If your expectations relate to the latter scenario, Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC70 QuietPoint headphones (MSRP $199.95) can help. The ANC70 over-ears are the newest member of the company's noise canceling lineup.
At a glance, the overall performance seems similar to the same-priced ATH-ANC7b model, but take it from us—the ANC70 is the better bet.
Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC70 over-ear noise canceling headphones (MSRP $99.95) are anything but perfect. If you're an audio purist, just turn away.
As isolators, these headphones are dependable enough, but the audio performance is middling at best. Testing revealed some issues in terms of balance across the frequency spectrum, and I also discovered audible distortion in the bass range.
Using a frequency response chart, we can examine a headphone's particular sound profile. For instance, this graph shows how Audio-Technica's ANC70 over-ears emphasize each frequency across the audible spectrum. Are the headphones too bass heavy? Do they skimp on delicate details? A frequency response chart tells the whole story.
Since the emphasis changes depending on whether or not you turn on active noise cancellation (ANC), we'll investigate with and without the feature. Without ANC, the ANC70 headphones produce a very flat bass response, meaning they do not over- or underemphasize low notes. This will sound strange to most listeners; without any emphasis on bass, music sounds rather hollow. On the upside, though, a flat bass response lends itself very nicely to equalizing.
Meanwhile, volume increases slightly from 300Hz to 700Hz, before gradually falling. By 2kHz, emphasis plummets notably and doesn't rise again until 6kHz—meaning the entire upper midrange (think high overtones on strings and brass) is underemphasized compared with everything else. As for the uppermost notes, frequencies of 6kHz and up skyrocket to more than 80dB (a whopping ~20dB louder than the upper midrange, and ~10dB louder than the middle and bass range). Very high notes can therefore sound extremely abrasive at times.
Now, turn on ANC and you get a new picture: Sub-bass below 100Hz plummets, but the bass range increases in volume by ~5dB. Oddly, volume drops between 300Hz and 900Hz by ~8dB (a notable drop). I mentioned before that the upper midrange (between 2kHz and 6kHz) is underemphasized without ANC—and when you turn the feature on, the drop in volume is even more extreme—so again, high notes on brass and stringed instruments are adversely effected.
Overall, music sounds richer and fuller when you turn ANC on—but the sound seems muddled due to the underemphasized upper midrange.
Comfortable form, stealthy design
The ANC70 looks a lot like some of Audio-Technica's older models, but with key improvements to both the fit and the user experience.
Instead of the hard ear cups and firm clamping forces I've found on prior sets (I call them "Frankenphones"), the ANC70 sports cushy memory foam pads and a gentle headband. What a relief. These Audio-Technicas aren't the most luxurious headset that money can buy, but this level of comfort is sure to please most anyone.
Buyers will also find some useful accessories in the box: a removable cable, a carrying case, a stereo adaptor, and an airplane adaptor.
You wouldn't notice the mic and remote in the product photos, however, because they're a bit hidden. Basically, the left ear cup serves as mission control. To skip a song, answer a call, pause music, or tweak volume, just reach up to your left ear and you'll find everything you need. From the outside, you look like an FBI agent, pressing some mysterious, unseen button. No one needs to know the truth (you're turning up the volume on Miley's "Wrecking Ball").
Skip Miley by double tapping the Audio-Technica logo on the left speaker back. Tap once to pause. To alter volume, use the nearby slider. Though it doesn't offer the same granularity that a button controller would, the slider still gets the job done. A switch on the same left side flips active noise cancellation (ANC) on and off. You won't have fun feeling around for it, though—it's annoyingly hard to locate, since you can't see what you're doing. Users will need to pop a AAA battery into the opposite speaker back in order to utilize ANC. You can also enjoy wireless ANC by removing the cable, which disables music playback but not the cancellation feature.
Lastly, if you need to take a call, just click that logo on the left side and talk away. The microphone is actually built into the speaker back.
We measure Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) to find out whether a set of headphones will hamper your tunes with clipped harmonics or added noise. We never want to see more than 3% THD in both the left and right channels—above that threshold, distortion become audible.
Without using ANC, the ANC70 does suffer from more than the 3% ceiling. We found 6.58%, most of which plagues the lower frequencies. Seasoned ears will certainly notice this issue.
Flip the switch to activate ANC, however, and that number falls to well below 3%. Keep a backup battery around and you won't have any trouble with distortion.
A Jack of two trades
The ANC70 over-ears have two hats to wear: a noise-blocking hat and an audio cap. Let's begin with the first.
As active noise cancelers, the ANC70 QuietPoints are average, dependable cans. They significantly reduce ambient outside noise with the flip of a switch—but big, bassy sounds aren't blocked as efficiently as high-pitched ones. In terms of that funny pressure that ANC headphones apply to your inner ear, it isn't that bad. In fact, the ANC70's internal processor (which emits signals to drown outside noise) seems milder than most.
Now for hat number two: The sound profile on the ANC70 headphones will vary slightly, depending on whether ANC is activated. Without the ANC feature, volume is acceptably balanced throughout the musical scale. Every note is audible. From a deep, operatic baritone, to a twanging guitar, to a delicate pluck of a harp string, the ANC70 headphones balance it all with a fairly even hand. But there are downsides.
Many listeners will complain about the lack of low-end support. To make matters worse, testing revealed audible distortion throughout the bass range—something practiced ears will no doubt resent.
So what happens when you flip on the active noise cancellation? Some new troubles arise, but overall performance improves. Here's the run-down: The distortion problems clear up almost completely, and music no longer sounds as hollow since bass gets a boost.
However, much of the midrange and high range drops in volume, creating a rather muddled sound quality. Overtones are particularly underemphasized. Harps, violins, the trill of a soprano—many of these notes don't ring out as clearly as they should. Simultaneously, uppermost notes can actually sound a little too loud and abrasive at times.
Still, most listeners will prefer the sound quality with active noise cancelation engaged. So remember: When your battery dies, you get stuck with less bass and more distortion. Keep an extra AAA in your carry case!
The ATH-ANC70 QuietPoints tested with average attenuation—meaning they do a decent job of blocking outside ambient noise.
The active noise canceling feature handles bassy noises well, reducing them to as much as 1/4. Middle frequencies, oddly enough, are only reduced by 50%, but very high-pitched noises are very effectively quelled—so screeching birds, squeaky wheels, and other high-pitched irritants are hushed to 1/16 their original volume.
New and improved, but still not a medalist
Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC70 QuietPoints (MSRP $199.95) made some great strides forward this year. These cans are very comfortable, packed with helpful extras, and decently balanced.
Of course, many shoppers are looking for more than just "alright" audio.
There are other active noise canceling options, of course, but weighing the pros and cons isn't exactly a piece of cake: Audio-Technica's own ANC27x performs a bit better, but they offer fewer features and they aren't nearly as comfortable. Beats has a great-sounding offering, but the whole rig dies when the battery drains—talk about inconvenient. PSB defeats the ANC70 in terms of both comfort and quality, but the asking price is obnoxiously high. You could throw down more money for something even better, but many budget shoppers might not have the spare change.
Welcome to the world of active noise canceling headphones, where price, quality, and comfort never quite meet where you want them to.
Now that you've glimpsed the market, it's probably easier to see why these Audio-Technica's are actually a fair bet. For underneath the $200 mark, they offer average audio, comfortable over-ear design, and useful extras like a removable cable, mic, and remote. Bottom line: The ATH-ANC70 QuietPoints have plenty going for them, but they aren't a blue ribbon buy—try to take them for a test drive, and definitely hunt down sale prices.
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