I’ve spent more time flying in the last year than I did over the previous five years combined. During all that time in the air, I’ve come to notice that a new sort of passenger profile has emerged: The noise-cancelling headphone wearer. These are people that probably fly a lot too — more than I do, I imagine. They wear their headphones like a trophy and they’ll be damned if they’re gonna take them off, even on trips to the lavatory (ewww). Once personal electronic devices are authorized in-flight, on go the headphones and there they stay until a flight attendant ultimately forces them to be removed.
I actually understand the appeal of blocking out the surrounding airplane mania for the duration of the flight. When I do, I usually arrive at my destination just a little more mentally stable than if I had to endure the noises emitted by crying babies and gurgly-lunged chronic coughers. But most of these folks blindly purchased their headphones from the Skymall catalog or airport headphone store and got the brand they’ve seen everyone else wearing or were told was the best. You know the brand I’m talking about.
I happen to know that these headphones cancel noise well. I’ve used them before. I also happen to know that, when it comes to that other important function — you know…making noise — they fall well short of my standard for sonic excellence. If I’m going to pay $300 for a pair of headphones, they have to sound good first. Cancelling noise is important, but still second to making it.
If I could use my position as a headphone reviewer for just one important mission, it would be to tell the frequent-flyers of the world that great sound and effective noise-cancelling can be had in one package. I would tell them about the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 noise-cancelling headphones. And so I shall.
Out of the box
The ANC9 come in a nice box designed to compel you to take it off the shelf, but otherwise there is little B.S. involved. There are no placards filled with platitudes intended to make you feel smart for making such a great decision. Nope. Inside the box is a headphone case. Inside that headphone case are some headphones, AAA battery, some headphone cables, an airline adapter and a 3.5 mm to ¼-inch headphone adapter. Done.
Features and design
We reviewed the ATH-ANC7B last year, so when we received the ANC9 for review, we immediately took to seeking out the defining differences between the two. After all, we really liked the ANC7B; why change them? Probably because Audio-Technica likes to kick things up a notch from time to time.
Unlike their predecessors, the ANC9 allow you to change the level and targeted frequency of the noise cancellation with three different modes: One for aircraft, busses, trains and other methods of mass transit, one for the office, and one for the home. The first cancels 95 percent of noise at 200Hz where jet engine rumbles lives, while the others operate at 300Hz. Office mode cancels 95 percent of noise in that range while home mode only cancels 90 percent, but while using less battery. Blue, red and green indicator LEDs correspond to transit, office or home mode, respectively.
As mentioned, these headphones require a user-replaceable AAA battery. There are arguments on both sides of the fence as to whether this is a good idea. Some would argue that having to carry around a cache of AAA batteries is a hassle. Others would contend that having to find a USB power source for charging up a rechargeable battery is a hindrance. We say that either situation is a pain in the neck and totally unavoidable until someone comes along and makes a tiny battery that lasts for 1,000 hours but only costs $3.99. Until that day arrives, powering up noise-cancelling headphones is a minute hassle.
More important to us is the issue of battery life. According to Audio-Technica you’ll get 35 hours out of a lithium battery, 25 hours out of an alkaline and approximately 20 hours out of a rechargeable cell. Those numbers will all go up slightly in the battery-sipping home mode.
But what happens if the battery dies? With the ANC9 (and a growing number of noise-cancelling headphones, actually) the music keeps on playing, though the sound characteristics will change. We’ll get to that momentarily.
Our complaints: We wish the in-line microphone was coupled with a three-button control rather than a single-button control, and we wish for a stouter headphone cable. The cable provided is small enough to get tangled and doesn’t reflect the excellent build quality implemented across the rest of the headphones’ design.
The ANC9 cancel noise very effectively. We’ve had the opportunity to test out noise-cancellers from the likes of Sennheiser, Bose, Able Planet, Beats by Dr. Dre and, most recently, Fanny Wang. Only the Wangs managed to top the ANC9’s noise-cancelling effectiveness and, even then, the difference was marginal.
The ANC9 use four microphones — two on each ear cup — to measure and defeat noise. The active noise-cancelling circuit is about as good as we’ve come across, but the overall noise reduction is enhanced by the headphones’ excellent passive noise isolation.
As has been the case with almost every noise-cancelling headphone we’ve tested (save the Phiaton PS210 BTNC), the ANC9 have a distinctly different sound curve with noise-cancelling engaged than they do in passive mode. With the ANC9, we actually preferred to use the headphones in passive mode unless we were in noisy environments. The third noise-cancelling mode, intended for casual use in situations where noise is minimal, seems to boost bass and upper midrange/lower treble. We think some listeners will actually prefer it, but it is a testament to the quality of these headphones that they sound so balanced without the noise-cancelling circuit engaged.
In-flight use is an entirely different scenario. While on a long flight across the country, we spent hours bouncing back and forth between passive mode and the first noise-cancelling mode. Without a doubt, the sonic experience was superior with noise-cancelling engaged. The adjustment in the EQ curve exacted by the noise-cancelling circuit brought out punchy, resonant bass, wide-open midrange and zesty but refined treble. Without noise-cancelling engaged, the passive noise-isolation did help minimize the roar of the airplane’s engines, but the music we listened to lacked body and definition. With noise-cancelling engaged, all the sonic characteristics we would expect from a high-end headphone were restored.
On the whole, we’d describe the ANC9 as a fairly warm-sounding headphone with an open, balanced midrange, detailed and sparkling treble, and powerful bass that stays in check rather than bowling the rest of the sound spectrum over. In short: just our style.
We’re hard pressed to think of a more comfortable around-the-ear headphone, both in terms of long-term wear and listening. The soft, faux-leather memory foam ear pads and headband combine with an appropriate amount of clamping force to make for truly comfy use — just what you need to wear these things for six or seven hours without removing them…ever.
Audio-Technica proves, once again, that its expertise in professional audio lends itself well to excellent headphone design. The ANC9 are wonderfully comfortable, effective at squashing noise, most importantly, sound like a high-end headphone with or without noise cancelling engaged. This performance, when combined with a quality, protective case and all the right accessories, puts the ANC9 in the top-tier of full-sized noise-cancellers, earning our hearty recommendation.
- Excellent sound, with or without noise cancelling
- Very comfortable
- Stylish storage case packed with all the right accessories
- Highly effective noise cancellation available in three levels
- AAA battery life is short-lived
- Slightly forward upper midrange when noise-cancelling not needed
- Headphone cable smaller than we’d like
- Single-button control