Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
The Sony MDR-NC50s stand out from the company's noise-canceling headphones lineup, which is mostly made up of small and lightweight earbud, Walkman, and neckband models. In contrast, the NC50s are comparatively heavy (10 ounces), full-size, over-the-ear headphones. But that size advantage is responsible for the NC50s' bigger, more robust sound and superior isolation from ambient noise. Priced at $199, the NC50s are the most expensive noise-canceling headphones Sony currently offers.
The MDR-NC50s' sleek, black earcups and thickly padded cushions hint at their upmarket appeal. They felt great when we first put them on, and even before we powered up the noise-canceling circuitry, the big Sonys sealed out ambient noise on New York City buses and trains. The Monitor switch conveniently located on the NC50s' left earcup let us mute our music so that we could hear outside sounds, such as train announcements. We don't know of any other noise-canceling headphones with this feature, but we found it very useful. Like the Bose QuietComfort 2s, the NC50s fold flat for easy portability and can be stowed in the large nylon carry case. Other supplied accessories include an in-flight plug and a five-foot detachable cable with gold-plated 1/8-inch minijacks at each end. As on the Bose QuietComfort 2s, the noise-canceling circuitry runs off a single AAA battery tucked into the right earcup.
The headphones' richly balanced sound flatters portable players. Bass is big and powerful, though we wished it had been a little tighter--bass drums and bass guitars sometimes became indistinguishable from each other. Our biggest concern with the MDR-NC50s is that they're fairly inefficient, so the sound from our iPod wasn't all that loud. And since iPods generally have more juice than MP3 players do, we're concerned that the NC50s may not satisfy MP3 users who like to listen loud. The Sony headphones' sound was detailed and lively, but it felt a little canned, with a more stuck-inside-the-head sound than our reference Grado SR125s (which, admittedly, are not noise-canceling headphones).
A pair of Solitude noise-canceling headphones we happened to be testing at the same time more effectively hushed higher-frequency noise you'd experience on a jet plane. But overall, the Sonys' powers of quietude were excellent. As purveyors of music, the Sonys flat-out clobbered the Solitudes--the latter were dull, dull, dull, while the Sonys offered far more transparent sound. Also, the NC50s' sound handily trumped that of AKG's feisty little K 28 NC noise-canceling headphones--the Sonys' was more detailed and vivid.
Sony claims the MDR-NC50s have an "ear-conscious design for premium comfort," but whether they live up to that billing is a matter of personal taste. At least one CNET reviewer found these 'phones mildly uncomfortable after 30 minutes, causing sweaty ears and a tight feeling around the headband. Other staffers found the ear pads and the padded headband comfortable enough that they angled to borrow the 'phones for the next trek from New York to San Francisco. More gripes: the noise-canceling processing sometimes produced a deep, bassy rumbling sound when we were in the path of a blowing air conditioner. Shutting down the NC eliminated the droning boom.
Summing up: Sony's MDR-NC50 headphones are a mixed bag of plusses and minuses--excellent noise isolation, big bass, good midrange and treble detail--but they may not be a sensible match with some MP3 players, and their extended comfort could be an issue for some buyers. But if the potential pitfalls aren't an issue for you, the NC50s offer worthwhile competition to Bose's QuietComfort 2s at a more affordable price point. Just be sure to try before you buy.
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