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Philips Fidelio NC1 review: A well-designed on-ear noise-canceling headphone

While the Philips Fidelio NC1's sound may be a little too forward for some listeners, it does have an excellent design and decent noise-canceling.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

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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Over the last few years, Philips has been making some very solid headphones, so we were intrigued to try out the Fidelio NC1 ($300, UK £250, AU$350), which is something of a rarity in today's headphone market -- a high-quality on-ear noise-canceling model.

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7.4

Philips Fidelio NC1

The Good

The Philips Fidelio NC1 is a compact, well-designed, and very comfortable on-ear headphone that features active noise-canceling powered by a rechargeable battery that offers an impressive 30 hours of battery life. The headphones have a folding design and include a cloth-covered cable with an inline/microphone and a nice carrying case.

The Bad

Fairly pricey; while the headphones offer a lot of detail, the sound is on the bright side, which may lead to some listening fatigue.

The Bottom Line

While the Philips Fidelio NC1's sound may be a little too forward for some listeners, it does have an excellent design and decent noise-canceling.

Active noise-canceling (NC), you'll recall, requires the headphones to counter external ambient noise -- most typically, the drone of jet engines while you're flying -- with an inverse sound wave, thus "canceling" the undesired environmental sound so you get more of what you want to hear: the music you're listening to.

Bose discontinued its QuietComfort 3 on-ear NC headphone, putting its marketing muscle behind the QuietComfort 25 , an over-ear headphone that features arguably the best noise-canceling on the market. And while I can't say this Philips' noise-canceling is quite on par with the Bose QC 25, it does a good job gently muffling ambient noise without adding the audible hiss that some NC headphones produce. (Note that Philips is also slated to have an iPhone-only Lightning-powered version of the NC1, dubbed the NC1L, later this year.)

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The Philips Fidelio NC1 is equipped with active noise-cancellation. Sarah Tew/CNET

For an on-ear headphone, it's very comfortable and seems well-built, with some metal parts and earcups that are equipped with memory foam and an outer cushion that's a combination of fabric and soft "protein leather." It's a good-looking headphone.

The 6.7-ounce (190-gram) headphones fold up and also fold flat and fit in a crescent-shaped carrying case that's well-designed and has a small pocket for the detachable 47-inch (1.2m) cable and USB charging cord. That headphone cable is covered in cloth (think shoelace) to help reduce microphonics and has an integrated one-button remote and microphone for making cell phone calls (call quality was good).

As I said, I like the fit of the headphone. It doesn't clamp down on your head and ears too tightly, but the only downside is that if you move your head vigorously, it does have a tendency to slip off your ears a bit (this may not be the case for people with larger heads, but mine is on the small-to-medium side). This is only a factor when you're on the go, but I thought it worth mentioning.

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The headphones fold up to fit in a nice carrying case. Sarah Tew/CNET

The other thing to note is this headphone has a built-in rechargeable battery (it doesn't seem to to be user-replaceable) that delivers up to 30 hours of playback, which is impressive. In contrast, the Bose QC25 uses a single AAA battery that delivers similar battery life. I prefer rechargeable, but others like the standard battery option (the Bose's carrying case conveniently has a slot inside for storing an extra battery).

Both this Philips and the Bose can play music even after the battery dies, which isn't always the case for noise-canceling headphone (previous Bose QC models only worked when powered).

Performance

Philips described the Fidelio NC1 as a high-definition headphone, which tends to mean the headphone delivers a lot of clarity.

It does. Perhaps too much for some people's tastes. And by that I mean it's a little bright and forward. While dynamic sounding, it lacks some warmth and doesn't feature incredibly deep bass. It's got a bit of low-end kick, but it's the treble and upper midrange that jump out at you here. And that can lead to some listening fatigue.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

By comparison, the Bose QC 25 sounds smoother and also a little more open. The problem with on-ear models is that tend to sound more closed than over-ear headphones and while the Fidelio NC1's sound isn't too "stuck inside your head," you just don't get that wide soundstage that a good pair of over-ear headphones deliver -- such as Philips' own Fidelio L2 . That said, the NC1 is a relatively compact headphone, so that's where the tradeoff is.

Interestingly, when you turn the noise-canceling off, some of that edge to the treble goes away and the headphone seems a little better balanced and offers a bit more warmth. Sometimes, when you activate the noise-canceling on an NC headphone, it'll dull the sound up a little. In this case, however, turning it off blunts the sound a touch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As with other headphones I've described as "less forgiving," this one does best with jazz, classical and pop. While it sounds OK with rock, hip-hop and techno, you probably wouldn't buy this headphone if those are the main genres of music that you listen to.

As I said earlier, the noise-canceling isn't super strong on this Philips, so it doesn't do as good a job muffling ambient noise as the Bose does (the Bose also benefits from completely enclosing your ear). But on the flip side, it puts less pressure on your ear drums than does the Bose, which is a good thing for people who are more sensitive to noise canceling.

Conclusion

From a design standpoint, the Fidelio NC1 is an excellent on-ear headphone. It looks sleek, is sturdily built, comfortable to wear and comes with a nice carrying case. It also features decent noise canceling without any irritating audible hiss or strong ear pressure.

The headphone also offers impressive detail. However, it may be a bit too forward for some people, and sound-wise it doesn't measure up to a top-notch passive on-ear model such as the Beyerdynamic T51i . In short, there's a lot to like here -- just maybe not enough to spend $300 on.

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7.4

Philips Fidelio NC1

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Sound 7Value 7