Compatible: All iPods
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Pros: An appropriately-priced active noise-cancelling headphone that offers superior sound quality to Bose’s famed QuietComfort series and comparable $300+ headphones at a markedly lower price. Includes similar pack-ins to top competitors, including carrying case, two headphone plug adapters, and a battery; runs for longer on a single AAA battery than peer products, and uses simple on-off controls.
Cons: Earcups are sized for small to medium ears. Noise cancellation is very good but not amazing. Lacks frill features of more expensive peers, such as a pass-through microphone, rechargeable battery, or integrated equalization/faux 3-D digital signal processing (DSP).
Nine times out of ten, we’d recommend a good pair of in-canal earphones over active noise-cancelling headphones if you’re looking to block out ambient sounds while you’re listening to your iPod. But some users prefer earcup-style headphones, and though Bose’s $299 QuietComfort 2s have dominated the noise-cancelling category for years, Audio-Technica now has a superior option: the ATH-ANC7 ($220, street price $115-130).
Competing options we’ve reviewed, including Creative’s Aurvana X-Fi and Sennheiser’s PXC450, have generally taken one of two paths: beat the QuietComforts at a similar or higher price point, or undercut them dramatically on price while offering slightly degraded performance. To their credit, the X-Fi and PXC450 have also tried to go beyond the QuietComfort with extra features—X-Fi with optional DSP-assisted equalizer and faux 3-D effects, and PXC450 with a “talk through” microphone so that you can hear outside noise without removing them—but what the market’s really wanted is something equally good or better than the simple Bose feature set at a lower price.
That’s what ATH-ANC7 offers. There aren’t any fancy buttons or knobs on its sides, and it doesn’t have any special features to set it apart from its competitors. It’s packaged similarly to Bose’s QuietComfort 2 headphones, including a detachable audio cable, one AAA battery, airline and 1/4 headphone adapters, and a large ballistic nylon carrying case with a detachable zippered mesh pouch inside. A single power switch turns the noise-canceler on and off, while dual microphones sample ambient noise to help ATH-ANC7 cancel it out. The most you can say for the physical design is that it’s simple, with smaller earcups than the others—bigger than Bose’s newer on-ear QuietComfort 3 but smaller than the Creative, Sennheiser, and QC2 options—and comfortable memory foam padding. They fit our ears just fine, rather than going way beyond their edges like the huge Sennheisers. However, users with larger-than-average ears may find the earcups too small; if you buy them, do so from a place with a good return policy.
Where ATH-ANC7 delivers is in sound quality. More efficient than most of the other noise-cancelling headphones out there, it doesn’t require you to turn up you iPod’s volume much above the 50% level, and performs clean sound with only a slight, low hiss—inaudible when music is playing—when the canceler’s turned on. At optimized volume, which is around 55% on a full-sized iPod—the audio is impressively balanced, with very good treble, detailed midrange, and great bass that we’d describe as leaning a little warm in the Bose tradition, but not lacking enough for treble to take away from the crispness we expect from our music. Bose’s earphones, by contrast, tend to be either intentionally bass-heavier or treble-deficient in a manner that emphasizes bass; the Audio-Technica balance strikes us as very close to perfect. Putting price aside, we actually preferred the ATH-ANC7’s sound to that of all the other earphones we’ve tested in this category, including the PXC450s, thanks in equal parts to its superior clarity and balance, which are far more appropriate to the $220 list price than the aforementioned competitors are for their higher prices.
On the other hand, we’d call the noise-cancellation very good, but not fantastic. As with even the $450 Sennheiser PXC450s, it’s hard for an active noise-cancellation system to top the performance of the QuietComfort 2’s, which like virtually all of these earcup-style headphones mostly drown out low- and midrange sound while leaving higher-frequency sounds to pass through to your ears. Really good passive noise isolators—earphones such as Etymotic’s, essentially earplugs with thin, even more efficient speakers inside—do at least as good a job of keeping out noise, and frequently better. That said, the ATH-ANC7 is roughly on par with the QC2s, PXC450s, and Aurvana X-Fis; we’d rate its cancellation circuitry a hint below these alternatives when nothing’s playing through the earphones, but this difference is basically meaningless. It’s erased when you’re actually listening to music, and distracted from what’s going on around you.
Our impression is that Audio-Technica picked an efficient noise cancellation system rather than a super-aggressive one, and that decision had a benefit: Audio-Technica rates the battery for 40 hours of performance, which is two or four times as long as its competitors, including the 20-hour Bose QuietComfort 3 and roughly 12-hour Aurvana X-Fi. The ATH-ANC7 also can perform music regardless of whether the AAA battery’s alive or dead; it only drains the battery when noise cancellation is turned on. Sound quality and volume tumble when the headset’s power is off, but with an adjustment to the iPod’s volume, you can still hear your music and enjoy the benefits of passive earcup-style noise isolation without a problem.
iLounge’s headphone reviews typically look at both the pros and cons of products we test, but in all honesty, there aren’t many cons to the ATH-ANC7 design: unlike competitors, you can find this $220 at stores such as Amazon.com for $125 shipped, making it a much smarter purchase than any of the active noise-cancellers we’ve previously tested, at any price—the primary reason for our flat A high-recommendation. The only advantages some other options may offer are frills that only a handful of users would consider important, such as Sennheiser’s Talk Through microphone button, Creative’s faux 3-D spatializer, or a different, more likely larger size. We’d pick the ATH-ANC7s first unless you have big ears, a need for even more bass emphasis, or a desire for another company-specific feature; these are about as good as noise-cancellers are likely to get for the price.