Audio-Technica’s QuietPoint series of noise-cancelling headphones has been amongst our favorites for years, easily exceeding the performance to price ratio of competing products from Bose and others. So we were naturally intrigued by the company’s just-released ATH-ANC23 ($100), which applies similar noise-cancelling hardware to a pair of hybrid earbud-canalphones — the sort with big 13mm speakers inside, channeled into smaller, silicone rubber tips that go directly into your ear canals. Assuming that you like that style of earphone, you’ll be very impressed by the results, which offer very strong ambient noise isolation and great sound quality for the price.
The keys to ATH-ANC23’s performance are the speakers Audio-Technica chose for the earbuds, and a battery-powered in-line active noise-cancelling box that sits roughly half way between the buds and the L-shaped, highly case- and device-compatible 3.5mm headphone plug at the bottom of the black cable. Powered by a single AAA battery, the active noise cancellation box has a shirt clip on the back, plus an on-off switch on the side to activate two microphones located in the earphones. These parts work together to hear whatever noises are in the environment, then produce reverse sound waves to cancel them out. Unlike some competing headphones, including most of Bose’s QuietComfort models, ATH-ANC23 continues to work—sounding great—even when the battery runs out or is turned off, and the battery will work for 60 hours of continuous use per “typical” AAA cell. An “industrial” Energizer is included in the box alongside a carrying case and airline headphone adapter.
Audio-Technica claims that the ATH-ANC23 suppresses up to 90% of ambient noises, and though the number is hard to practically quantify, we put it up against peer-priced rivals with class-leading passive noise isolation. We were frankly surprised to discover during testing of the included silicone tips that the ATH-ANC23 fully rivaled the isolating performance of Etymotic’s low-cost mc5 and 6i canalphones, which offer the best purely passive isolation we’ve heard for under $100. Etymotic uses “triple flanges”—three rubber cones per tip that really seal off your ear canals, promising 35-42dB of isolation—while ATH-ANC23’s tips have only a single flange and generally don’t provide the same seal. (A Comply foam tip version is also in the package for people who prefer their feel.) Yet when the battery power’s on and audio’s playing, you’ll be able to look a person right in the eyes from 3 feet away and not actually hear a word he’s saying. Audio-Technica’s system works really well, and even when it’s turned off, you’ll still get considerably better isolation than with an iPod or iPhone’s packed-in earbuds, thanks to the silicone tips ATH-ANC23 uses.
That having been said, this earphone design isn’t for everyone. Sony was amongst the earliest companies to debut the hybrid eartip and earbud design several years ago, and the idea remains unchanged here: Audio-Technica is leveraging a speaker of the size that couldn’t possibly fit into your ear canal to create better sound for the price than a speaker that could. As a result, put ATH-ANC23 up against either of the aforementioned Etymotics and you’ll be blown away by the comparatively enhanced richness of the bass and smoother, more natural sound. Low notes, male voices, and basslines all draw you into the music without any of the overbearing darkness or echoes heard in deliberately bass-skewed earphones; they also have more and better-quality bass than Apple’s standard Earphones, plus hugely better isolation. These are bona-fide nice speakers, just as we’ve heard in other Audio-Technica headphones we’ve tested.
But if you’re looking for tiny canalphones or ones that nestle almost entirely into your ears, you’ll want to look elsewhere. These are larger in your ears than Apple’s standard Earphones, and though they’re not more likely to fall out of their resting places, they buck the trend of ever-shrinking earphones in the name of performance. Audio-Technica has given them nice gunmetal accent edging to make them look classy despite their otherwise black plastic bodies. On a related note, we wish that the company could have found a way to use their integrated ambient noise-sampling microphones—or another mic—for iPhone calling and voice recording purposes, but ATH-ANC23 is purely designed for listening, nothing more.
What ultimately earns this model our high recommendation is the price. ATH-ANC23 has a MSRP of $100 but a street price of $80, so just as has been the case with the company’s amazingly affordable earcup-style noise-cancellers, this model is already priced right on day one of official availability. If you’re looking for great sound and active noise cancellation for under $100, ATH-ANC23 has virtually everything to race right to the top 1 or 2 places on a short list of options. Pause only if the size of the earphones—too big relative to passive isolators, or too small relative to earcups—is a concern to you. Our guess is that you’ll be pretty impressed if you decide to take the plunge.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads Except iPod shuffle 3G