If you're fed up with a noisy commute or just want some peace and quiet, a pair of good active noise canceling headphones will often get the job done while still providing a pleasant listening experience.
These particular on-ears aren't the best choice for that job, however. Testing revealed decent overall performance that's marred by a single, huge drop in emphasis—a real shame for what you're paying.
While the K490NC on-ears do block a good amount of noise, there are active cancelers out there that offer more noise reduction at the same price.
Back in black (and silver)
To begin with, it's nice to see active noise cancelers that look this good. The K490NC on-ears sport such a classic look: The band and cups are sleek, black, and minimal, highlighted by reflective silver metal. The removable cable is wrapped in black felt, and matches the same aesthetic. Both ends are protected by matte silver caps. This is a stylish scheme.
Where comfort is concerned, the K490NCs offer a pretty satisfying fit, though I wouldn't call them luxurious. The ear cups are padded with a soft, pliable leather, and the band offers the top of the head a bit of cushioning, too.
If you're thinking of taking them on the go, you'll be glad to know that these AKGs are lightweight, but still clamp tightly enough that they won't slide off. The band allows plenty of adjustment for heads small and large, and the cups fold up into the band for a little more portability.
The switch to activate noise canceling is located on the back of the left ear cup—it's easy to just reach up and flick it on. When you do, your music will cut out briefly, and fade back in. It's a nice effect, truth be told.
When the battery runs out, you can recharge it via the included USB cable. This cable is also black and silver, and can charge off of any USB 2.0 or 3.0 port.
AKG includes a protective zip-up carrying pouch, too. It won't provide protection against crushing force, but it will save your cans from scratches and dings. Fly-by-nighters will be glad to know there's an airplane adapter thrown in, as well.
Promising performance is waylaid by one big issue.
If you're seeking relief from the hustle and bustle of your noisy surroundings, the K490NC on-ears can help. While these AKGs don't reduce sound quite as much as some of their competitors, they still block plenty of racket. You can expect ambient noise to be notably diminished when active noise cancelation (ANC) is enabled, leaving you blissfully ignorant of things like idling engines, whirring fan blades, and the incessant squeak of your co-worker's tapping foot.
Unfortunately, the K490NC on-ears don't totally obliterate middle- and high-pitched sounds. The aggravating tone of a TV's "off air" signal noise, for instance, was barely blocked at all, and while nearby voices in my office were toned down, they were still quite audible.
In the way of positive results, I tested excellent overall clarity of sound on these AKGs—no audible distortion at all. Many speakers suffer from inner mechanical troubles that interfere with the pure production of notes, but these AKGs earn a blue ribbon in this respect: Even the very lowest and very highest notes are unclipped and clear, with or without noise canceling enabled.
Regrettably, though, the K490NC on-ears have a clear problem when it comes to audio playback: Whether or not ANC is on, a very large portion of high notes are heavily underemphasized—they're basically inaudible compared to the bass and middle notes. I listened to a few recordings to check the test results, and found the problem was most clearly audible during a classical guitar rendition of Bach's Sonata for solo violin No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001). The result is that the guitar's high overtone are quite difficult to hear, reducing the music's overall clarity and scope. It's worth mentioning that this quality is much less pronounced in non-classical genres, though, such as hip hop and rock.
Lastly, bass notes take longer to taper off than middle and treble notes. Therefore, low notes last longer than others, which tends to clutter the soundscape, creating a rather bottom-heavy profile.
Don't jump for the full asking price.
For what it's worth, the AKG K490NC on-ear noise canceling headphones (MSRP $299.95) are pretty decent in both the sound they provide and the noises they hush, but most buyers want more than decent for $300.
The soundscape we tested would have been terrific if it weren't for one glaring area of underemphasis in the high midrange. It's enough of a problem that we simply can't recommend these AKGs at full price.
If you're not too concerned with a perfectly balanced sound, you might love the K490NC on-ears for their sleek look and reliable noise cancelation—but you may as well hold out for a sale price. On the other hand, if your top concern is getting the best sound for your money, we recommend grazing other pastures.
The AKG K490NC (MSRP $299.95) on-ears do a solid job shutting out ambient noise, but they struggle a bit with audio playback. Testing revealed a large area of underemphasis in the high midrange, as well as issues with sub-bass spectral decay time. While the K490NCs have no other performance issues, their drawbacks are enough to put a damper on their value.
Attenuation refers to the amount of ambient noise blocked by a set of headphones. As active noise cancelers, the AKG K490NC are better than average in this area. Time in the lab revealed that these on-ears reduce sub-bass frequencies (20-60Hz) by 20 dB, reducing those sounds to 1/4 of their original loudness—a great result. Meanwhile, bass frequencies (60-300Hz) are reduced by a little over 10 dB, which is about 1/2 of their original loudness.
One place the K490NC on-ears could have performed better was in the reduction of ambient noises falling within the midrange frequencies (300-2kHz), though. Some sounds in this range are reduced by less than 10 dB, which won't be very effective when dealing with repetitive noise. Fortunately, things start to look up in the high-mids (2k-6kHz) and high frequencies (6k-20kHz), where sounds are reduced to as little as 1/16 of their original loudness.
A frequency response graph charts a speaker's emphasis of every audible frequency. Testing revealed that the AKG K490NC is capable of a very balanced response: Sub-bass and bass elements play back about 4 dB louder than the source volume (78 dB), and emphasis dips a little around 1kHz. That dip in midrange emphasis is a good thing if you consider its adherence to an equal loudness contour.
Volume drops significantly starting at about 2.5kHz and lasting through 4kHz, though. Notes and overtones that fall into those frequencies will be roughly 15-20 dB lower in volume that those from other frequencies, which subtracts certain key elements from music playback.
With active noise cancelation active, the frequency response is roughly the same, though the lowest sub-bass elements receive less of a boost. The same radical drop in emphasis is still present, however—looks like there's no fixing it.
Our impulse response test measures the time it takes each sound within the frequency spectrum to completely decay. While this is rarely an issue, we did notice during testing that the K490NC on-ears' bass frequencies take notably longer to completely decay than the other frequencies.
Test tones at 100 Hz took almost 15 milliseconds to completely decay, compared to less than 5 milliseconds for the other frequencies. This isn't especially negative in and of itself, but combined with the drop in emphasis throughout the high midrange that we noted previously, it makes for a rather bass-heavy, crowded sound quality—not as clean as it could be.
Meet the tester
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
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