Several years ago when I first heard about noise cancelling headphones, I was vesry intrigued but skeptical. The concept of cancelling out audio signals by using another signal of the same material that has had it's polarity flipped has been around for quite awhile -- the math is at work for you every time you use audio devices with a balanced connection by basically cancelling out any noise that has been inducted into the line from the point at which the signal was balanced (usually a balanced output from another audio device). But real-time noise cancellation on a device worn by a human being who is moving around, thus changing the type and volume of background noises, all the while keeping the audio that said human is listening to virtually unaffected?! Now that's another story!
First, the microphones built into the side of the thing must be of high enough quality to pick up everything -- some air conditioning systems produce noise at very low frequencies and you must have a mic that will pick those frequencies up if you have even a prayer of cancelling them out. Second, how do you keep sound from simply going through the headphones' ear cups and basically negating the cancellation effects? Most importantly, how can you constantly monitor an ever-changing noisy environment and make the appropriate adjustments to the cancelling signal without affecting the quality of the sound I'm trying to listen to? And finally, even if you can pull off all of this, can you put it together with headphone drivers that actually sound good enough for it to matter and keep the product at a halfway reasonable price?!
After playing with various models throughout the years and being disappointed overall, I believe I have now found what I consider a good blending of the desired features listed above at a price that even I can't balk at. Allow me to introduce you to Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones.
Ease of Use
Audio-Technica makes these technically advanced “cans” very friendly to use for pros and consumers alike. Just pop in the included AAA battery and flip the switch on the side. A blue LED reminds you they're on, so you don't run down the battery overnight. I think one additional feature that would really set these ‘phones apart is to have an auto shut off circuit that will cut the power if no signal is present for more than 10 minutes or so, then would power on automatically when a signal resumes. The headband is very easy to adjust and the ear cups are quite comfortable.
Depth of Options
The ANC7's come in a semi-rigid travel case that provides storage and protection for the headphones, as well as the included sachet of adapters and audio cable. The cable provides stereo 1/8" phone plugs, and both 1/4" phone plug and airline headphone plug adapters are conveniently provided. Audio-Technica also designed the cable to plug into the 'phones, so that, if you need a longer cable, no problem! Just go buy one and you can use different lengths for different purposes (like having a longer one for listening in your living room and a short one for just listening to an mp3 player that's in your pocket). I also found that there was room in the case for my mp3 player -- everything all in one spot -- nice. The comfortable headband has 16 different positions per side so you can customize the size exactly to your liking -- for best performance it's important to get the cans in a spot where the cups form a good seal around your ears.
One nice feature is that the noise cancelling can be turned on without the cable being plugged into the headphones -- which means you can basically just use these to find a quiet place any time you need one! Another nice touch is that the ear cups can turn to make the headphones flatter and take up less space.
Simply put, these things just work! My first test with them was at home in my living room watching a movie with an orchestral score, lots of sound effects, etc. I put them on and immediately noticed how much noise the ear cups themselves cut out. Then I flipped them on and... nothing... I was in a vacuum... it was great! I never realized how much noise I was getting from the air conditioning registers until I took these off after I was done. Upon further listening I did start noticing just a tiny amount of white noise being added to the signal when the power was on, but honestly I'd rather have that than HVAC noise or the rumble of a car, etc. distracting me.
My next test was sure to push the design to its limits. Basically, I used the ANC7's with a laptop to review some audio production software while on a jet. I was shocked at how much of the rumble and hum of the engines was gone when I turned them on. What's more, I was able to monitor my demo session at a much lower volume than I would have had to in order to hear the more subtle aspects of the mix, etc. Lower volume means I'm taking care of my ears and that makes me feel warm, fuzzy, and just all 'round good.
I have gotten to where I use these in my recording studio whenever a singer wants to record in the control room (for better communication, or whatever other reason). I can hear more of what the mic is picking up and less of what they sound like in the room. For filmmaking, they’re also great for doing location audio because I can hear if there is any noise in the mics without hearing any of the noise coming from around me and through the ear cups, etc.
Sound quality is good -- the 40mm neodymium drivers deliver a sound that is full and warm, yet detailed and revealing without a hyped upper midrange like some other models that are popular for production work. I wouldn't call the frequency response flat all the way out on both ends -- I'm missing just a little bit on the extreme highs and lows -- but it's easy on the ears which means less fatigue and more productivity -- just don't use these for any final mixes, that's all. [Note: You can play audio through the 'phones without the active electronics powered on, but the sound is much more muted/dull and the volume is much lower. It's nice to know you can still listen if you get caught without good batteries, but I recommend always listening with the power on.]
The quality of the noise cancellation is outstanding. My comrades here at MFM and I compared the ANC7's to a competing Bose model and we all agreed that the Audio-Technicas did a slightly better job in the cancellation department, and I favored the sound too, due to the more revealing nature of the midrange that is crucial for production work.
Battery life is good, but be aware that you're likely to get a feedback-like squealing sound if you turn them on with a battery that doesn't have quite enough juice left in it. Though the cable is thin and seems a bit delicate, all connectors seem solid enough and are gold-plated for high-quality connections.
The ANC7's are priced perfectly in my opinion -- less than competing products, yet they offer high performance and all the extras.
It's good to see a company delivering what they advertise at a price people can afford. These headphones have earned a permanent place in my gear closet, although they rarely spend any time there since I'm always using them for one thing or another.