Though consumers normally don’t realize that it’s happening, accessory companies are actually divided—generally—into two camps: those who sell accessories to consumers, and those who actually manufacture the accessories. Most of the time, the “original equipment manufacturers” (OEMs) intentionally stand deeply in the shadows of the companies they make products for, letting the better-known sellers put their own brand names on the products and make a profit from marketing them. But occasionally, an OEM decides to try its hand at selling its own products, and that’s what Phitek has done: the company behind Audio-Technica’s awesome ATH-ANC7 active noise-cancelling headphones—and many others, such as Creative’s Aurvana X-Fi—is now selling its designs direct to consumers, cutting out the middlemen.
It’s difficult to see or hear Phitek’s new Blackbox M10 ($179) without referencing the ATH-ANC7, not just because Audio-Technica’s offering was so impressive for its price, but also because the headsets are akin to fraternal twins in features and design. They have the same small-ish earcups, the same memory foam padding, the same folding bodies, and frankly, all but the exact same molding: the earcups might well as come from the same assembly line, save for some slightly classier matte silver touches on the Audio-Technicas have have been replaced with two-tone gray and black touches on the M10s. Phitek’s self-branded version looks a little less expensive, but then, it has a $40 lower MSRP.
On paper, you wouldn’t think they were very different. Both use a single AAA battery to power their active noise-cancellation features, activated in each headset with an on-off switch on the left earcup, with a small blue light to indicate power status. Each is rated as capable of screening out 85% of ambient noise, a little short of the industry’s best noise cancellation standards, but plenty for most jet engine, subway, or other situations in which outside sounds might interfere with your enjoyment of iPod or iPhone audio. To be clear on this point, put either headset on and turn on your music, and though you may be able to hear nearby loud voices if you concentrate on them, the noise-canceling technology and your music will engross you enough that you probably won’t even notice; low engine rumbles and other noises will basically disappear. They also both have 40-millimeter speakers inside, and include two types of headphone plug adapters, as well as detachable headphone-to-iPod cables. M10 for some reason includes two identical cables, both made to fit the original iPhone’s recessed headphone port; one can serve as a spare if you misplace the other. ATH-ANC7 includes only a single cable that works with iPods and the iPhone 3G.
There are a few other differences between the models. Whereas Audio-Technica’s version is clearly packaged as a rival for the Bose QuietComfort 2 and 3, complete with a similarly nice hard nylon carrying case, Phitek’s cuts that particular corner—it instead includes a simpler, cheaper drawstring carrying bag. Their headbands are basically identical in functionality, expanding and contracting to fit different head sizes, but Audio-Technica’s uses a slightly more visually appealing shape that makes little difference in fit or comfort. And then there’s the audio.
What impressed us most about the ATH-ANC7 was that it considerably outperformed the QuietComfort 2 sonically at a lower price—it was the first noise-cancelling headphone we’d tested to achieve that particular feat, rather than offering lower performance at a lower price, or superior performance at a comparable or higher price. Notably, by “lower price,” it should be noted that Audio-Technica recommended ATH-ANC7 be sold for $220, but street prices at the time of our review were as low as $115. Today, Amazon sells this model for $95, an outstanding price by any active noise-cancelling headphone standards, let alone ones that sound so impressive.
Blackbox M10 isn’t quite up to the ATH-ANC7’s level of sonic performance, but it’s very close. Both pairs of headphones do something that the QuietComforts don’t, namely, they work even when there’s no battery power or the active noise-canceller is switched off. Operating in this mode, they both take a hit in terms of rendering sound dynamically, but at least they can still be used; if the Bose models run out of juice, you might as well pack up your iPod.
When the headsets are switched on and performing to their full potential, the treble performance improves most noticeably, giving each pair a more dynamic balance that helps instruments “pop,” and the apparent staging become deeper, wider and more lifelike, rather than compressed. Whether it’s due to tuning or a difference in the drivers, the ATH-ANC7’s treble is a bit better, and its bass is more than a little richer, the latter difference quite noticeable on songs with heavy low-end beats. Another way to put this is that the ATH-ANC7 does a better job with both the highs and the lows than the M10, which will give users a sense that they’re hearing more of the audio spectrum with the Audio-Technicas, though they’re very similar in the midrange.
When combined with the differences in pricing and bundling, the distinctions in audio performance add up to a relatively straightforward evaluation of the Blackbox M10: this is a good but not breakthrough pair of noise-cancelling earphones, offering 80-90% of the collective features and sound of the top-of-class Audio-Technicas at a price tag that may or may not be lower depending on where you shop. While Phitek’s $179 MSRP is unquestionably lower than Audio-Technica’s $220 MSRP, the ATH-ANC7’s current ~$100 U.S. street price, superior sound, packed-in case, and cosmetics all make it an smarter pick if you’re shopping online; it’s also a better value for the dollar than Bose’s QuietComfort 2’s or 3’s, though similarly a small step down in terms of frills, and a little less likely to impress Bose fans on sonics. Since Phitek has other noise-cancelling headphones in the works, we’re looking forward to seeing whether any of them is able to actually beat the ATH-ANC7 and QuietComforts sonically or otherwise—it’s our suspicion that if anyone has that potential at this point, this little-known company with big customers will be the one to succeed.