Sony introduced the MDR-NC500D at CES 2008 as the world’s first fully digital noise canceling headphones, setting the $400 USD price tag accordingly. The all-digital design allows more flexibility in performance compared with analog models; you can dial in the appropriate level of noise cancellation or let the headphones make the adjustment for you based on ambient noise. Despite the high price, Sony scored a few big wins over competing models from Bose and Sennheiser with the NC500D, especially in the accessory department. On a recent cross-country flight, we got a chance to test out their capabilities and were pleasantly surprised, though there’s still room for improvement.
Features and Design
At first blush, the MDR-NC500D look like pretty standard fare for noise-canceling headphones, dressed in black and chrome accents with full-size swiveling earcups, a padded headband, and a built-in rechargeable battery. The pads on the earcups are not particularly large or soft; leather covers some surprisingly dense memory foam that’s nowhere near as squishy as the pads on competing models like Bose’s QuietComfort 3. Inside the earcup, soft fabric covers the speaker drivers and angles back to accommodate the outer ear.
On the bottom of the left earcup are ports for AC power and for the included 3.5-mm headphone cable. The right cup is home to the power switch (with blue LED status indicator), a reset hole, and a noise-cancellation mode button, as well as a Monitor button that mutes audio and pipes in ambient sound via tiny mics on top of each earpiece.
The overall construction feels reasonably sturdy, and the design isn’t too techie-oriented except for the telltale blue LED.
The NC500D’s come with a rigid zippered case covered in black leather and nylon. Several Velcro straps on the inside hold the 60-inch detachable headphone cable, a shorter 20-inch cable for use with inline accessories, AC adapter, and inline battery pack. A small pocket inside holds the airplane adapter, 2 AA batteries (included), and 1/4-inch adapter.
In spite of the pads’ stiffness, we auditioned the cans on a 5-hour flight, listening for about 3.5 hours before choosing to give our ears a rest. The headphones virtually disappeared after a while thanks to their relatively light weight and perfect amount of tension (for our head, anyway) on the well-padded headband. Our ears did get warm, but they didn’t sweat as much as with the Bose QuietComfort 3. On the whole, the Sennheiser PXC-450 are more comfortable, but they’re also enormous compared to the Sonys.
Image Courtesy of Sony
While the NC500D definitely emphasizes the low end, it’s not bloated sounding. Deep electronic bass, like on Bass Mekanik’s Faster, Harder, Louder (an awful song, but great for testing), comes through loudly with slightly better clarity than the Bose QuietComfort3.
The midrange lacks detail of Sennheiser’s PXC-450; for example, Kenny Drew’s piano on John Coltrane’s classic Blue Train doesn’t have the same sparkling clarity when he’s accompanying the other soloists. Similarly, the woodiness of Yo-Yo Ma’s unaccompanied cello on his recording of the Bach Cello Suites is lost somewhat. There’s no glaring hole in the frequency response, but there is an overall softness to the mids, in the same way some pictures suffer from very slight blur that’s only noticeable on close inspection.
We listened to a lot of different types of music, including tracks by Primus, Bob Dylan, the Meters, Carmen McRae, Bill Evans, Zakir Hussain, Andy Bey, and Bob Marley, as well as classical selections from the works of Bartok, Debussy, and Bach. Music with deep, prominent tones from electric or acoustic bass and large drums (tympani, bass drum, and so on) sounded the most satisfying. Songs that feature shimmering cymbals or high-pitched percussion (such as a high-hat and brushes on a snare in acoustic instrumental jazz) seemed to be missing that sparkle that’s more typical of in-ear canalphones like Etymotic’s ER4P or Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 Pro.
Ultimately, any headphones that can make critics like us listen comfortably for several hours at a time with very little fatigue are worthy candidates, even if the sound isn’t truly audiophile-grade. In that respect, the NC500D’s impressed us.
The NC500D offers three different levels of noise cancellation, as well as manual and automatic modes. In manual mode, you press the button marked “AI NC Mode”, and one, two, or three beeps tells you which mode you’re in. Mode A tailors the frequencies that are blocked to typical airplane noise, really taking the bottom end off of a 747′s whine. Mode B blocks noise you’d hear on a bus or train (on the airplane we heard a slight but noticeable increase in engine “whoosh”), while Mode C lightens up cancellation for listening in an office environment. All three modes were still able to make our back-of-the-plane ride more bearable; when we took the headphones off, it sounded like Niagara Falls.
You can enter automatic mode, or AI NC as Sony calls it, by holding the same button until you hear a downward series of notes. (Hold the button until an upward series of tones plays to return to manual mode.) On automatic, you can press the button briefly to engage the headphones’ ambient monitoring mode for a few seconds as it determines the appropriate level of noise cancellation for your current environment. This works as advertised, consistently bringing us to the highest level of cancellation on a plane, while putting us in a lower mode for listening at home in relative peace.
An added benefit of the digital design is that the headphones have a very high signal to noise ratio. That means they don’t suffer from the noise that analog noise cancellation circuitry usually introduces into the signal path. When we come across quiet passages in our music, we couldn’t hear any noise that wasn’t already in the recording.
The Monitor button cuts off the audio and pipes in the sounds around you via the headphones’ built-in mics. While this is a handy idea in principle, Sony chose to make this feature active only while you’re holding the button down. We got some pretty odd stares when we tried talking to people with one hand clamped firmly on the right earcup to hold the button down. This desperately needs redesigning so you can turn the feature on and off with a simple button press instead of having to hold it.
Another complaint is that you can’t turn off the noise cancellation entirely. Also, once the battery is drained completely, you can’t listen to music — something we hate about Bose’s QuietComfort series and are disappointed to learn about the Sony MDR-NC500D. This is partially mitigated by Sony’s inclusion of an inline battery pack that lets you use a pair of AA batteries if the built-in battery dies.
The rated life for the internal battery is 16 hours, which is less than what you get with the Bose QuietComfort3, though your mileage will vary depending on cancellation mode and volume. Slipping a pair of fresh AA batteries into the inline battery pack gives you an extra 12 hours, depending on the brand and type of battery.
Sony did a bang-up job with the MDR-NC500D. Our major gripes — inability to turn off the cancellation, a poorly designed monitoring feature, and no sound without power — are offset by the headphones’ sound quality, accessory bundle, and digital noise cancellation. The price may be high, but it is in line with competing models from Bose and Sennheiser, and given the NC500D’s uniqueness, we won’t ding Sony for aiming at the market’s high end.
• Comfortable for long periods
• Very good overall sound
• Different noise cancellation modes for specific environments
• You can use store-bought batteries or the built-in rechargeable battery
• No sound without power
• Can’t turn off noise cancellation