Noise canceling is an important cornerstone of the headphone industry, however, and the NC260s are not without flaw—or competition. The sound quality and noise removal are decent, but neither one's worth writing home about. On the other hand, if you want portable noise canceling with stellar audio to boot, you'll have to spend almost $200 more.
For less picky commuters, however, the NC260s will get the job done. Just don't expect anything ultra-premium for this price.
The JVC HA-NC260 on-ear headphones (MSRP $119.95) are priced competitively for their feature set, and you can hear it during playback—but only golden-eared maestros will find any real issue with the way these noise cancelers perform.
Testing revealed solid dampening of ambient noise and great control over sound leakage, but sub-par distortion performance and a few flaws with frequency response. In the following sections, we'll discuss various performance points with and without active noise canceling.
A simple solution with little emphasis on aesthetics.
For a travel-ready pair of on-ears, the JVC HC-NA260s aren't terribly durable. Their black plastic mold resists dings and scrapes fairly well, but don't expect it to withstand crushing force. The band doesn't collapse, but the ear cups themselves lay flat, lending this product a middling amount of portability. Fortunately, JVC includes a zip-up carry pouch with plenty of room for the accessories.
Speaking of accessories, there's a fair spread here. JVC includes an extension cable, 3.5mm adapter, and an airplane adapter. The cables are fairly flimsy, but the flex joints are reinforced, at least.
What they lack in durability, these on-ears make up in comfort and long-term use. They're very light, and the ear pads are cushy enough to cradle your ears through long flights and Monday mornings. Light mesh along the inside of the band protects your scalp from the firmness of the band, but also tends to gather stray hairs if your keep a cropped cut.
There's a small switch on the back of the right cup that'll toggle the active noise canceling (ANC) on/off. Accessing the battery compartment can be a bit terrifying, since you'll find yourself gracelessly ripping the pad off the cup to do so. On the plus side, the ANC runs on a single AA battery, and even if it dies you can still listen to music.
One of the NC260s best features is that its frequency response—or how it emphasizes music and sound playback—stays roughly the same whether or notice active noise cancelation is on. If you're just listening to the headphones without noise cancelation triggered, you'll hear plenty of bass emphasis from 60 Hz through 400 Hz in the midrange, but higher midrange tones around 1kHz are dampened a bit compared to surrounding frequencies.
Flip ANC on, and you'll hear a little more in terms of sub-bass tones from 20 to 60 Hz. The dip in emphasis that causes upper midrange frequencies to play back more quietly is still present, though the differentiation between 1kHz and 2kHz is not quite so pronounced.
Isolation refers to how effectively a pair of headphones quiet ambient noise. Whether or not headphones are equipped with active noise cancelation, placing pads over or onto your ears will naturally quiet noises around you, and this is one aspect we measure alongside the results of ANC.
Testing revealed that with ANC enabled, the NC260s quiet bass tones from 100 Hz to around 800 Hz by about 10 dB, which a small loss in the dampening effect for higher midrange frequencies. Much higher pitches from 2kHz to around 6Khz (the bulk of annoying noises) are quieted as much as 35 dB, which reduces their perceived loudness to less than one-eighth the original volume—not too shabby.
Convenience trumps performance
Without a doubt, the most annoying thing about shopping for headphones with active noise cancelation is finding a pair that won't become utterly useless when the battery dies. Hence, one of the NC260s' standout features is that when the single AA battery is sapped the headphones themselves continue to pass an audio signal. What's more, time in our lab revealed that the overall soundscape—things like bass emphasis and treble resonance—stays quite similar with or without canceling.
On the downside, that soundscape isn't perfect. Obviously, no one expects a $120 pair of noise canceling headphones to produce an ideal, flat studio sound, but there are some flaws that consumers should know about. With or without ANC enabled, there's emphasis missing right in the meat of midrange tones. Things like a yawning, bowed viola or the jumping lead in ragtime piano are diminished next to deep bass tones or squeaky trebles.
This small flaw is easy to look past when you consider the advantage of canceling ambient noise: You'll hear music or Podcasts with relative ease when the surrounding world is effectively silenced thanks to the ANC feature. While the NC260s don't completely shut out very deep sounds like rumbling airplane engines, they do a good job dampening them. Middle- and high-pitched sounds become almost inaudible, too, so those wailing babies at the back of the bus may as well be a figment of everyone else's imagination.
If you're shy about your taste in music, the NC260s will put your mind at ease. Tests revealed that they leak very little sound, so whether you spice up your commute with some sappy Phil Collins tunes or simply don't want people's kids to hear Enter the 36 Chambers, your choice of music is private. Just keep in mind that between the noise canceling and very low sound leakage, you'll be practically deaf to the world around you. For safety's sake, don't go jogging or driving with these JVCs.
Overall, these JVCs don't excel in any one area, but neither do they have any major drawbacks. The convenience of playback even after the battery dies is a definite plus, too.
Distortion, or THD (total harmonic distortion), is a natural negative phenomenon when analog music or sound is compressed and digitally translated via a medium like headphone speakers. During testing, we like to see a total THD of 3% or less from the bass range through the highest frequencies. There's almost always some measure of distortion within sub-bass elements, but human beings are very unlikely to hear it the way our test robot does.
The NC260s produced mixed results. With ANC switched off, distortion stays below 3% starting around 85 Hz (the bass range) all the way through the highest frequencies, which is a great result.
Once ANC is switched on, however, listeners with very sensitive ears may notice a bit of distortion polluting the midrange around 800 or 900 Hz. The active canceling causes a small spike in distortion, but fortunately it tapers off before the more audible highest frequencies are introduced.
You can expect these distortion results so long as you don't play anything louder than 101.958 dB—but that's louder than is safe to listen, anyway.
Perfect for budget-conscious travelers
Compared to much of the noise canceling market, the JVC HA-NC260s are quite cheap at $119.95. With that competitive price comes small losses in both audio quality and total noise dampened, but users won't find any glaring drawbacks, either.
By comparison, our highest performing cancelers—the Bose QC20i in-ears—are $300 at list price, which puts them into an entirely different bracket.
Given that the NC260s produce decent enough audio for most listeners, they could be a great way to save money and hush outside noise if you'd rather not dip deep into your wallet for a pair of travel cans.
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.See all of Lee Neikirk's reviews
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