In the middle of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a traveler who finds one of the others’ tales to be unbearable and annoying simply screams at him to stop. Agent Maxwell Smart, on the other hand, had an advanced Cone of Silence. Unfortunately, for iPod owners who find that a bus, workplace, or other location is just unbearably noisy, these ideas probably won’t work. The good news is that advances in antisound technology have led to noise-cancelling headphones, such as Sony’s MDR-NC6. Although they don’t block all ambient noise, the MDR-NC6s are impressive in their ability to isolate the audio you’re listening to from background noise that could otherwise interfere with your audio device.
The MDR-NC6s follow the conventional headphone design, consisting of two adjustable, padded earpieces connected by a band that goes over your head. The cable connects to one side of the headphones (rather than splitting into two cables and connecting in two places, as some cheaper headsets do) and is compatible with any standard 3.5 mm minijack.
On the right-hand side of the headphones, a small cylinder snaps in a single AAA battery, which is required to power the active noise cancellation feature. An switch on the right earpiece turns noise cancellation on or off. Sony rates the battery life at 30 hours, and after hours of testing, the headphones were still going strong from the first battery I used.
I have long wondered if noise cancellation is just marketing hype, or if it can actually work. Sony says that the MDR-NC6s can reduce ambient noise by up to 10 dB. I’m pleased to say that the feature really does work, as long as your expectations are reasonable. Normally, if there is ambient noise in your current location, pretty much all you can do is increase the volume of your device, but with the MDR-NC6s, enabling the noise cancellation feels like you are actually decreasing the volume of other noise. The headphones decrease the amount by which other noises interfere with your listening and provide more emphasis to the audio that you are trying to listen to. I did find that in some circumstances, there was a bit of an “overcancelling” efffect, such as when there was no audio playing or when I was walking through windy areas, which can potentially make outside interferences worse rather than better, but this did not happen in most situations, and since you can easily switch the noise cancellation off, you can use the MDR-NC6s, one way or another, in just about any setting.
Active Boredom Cancellation
Obviously, it doesn’t do much good to cancel out background noise if the audio produced by the headphones isn’t worth listening to either. Fortunately, since the MDR-NC6s are designed well and also have more physical space available to them than compact earbuds do, they produce quality audio with relative ease.
Sony says that, when they are in “powered on” mode, the MDR-NC6s have a sensitivity rating of 106 dB/mW, an impedance of 20 ohms, and frequency range of 10 dB at 300 Hz, a frequency response range of 30 - 15,000 Hz, and a noise reduction range of 40 - 1,500 Hz, using driver units that are 38 mm in diameter. Although numeric stats are highly useful to experienced audio geeks, here is a more qualitative description of what these mean in practice:
Pop/rock: Pop music comes through “loud and clear” with the Sony MDR-NC6s, giving a fairly strong “high resolution” feel where you can hear subtler details in addition to the most obvious components of a recording.
A cappella/Vocal: With a cappella music, the MDR-NC6s continued to demonstrate impressive resolution and strong bass, which contributed to great sound quality for this genre as well.
Hip-Hip/Rap: In a category that depends primarily on strong bass, it is not surprising that the MDR-NC6s fared well, since they consistently demonstrate a strong bass ability.
Country: Many country songs rely on a wide frequency range, requiring strength at both the highest and the lowest pitches to have the optimum sound. The MDR-NC6s were up to the task here as well, providing powerful sound levels to the entire range of pitches commonly used in music.
Classical: Though not the highest resolution I’ve ever heard, the detail level of the MDR-NC6s continued to impress here, providing emphasis to all the individual components of the music in addition to the total sound.
Podcast/voice: This is generally the easiest category since it is the lowest quality source material, so it doesn’t take much to get the best quality you can from it. The MDR-NC6s had no problems here either, keeping speech intelligible and clear.
Don’t Try To Cram Them Into Your Ear Canal...
Headphones are a different class of product from earphones, and they are by definition larger and bulkier than earphones. Thus, faulting the MDR-NC6s for their dimensions of 7 1/64 in x 2 1/64 in x 9 1/64 in x 5.29 ounces would be a bit like criticizing a MacBook because it doesn’t taste good with mayonnaise. That is, headphones are supposed to be a bit large, and the MDR-NC6s are actually pretty compact considering the quality and features they offer. Nonetheless, you may have to consider whether it is actually feasible to consider a full set of headphones with you, if you are accustomed to using earbuds. Sony includes a handy carrying case, so for me it is worth the small extra effort to carry them in order to receive the benefits of active noise cancellation and high-quality audio.
Active Wallet Cancellation
With a name like “MDR-NC6,” sometimes one almost wonders if Sony names their products first and then decides what sort of product they are going to make later. However, even if the name isn’t very exciting, the product itself is good. Considering the long-standing trend of noise-canceling products having very high prices, these headphones provide an impressive level of audio quality and noise cancellation for their price.
Pros: Noise cancellation provides noticeable improvement; high-quality audio with strong bass; good battery life; relatively inexpensive considering their capability level; includes carrying case.
Cons: In some situations, they tend to “over-cancel” audio, which a negative effect on quality (unless noise cancellation is disabled).