Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 Noise-Cancelling Headphone (Playback 59)

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Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 Noise-Cancelling Headphone (Playback 59)

Playback has long admired Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC7 and ATH-ANC7b noise-cancelling ‘phones and now the ATH-ANC9 ($349.95) has raised the bar higher still, both in terms of sound quality and flexibility. Before we begin our review of the ATH-ANC9, though, let’s consider the qualities that attracted us to A-T’s noise cancellers in the first place. In a nutshell, we loved the fact that, while the ATH-ANC7b offered good (even very good) noise-cancellation technology its primary focus was on sound quality (priorities near and dear to many Playback readers).

Realistically, some folks focus their attention on a noise-cancelling headphone’s noise reduction capabilities, often trying out the ‘phones in noisy environments and then listening to see how much noise gets eliminated. After that, almost as a secondary consideration, they play music through the ‘phones to check out the sound quality. If they like the noise reduction capabilities they’ve heard and find the sound quality at least adequate, they may well make a purchase.

To be honest, we think this noise-reduction-über-alles approach has its priorities backwards, because in our view the first job of a headphone—any headphone, whether noise cancelling or not—is to sound good. The effectiveness of noise cancellation circuitry is also important, but sound quality must always come first. After all, if a headphone didn’t sound good, would it really matter if it did a great job of blocking out noise? Seriously, if all you wanted were peace and quiet, then your best bet would be to pop into the nearest drug store and snap up a pair of HEAROS earplugs (they’re cheap, comfortable, and very effective).

But frankly, most discerning music lovers want something more from their noise-cancelling headphones: namely the best combination of high fidelity sound and low noise they can get for a sensible price. And it’s in finding that elusive balance point between high sound quality, low noise, and affordability that Audio-Technica’s past ANC-series headphones have won praise from our staff.

With the ATH-ANC9, which is Audio-Technica’s most ambitious noise-cancelling headphone to date, the firm is taking steps forward in sound quality, while adding a raft of new features including three discrete noise cancellation modes, each optimized for different noise environments, plus headset functionality. These changes sound good in theory, but how do they play out in real life? We’ll attempt to answer that question in this review.

FEATURES

Drivers: 40mm dynamic drivers
Passive or Active Modes: the headphone can be operated in passive more or driven by its built-in amplifier, which is powered by a single AAA battery.
Headphone Frame: The ATH-ANC9 features an adjustable frame that allows the headphone’s ear cups to swivel side-to-side and up-and-down for an optimal fit. The frame allows the ear cups to fold flat to help the ANC9 fit within its included compact travel case.
Ear Cup Pads: The ATH-ANC9 provides headband and ear cup pads covered in a leather-like material and that use “luxurious memory foam padding.”
Easy Access Battery Compartment: The ANC9 is powered by a single AAA battery, which fits in an externally accessible slide-out tray positioned on the side of the ATH-ANC9’s right hand ear cup.
Battery Life (for various AAA battery types):

oUp to 35 hours (Lithium)
oUp to 25 hours (alkaline)
oUp to 20 hours (rechargeable).

Three Noise-Cancellation Modes: As above, the ATH-ANC9 provides three distinct, switch selectable noise cancellation modes:

oMode 1 (“Airplane Mode”): Mode 1 provides up to “95% noise isolation at 200 Hz.” According to an Audio-Technica press release, Mode 1 is said to be “ideal for use on airplanes, trains and buses and applies maximum noise-cancellation to low frequencies.” The ANC9 uses a multicolor display light that glows Blue to indicate Mode 1 is engaged, and whenever Mode 1 is switched on, a single “beep” is heard through the earphones.
oMode 2 (“Office Mode”): Mode 2 provides up to “95% noise isolation at 300 Hz.” Audio-Technica says Mode 2 is “designed especially for use in noisy offices and crowded places, and targets midrange frequencies.” The ANC9’s multicolor display light glows Red to indicate Mode 2 is engaged, and whenever Mode 2 is switched on, two brief “beeps” are heard through the earphones.
oMode 3 (“Study Mode”): Mode 3, which deliberately uses less aggressive noise cancellation than Modes 1 or 2, provides up to “85% noise isolation at 200 Hz.” Audio-Technica says “Mode 3 is best for already-quiet locations like libraries and creates a pristine, peaceful environment ideal for study.” The ANC9’s multicolor display light glows Green to indicate Mode 3 is engaged, and whenever Mode 2 is switched on, three brief “beeps” are heard through the earphones.

Headset Functionality with Inline Mic/Control: The ATH-ANC9 is the first-ever Audio-Technica noise-cancelling headphone to come with two signal cables, one of which incorporates an inline mic/control module. Audio-Technica says, “the mic and controller support select smartphone models and touchpad devices,” and then adds that, “the microphone has an omnidirectional pickup pattern and is designed for crisp intelligibility, so you voice will be clearly transmitted without having to speak directly into the mic.” Control functions operate as follows:

oPlay music/Pause music/Answer & End Calls: Press the control button once.
oGo to the Next Track: Double-click the control button.
oGo to the Previous Track: Triple-click the control button.

Accessories:

oCase: Semi-hard shell travel case with fabric covering, zipper closure, and a carabiner-type belt clip.
o6.3mm (1/4-inch) phone plug adapter.
o2 Signal Cables: One 1.2M straight cable with gold-plated 3.5mm mini-plugs, plus one 1.2M cable with inline mic/control module.
oAirline Adapter.
oAAA Battery.

SONIC CHARACTER

It can be challenging to describe the sonic character of noise-cancelling headphone that offer multiple noise reductions settings, largely because the voicing of the headphone can shift somewhat as different modes are engaged. So, in the interest of imposing some order on potential chaos, I will begin by describing what I think is the core sound of the ATH-ANC9 when heard at its best, and then add specific comments to address the relative effects of each of the headphone’s three active noise cancellation modes (and of its passive mode).

Core Sound (Power On): The core sound of the ATH-ANC9 is fairly well balanced, but tilted toward the warmer or darker side of the audio spectrum relative to strict neutrality. By this I mean that, if you graphed the A-T’s frequency response curve, I suspect you would see the entire graph tipped downward on a gentle slope from bass through the midrange and on into the treble region. In practice this means low frequencies are pushed forward slightly, though not to an excessive degree. Midrange frequencies, including those difficult-to-reproduce upper midrange frequencies, are for the most part evenly balanced, while highs are somewhat subdued.

To be fair, though, let me concede that my “accuracy standard” (apart from the sound of live music) is the sound of some very accurate and very costly high-end headphones and loudspeakers, which I keep on hand as references. If, however your frame of reference happened to be one of those wildly bass-boosted “hip hop” headphones on the market, you would probably consider the ATH-ANC9 to offer very accurate, unexaggerated sound indeed.

To my ears, the best part of the ATH-ANC9 is its midrange, which is the region where the headphone sounds most evenly balanced, with resolution and dynamic expressiveness that are both very good. While I would not say the ATH-ANC9 can quite equal the midrange openness and transparency of today’s best passive headphones in the mid-$300 price range, the Audio-Technica is a very strong contender relative to other noise-cancelling ‘phones now on the market.

The ATH-ANC9 offers a pleasant, engaging, and yet also relaxing listening experience, and the general shape of the headphone’s voicing curve nicely fits its noise-cancelling mission. For example, I’ve said the ANC9 serves up somewhat elevated bass, which I think is a smart way for designers to hedge their bets in a design geared for use in noisy environments, since background noise often tends to swallow up perceived low-end response.

Similarly, the Audio-Technica’s smooth but somewhat subdued highs also represent a smart choice given that these headphones are likely to fed compressed digital music files through iPods or other small digital music players, which have been known to sound rough and/or overly bright at times. Given this, the ATH-ANC9 offers some well-judged compromises; it has enough treble response so as not to sound dark or dull, yet its highs are subdued just enough to maintain a smooth, listenable sound when the going gets rough.

Compared to Audio-Technica’s earlier ATH-ANC7b, the ATH-ANC9 sounds cleaner, purer, and more expressive, I think for two reasons. First, the ATH-ANC9’s amplifier is noticeably quieter than the ANC7b’s was, with little if any audible hiss or “DSP hash.” Second, the ANC9 offers multiple noise reduction modes, where the ANC7b offered only one, thus enabling users to fine-tune noise reduction characteristics to fit their listening environments. Do multiple noise cancellation modes really offer significant benefits? I think they definitely do, because they give users the option of trying different modes on the fly until they find the mode that—for their specific environments—provides that just right combination of sonic transparency and low background noise. In short, the ANC9 proves the truth on an old audiophile’s axiom: whenever noise goes down, perceived sound quality goes up.

Passive Mode: In passive mode, the sound of ATH-ANC9 changes significantly. The center of the midrange remains fairly similar to what you would hear with the ANC9’s noise-cancellation circuitry engaged, but the upper midrange and lower treble ranges both become more subdued, as do some lower midrange/upper bass frequencies. The upshot of this is that in passive mode the ANC9’s sound takes on a “hooded” or “closed-in” quality. The effect is somewhat like hearing a person speak from within the pulled-up hood of a big winter parka: you can still recognize the person’s voice, but the sound is definitely a little “off.” For this reason, I regard the ATH-ANC9’s passive mode primarily as a fail-safe option—a mode to be used only if the battery fails and you don’t have a spare one handy.

Noise Reduction Capabilities: In general terms, the ATH-ANC9 offers the most effective and most flexible noise reduction capabilities I’ve head from any active noise-cancelling headphone to date. Though I would never have wished this upon myself, I had a chance to test the ATH-ANC9’s absolute noise reduction capabilities in the aftermath of an incident where my office flooded during a torrential Texas downpour. As part of the clean up effort, a big, industrial “axial air mover” had to be placed under my desk to help dry things out, and it made my whole office sound like the wrong end of a wind tunnel (the racket was unbelievable). But I put on the ATH-ANC9s, flipped on the most aggressive noise reduction mode (Mode 1 or “Airplane Mode”), and to my surprise immediately experienced a reasonable facsimile of peace and quiet. With the Audio Technica 'phones in play, the turbine-like roar of the air mover sounded more like quiet “whish” of an air conditioning fan. That’s how effective the ATH-ANC9’s noise reduction capabilities can be. Now, let’s look at the specific effects of each of the ANC9’s noise reduction modes.

Mode 1 (“Airplane Mode”): Mode 1 yields substantial noise reduction, yet preserves a sound that leaves most of the midrange, upper midrange and high frequencies untouched. Because Mode 1 tackles noise that reaches upward to higher frequencies than the other two modes do (up to 300Hz for Mode 1 vs. 200Hz for Modes 2 and 3), Mode 1 had more impact on bass, upper bass, and some lower midrange frequencies, with the result that the ANC9’s slightly bass-forward character became even more pronounced. I suspect this might even be a deliberate strategy on the designers’ parts, where the intent might to pull down noise (via active noise cancellation) while also allowing a subtle level of bass boost to help lower frequencies rise above residual background noise.

Mode 2 (“Office Mode”): Mode 2 is in many ways similar to Mode 1 and offers about the same amount of noise reduction, but with this difference: Mode 2’s noise reduction effects do not reach as high up into lower midrange as Mode 1’s do (up to 200 Hz for Modes 2 and 3 vs. 300 Hz for Mode 1). The sonic upshot of this is twofold: flower midrange frequencies sound just a smidgeon more balanced with Mode 2 in play, while perceived bass emphasis (as noted for Mode 1) is less pronounced. Mode 2 is meant for use in office environments and in that context it provides a sound that is a little more accurately and naturally balanced than Mode 1 (though Mode 1 would no doubt be superior in noisier environments).

Mode 3 (“Study Mode”): Mode 3 is very similar to Mode 2, but with less aggressive noise reduction setting applied—a change that yields surprisingly audible benefits if you like to listen in already quiet, study hall-like environments. Mode 3 gives less dramatic noise reduction effect than Mode 1 or 2, but in exchange its sound tends to be significantly more open, transparent, and naturally balanced. To hear the ATH-ANC9 at its best, then, get to a reasonably quiet room and use Mode 3.

Some readers might ask if the differences between these modes are things only finicky audiophiles would notice, and answer is that the differences are easy to discern for experienced listeners and complete neophytes alike. In fact, it’s fun to watch people try the ATH-ANC9 for the first time; you’ll see them switching between modes until their eyes suddenly light up when they find the just-right mode for the environment at hand. The general rule is that Mode 1 (“Airplane Mode”) works best for noisy environments, while Mode 2 (“Office Mode”) or Mode 3 (“Study Mode”) is better for quieter environments. Let your ears be your guides.

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

To experience sonic character of the ATH-ANC9 in action, try listening to the very revealing track “Senia’s Lament” from Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas’ Lookout for Hope [Sugarhill]. The song revolves around the plaintive, soaring voice of Douglas’ Dobro, which is ably supported by crisp, delicate percussion and the deep, woody, powerful sound of an amplified acoustic bass. The voice of the Dobro falls right in the middle of the ANC9’s midrange “sweet spot” and sounds, as you might expect, appropriately evocative and engaging (I’ve always loved the way Dobros simultaneously embody some of the qualities of guitars, bluegrass fiddles, and pedal steel guitars—qualities the ATH-ANC9s reproduced in a satisfying, vivid way). The acoustic bass, which is well represented in this track, had plenty of weight, warmth, and growl through the ATH-ANC9s, although the bass at times took on a larger-than-life quality that—while appealing in its way—was not quite right. High frequency details, most notably the high pitched sounds of a triangle (or chime?) and the very high-frequency harmonics that normally give this recording a wonderful sense of “air”, were for the most part present but downplayed to a degree. As a result, the track sounded less open and “airy” than it can when heard at its best, though the overall sound was undeniably relaxing and smooth.

To get an even better handle on the ANC9’s performance capabilities, I turned to an old favorite: the track “Remote Stories” from Christopher Roberts’ album Last Cicada Singing [Cold Blue], which captures Roberts performing one of his own compositions on a 7-string, fretless Chinese instrument called the Qin (pronounced “chin,” I am told). There are several things that are really cool about the Qin and that make it a great audio test vehicle. First, the instrument spans a remarkably wide range of pitches, reaching down to about the low range of a cello, but also extending quite high up. Next, the instrument is astoundingly expressive, as part of the tradition of the instrument is to use not only the sounds of its string but all of the performer’s performance noises (plucking sounds, harmonics, note bends, finger sliding on strings or deftly damping notes, etc.) as part of the music. Finally, the Qin is capable of a wide range of moods, sometimes delivering a hard, sharp, aggressive sound, but at other moments sounding smooth, ethereal, and delicate. In short, the Qin gives headphones a real work out.

The ATH-ANC9 tackled “Remote Stories” with grace and a good measure of subtlety, capturing the lingering, almost floating sound of the Qin in Roberts’ hands, while reproducing most, though not all, of the nuances of his fingering and plucking techniques. As with the acoustic bass on “Senia’s Lament”, above, the low strings of the Qin sounded a little larger-than-life, though in a way I admit I found quite moving. Much of the inner detail of the Qin came through intact, although the highest frequency transient details and harmonics (of which there are—or should be—many in this recording) were rolled off in a way that made the overall presentation sound noticeably less realistic and three-dimensional than it can when heard at its best. My thought is that the ATH-ANC9 gives you much of the music most of the time (and in a satisfying way), but that there are certain subtle sonic fine points that do inevitably go missing.

CONCLUSION

Consider this noise-cancelling headphone if:

•You want a headphone that offers one of the most versatile, effective, and cleverly conceived noise-cancellation systems ever offered on any headphone at any price. (Sony’s more costly and complicated MDR-NC500D offers similar functionality, but the ATH-ANC9 stands as a simpler, more effective, and more affordable solution).
•You like the idea of a noise-cancelling headphone that offers a mode geared specifically for use in already quiet listening spaces (this something few if any other headphone makers have thought to provide).
•You want a headphone whose core sound is slightly warmer than neutral and that offers a good measure of transparency.
•You want a noise-cancelling headphone that, in a pinch, can keep right on running even if its battery fails.

Look further if:

•You were hoping for a noise-cancelling headphone that matches the sound quality of today’s best passive headphones in this price class. Good though the ATH-ANC9 is, passive ‘phones still have the upper hand in terms of openness, transparency, and neutral tonal balance.

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced noise-cancelling headphones):

•Tonal balance: 8.5
•Clarity: 8.5
•Dynamics: 8.5
•Comfort/Fit: 9
•Noise isolation/cancellation: 10
•Ease of Use: 9.5
•Value: 9

BOTTOM LINE

In terms both of sound quality and noise-cancellation effectiveness, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 represents a significant step forward from one of our old favorites, Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC7b (which remains in the product line). For a product of its sophistication the ANC9 is well priced and what is more, smart shoppers will discover that street prices can be substantially lower than advertised “MSRP” pricing—making this new model an even better value.

While the ATH-ANC9’s sound quality is not quite as high as that of today’s best passive headphones at this price, it is thoroughly competitive with (and in many respects better than) models from Bose and others.

SPECS & PRICING

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 Noise-Cancelling Headphone
Type: Circumaural (over-the-ear) headphone with active noise-cancelling capabilities.
Accessories: As listed under “FEATURES”, above.
Driver complement: 40mm dynamic drivers.
Frequency response: 10Hz – 25kHz
Sensitivity: 100dB
Impedance: 100 Ohms
Noise Reduction:

•Mode 1: Up to 30dB
•Mode 2: Up to 30dB
•Mode 3: Up to 20dB

Weight: 220 grams
Warranty: One year, parts and labor.
Price: $349.95

Manufacturer Information
Audio-Technica U.S., Inc.
(330) 686-2600
www.audio-technica.com

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