The Swedish audio experts over at NOCS have won us over more than a couple times with their well-designed, distinct-sounding products. Though it’s harder to find NOCS headphones in a stateside Apple store (the NS800 in-ear headphones are found easily enough), they are a regular staple in European Apple stores, and easily purchased at Amazon. Over the years, the company has earned itself a solid following, allowing it to expand its product catalog, little by little.
The NS900 Live headphones are the latest product of that expansion. Designed by and for DJs, the NS900 promise all the passive noise isolation and high fidelity necessary for cutting mixes at the dance club, while offering more pedestrian conveniences like iPhone and Android smartphone compatibility. Priced at about $270 at Amazon, the NS900 Live find themselves priced in the upper tier, right alongside Digital Trends’ favorites, the V-Moda Crossfade M-100. We gave the NS900 an extensive evaluation to find out how they stack up against the competition, and against NOCS’ previous products.
Out of the box
With the possible exception of the NS2 Air Monitors, the packaging NOCS put together for the NS900 may be its most “Apple-esque” yet. Pulling back a magnetically-affixed side flap opens the box like a book to reveal the NS900 sitting in foam cutouts below a clear plastic shield. An included frequency response chart makes it clear that NOCS wasn’t interest in the “flat” frequency response often boasted by other manufacturers.
Accompanying the headphones are a 1.6-meter coiled DJ-style cable, 1.2m iOS cable, 1.2m standard control cable with microphone, and a ¼-inch threaded adapter. To carry it all, NOCS includes what is arguably the best carrying pouch we’ve seen included with a headphone yet. The outside of the sack is made with a heavy, almost burlap-like black cloth, the inside lined with a silky perforated material. But what really makes this thing work is its heavy-duty zipper, which gives the headphones a professional feel.
Features and design
Right out of the box, the NS900 feel top quality at every touch point. Our only concern came from the headband, which is made of a hard rubbery material that seemed like a guarantee of discomfort after more than an hour.
The lightweight, PVD-coated “feather steel” that makes up the headband’s construction seems too thin to be resilient, but one touch and you know these headphones are road-worthy. Stainless steel knobs at the outside of the earcups aren’t just there for decoration, they tighten and loosen the ear cups within the track, allowing for precision sizing, or flexible movement.
The padding on the ear cups seems more than sufficient, and they do an impressive job of adding passive noise isolation – perhaps the best argument against active noise-cancelling we’ve seen yet.
For the most part, we enjoyed wearing the NS900. The headband wasn’t as big of a problem as we thought it would be, but that’s because the NS900 exert a lot of clamping force. That being the case, we felt like we needed to take a short break ever y hour or so to get some relief. Some owners will find the clamping force excessive earlier than others.
We tested the NOCS NS900 Live with an iPhone 4s and Asus laptop with Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic XS USB DAC/Headphone amplifier. It is important to note that the NS900’s performance changed greatly depending on the source – much more so than with many other headphones we’ve recently tested. With the iPhone, sound was not quite as three-dimensional, but the biggest areas of difference were in the treble, where sound was much more natural and less sharp with the premium DAC than it was straight off the iPhone. This leads us to believe that the NS900 will be a better performing headphone in pro audio settings than they will for those with most smartphones and low-quality MP3 players. Of course, you could argue that only serious listeners and professionals will appreciate the difference anyway.
Let’s not mince words here: The NS900 Live’s bass response is unapologetically big.
Let’s not mince words here: The NS900 Live’s bass response is unapologetically big. There’s enough meat to the entire low end that the lowest keys on a piano are reproduced with a sort of boom and bloom that doesn’t occur in real life. If you listen to primarily acoustic music, the effect is easy to hear. But if you listen to heavier or denser productions, what you’re more likely to notice is the huge amount of energy in the bass. The effect is invigorating not only because it shatters any pre-conceived notions about what a headset of this size is capable of, but also because it stops short of being wildly out of control. To be sure, DJs won’t have any trouble hearing the bass when mixing with the NS900.
With so much bass at play, it’d be reasonable to assume that the midrange would get pushed so far back into the mix you might not be able to hear it. But the midrange not only survives the onslaught, it manages to hold up really well, remaining mostly uncongested, with plenty of detail and richness intact. Voices sound natural, save for a bit of low-end resonance that doesn’t really belong. And the growl of electric bass comes through singing, with spot-on tonality.
The NS900’s treble colorations are slight, but more obvious since they are more recognizable. Take Sting’s “Seven Days,” for example: The tune itself has some pretty sibilant moments, where Sting’s “S” sounds occasionally come through unnaturally pronounced through even the tamest headphones. With the NS900, the effect was exacerbated enough to be slightly unpleasant. It certainly wasn’t offensive, but you can’t ignore it, either (to be fair: the same can be said for our go-to on-ear, the Sennheiser Momentum, too). This got us hyper-focused on the treble response, and with our attention so finely honed in, we experienced more instances where the attack of certain instruments and the hiss of sibilant syllables like S’s and T’s were obviously accentuated across a very narrow portion of the high frequency spectrum – just enough to sting at our ear (forgive the pun).
On other recordings, this accent in the treble proved to be a big asset. As we cruised through the tracks on Rodrigo y Gabriela’s 2012 release, Area 52, each and every transient came through with a monumental amount of presence and clarity. In other words: The subtle sounds around the attack of each guitar string – every click and pop – dazzled our ears, providing clear definition in what can easily become a dizzying whirlwind of frenzied strumming on lesser headphones.
Perhaps “Live” was the wrong name for these cans – we think “Lively” might have been more appropriate. Regardless, if you’re the least bit drowsy when you put the NS900 on, you’ll be plenty awake once you press the “play” button. Expect stereo effects to dance around in your head and for wind instruments to sound like they are playing at you from an arm’s length away.
If we were to suspend our understanding that the NS900 are intended for use as a DJ headphone, we might accuse them of being too aggressive in the treble and perhaps merely smirk at their intentionally heavy bass response – come on, everyone’s doing it nowadays. But the little bit of sculpting NOCS has done here seems highly targeted and deliberate. The accents in the bass and treble cover very specific areas, as if to achieve an equally specific effect that will be useful in the sort of loud, sonically-crowded environment DJ’s are likely to find themselves in. While the NS900 Live are by no means a neutral headphone, they succeed where many other DJ headphones fail because they reign in the voicing just a enough to make sure the midrange, sound stage and imaging properties don’t lose their clarity and definition.
With excellent build quality, superior comfort and a vivid sound that holds true to their name (close enough, anyway), the NS900 Live are bound to delight both aspiring and professional DJs across the globe. But even if you only DJ for yourself, the NS900 Live are worth considering as a daily-use headphone, so long as you long like your music big, bold and full of excitement.
- Slick design and killer build quality
- Ample padding on ear cups
- Superior noise isolation
- Lively, vivid sound signature
- Big, hearty bass response
- Clamping force may be excessive for some
- Performance on iPhone lags behind pro gear
- Occasionally bright treble