Even though noise-cancelling head gear can be found even in earphone form for about £60, there's no substitute for a good pair of full-size cans. And that's what we're looking at here.
At around £120, Audio Technica's ATH-ANC7s are comparable in price to Sennheiser's terrific PXC 350s and are on sale now. But should you bother?
Immediately noticeable is the ANC7's level of comfort -- their soft ear cups and adjustable padded headband instantly provide a very snug fit. Good, too, is cabling; we often see corners cut here, but AT has given these 'phones a rugged cable that isn't too prone to tangle. In addition, the audio jack is gold-plated to ensure decent transmission of audio, and the entire cable can be unhooked from the headphones should you want noise-cancellation without music and wires.
We were also pleased not to see an in-line battery compartment. Instead, a single AAA-size battery sits inside one ear cup under a compartment hidden behind the headphones' frame when in use. This powers the noise-cancelling feature, which can be activated using a switch on the left-hand ear cup.
Noise-cancellation is excellent. In fact, we found it to be as effective as that offered by Sennheiser's competing models, though the ANC7s don't benefit from the PXC 450s' useful 'Talk-Thru' functionality -- a reason that model is notably more expensive than this. In the office, the ANC7's cancellation reduced PC noise and our irritating air-conditioning system to a gorgeous silence. And on the noisy London Tube trains, the deep bass rumbling was reduced to a much more comfortable level.
We didn't have the
time to book a plane trip to test the reduction of engine noise achieved by these 'phones, but since in all other noise-cancelling respects they're as good as Sennheiser's PXC 450s, we feel we're justified in expecting them to perform admirably.
On to sound quality, and we were fairly happy. Although there was nothing exceptional to say about either bass or treble, each was balanced well and the neodymium magnet-backed drive unit produced a neutral tone.
Listening to Pendulum's Propane Nightmares, we didn't get to appreciate the floor-rumbling lower bass we can hear through more capable headphones, but the mid and upper low-end was enough to enjoy the bass lines in the song. The same positivity can be given to the mids, which were pretty clear, prominent and decent in tone.
Aside from the lack of lower bass, needed in particular for dance music, our main sound-related criticism was that the mid-range slightly overpowered the high-end, leaving us feeling like we couldn't fully appreciate the shimmer of the guitar strings on KT Tunstall's Drastic Fantastic album. You may find very subtle intricacies underlying some songs are that little bit harder to make out.
And we can't ignore the fact that when noise-cancellation is switched off -- or if the battery dies -- audio performance takes a significant dip. Instantly, music sounds distinctly muffled and distant. This is an issue we also found with Sennheiser's PXC 350s.
What wasn't an issue with the 350s is the moderate sound leakage we experienced -- or rather others experienced -- when the ANC7s hit high volume. So if you pride yourself on being ultra-considerate to the passenger or colleague next to you, it's worth bearing this issue in mind.
The ATH-ANC7s offer terrific noise-cancellation, excellent comfort and generally good sound quality. But at the time of writing, the ANC7s and Sennheiser PXC 350s are neck and neck price-wise and, given the choice, we'd opt for the 350s for their greater sound quality and leak-free nature.
But Audio Technica's cancellers are slightly smaller and offer a tighter seal around the ear, which is most important, we find, on a plane. If this is where you primarily see yourself using these cans, you should opt for the ANC7s. Otherwise, we'd advise the PXC 350s (or 450s, if you can run to them) on the grounds that they're just that little bit more enjoyable to listen to. Edited by Jon Squire