A half-decade of active, high-profile in-ear earphone innovation began to stall out two years ago with the ascendance of Monster’s Beats by Dre headphones, which were heavily marketed to consumers as large, highly visible fashion statements rather than on compact size or sonic quality. The success of Beats led many rivals to focus on creating similar-looking glossy headphone housings or paying for celebrity endorsers, but thankfully, a handful of companies kept toiling on technical and sonic improvements as well. Today, we’re looking at three recent earbud and canalphone designs — AKG’s K391 NC ($200), Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC33iS ($80), and Logitech UE’s Ultimate Ears 900 ($400, aka UE 900) — as well as a high-end pair of over-ear AKG headphones called K551 ($380). The smaller headsets are some of the best we’ve ever tested, while the largest one is a surprisingly big disappointment.
Two years ago, we reviewed Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC23, a pair of hybrid earbud/canalphones with 12.5mm drivers inside. Pioneered by Sony some years ago, the hybrid earbud/canalphone design is as large as a classic earbud, resting most of its housing outside of your ear canal, but channels sound through silicone rubber tips that provide some passive noise isolation. Audio-Technica has augmented the earbuds with a battery-powered active noise canceling system that can be clipped onto your shirt. ATH-ANC33iS is a highly similar but noticeably superior sequel, now with 13mm drivers, a slightly less fancy housing, and a one-button remote and microphone unit.
It isn’t a stretch to suggest that very little has changed from ATH-ANC23 to ATH-ANC33iS on the outside. Apart from replacing silver accents on the earphones and the noise-canceling box with a more austere black, and lengthening the cords by about an inch on the bottom segment and five inches on the top, the models are almost impossible to tell apart. Both place earbud-style speakers inside black plastic enclosures, using either small/medium/large-sized rubber or medium-sized Comply foam tips to seal your ear canals against outside noise, with a tapered, case-compatible L-shaped 3.5mm plug at the other end. An airline adapter and a travel bag are also included in the package.
One AAA battery powers each unit’s active noise cancellation box for up to 60 hours, using tiny microphones to sense and cancel out mid- to low-pitched ambient noises. As we noted two years ago, the canceling hardware is impressive, capable of muting up to 90% of ambient noises—enough to look a person right in the eyes from three feet away and not actually hear a word he’s saying when the battery power’s on and audio’s playing. This is comparable to the noise cancellation achieved by the very best and arguably less comfortable passive isolating earphones we’ve tested at or around the same price level. Better yet, even with the battery power off, the tips provide respectable passive isolation, and ATH-ANC33iS continues to work for listening to music—something that isn’t necessarily true about Bose noise-canceling headphones.
The important tweaks to this model are three in number. First, Audio-Technica has improved the speakers inside ATH-ANC33iS, enabling them to deliver more dynamic audio—the bass is a bit cleaner, and the treble more obvious, as well, leading to sound that we’d call nicely balanced and respectably clean for the $80 price point. Music is lively, without a particular skew towards highs or lows, yet with enough of each to be very pleasing to the ear. Second, ATH-ANC33iS’s remote and microphone unit enables you to play, pause, change tracks, answer or end calls, and activate Siri on compatible iPods, iPhones, and iPads, as well as speaking during those calls with Apple microphone-quality clarity and audio balance. Callers had no complaints about the integrated mic, noting that it sounded nearly identical to Apple’s, and we found the remote button to be easy to use. There’s also a volume attenuation knob on the side of the noise-canceling box for those who need to change amplitude without touching the device itself. While this isn’t an ideal solution, and the hybrid earbud design similarly won’t appeal to all users, they both deliver better results than most of the inexpensive alternatives we’ve tested.
ATH-ANC33iS’s final key selling point is the price. Two years ago, ATH-ANC23 earned our A- rating and high recommendation by delivering nearly as much performance for a $100 MSRP, later falling to $80; now this model debuts at the lower $80 price with superior sound quality, the remote and mic functionality, and aesthetic tweaks that certainly don’t harm its appeal. To be clear, ATH-ANC33iS is not the end-all, be-all noise-canceling headset in sonic quality, and between the hybrid-style earbud design and single-button remote with separately attenuated volume controls, it still leaves a little room for future improvement. However, it delivers still-impressive noise canceling hardware, sound quality, and features for the asking price. If you’re looking for an inexpensive pair of noise-canceling earphones, this is certainly one of the best options around.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, and iPods except iPod shuffle 3G