Harman Kardon NC noise-canceling headphones review: An NC model that doesn't sound like one

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The Good Unique design; excellent fit and finish; impressive sound quality for a noise-canceling headphones; built-in rechargeable battery to power the noise cancellation; fold flat (a nice carrying case is included); work without the noise cancellation on (when the battery dies, they keep playing); include Apple-friendly inline remote and microphone.

The Bad Fairly pricey; the inline remote and microphone won't work with many non-Apple smartphones and tablets; the battery charging cable is not a standard Micro-USB cable.

The Bottom Line While they may not be quite as comfortable as Bose's ultrapopular QC 15 headphones, the Harman Kardon NCs offer slightly better sound and have a built-in rechargeable battery to power the active noise-cancellation circuitry.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Sound 9
  • Value 7

Last year I reviewed the Harman Kardon Classic (CL), an on-ear headphone model that has a very distinct design, with a modern take on an old-school double headband and square earcups that harken back a little to the Bowers & Wilkins P3 and P5 headphones. I liked the CL, so I was eager to get my hands on Harman's other new over-the-ear models, the $249.95 Bluetooth Wireless Over-Ear Headphones and the $299.95 NC, which stands for noise canceling.

While I'm still waiting to check out the Bluetooth model -- it's generally received very positive reviews from consumers -- the noise-canceling NC showed up the other week. The timing was good because Monoprice's $112 Noise Cancelling Headphone turned up around the same time, and I also had a special-edition blue version of Bose's QuietComfort 15s on hand along with the Audio-Technica QuietPoint ATH-ANC9 and noise-canceling version of the Monster Inspiration.

In terms of comfort, the Bose came out the winner, but the Harman NC wasn't far behind and arguably was the best-sounding of the bunch. I can't say that makes it a great bargain at $300 (none of these $300 headphones can be considered a bargain). However, it is a surprisingly worthy competitor to the Bose and includes a cord that has an Apple-friendly inline remote/microphone for making cell phone calls. It also features a built-in rechargeable battery and can play even if you don't have the noise-canceling circuitry engaged (or if the battery dies).

The headphones include two different-sized swappable headbands. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
As I said, this is an over-the-ear model that has a very distinct look; it's a modern take on an old-school design and won't appeal to everyone. The build quality seems robust, with the top portion of the headband made of metal. Here's what's interesting: Harman includes two sizes of that metal piece, and you can easily swap one band in for the other, depending on the size of your head.

I personally don't have a very big head (at least I didn't think so), but like with the company's CL headphones, which feature the same headband design, the default small band didn't feel great, especially over longer listening sessions, so I swapped in the XL band. It made a significant difference.

Hip to be square: The NCs feature a modern take on a retro design. Sarah Tew/CNET

I prefer over-the-ear headphones to on-ear models, so it's not surprising that I preferred the overall comfort level of this model to that of the CL. Like its Bose and Audio-Technica competitors, the Harman features memory-foam earpads that conform well to your head and offer a tight seal. The only issue I had was that I though the headphone was a tad weighty (and, yes, that heft helps contribute to the impression that the NC is solidly built). The NC weighs 0.70 pound compared with the Bose at 0.44 pound -- a significant difference.

As far as extra features go, you get an Apple-friendly inline remote and microphone. With Apple iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod), you can use the NC as a headset for making calls. Call quality was good in my test calls. Using the inline remote, you can raise and lower volume, skip tracks forward and back, and pause/play your music. Those features will be more miss than hit for non-Apple smartphones, so take that into consideration if you're an Android user (the microphone and some of the remote features may work with certain Android models, but they aren't supported and don't usually work).

The earcups are very nicely padded. Sarah Tew/CNET

The headphones don't fold up, but they do fold flat -- not as flat as the smaller CLs, but fairly flat. While the included carrying case is fairly large in terms of height and width, since the headphones fold flat there isn't a lot of depth to the package. It stows away nicely in a laptop bag or backpack, or potentially your suitcase.

The headphones have a detachable cable, which is nice, though you do have to detach that cable to get the headphones to fit properly in the case. Luckily, the headphones' designers were thoughtful enough to include an interior pocket in the case for storing that cable.

The headphones fold flat to fit into the included carrying case. Sarah Tew/CNET

A couple of other things worth mentioning: as noted, the headphones have a built-in rechargeable battery for the noise canceling. You engage the noise canceling with a small slider switch on the left earpiece.

Bose's $350 QC 3 on-ear noise-canceling headphones feature a rechargeable battery. But with that model -- and all Bose NC models -- if the battery dies, you can't use the headphones. By contrast, with the Harman NC, the headphones produce sound with or without the NC turned on.

One thing I didn't love: you charge the headphones via the headphone jack using a non-standard USB cable (you get up to 40 hours of battery life from a single charge). It works well, but the problem is that if you lose the cable, you won't be able to charge the headphones (you can't just use the Micro-USB that comes with a lot of phones and other devices). I therefore suggest keeping the cable stowed in the inner pocket of the carrying case for safekeeping.

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