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Bose has managed to persuade thousands of people to spend large sums of money on the company's QuietComfort 3 and QuietComfort 2 noise-canceling headphones. That has emboldened companies such as Denon--which can leverage its own highly respected brand--to come up with its own pair of $300 noise-canceling headphones. Alas, Denon doesn't have the marketing prowess that Bose does, so its Quiet Comfort competitors don't have an easy-to-remember name but, rather, a somewhat hard-to-remember model number, the AH-NC732s.
In terms of design, the AH-NC732s are almost a cross between the Bose Quiet Comfort 2s, which feature a cupped around-the-ear (circumaural) design and the Quiet Comfort 3s, which feature an on-ear (supra-aural) design. The Denon 'phones have a cupped design, but the ear cups aren't as big as those of the Quiet Comfort 2s and they don't entirely fit around and over your ears; instead, they sit more on top of your ears, like the Quiet Comfort 3s do. The only difference is that on the Denons there is no padding in the middle of the ear cup like there is with the Quiet Comfort 3s.
The AH-NC732s come with an almost-identical set of accessories to that of the Bose headphones: There are two detachable headphone cables (a short 30-inch cable and a longer 60-incher), a two-pronged airplane adapter, and a faux-leather hard-padded carrying case. The AH-NC732s fold flat and fit in the carrying case, which is about the size of a trade paperback book.
When I first tried on the headphones, I thought they were comfortable, but after a little while, I was less sure about how they felt on my ears and found myself adjusting the headband to get a more comfortable fit. Everyone's ears are different, so I decided to hand them off to a couple of colleagues to see how they felt to them. One colleague came away with impressions similar to mine, while the other said he preferred the fit of the Denons to that of the QuietComfort 3s. (Note: I didn't say anything to them before letting them use the headphones).
As for sound, let's start with the positives. The noise-canceling on the AH-NC732s is quite good--arguably superior to that of either Bose model. With the QuietComfort 3s, the loud air-conditioning fan in my office was muffled, though an audible hiss was left as residue. With the AH-NC732s, the faint hiss was still there but it sounded slightly more pleasant. Like with all noise-canceling headphones, the noise canceling does exert a slight bit of pressure on your eardrum. For many people this isn't a problem, but some people get wigged out by that pressure.
One thing the AH-NC732s can do that the Quiet Comforts can't is play music when the noise-canceling circuitry isn't engaged (if your battery dies in Bose headphones, the sound cuts out). However, if you turn off the noise-canceling circuitry (a single AAA battery powers it), the headphones simply don't play as loud and the sound comes across as a bit muffled. In other words, it's hard to listen to music without the noise canceling activated--but at least it's possible, which will be helpful if the battery conks out in the middle of a long flight.
Overall, we found the AH-NC732s to be fairly laid back. They're not as efficient as the Bose headphones, so you have to crank the volume on an iPod to equalize the headphones. Perhaps we expected more from them because this is Denon and we're used to having the company produce high-quality products. But the AH-NC732s were clearly beat by a pair of regular headphones, the Ultrasone HFI-580, and they lagged behind both Bose Quiet Comfort headphones. That's not to say the Denon's sound bad, but when you're dealing with $300 headphones, merely being good doesn't cut it.
The Ultrasone HFI-580s offered better clarity and more detail, along with tighter bass. The Denon pair also didn't measure up to the Bose 'phones in the bass department. Quiet Comfort headphones are known for their thumping bass (some would prefer it to be more restrained) and by comparison, the AH-NC732s just came across as sounding a little timid.
In the final analysis, we didn't love the Denon AH-NC732s, and would have a hard time recommending them at their $300 list price. We don't think the Bose headphones are worth that kind of money either, but they are better. So here's what we suggest to Denon. Drop the price of these headphones to $150. At that price, they're worth buying.