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Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphone review: The poor man's Bose QC15

Monoprice's Noise Canceling Headphones are about 70 percent as good as the Bose QC15s for a little more than a third of the price.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

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Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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Back in 2006, I reviewed the active noise-canceling Jabra C820 headphones, which were clearly modeled after the (since discontinued) $300 Bose QC2 headphones but cost about a third of the price and performed well enough to be considered a good deal.

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Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphone

The Good

Modeled after Bose's popular noise-canceling headphones, the much more affordable <b>Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphones</b> are comfortable to wear, offer relatively decent sound, and come with a cable that has an in-line remote/microphone for making cell phone calls. They also fold up for compact storage in their included carrying case -- just like the Bose headphones.

The Bad

They don't sound as good as the Bose QC15s, and their design looks a little generic.

The Bottom Line

Monoprice's Noise Canceling Headphones are about 70 percent as good as the Bose QC15s for a little more than a third of the price.

I bring this up only because when I saw Monoprice's new active noise-canceling headphones, I was hit with a clear case of deja vu. They may not be exactly the same as those Jabras, but the concept is very similar: make a pretty good imitation of the Bose headphones but charge about a third of the price for them.

This is Monoprice's M.O. It's the electronics equivalent of a generic drug company, selling much cheaper versions of pricier name-brand products. In true Monoprice fashion, the headphones are simply called "Noise Canceling Headphone (with Active Noise Reduction Technology)." They start at around $113 if you want a single pair, but as with most Monoprice products, if you purchase them in larger quantities, the price goes down, dipping to a $100 unit price if you pick up 50 or more in one shot.

For better or worse, I ended up feeling the same way about them as felt about the Jabras. They're not as good as the top-rated Bose QC 15s, but they performed well enough to be considered a good deal for those on a budget who want a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

The Monoprice Noise Canceling headphones are almost a third of the price of the Bose QC15s. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
While not quite as comfortable as the Bose QC15, this is a comfortable headphone that features memory foam earpads. Like the Bose, they're relatively lightweight for over-the-ear headphones (6.3 ounces), and they fit snugly though not too tightly on your head.

On the plus side, it's easy to access the battery compartment in the right earcup -- you simply slide the earcup's cover to the left to reveal it -- with one AAA battery powering the noise-cancellation circuitry for up to 50 hours. Also, the headphone cord is detachable, and Monoprice includes both a 58-inch standard cable and 55-inch cable with an inline microphone and control module (both terminate in an L-shaped plug). And no, the in-line remote isn't Apple certified, so it should work with most smartphones.

The headphones have nicely padded earcups. Sarah Tew/CNET

I also liked that you get a headphone/microphone splitter for use with PCs (a 3.5mm-to-1/4-inch plug adapter and an airline plug adapter are also included). And the headphones fold flat and come with a decent "hard-shell" zippered nylon storage case, which has a nylon mesh internal pocket to store the extra accessories.

All that's good stuff, but I did have a few complaints about the design, most of which concerned the cosmetics. The headphones simply look a little generic and cheap. The exteriors on the earcups have a glossy black finish that attracts fingerprints and seems prone to getting scratched. Oh, and I really think it's time Monoprice came up with a better logo to put on its products (perhaps "MP" would work?) rather than simply spelling out its name. It's the equivalent of having "Costco" displayed on each earcup. Some people might not mind rocking that with pride, but others might.

Side by side with the Bose QC15s (in blue). Sarah Tew/CNET

It's also worth noting that the in-line remote just didn't feel like it would hold up that well. Also, the shape of the headband seems like it should be a little more rounded. It's not a huge deal, but the Bose QC15s conform a little better to your head. With the Monoprice headphones, you're aware of the band pushing against the top of your head.

Performance
As I said in my review of the Harman Kardon NC headphones, one of the problems with active noise-canceling headphones is that you usually give up some sound quality whenever you move to a model that runs your sound through noise-canceling circuitry. You tend to lose a bit of clarity, which is evident with headphones like the Monster Inspiration, which come in passive and active noise-canceling versions (the passive version sounds cleaner).

The included accessories. Sarah Tew/CNET

Companies like Harman Kardon and Bose have managed to do a good job making their active noise-canceling headphones sound clean (in the case of the Bose QC 15s, I would use the adjective "smooth"). And while these Monoprice headphones sound fairly decent for a noise-canceling model (they have strong bass), they just don't have the level of clarity that those much higher-priced models do. In short, they don't sound as good.

As for the noise cancellation itself, it's decent. There was a faint hiss when I activated the noise-cancellation, and it didn't muffle the sound as well as the Bose -- which has the best noise cancellation I've encountered. The Monoprice's noise cancellation may also be slightly behind the Harman Kardon NC and Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9, but it's pretty close.

On the plus side, unlike the Bose QC 15s, you can use these in passive mode, with the noise cancellation turned off. They actually sound better, with significantly cleaner sound. And the fact is, the headphones have a tight enough seal around your ear to keep out a lot of ambient noise.

It's worth mentioning that I also compared this Monoprice model with the Creative HN-900, which has a very similar design and can be had for less than $70 online. The Monoprice proved to be a step up from that Creative, with better build quality, better sound, and better noise cancellation. I preferred the Creative's simple, matte finish, and while they're lighter and a touch more comfortable, the headband on the Monoprice model is sturdier, and the Creative's earpads don't use memory foam.

The headphones come with a good carrying case. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
With the Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphone, you're getting a product that's about 70 percent as good as the Bose QC15 for a little more than a third of the price. For some people that will be good enough, and it helps that Monoprice throws in some extra accessories, including the in-line microphone for smartphone use. Despite a few flaws, at $112 or so, they're a decent deal if you're looking for a budget pair of noise-canceling headphones.

If you're on the fence about these, I should note that Monoprice does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee on them, so you can order them and get a hold of a pair of Bose QC15s to do your own comparison. After doing your own tests, I would guess that around 70 percent of users will keep them. But then again, maybe I'm a little more picky about my headphones than most people.

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Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphone

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Sound 6Value 8