If a headphone plays music on an airplane and nobody can hear it, does it make a sound? Though it’s not something we often think about, portable headphones have to do more than just put music in your ears — they also have to keep noise out. With the on-ear BT 330 NC ($199), Phiaton promises to actively remove 95 percent of ambient noise from the space between its drivers and your ears. While we think they have done a pretty good job in this respect, we wouldn’t recommend the BT 330NC as your only set of cans. BT 330 NC pairs 40mm drivers with active noise canceling, and the headphone uses Bluetooth 4.0.
The BT 330 NC gets most of the details right. Bluetooth pairing is simple, fast, and supports simultaneous pairing to two devices. All necessary controls are easily accessible on the device, though the BT 330 NC’s volume is not linked to your phone’s volume controls. Build quality and comfort is excellent, and the BT 330 NC is light enough to wear for hours at a time. In the box, Phiaton includes a very nice carrying case, micro-USB charging cable, and a flimsy-yet-functional micro-USB to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter cable that lets you listen without using battery power.
As a wireless on-ear headphone, the BT 330 NC didn’t do much for us. While the overall tone and bass response of these headphones is fine, we found detail to be unimpressive. For example, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ recent hit “S.O.B.” has some incredibly gritty and intense vocals, but the BT 330 NC’s presentation was flat and unmoving. Call quality was especially disappointing — with noise canceling on or off, our callers complained that we sounded distant and muffled, and asked us to “take them off speakerphone.”
The real measure of the BT 330 NC’s worth is its active noise canceling performance. Active noise canceling technology uses microphones to listen to ambient noise, generate sound that is the negative of the ambient noise, and then mix the negative sound with music playing through the headphones. The result, in theory, is that ambient noise is “canceled,” leaving only the music behind. Though this “active” approach spends battery power, we were able to get more than 14 hours of continuous play time on a single charge of the BT 330 NC.
We can confirm that active noise cancellation on the BT 330 NC works as advertised. Though we did not have an airplane available for our testing, we spent plenty of time near construction sites, walking by elevated trains, running blenders, and riding subways. In each scenario, we played music at volume low enough that it would otherwise be overpowered by ambient noise. Each time, when we switched noise cancellation on, BT 330 NC would (after a short delay) filter out most noise and make our quiet music listenable.
The effect works, but it’s not magic. The BT 330NC filters out most low and mid-range frequencies, but leaves some high frequency noise behind — the noise from a construction vehicle’s engine was converted from an overpowering rumble to a mildly-intrusive whine. Active noise cancellation also has the unavoidable effect of changing the sound of the music, making it slightly flatter and distant. While we were not happy with this effect, we acknowledge that it’s far better than no music at all.
Phiaton has built an attractive and functional headphone in the BT 330 NC. Like so many others, however, it has made compromises for the sake of features. In this case, the BT 330 NC trades sound quality for noise cancellation; some of Phiaton’s other headphones sound better. While this might be the perfect recipe for those who spend lots of time on planes or subways, there are better-sounding isolating headphones in this price range. Phiaton’s BT 330 NC earns our limited recommendation.
Company and Price
Model: BT 330 NC
Compatible: Bluetooth iPads, iPhones + iPods