Planes, trains, and automobiles are noisy places to be, and scooping up a set of headphones to make it all go away can be expensive. Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC7b ($199.95) offers to do the job for less—online sale prices bring these down to around $130.
If the everyday clamor is getting you down and your wallet's coming up short, these over-ears are worth a look. Just don't expect exquisite design or pro-grade sound quality. If you're a picky listener, you may want to look elsewhere.
Far from the maddening crowd
Let's start with the shining points: As intended, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b will block unwanted outside noise very effectively. The company promised noise blocking, and that's just what we noted in the lab. Low frequency sounds like deep voices or rumbling lawn mowers can be tough to combat, but these headphones reduce those sounds by as much as 1/4 the original loudness. Chattering neighbors and office clamor stand even less of a chance: The ANC7b reduces those high-frequency disturbances to as much as a whopping 1/16. On average, these bad boys block 14.3dB of unwanted noise.
Solid as a rock
The ANC7b's sport a sturdy build. Maybe too sturdy. I didn't know memory foam could be so hard. Good thing these are over-ears! The fit is quite firm too, so the headband won't bother you by sliding out of place. Personally, I think the fit is, again, a little too firm. The vice-like grip makes me feel like Frankenstein's monster, but hey, that's just me and my fat head. The main thing to keep in mind is that the ANC7b isn't a very delicate product. If you hate a snug fit, or if you're searching for plush, luxurious speaker pads to go over your entire ear, keep on shopping.
The design aspects I do like include the sturdy carry case, the easy-to-reach noise cancellation switch, and the removable cable. If you wake up one morning to find your cable riddled with evil-cat-shaped bite marks, you don't need to blow cash on a whole new rig. And not only is the cord removable, but Audio-Technica even provides you with a backup. Users won't find a mic or remote, though, and the large form factor means these aren't the most portable headphones in the world, either. But there's still plenty to like, such as the 1/4" adapter and airplane connector.
Top marks for noise cancellation and low distortion
Listeners of all sorts will appreciate the ANC7b's noise cancelling abilities. Interestingly, these over-ears block more high-end sound with the active noise cancellation (ANC) feature turned off—but if bassy, low-end sounds are plaguing you, you'll want to flip the switch back on. Just take heed: These headphones leak sound, so you may be bothering your neighbors. On the whole, the ANC7b reduces high-pitched irritants like screeching sounds by up to 1/16, and low-end rumbling noises like passing vehicles by up to 1/4.
How does it work? The ANC7b records outside noises with a small microphone. Next, an internal processor emits a signal to combats the incoming frequency—which reduces the unwanted outside noise. This process is what causes the slight pressure in your ears when you turn ANC on.
As for the accompanying sound quality, I've heard much better. Audiophiles will want to run for the hills: With ANC on, Bass is too prominent, muffling the more-delicate high mids on every instrument in the orchestra. Therefore, upper notes on many stringed and brass instruments just don't receive proper emphasis. Additionally, those same underemphasized upper mids sound louder in the right speaker than in the left, though it takes a very practiced ear to notice.
When you turn ANC off, matters worsen. The same imbalance is present across the board, but to a worse degree: Bass is even louder, so upper mids are even softer than before. That means that if the AAA battery dies on you, music will sound all the more muffled and clumsy, thanks to greater loss of detail in the upper midrange.
True, less picky listeners may not find fault with the bass-heavy soundscape. And it also helps that—with or without ANC—music is practically distortion-free. Overall, the ANC7b's time in the lab revealed great noise canceling abilities and average sound quality.
Taking out the trash
The ANC7b handled distortion trials with ease, too. Unwanted junk and clipped harmonics won't bother you here. Even in the sub-bass range, where distortion often runs amuck, levels are relatively low. These are great results—with and without active noise cancellation.
Upper mids take a nasty hit.
Since utilizing active noise cancellation alters the soundscape considerably, I'll present two sets of results: one with active noise cancellation turned on, one with the function turned off.
I'll start with what the frequency response looks like with active noise cancellation turned on. Though the ANC7b doesn't boost the parent signal throughout the bass range, the bass is nevertheless more prominent than it ought to be in relation to everything else. In other words, these headphones don't crank the volume up on bass, but since a drastic 20dB drop occurs in the upper midrange between 2kHz - 5kHz, bass winds up muffling important details, such as upper notes on strings and brass.
When you turn the active noise cancellation off, the same issues remain, and in fact worsen. A similar drop in volume occurs in the same portion of the upper midrange, but this time, bass is also given a significant boost. Thus, when your battery dies, you're stuck with very loud bass that steals the show from high notes on instruments like harps, guitars, French horns, and others.
A great buy for some
Due to unimpressive overall sound quality and inferior design, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b (MSRP $199.95) is only right for one kind of buyer: the unfastidious listener in search of budget-friendly peace and quiet over raw performance and luxurious design. If that isn't you, you'd better keep browsing. For everyone else, you can't expect A+ performance on every single front, but the ANC7b does deliver great noise cancellation, distortion-free sound, and a durable package for well under $200—and that's worth a glance.
If you aren't much of a critic and you just want affordable ANC, give these Audio-Technicas a listen. With a quick search online, you can find the over-ear ATH-ANC7b for around just $130.
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