Over a year ago Playback published a series of reviews of active noise-cancelling headphones, collectively called the “Sounds of Silence”, and one of our favorite models at the time was Audio-Technica’s “Quiet Point” ATH-ANC7. Though it was neither the most expensive nor the most elaborate of the designs we sampled, the ANC7 represented one of those “less is more” scenarios where everything about the headphone just plain worked as intended, giving excellent levels of noise reduction and very refined sound without any fuss, bother, or superfluous gongs or whistles. From off-the-record conversations I had with manufacturers of competing noise-cancelling phones, I learned the Audio-Technica had attracted their attention, too (so that some regarded the ATH-ANC7 as a worthy competitive benchmark to try and surpass).
Now, however, Audio-Technica has replaced the ATH-ANC7 with an updated model called the ATH-ANC7b ($219.95) that is said to offer incremental improvements vis-à-vis the original model. Since the audio universe is littered with examples of products that supposedly offer improvements but that in fact sadly represent steps backward, I decided to withhold judgment until I heard the ANC7b in action. Having now lived with the new model for several months, I’m pleased to report that it really does take meaningful steps forward from the original ANC7, yet with no increase in retail price and no sonic downsides whatsoever. In short, the ATH-ANC7b’s motto could well be, “All gain with no pain,” which certainly works for me. And as with the original ANC7, the new model represents a simple, elegant solution that works to deliver unexpected levels of quietude with genuinely sophisticated sound.
When you get right down to it, active noise cancellers involve—as a matter of necessity—balancing delicate and difficult design tradeoffs. To remove (or cancel out) background noises, active noise cancellers must produce noises designed to exactly offset environmental noises from without, while at the same time reproducing the finer points and nuances of well recorded music without skipping a beat. It’s a tall order to fill, yet one that Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC7b addresses with rare grace and sophistication, which is what makes this headphone so special.
Consider this active noise-cancelling headphone if: you want one of the most sophisticated and musically satisfying noise-cancelling headphones on today’s market—one that combines very significant levels of noise reduction with the kind of sonic refinement approaching the sound of today’s higher-quality passive headphones.
Look further if: you want the very highest levels of noise reduction possible (or perhaps multiple noise reduction algorithms each optimized for handling different kinds of noise) and are willing to trade away some of the Audio-Technica’s sonic sophistication to achieve that goal. But that said, be aware that no other noise-cancelling headphone we have yet tried offers a better overall combination of noise cancellation and sonic excellence.
- Tonal balance: 9.5
- Clarity: 9
- Dynamics: 8.5
- Comfort/fit: 9.5
- Noise isolation/cancellation: 9
- Ease of use:10
- Value: 9.5
- 40mm drivers with neodymium magnet structures.
- Headphone operates in passive mode in the event of battery failure.
- Detachable signal cable means the headphone can be used for noise reduction only.
- Quiet Point noise-cancellation circuitry promises 20 dB of noise reduction, while reducing “environmental noise by up to 90%.”
- Compact, “fold-flat” design that allows earcups to swivel in both vertical and horizontal axes.
- Powered by single AAA battery with projected battery life of 40 hours.
The ATH-ANC7b improves upon the already very good sonic qualities of the original ATH-ANC7 in several noteworthy ways. To supply some background context for my remarks, let me mention that I described the original model as offering “a slightly warmer-than-neutral sound with a touch (but only a light touch) of midrange forwardness.” By comparison, the ATH-ANC7b offers more neutral voicing with slightly deeper and more robust bass and more extended highs working to balance out the original design’s midrange strengths. The result is a more evenly balanced sound from top to bottom.
As with the original ATH-ANC7, the ANC7b does a remarkably good job of capturing the sometimes very subtle distinctions between good, better, and best recordings, giving the listener insights into delicate textural and transient details in the music. Let me be very clear on this point; more so than any other noise-cancelling headphone that I’ve yet heard, the ATH-ANC7b could pass for a high-quality passive (that is, non-noise-cancelling) headphone, which is saying a mouthful. The fact that it can deliver this kind of sonic sophistication while also eliminating tons of background noise is what makes the Audio-Technica so desirable.
I’ve used the Audio-Technicas in a number of different environments, but would observe that they can seem almost revelatory in two very different environments: genuinely noisy environments, such as jetliners in flight, and seemingly quiet environments, such as the interiors of homes where the only apparent noise sources might be HVAC equipment in use or the soft sounds of a television in a distant room. In both cases, the Audio-Technicas knock background noise levels way, way down, so much so that you may marvel—as I have at times—over how much quieter and more relaxing things seem once the QuietPoint circuitry is engaged.
One very real improvement in the ANC7b involves its noticeably quieter amplifier circuit vis-à-vis the earlier ANC7. Of the original model I wrote that listeners could “hear a faint bit of amplifier hiss when the noise cancellation/amplifier circuit is switched on.” With the new model, that hiss is essentially gone—a small touch, true, but one you’ll appreciate every time you use the headphones with volume levels turned down low.
One of my favorite test records is Tim Ries’ intricate and exquisite Stones World – The Rolling Stones Project, Vol. 2 [Sunny Side], in which Ries and a brilliant cast of musicians create world music/jazz reinterpretations of some of the Rolling Stones’ greatest songs. A particular favorite is Ries’ explosive Latin take on “Under My Thumb”, which positively froths and sizzles with dynamic energy. What makes the track tough test for any headphone are the fact that it combines densely layered instrumentation, complete with wildly syncopated Latin percussion and bass, a blistering horn section, rollicking keyboards, and vocals fairly dripping with attitude and machismo (as in, “Yeah, Mommy, I got you where I want you/under my thumb.”).
Most ‘phones stumble on this track, at least to some degree, either making it sound compressed, muddled, or indistinct, or perhaps all of the above—but not so with the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b. It just wades right in and owns this track in all of its glorious dynamic richness and detail. The ANC7b's capture, for example, the elastic “bounce” of the bass and the slightly off-kilter rhythms (and counter-rhythms) of the percussion instruments that drive the song forward, while doing a spectacular job with the horn section. Indeed, brass instruments have that just right touch of “bite” as notes begin to sound, yet without any edginess or underlying glare. Best of all, the ATH-ANC7b seem to “breathe” with the music, letting the dynamics flow without exaggeration but also without any apparent compression. As a result, the Audio-Technicas make it easy to be drawn deep inside the music—a claim not all noise cancelling headphones could make with a straight face.
The ATH-ANC7b’s come with a good mix of accessories including: a detachable signal cable, ¼-inch adapter, airline adapter, a carrying case with built-in accessory pouch, and a AAA battery to get you started.
The ATH-ANC7b is light, compact, and comfortable, applying firm (but not overly firm) clamping pressures. Still, after about a 1 ½-2 hour listening session, you may find you’re ready for a break. The earcups are on the smallish side, so that some listeners might find them just slightly confining, though I personally found them to be an almost perfect size.
One of the other strongest competitors for a “best of breed” noise-cancelling design would be Sony’s flagship MDR-NC500D digital noise cancelling headphone ($399.99), so that I felt it would make for an apt comparison with the ATH-ANC7b. Here’s how I would draw the lines of comparison.
- The Sony uses a so-called “Artificial Intelligence” system to select from among three different digital noise reduction algorithms to choose the one that’s most appropriate for the listener’s environment. This level of adaptability arguably makes the Sony the all-around champ when it comes to noise reduction (especially in tricky environments that have lots of low frequency noise). Interestingly, though, the results achieved by Audio-Technica’s much simpler QuietPoint technology do not fall all that far behind the Sony’s.
- The Sony offers two power options: a rechargeable onboard Lithium Ion battery, or an outboard conventional battery pack. While the Sony solution exudes a certain measure of techno-coolness, it is also inherently complex (given the outboard battery pack, whose wiring is surprisingly intricate, the charger for the Lithium Ion battery, etc.). By comparison, the Audio-Technica’s single AAA battery seems a much simpler way to go (and you can easily stuff a few spare AAA batteries in the accessory point without taking up much room). Simpler, in this case, is better.
- In terms of sheer sonic sophistication and purity, both designs are very good performers, but if push came to shove I would give the nod to the Audio-Technica because its sound seems more effortless, natural, and unforced, whereas there are moments where the Sony can sound just slightly “processed” in its presentation. Sonic purity is one of the hardest things for any noise-cancelling headphone to achieve, and on the ATH-ANC7b’s greatest strengths.
With the ATH-ANC7b, Audio-Technica has taken one of Playback’s favorite noise-cancelling headphone designs and made it even better, first by giving the ANC7b more evenly balanced and extended voicing, and second by fitting the headphone with an even quieter amplifier/noise reduction circuit. This is a delightfully simple and easy to use product that offers a great combination of effective noise reduction and sonic sophistication.
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Accessories: two detachable signal cables (1m and 1.6m, ¼-inch adapter, airline adapter, carrying case with built-in accessory pouch, and a AAA battery.
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Sensitivity: 109 dB/mW
Impedance: 300 Ohms
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 25 kHz
Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor
AUDIO-TECHNICA U.S., Inc.