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Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones

April 30th, 2010
These two noise-cancelling headphones are difficult to choose between.

When you choose noise-cancelling headphones you sometimes have to sacrifice comfort or sound for good noise cancellation, unless you want to spent a fortune. MacNN compares two reasonably priced headsets; difficult to choose between because they have similar looks, sound, and accessories. Noise cancelling headphones can be expensive, but if you need peace and quiet while listening to your music devices, they are worth every penny. I enlisted the help of a former DJ from a local rock radio station to help me test two sets of headphones worth their weight in sound and technology.

We tested two sets of headphones. The AblePlanet NC300 True Fidelity Active Noise Canceling Headphones with LINX AUDIO that sell for $129.99 and the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones that retail for $219.95. I chose these two headsets because they look very similar, each ship with a hard shell case, and include similar specs.

AblePlanet NC300–Ear Cup Side View

Ear Cups and Comfort

The Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b ear cups have a softer liner covering on the inside than the AblePlanet NC300, but that doesn't seem to affect comfort or sound. The slightly deeper ear cups with more padding does affect the comfort, and helps make the Audio Technica more comfortable over time, because the cups circle the ear better.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b–Ear Cup Side View

Each set of headphones has an inner metal band in the headband to allow for adjustment over your head. The only real difference is that the Audio-Technica phones click more loudly when adjusting the fit. The wider top of the headband on the AblePlanet should make them more comfortable, but both of us thought the Audio-Technica were more comfortable. I think the lighter ear cups probably made the difference, even though the AblePlanet NC300 cups are thinner, they're significantly heavier than the Audio-Technica ear cups, and the weight becomes noticeable over time.

The Sound

We ran both pairs through rock, classical, Motown, operatic, folk, and rap music. While I could hear minor differences within songs, between the two pairs, the sound wasn’t different enough to favor one pair over another. Both sets of headphones have good stereo sound separation and cancelled most outside noise well. While the sound produced is similar, there is a difference when the volume was pushed up. The AblePlanet seemed to introduce some muddiness with heavy instrumentation, such as in rock music, plus didn’t reproduce the highs as well within the mid-range.

AblePlanet NC300 Press Photo

The Audio-Technica distorted the bass a bit more the louder the volume. The Audio-Technica has a 109 dB sensitivity rating, while the AblePlanet NC300, is rated at 115db sensitivity when off and 121 dB when on, which means that the NC300s use more power to sound louder, which could account for some of the bass distortion. Of course, you should not be pushing the sound too loud if you want to hear a few years down the road.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b Press Photo

I was not as aware of the mid-range differences as my fellow DJ tester. I do not like bass boost in my headphones and neither pair of headphones seemed to favor high or lows. I thought both sets of headphones delivered full bass that was comfortable at normal and low listening levels.

Noise Cancellation

Noise-cancelling headphones include batteries to power the noise-canceling feature, but can be used with that feature turned off also. Active noise cancellation means that the headphone generates a signal that cancels out outside noise. Generally, they work best cancelling out low frequency noise, such as airplane engines. While you can use both these headphones without the noise-cancelling feature turned on, I thought that the AblePlanet NC300 did not reproduce the music well; it was barely audible at normal volume levels. I could hear the music fine with the Audio Technica ATH-ANC7b turned off.

You insert small (AAA) batteries that power the noise-cancelling feature and turn it on with a switch. The switch, which lies on the earpiece on both headphones, glows blue on the AblePlanet and red on the Audio-Technica set. In the AblePlanet pair, the batteries insert into a small compartment on the side of the right earpiece. The noise cancellation On switch is also on the side of that same earpiece. Surprisingly, the earpiece does not feel any heavier than the one on the left. The Audio-Technica noise cancellation switch lies on the outside of the ear cup and you swing the outer earpiece out to insert the batteries. The better-distributed weight of the batteries may account for the more comfortable ear cups.

The headphones are so similar that I tested them under a variety of situations for months. While they both adequately blocked plane engine noise and did not radiate walking noise through the wires, it was not until recently that I heard the real difference. Finally, as the snow melted and streets needed cleaning, I awoke one morning to a loud, obnoxious, machine sound that wouldn’t quit. The business across the street hired a crew to blow all of its driveway dirt into other people’s yards. I tested both headphones for hours and discovered that the Audio-Technica could not block out that noise while the AblePlanet NC300 completely blocked out the noise. That makes the NC300s perfect for working in noisy environments, but I never recommend using noise-blocking technology when you have kids or pets around.

Other Features

The AblePlanet won out on cord length, because it is nice and long, plus its inclusion of volume control on the cord. If you want to tuck your iPod away in a pocket while listening, the AblePlanet offers more. To its credit the Audio-Technica set includes two sets of cords, but even the longest is not as long as the AblePlanet NC300. You can remove the cords for storage, but the L-shaped connection on the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b seems more stable. If you accidentally yank on the cord, it is less likely to pull out of the socket. I did have some connection issues with the straight connector on the AblePlanet pair. When I moved around and while walking, I heard static and periodically lost the sound in one channel.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b Case & Accessories–Press Photo


The headphones come with a similar sized hard cover carrying case that includes a small removable zipper storage bag attached with Velcro. The headphone cups fold in for storage on both sets of headphones. The storage bag holds the cords, spare batteries, and adapters. Both cases are too large to carry easily in a purse or carry-on luggage. I prefer the felt lined bag that came with a set of Altec Lansing headphones I reviewed a couple of years ago, and wish a carry bag shipped with these newer models.

Audio- AblePlanet NC300 Case & Accessories in Bag


If I wanted headphones for comfort and sound alone, I would buy the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b. If I desired better noise cancellation, and ease of use due to the separate volume control, then I would choose the AblePlanet NC 300. Which pair you choose depends on the features that are more important to you.

Pros and Cons and Specifications

AblePlanet NC300 True Fidelity Active Noise Canceling Headphones with LINX AUDIO

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones

See specifications below. Cons
See specifications below.