beagle's picture

Having had these for more than a month, I can now say that the M4U 2 is perhaps the best balanced overall headphone I've heard. No bass hump, no treble spikes, the midrange is mid, not hiding in the background. Of course, it took more than an hour of listening for me to realize all this..

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I know I sort of damned them with faint praise in the review --- and you should hear the Polks --- but I will be listening more to the PSBs. "Quite good" is fairly high praise from me, and I did like them ... I just liked other stuff more for noise cancelers.

Like I said, I will be listening more.

rem451's picture

Hello Tyll, first time here, love your reviews and comments, i want to ask if you listening this psb's more and if you have more details, i would love to see you make seperatelly a review regarding this headphones.
I would love to buy the white version but i m not quite sure also i can't find it anywhere just to see it first of all..
i would go with bose's qc15 headphones but i don't like the look, and the polk's audio cannot cancel noise at all so.. i think psb's headphones is a good solution. what's your opinion?
keep up the good job

Beagle's picture

PSB will be issuing a regular (passive only) version in the fall. It will be interesting to see if the sound remains the same, what with earpieces not stuffed with plastic cabinets, batteries and circuitry. Looking forward to these.

Giteau's picture

Loved the article and the video on youtube too!

dborda's picture



What do you think about the BH905i by Nokia? I bought them a year ago and I think (without being an expert) they have a pretty good sound and the noise isolation is good. They also are Bluetooth and wired what gives you battery independence.



bindertwine's picture

Dr Dre headphones may have adequate sound and NC, but the design flaw is so horrific that they will let you down- screws holding cheap plastic is a loosing situation and they bust after normal use, at which time the hinge assembly will also crap out. The next horror will be dealing with Beats who care nothing about your broken headphones. If the warranty is lapsed, your outta luck. Try find someone that will fix them... Far prefer Den's and Senn's.

Reticuli's picture

How well do these headphones block loud outside music?  I can't seem to find an answer for that.  I hear a lot of theories and hearsay, but no definite answers from anyone that's tried it.  I'm talking about playing very loud full range music all around you and listening to another piece of music through the headphones.  I'd be interested in their functioning both without wearing musicians earplugs and with musicians earplugs, which would be an indication of how well the NC, mics, and drivers work at normal and also very high amplitudes.

drmnz's picture

HI, I purchased a pair of QC15 headphones and at home they work great.  Unfortunately, on an aircraft they seem to mangle the audio and it is better to use my Bose TP-1A headphones.  Not sure why this is the case. Thanks for your review - interesting info.  Cheers

frazier's picture

This headphone is that good (confirmed by lots of customers), there must be another reason for failing in the review.
Maybe the noise-cancelling is not quite the same as with bose, but the outstanding sound-characteristics of this headphone should be recognized and appreciated in a appropriate way (!!!!) by tyll....

I think, the overall-quality of the M4U2 is that good, Bose could get some real trouble, if it was published...

Tyll reacted on customers who complained about the "unfairness" or "subjectivity" of a review he did...

So, I think, he did that for his conscience...cause he really knows how good the HP is in reality....