Buoyed by the release of Bose’s QuietComfort series of earcup-style headphones, active noise-cancelling earphones have been popular for years, particularly with travelers looking to screen out ambient sounds that might otherwise be unavoidable in planes, trains, and other forms of public transportation. Audio-Technica and other companies have released similar, generally less expensive headphones that use the same combination of passive noise isolation — those big, thick cups, which naturally block out some sound — and active cancellation, microphones that sample the noises around you and work with chips to produce contrary canceling sounds, neutralizing most low- and mid-frequency audio outside your ears. These companies have also tried alternative headphone designs, such as Bose’s smaller on-ear QuietComfort 3s, and now Audio-Technica’s in-ear design, ATH-ANC3 ($170), generally with less impressive results.
Non-earcup active noise canceling earphones generally make compromises in the passive blocking of sound by shrinking from full ear-covering cups down to smaller speaker shapes that physically shield less of the ear, forcing the active cancellation circuitry to really prove its value. In the case of ATH-ANC3, Audio-Technica has used an earpiece design that is similar to Sony’s 2007 MDR-EX90LP and 2008 MDR-EX85LP models, grafting a silicone rubber eartip onto a plastic body that’s large enough to house more than just a tiny audio driver. Here, each earpiece contains both a speaker and a miniature microphone for ambient audio sampling purposes, the power and circuitry for which are provided in a cigarette lighter-sized plastic box that rests in-line with a spring-loaded belt clip.
This box is powered by a single AAA battery, and like Audio-Technica’s earcup-styled ATH-ANC7b, promises to eliminate up to 85% of ambient background noise for dozens of hours on a single charge—here, 50 hours versus ATH-ANC7b’s 40. And unlike ATH-ANC7b, you don’t have to remove the earphones if you need to temporarily hear what’s going on around you: with ATH-ANC3, you can press and hold a “Monitor” button on the in-line box, and the microphones will pass some of the ambient sound through the earphones. This is similar to the “Talk Through” feature of Sennheiser’s PXC 450 in that you’ll hear most but not all of the sound around you, a feature for temporary convenience rather than having a full conversation. Otherwise, the cancellation effect will operate until the box’s power switch is turned off, or the battery runs out; as with ATH-ANC7b, music still passes through the earphones even when there’s no battery power, albeit with slightly diminished high-frequency performance. ATH-ANC3’s unpowered audio sounds much closer to its powered audio than does ATH-ANC7b’s.
Audio-Technica’s pack-ins are similar between the two models, but modified for the smaller size of the ATH-ANC3. You still get a zippered ballistic nylon carrying case and a airline headphone adapter, but there’s no 1/8” headphone plug adapter, and the ATH-ANC7b’s twin audio cables have been replaced here: the standard, iPhone- and iPod-compatible cable is built into the ATH-ANC3, and a nearly two-foot extension cable is included in the package, along with extra silicone tips to resize the earphones for different-sized ear canals. Collectively, these parts consume far less space than the ATH-ANC7b’s—the case measures roughly 6.25” by 3.25” by 1.25”—giving travelers far more space in their carry-on bags for other items.
From our perspective, however, there are two key questions: first, how does ATH-ANC3 compare with ATH-ANC7b in terms of ambient noise reduction, and second, what does ATH-ANC3’s $170 asking price really buy a user relative to a comparably-priced pair of ear canal-filling, passive noise-isolating earphones, such as Etymotic’s $149 microphoneless hf5 or microphone-inclusive $179 hf2? The answer to the first question: they’re more similar than we’d expected, but not identical. Not surprisingly, ATH-ANC7b’s earcups do a better job of passively isolating ambient noise than ATH-ANC3’s earbuds, but the smaller model puts out a slight static amplifier hiss that masks some of the ambient high-pitched noise—a trick that works, but compromises sound quality a little in the process.
The second answer is a little nuanced, but here it is: ATH-ANC3 offers a similar but slightly higher overall level of overall ambient noise blockage to Etymotic’s aggressively-designed noise-isolating canalphones, with greater reduction of low-frequency rumbles, and the aforementioned static hiss on the high-end side. As a practical matter, when music is playing, ATH-ANC3 and well-designed competing earphones will keep you from hearing roughly the same amount of ambient noise, but Audio-Technica’s design will have a small edge; when compared against less aggressively designed earphones, however, especially ones without silicone tips for canal isolation, the difference in ambient noise penetration will be far more pronounced. Another way of putting this: ATH-ANC3 offers a small upgrade in noise-reduction for users of well-designed canalphones, and a big one for those who have been using earbuds, on-ear headphones, or weaker canalphones.
But what about the sonic balance and overall quality? ATH-ANC3 offers the fidelity equivalent of $50 to $80 canalphones we’ve tested, with a pretty nice overall sonic signature: heard in isolation, Audio-Technica’s sound seems to be pretty well-balanced between highs, mids, and lows, and we found ourselves actually enjoying listening to tracks before we did any model-to-model comparisons—a good start. When we compared ATH-ANC3 against detail-revealing earphones such as the Etymotics, or dual-driver earphones such as Apple’s In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, however, Audio-Technica’s earphones came across as a little less crisp and noticeably less detailed in the highs and mids, but far more competent in the bass department. These aren’t audiophile-grade earpieces, but they’re good enough that we’d use them without complaint.
Overall, ATH-ANC3 offers a nice compromise option for iPod and iPhone fans who want to achieve a higher level of ambient noise reduction than is generally offered by in-canal and earbud-style headphones, yet don’t want the bulk and total ear coverage of full-sized earcups like the ATH-ANC7b. Though serious listeners may prefer to use the same or fewer dollars towards canalphones with integrated iPhone- or iPod-ready microphone and remote functionality, this model is a good option for those who need to quietly reduce the impact of nearby sounds and are willing to pay a small premium to do so. Shopping online will yield prices for this model in the $70 to $80 range, a major savings from the MSRP, and an even stronger reason to consider ATH-ANC3 over otherwise similar options that lack its cancellation hardware.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone