Audio-Technica’s full-size QuietPoint ATH-ANC7 are excellent noise-canceling headphones for the money, so we had high expectations for the company’s first earbud-style noise cancellers. The QuietPoint ATH-ANC3 ($169.95 list) mostly delivers, and although we’re slightly disappointed with the cabling design, the sound quality is very good, and the combination of noise cancellation and isolating eartips is effective. They’re pricier than Sony’s MDR-NC22 earbuds; there are slight differences between them in sound and design that may push you one way or the other, but for the most part they’re very similar.
Design and Features
The ATH-ANC3 are built around a pair of standard-looking earbuds with protruding sound tubes that end in removable soft silicone tips. About nine inches up the cable from the gold-plated 1/8th-inch jack is an inline battery pack (holds one AAA cell) with an integrated clip on the back as well as a monitor button, power switch, and red battery indicator light. The total length from earbud to plug is about 4 feet (several inches shorter than Sony’s NC22), and the anti-tangle slider prevents the symmetrical cables from turning into a bird’s nest. The headphones are available in black, or for thief-taunters, gleaming white.
One thing we really like about noise-canceling earbuds is how much smaller the case is than the ones that come with full-size models. The ATH-ANC3 comes with a zippered rigid case that measures about 6 x 3 x 1.25 inches and is covered in ballistic nylon. Inside the case, several mesh pockets hold accessories including an airplane adapter, an 18-inch audio extension cable, and three sizes of silicone eartips. Audio-Technica thoughtfully includes a triple-A battery so you can use the headphones right out of the box.
Comfort and Operation
The sound tubes are noticeably thicker in diameter than those of in-ear models from Etymotic and Shure, or roughly the same size as on Sony’s NC and EX series headphones. That prevents them from going very far into your ear canal, though the largest-size tips still gave us a pretty good seal. After a few tracks, we barely even noticed we were wearing them, which is a big plus over our far more intrusive Etymotic ER series earbuds.
The inline controller’s large ridged clip held on to any article of clothing we fastened it to, with enough spring tension for jogging. All the buttons and switches are easy to operate, and the stiff cabling doesn’t tangle easily even without using the slider. We would have appreciated a volume wheel on the controller, though since it wouldn’t have added much more to the size. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around how bad it sucks to have a battery pack tethered to your head by cables.
Our chief design complaint is that the cables transmit a lot of noise from thumping against our body when we walk. Wearing the cables over the tops of our ears would fix the problem, but the ANC3′s cabling isn’t long enough to reach over our ears and down to our front jeans pocket. We also found the cable below the inline module wasn’t quite long enough to reach from the iPod in our back pocket to our front pocket, though that was easily remedied by attaching the extension cable. We do wish the cabling was modular so we could extend the length between the earbuds and the controller.
Image Courtesy of Audio-Technica
We tested the ANC3 with an iPod Touch and music encoded in pristine-sounding Apple Lossless format to ensure performance wasn’t held back by iffy source material. On electronica from artists like DJ Shadow, Kruder & Dorfmeister, and Bass Mekanik, the headphones kept up with low bass very well, without losing too much detail. Vocals by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder have plenty of presence, though there’s a slight dip in the upper mids that pinches the sound a little. The ANC3′s also did well with acoustic jazz (Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Miles Davis), with sparklier highs than the Sony NC22. Overall, the sound is well-balanced and didn’t fatigue our ears during long listening sessions.
We like the fact that the headphones play audio even when the battery runs out. Even better is that there isn’t the typical drop in volume and sound quality when you switch off the noise cancellation. As with the Sony NC22, you can expect roughly 50 hours of noise cancellation from an alkaline triple-A battery with the ANC3. We got a comfortable listening level on most tracks with our iPod at about three-quarters volume, though some recordings were quieter and some were louder.
The headphone’s packaging claims 85% noise reduction of ambient noise. We think that’s a pretty optimistic number based on very specific noise generated at a certain volume. The ANC3 does achieve a reasonable level of noise blocking just by sealing up your ear canal, but it’s noticeably less effective than the Shure’s SE series, which have silicone-coated memory foam tips. Switching on the noise cancellation took much of the rumble out of New York’s L train and a Delta flight to Vegas, though it left enough highs so we could hear announcements. Compared with our Shure SE420, which doesn’t have active noise cancellation circuitry, the ANC3 blocks low rumble and lower midrange sounds a little better, but it misses more upper mids and highs.
Unfortunately we could hear a lot of wind noise when we used the ANC3 outdoors, which is common to most earbuds that aren’t particularly intrusive into your ear canal. There’s also a slight background hiss when you activate the cancellation — not much in and of itself, but it can amplify hiss already present on recordings. Even so, noisy environments are likely to drown that hiss out anyway.
The Monitor button lets you temporarily hear what’s going on around you without having to remove the earbuds. When we pressed it, the audio was mostly muted, though we could still hear enough bleed to follow the song, which was distracting during brief conversations.
At $169.95 USD, the ATH-ANC3 are pricier than Sony’s $99 MDR-NC22 earbuds, though we’ve seen deep discounts as low as $120 USD online. Both are very compact, cancel noise well, and have long battery life, but Sony offers longer cabling, while Audio-Technica has the livelier sound. If full-size active noise-cancelling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort series or earplug-style passive noise blockers like Shure’s SE series don’t cut it for you, these hybrids are worth a listen.
• Very good sound and quieting
• Can play music without batteries
• Long battery life
• Cabling is a bit short for some usage scenarios
• No volume control
• Monitor button still lets audio bleed through