Good noise cancellation
Bass masks other instruments
Unfortunately, testing revealed that these headphones underemphasize key treble notes within the full soundstage, causing crucial details to be lost against bass and middle sounds. They do a pretty good job blocking out sound when the ANC is turned on, but fail to deliver a completely premium listening experience.
These cancelers may find buyers who are more concerned with the sleek look than with perfect sound, but audiophiles may want to up the ante and spend more for a set that blocks noise while still delivering solid playback.
One man's sleek is another man's boring.
From a design perspective, there's nothing too mind-blowing about these Panasonics. A sturdy black band holds two padded ear cups in place—despite looking cushy, they're actually sort of cheap and hard. The backs of the cups bear the make and model of the headphones, along with scores of tiny holes (the latter essentially work as amplifiers for the active noise canceling process).
Arms reinforced by brushed aluminum extend for a larger fit, while the cups twist upon pivots for storage or to lie more comfortably around your neck. Each pivot is capped by a small microphone: This is another element of the ANC (active noise canceling), disguised as aesthetic detail.
In short, the HC800 over-ears either look professional or dull, depending on your perspective.
The cable has to be the worst thing about the entire design scheme. This cord is thin, flimsy, prone to tangling, and poorly protected from the hazards of long-term use—for over $200, I was expecting more.
Conversely, Panasonic throws in some extra goodies—a carrying pouch and an airplane adapter. The pouch has a zip-up pocket for the cable and adapter, and holds the headphones firmly when all's packed away. It's not the sturdiest case on the market, but it's stylish. Expect protection from dings and scrapes, not from crushing force.
These over-ears are solid noise blockers, but aren't the best choice for listening.
For their MSRP of $229.99, the RP-HC800 over-ear headphones ought to reliably block ambient noise and provide a full, premium listening experience. Unfortunately, they really only do one of those jobs, which makes them a letdown for anyone looking for the best audio possible.
Testing revealed that these over-ears perform better with noise canceling activated than without it—but in both instances, they underplay higher midrange tones. The upper register of a piano and the bread-and-butter notes of the piccolo suffer; overtone notes from instruments like guitar, viola, and trumpet will be hard to hear, too, compared to the rest of the soundstage. This flaw is even audible during mostly electronic/trance style music, such as from artists like Astral Projection or Ozric Tentacles.
On the upside, these over-ears do a solid job blocking out ambient noise. The active noise cancellation is powered by a single AA battery in the right ear cup, but even with the ANC turned off, these Panasonics block a good amount of ambient noise—things like ringing phones and crying babies won't disturb you a bit.
Take note that if you want to eliminate bass noises like rumbling engines, however—such as when you're waiting on a plane to take off—you'll have to switch the ANC on.
Self-conscious listeners will want to keep music playback at lower volumes, however, as the RP-HC800 over-ears do tend to leak a lot of sound. Testing revealed that, at slightly louder-than-average volumes, music you're listening to is quite audible to the outside world, so you probably don't want to bring these babies to the office if you like to blast some Van Halen on Friday afternoon.
Finally, purists will be glad to know that these Panasonic over-ears do a great job staving off unwanted sounds like clipped harmonics or subtler bass distortion. From the lowest notes to the highest, the RP-HC800 headphones provide a full, clean sound—whether or not active noise canceling is active.
Active noise winners—playback losers
For $229.99, you want more than a fancy set of ear muffs. The Panasonic RP-HC800 over-ears look nice, if a bit plain, and they do a pretty good job actively blocking noise. But as headphones, their job is to reproduce (and make audible) every facet of what you're listening to. That's where they fail.
Call us old-fashioned, but we don't think it makes sense to pay a high price for active noise canceling headphones that don't deliver top-notch audio.
While Panasonic's list price is about $200 less than these Sennheiser over-ears, the latter pair does a knockout job blocking noise and providing a commendable listening experience. For Sennheiser's sale price of $350, it's really up to you: Is getting the whole package worth another Ben Franklin?
The Panasonic RP-HC800 over-ears (MSRP $229.99) don't do everything they should. While these active noise cancelers block a decent amount of ambient noise, they underemphasize key treble tones within the frequency spectrum. They also leak a lot of noise, making them less-than-ideal for an office or a crowded fuselage. Purists will be pumped about the lack of distortion, but the underplayed frequencies are hard cheese to swallow.
The ability to block ambient noise is the name of the game with Active Noise Canceling headphones like the Panasonic RP-HC800 over-ears. Testing revealed that these headphones actually block a decent amount of noise even when ANC is turned off, reducing ambient noises around 1kHz (the middle of the frequency spectrum) by about 20dB, and reducing higher-pitched frequencies gradually more, up to 30 or 35dB. That means that middle and higher-pitched sounds are reduced to 1/4 and 1/8 of their original volume, respectively.
When you turn ANC on, you can expect the same reduction in middle and higher-pitched frequencies, but with the added bonus of sub-bass and bass frequencies also being reduced in volume. Frequencies from 20Hz to 1kHz will fall by just over 10dB of sound, shrinking them to about a quarter of their original volume. Taken all together, the Panasonic RP-HC800 over-ears do a solid job quelling unwanted sound across the whole frequency spectrum.
A frequency response chart maps the emphasis that a speaker or set of headphones allocates to each frequency across the spectrum of audible sound. During testing, we feed a steady tone at 78dB and play a frequency sweep from 20Hz through 10kHz, which is roughly the range of human hearing.
With ANC turned off, the RP-HC800 over-ears give good emphasis to sub-bass and bass tones. They don't really "boost" bass the way some consumer headphones do, but they still provide enough of an advantage that naturally harder-to-hear bass tones will be fully audible. This emphasis tapers off gradually as sub-bass moves into bass and bass moves into midrange. Just after 1kHz, however, emphasis drops off harshly. Sounds at 3kHz and 4kHz measure at less than 60dB, which is 18dB below the source volume.
With ANC on, these over-ears have a very similar frequency response, with the same pros and cons. Sub-bass elements are given slightly more prevalence within the total soundscape, with emphasis again tapering off gradually as frequencies travel towards the middle range. Testing revealed the same drop in emphasis between 3kHz and 4kHz, though it's not nearly as audible as it is with ANC turned on. All in all, if you want the best sound, you'd better flip the switch—and bring some backup batteries.
Our distortion test identifies unwanted sounds like clipped harmonics and mechanical dissonance within the frequency response of a set of headphones. The total distortion across the spectrum should ideally be less than 3% THD (total harmonic distortion), which will generally be completely imperceptible to listeners.
With ANC turned off, we measured a very small degree of distortion within the sub-bass range, though nothing over the 3% cap. Things look even better once active cancellation is turned on, however: There's almost no measurable distortion whatsoever, even within the (usually somewhat distorted) sub-bass range.
Meet the tester
Editor, Home Theater@Koanshark
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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