Review: Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7NC SonicPro Headphones with Active Noise Cancellation
Last year, we reviewed Audio-Technica's original ATH-MSR7 and found it to be an excellent value for the money — it was our pick for best wired headphone of 2015 — even if the headphone might have a bit too much treble energy for some users. We also had a taste of Audio-Technica’s implementation of active noise canceling (ANC) recently with the ATH-ANC40BT, which had only a slight detrimental effect to the headphone’s sound signature, even if we did find the low-end on that headphone lacking. With the new ATH-MSR7NC ($300), there was a chance that Audio-Technica would combine the best of both worlds, adding ANC to an already great headphone without messing it up, for just $50 more.
In many ways, the MSR7NC is identical to the MSR7. It retains the classy overall design in a new all-black colorway. Plush leather ear pads (swappable) and a headband are joined by a clicky metal size selector and beautiful chamfered metal ear cups that articulate smoothly on the head. The MSR7NC clamps just as hard as its older sibling; some users may experience a bit of the original MSR7’s “hot spot” caused by the top of the headband. Audio-Technica admits that the addition of ANC hardware added 15 grams to the MSR7, but we never felt it.
One area where we would have liked to see improvement is in the ear cup joints. On a headphone constructed with mostly high-quality materials, these joints are plastic on plastic. Over several months, our MSR7 developed creaks in these spots; while these don’t ruin the headphone for us, they do detract from the overall experience. We were somewhat disappointed to see identical plastic joints on the MSR7NC, which probably means that the same creaks are on the horizon.
The MSR7NC ships with a similar complement of accessories as the MSR7, adjusted for the headphone’s intended use. Included are a soft carrying case, 3.9-foot standard cable, and a 3.9-foot cable with one-button control and microphone. In place of the MSR7’s 10ft cable, we found a micro-USB charging cable and airplane headphone jack adapter. The cables are of the same quality that we received with the original MSR7, with right-angle connectors and standard 3.5mm plugs. They tend to hold their shape if stored in a coil, but this never caused much of a problem.
Inside, the MSR7NC packs the same pair of 45mm “True Motion Drivers” as the MSR7. These wowed us with their excellent detail retrieval in the original headphone, and we were anxious to see if anything had changed in this new package. Though we’re happy to report that the MSR7NC paints just as clear and crisp a musical picture as the MSR7, we found it to be even weaker in bass. We tested the two headphones side-by-side with identical equipment and volume matching, but found an undeniable lack of sub bass on the MSR7NC compared to the MSR7. Using test tones, it became clear that sounds under 65hz — the rumbling bass you can feel — were far quieter on the MSR7NC. Other than that narrow range, our observations about the original MSR7’s sound hold true here.
We can’t be sure what caused this sonic difference. It could be related to the addition of ANC — we found the ANC40BT also lacking in low bass presentation, but that was an entirely different headphone. It could be related to burn-in — the hotly debated notion that a headphones’ sound can change over time — but it would have taken weeks to catch the MSR7NC up to the play time that our MSR7 has seen. All we can say for sure is that the difference was there.
The MSR7NC’s noise-cancelling feature is activated with a switch on the right cup that is easy to find without looking. Flipping the switch activates a blue LED and, presumably, the two tiny microphones hidden on top of the MSR7NC’s cups. After a few moments, the noise-cancelling effect kicks in seamlessly — unlike some other ANC headphones we have tested, there is no pop or blip. In fact, we found it difficult to identify any change in the sound of the MSR7NC at all, other than the elimination of low-frequency noise around us. In fact, the transition is so seamless that when we tested the MSR7NC in quiet environments, it was difficult to tell whether ANC had activated at all. As an bonus, ANC works even if no music is playing or the cable is unplugged, allowing the MSR7NC to be used as comfortable, noise-isolating, noise-canceling earmuffs if you wish.
We put the MSR7NC’s noise-cancelling feature through its paces, culminating in a true torture test — an hour-long conference call on a long interstate train ride with a crying baby in the next seat. The MSR7NC performed very well, allowing us to hear call conversation clearly, and we received no complaints from our fellow conference callers. Even quiet music was enjoyable at reasonable volumes despite the train’s unyielding noise. Battery life was also excellent — the MSR7NC survived all our testing (including “burn-in”) on a single charge.
We found the performance of Audio-Technica’s ANC logic to be good, but not perfect. The MSR7NC excels at eliminating low, droning sounds from your surroundings, making them ideal for trains, airplanes, or a loud office air conditioning system. Like other ANC systems we’ve tested, however, higher-pitched ambient noise ranging from normal conversation to crying babies can still be heard. Perhaps most disappointing, the microphones used by the MSR7NC to detect ambient noise are highly susceptible to wind, allowing buffeting sounds through almost unabated. Overall, ANC in these cans was good but not magical, and in some instances rendered unnecessary by the isolation already provided by the high-quality earpads.
This brings us back to the weakness in bass presentation we noted above. As we have said before, ANC headphones often result in some compromise in the sound of a headphone. It’s a tradeoff that makes sense only if you often use headphones in the kinds of environments that ANC systems were designed for — those with intrusive low-frequency noise. We can’t say for sure that the MSR7NC’s noise-canceling system is to blame for its bass issues, but we have no problem giving up some low-end sound if you like the MSR7 sound signature. If you regularly find yourself in areas of loud, droning ambient noise, the sacrifice of some low bass is a fair price to pay.
With the MSR7NC, we think AT have succeeded in adding a feature without significantly compromising the original. Like its predecessor, the MSR7NC is far from a basshead headphone, and some may find too much energy in the highs. Still, this is our favorite implementation of ANC to date, earning our rare high recommendation for a noise-cancelling headphone.