Some headphone manufacturers attract disproportionate attention for their new products with aggressive marketing and distinctive industrial designs, but Audio-Technica is not one of those companies. Instead, the Japanese company has been quietly churning out aggressively-priced and often great-sounding audio equipment for years, and as we’ve noted in prior reviews, its QuietPoint series of noise-canceling headphones have continued to trump Bose’s better-known QuietComforts at lower prices. Now Audio-Technica has followed up mid-2009’s excellent $220 ATH-ANC7b with the just-released ATH-ANC9 ($300) — the first QuietPoint headset to match Bose’s QuietComfort 15 in MSRP, while significantly outstripping it in features. Just like its predecessor, ATH-ANC9 can be had online at a significant discount, and represents an excellent value given the quality of the experience it offers.
Placed next to ATH-ANC7b, ATH-ANC9 looks nearly identical, unless you consider the proportions of metallic and matte black plastic on their earcups to be an important differentiator. This time, Audio-Technica has gone with mostly black earcups to match the nearly identical foam-padded black plastic and faux leather headband, reducing the previously silver metallic trim down to considerably less conspicuous and slightly darker accents. Memory foam padding around the earcups has been increased in thickness, but otherwise kept the same size as before, and what used to be a single blue power light with an on-off switch has now been updated to a blue/red/green light with a switch and a button.
Audio-Technica continues to include two cables, adapters for older stereo and airplane headphone plugs, and a zippered carrying case, now improved with a secure screw-carabiner clip.
As with the ATH-ANC7b, Audio-Technica includes an AAA battery for the active noise-canceling hardware, capable of running for around 35 hours. And once again, ATH-ANC9 can be used in a passive mode with no cancellation and somewhat diminished sound quality even if the switch is off or the battery is dead—a major feature Bose’s QuietComfort 15 omits. If you’ve accidentally left the power switch on when using noise-canceling headphones, only to come back and find them both dead and unusable without a space battery, you’ll understand why the ability to work in passive mode is important. That said, you’ll probably want to keep the switch on when you’re listening to music, as it improves the apparent clarity and dynamic range of songs, while the noise-canceling hardware filters out ambient noise that would otherwise compete with your music for attention.
The new button on the left ear cup controls ATH-ANC9’s signature new feature: “Tri-Level cancellation.” By pressing the button, you can now switch between three preset noise reduction modes that Audio-Technica has separately optimized to cancel frequencies that are common to airplane (blue/95% cancellation at 200Hz), office (red/95% cancellation at 300Hz), and study (green/85% cancellation at 200Hz) environments, each promising between 20-30dB of noise reduction. While there are indeed differences between the modes, most users will find them to be subtle, the equivalent of moving your fingers around when plugging your ears; slight improvements in blocking of one set of frequencies are offset by deficits in others, and in no case will all of the ambient noise around you completely disappear during silences. Just like other headsets of this sort, ATH-ANC9 does best at eliminating low rumbles and similar sounds, though it lets you play a little with the filtering.
In each mode, you’ll hear just enough external upper midrange sound to know things are still going on around you—during silences.
Otherwise, the music you’re hearing will largely or completely distract you from the sounds around you, and the passive seal around your ears created by the memory foam pads will do at least as much as the noise-canceling hardware to keep out stray sounds; collectively, the pads, the noise-canceling circuitry, and your music will work well together to isolate you from most types of ambient sound. Ideally, Audio-Technica would have used a three-position switch or more advanced electronics to toggle between the modes, as you can’t see the colored side light when you’re wearing the headset, and only get a quick beep without any broader sonic clue of the mode you’ve selected.
Though all of what we’ve just said is accurate, it doesn’t do complete justice to what the ATH-ANC9 headphones achieve relative to earlier options we’ve reviewed. As compared directly with both the less expensive ATH-ANC7b and same-priced QuietComfort 15, the new model delivers even clearer, low-distortion audio with slightly crisper highs and decidedly heavier lows—a very nice balance that gives music more oomph than before. (The highs and lows both drop off when the power’s off, leaving a flattened, midrange-heavy sound.) Even though ANC9 still uses 40mm drivers, they’re amongst the best drivers we’ve heard in any noise-canceling headphone, producing engrossing and dynamic sound. Moreover, ATH-ANC9’s ability to shift noise-canceling modes puts it at an advantage relative to both models: it’s equal to or better than both of its predecessors in one mode, with two more canceling options as alternatives.
Another feature ATH-ANC9 adds is a choice between two included cables: Audio-Technica lets you use the headphones with or without an in-line mic and one-button remote. The microphone is essentially indistinguishable sonically from the ones in Apple’s increasingly ubiquitous three-button remotes and mics, letting you make and receive phone calls while wearing the headset, though the single-button controller here is more limited, removing the volume buttons Apple added to its remotes some time ago.