Mobile devices that play audio have spoiled us — we get headphones that go over the ear and into the ear and even around the ear. And at prices that almost seem like they’re being given away. But what’s lost in all this is that there ARE differences in the sound that you hear between different types of headphones. Part of that difference comes from the hardware itself: junky cheap-o audio drivers result in junky cheap-o sound, nothing good to say just because it wasn’t costly to begin with.
So spending a few hundred dollars gets you a pair of over the ear headphones from a reputable and well-known dealer, Audio-Technica. Specifically it gets you a pair of their ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint Headphones.
And right up front let me say that their being able to fold flat is a good thing (the ATH-ANC9 is not a compact pair), as is the hard case that comes to protect/carry them. Being able to fold means you can place them down more safely when you’re not using them but plan to keep them around for quick access (as in placing them nearby but not on am amplifier or where you store your iPad or Smartphone that’s being charged). Having a case has its upside too: the case also allows for the room to avoid having to stick the 1.4-inch audio jack adapter, airline jack adapter and extra “AAA” battery (that you should always have on hand) in your pocket so that they eventually end up lost, mangled or cycled through the washing machine.
The ear-cups are large — that is NOT to say they are of that over-large ilk now found. “Large” ear-cups can fit better than the “overly” large models because they’re big enough to fit over the ears but leave a snug fit as a result. Aiding this is the use of “memory” foam that retains its shape from being worn by you. Think of it as a form of customization of the ear-cups to the sides of your head.
This is preferable as I see it for getting a better seal against the outside environment. And when you consider that this is part of what makes the ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint Headphones “noise canceling,” this is a good thing. And the hinges and framework that “cup” the ear-cups, as it were to make a bad pun, provide lateral and vertical movement/positioning that is more than sufficient — let’s call it “workable.” This means that you get the impression that you’ll be putting the headphones on and taking them off with their having the same amount of flexibility over time.
I consider their size even more helpful due to the addition of a feature that you don’t find in many headphones: active noise cancellation. Audio-Technica rates their technology as being able to remote up to 95% of outside noise, and furthers this intent through three presets (called “modes”) which have a range of up to 30dB noise reduction of surface noise. Since few, if any of us listen to headphones while employing audio meter devices, I’ll defer to Audio-Technica in that they know what they’re doing and are telling me the same. Two onboard microphones “listen” and provide counter frequencies to cancel” the ambient sounds out: it’s the audio equivalent of surface to air missiles taking out an incoming drone. Only less violent. That the ATH-ANC9 has large ear-cups is a big plus here because it provides more “space” for the cancellation to take place before the sound goes into the ear. That’s what I think, anyway.
So to rate how the ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint Headphones sounds, I’ll need to compare its use with and without the three noise cancellation modes that it comes with in real-world situations: each mode is designed to eliminate sound frequencies that otherwise would “bleed” into the headphones and mix with the audio being heard.
A super-quick comparison shows that when the headphones are operated without any cancellation (“passive”), and then compared to noise-cancellation, the frequency response of the audio signal being heard does change. So I know that the modes are functioning and the headphones is in workable condition. So let’s get at each of these modes then in as real-life a situation as I can manage. And to make it as simple as possible, I’ll be using the included cord/plug-in jack that does not include the in-line microphone. It’s always best to remove any variable that you can.
Mode 1: This is stated as being where the audio frequencies are really loud — on an airplane or train. The best I could do was get on the Orange line which is a rapid speed bus near my home. During rush hour AM traffic, a good number of people were on the bus and while their voices were minimal, the vibrations and sounds coming from the bus weren’t. The mode definitely made an impression when compared to it not being used. With it off, a lot of the bass from the Eagles album I was playing seemed really “muddied.” Or perhaps I should say dull and thudding more like a rock being hit against the floor. No problems in hearing the voices without cancellation, but the overall effect was not good. Turning the mode on brought the bass back “into the fold,” so to speak. Now the overall audio sounded more dynamic and with an expansive sound field. Before it was sort of like layers of a Big Mac being picked off one by one.
Mode 2: This is created for crowded places and so it’s the middle frequencies that are being affected. That means people talking as I see it. So I went to a nearby Mall and walked the lower level on a Saturday morning, making sure to walk into stores that were crowded — mostly these were women’s clothing stores and you can imagine how well this went over from their point of view. In my defense, I was better dressed than usual, even if the headphones over my ears made me look like I was mistaking where I was for the nearby Apple store. Anyway, the volumes being generated seemed to affect the vocals of the Eagles tracks and make them hard to hear and, at times, a bit garbled. Once I activated the mode, all this disappeared. As I did as quickly as I could since the stares I had been getting were really starting to get hostile.
Mode 3: Audio-Technica says that this is best for low-noise environments like libraries — so since I had to pick up a book anywhere, there I go. There’s chairs in a computer lab-like area and I snagged a seat and played the Eagles again at moderate volume so as to avoid sound leakage from the cups (don’t want to be thrown out!). This mode is the closest to similarity to not using any cancellation — providing that we are talking about really, really low levels. In this case the murmuring from those in the library and the minimal sounds of the library desk handing out books accompanied by conversations. But once two persons started talking next to me, I had better results with the mode turned on.
Bottom line: Paying $349 retail for a pair of headphones that don’t reproduce sound well is money tossed to the winds. In the case of the ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint Headphones, you don’t just get good sound output, but the means — active noise cancellation — to further its integrity. Considering that you get three modes to choose from, you can consider this money well spent.
- Doubles as a means for creating a “quiet zone” for solitary contemplation
- In-line microphone and music playback control for iOS devices/selected other audio mobile devices
- Folds flat for storage
- An inexpensive battery powering the noise-cancellation modes will deplete quickly
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.