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The big put-off for many people when it comes to noise-cancelling headphones is size -- these headphones are often excessively bulky. Audio Technica may have the answer with the active noise-cancelling ATH-ANC3 earphones.
These 'phones offer the same cancellation benefit of their full-size brothers, but at around £75 and many, many times smaller, they are potentially a very attractive alternative.
Audio Technica's iPhone-compatible ANC3s aren't just noise-cancelling, they're also sound-isolating. They achieve this by using soft silicon tips to sit nice and snug in your ear canal. To ensure a good fit, AT supplies tips of various sizes. We found them fairly comfortable, too. The large portion of the 'phone was noticeable to us, and we felt average fatigue after a few hours of continued listening.
While the earphones themselves are lightweight enough, the in-line battery compartment is not. You'll definitely notice it's there. We found its clip very useful -- clipping the battery pack to our jeans pocket while an iPod rested inside the pocket let us forget about the weight completely, as it felt like it had been removed. Certainly, it's not a pair of 'phones to consider for the gym or jogging.
A combination of noise cancellation and sound isolation makes these a unique pair of earphones. The electronics in the battery pack actively monitor ambient noise around you -- air conditioning, rumblings on a train, wind rushing past a window -- and use a clever technique to 'cancel' it out so you don't hear it. The sound isolation, on the other hand, keeps all the sound being produced by the 'phones in your ears, so it doesn't leak and allows you to keep the volume lower without losing any perceived loudness.
Should your trusty battery expire mid-album, the ANC3s can be switched to passive mode, allowing them to function as normal sound-isolating earphones -- a job they're quite good at. A button on the battery compartment, when depressed, hushes your music to a level quiet enough to allow you to talk to people or indeed yourself, should you be so inclined.
The sound-isolating/noise-cancelling duality makes for an impressive earphone. In the office, the air conditioner was completely silenced and voices all but nullified.
A tiny microphone is located in the earphones, not the battery pack, so the detection of unwanted sound seems just that much better. Journeys on London's famously loud Underground became 10 times more pleasant with noise cancelling switched on. The deafening rumble was significantly deadened, making for a vastly enjoyable listening experience. At home, the sound of a loud PC was made as good as silent.
This helped us appreciate that, sonically, the ANC3s are generally good. Super Mal's gorgeously filthy Bigger Than Big hit us with strong, tight electronic bass, punchy mids and an attractive high end. There's a great deal of transparency, too -- instrumentation was well-layered, Luciana's turned-on vocals were defined as they should be, and no part of the electronic composition appeared harsh in the treble.
John Lennon's Imagine was excellent --
vocals were well conveyed, strings were nicely separated and although
bass-heavy, the piano track sounded grand (pun intended -- the song was recorded on an upright piano).
Metal-heads, take note: your twin guitars, double-bass drums and throat-shredding vocals also sounded decent. However, at higher volume, bass-heavy distorted guitars -- and don't laugh here -- had an element of background distortion that appeared to interfere with the general cleanliness of the guitars and cymbals.
Now distortion produced by a guitar amp and distortion generated by earphones are very different, and the subtle struggle with ultra-meaty, downtuned guitars -- seemingly a result of the upper bass interfering with the mid-range -- highlighted a weakness in the ANC3's when it comes to intense metal from the likes of Slipknot or Decapitated. Though general rock, such as Green Day, suffered only very little as a result of this. Most people won't notice, or indeed be bothered by this flaw.
Combined with decent general performance, excellent noise cancelling and passable comfort, the ANC3s are a pleasant pair of earphones that the casual listener will be perfectly happy with. Should your battery die, you can still use them in passive mode.
There are very few earphones we've seen with noise cancelling this good, but for cleaner, more powerful bass, check out the Denon AH-C551s; for improved passive sound isolation and comfort, and superb performance, be sure to see our thoughts on Etymotic's ER-6is.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday