When you’ve created a pair of headphones that are widely admired as best-of-class in performance and features for their price, there are typically only two good reasons to change them: a desire to satisfy more people, or a lawsuit. Audio-Technica clearly had both things on its mind when it was developing the just-released ATH-ANC7b ($220), a not-quite-sequel to its earcup-style noise-cancelling ATH-ANC7 headphones, which thrilled users with their Bose QuietComfort-busting value for the dollar and upset Bose by allegedly infringing on QuietComfort-related patents. A lawsuit ensued and was settled, ironically resulting in even worse news for Bose: ATH-ANC7b is even better than its predecessor, and remains far less expensive than the competing QuietComfort 2.
As the b denomination indicates, not much has changed from the flat-A-rated prior model to this one, with the exception of a few small things. First and arguably least significant is what appears to be a small change to the noise-cancelling technology, resulting in what initially seems to be slightly diminished active noise cancellation but turns out to be something else. Both versions of the ATH-ANC7 headphones use miniature microphones to listen to the noise environment you’re in and produce sounds that cancel out the ones around you; the original ATH-ANC7 also overlaid a very light layer of white noise that added a slight high-pitched mask to the ambient sound. This light mask has been removed on the ATH-ANC7b, and while the result is what appears to be a little more high-pitched noise intrusion into the earphones, we perceived it as cleaner amplification. In any case, there is no apparent difference once music is playing through both pairs of headphones; the sound of your tracks drowns out virtually everything surrounding you, anyway. Both earphones continue to operate even when their single AAA cells run out of juice after roughly 40 hours of play time, but with substantially diminished treble and midrange performance.
A second change is more important: the ATH-ANC7b now uses slightly larger earcups that better accommodate bigger ears. We found the prior model’s earcups to be just—and we mean just—the right size for our ears, but some other users, even family members, found them to be ever so slightly too small. Audio-Technica’s new cups are roughly a quarter inch taller than before, with inner openings that are at least an eighth-inch larger, which will make them more comfortable for more people. Notably, however, the ATH-ANC7bs remain considerably smaller than the oversized cups on the Sennheiser PXC-450s—2.25” openings versus 3.0” ones—so those with really large ears may still want to look elsewhere, and will pay more in the process.
The remaining changes are comparatively minor. Audio-Technica has kept the look of the new model substantially similar to its predecessor, with a blue LED and left earcup-mounted power switch, mic grilles on the outsides of both earcups, and a combination of matte black and semi-gloss silver plastics. The ANC7b increases the silver plastic by a bit relative to the ANC7, and shifts the AAA battery compartment from the top of the left earcup to the side of the right one, but they’re predominantly similar-looking and feeling, mostly black with comfortable, luxurious-feeling foam padding on the top and around the ears. These are every bit as nice as Bose’s QuietComfort 2’s in look and feel.
Audio-Technica also makes sure that they’re at least as well accessorized. As before, ATH-ANC7b comes with a very nice zippered carrying case that’s coated in ballistic nylon and semi-hard, airline and old stereo headphone port adapters, one AAA battery for power, and a headphone cable. New to this package: the standard 60” cable is like the prior model’s, only with a plug that’s compatible with all of the iPhones, and a new 40” cable is also included this time for those who don’t need as much distance between their headphones and their devices.
Given its small improvements in fit and pack-ins, and the essentially neutral change to its active noise cancellation performance, ATH-ANC7b remains as highly recommendable as its predecessor: this is the best pair of noise-canceling headphones available for the price, and a smarter purchase than Bose’s QuietComfort 2 or 3 models, which have various issues with fit, battery performance, and pricing that take them out of Audio-Technica’s league. We’d only advise caution for users with large ears; everyone else will find these to be truly great performers for the dollar.
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Compatible: All iPods, iPhone