By Lewis Leong
Written in memory of James Kim
In the continuing quest for a world without external aural distractions, I picked up the Sony MDR-NC6 noise canceling headphones to experiment how well noise cancellation technology actually works. I already have a pair of Sennheiser CX300 noise canceling ear buds which still impress me to this day with clear audio quality and superb passive noise canceling. I was curious to see the difference in performance between the passive noise cancellation of the Sennheisers and the active noise cancellation of the Sonys. While the Sennheisers rely solely on a silicone plug to isolate outside noise, the Sony’s active noise cancellation technology relies on microphones located on the headphones to pick up ambient noise and cancels it by producing a counter wave.
These headphones, along with many other headphones, are packed in the dreaded blister pack where you get severe lacerations just trying to unbox it. After the brawl with the packaging, you will find the headphones, airplane adaptor, “leather” pouch, and instructions/warranty information. The pouch is made of a synthetic plastic which feels soft and flexible with a velvet-like finish on the inside. I would have preferred a sold case for travel and storage but the pouch will do for keeping the headphones clean and dust free.
The design of the headphones is contemporary and quite pleasing to the eye with its silver body and chrome accents. I especially enjoy the tasteful plastic on the outside of the ear cups that accent the Sony logo and advertises its noise canceling abilities. As with many noise canceling headphones, there is a need for an external power source to power the microphones which, in this case, comes from a single AAA battery. The battery compartment is located on top of the right ear cup and the on/off switch is located on the right ear cup as well. The switch is easily accessible by using your thumb even though it is located behind the headphones. Initially I was worried that the battery being on one side would throw off the balance of the headphones but they did not, since the headphones as a whole are so light. The headphones use a single wire design which reduces the chance of tangling and helps to balance the headphones by being on the left, acting as a counterweight for the battery.
If I had to sum up the Sony MDR- NC6s in one word, it would have to be average. The sound quality is average at best, providing better clarity and bass, than stock headphones but not enough to truly satisfy and audiophile. High frequencies are reproduced without any distortion or discomfort but lack clarity. Low frequencies are also reproduced without any distortion but lack the punch that you would get with higher quality headphones. Even with the equalizer adjusted for maximum bass, I was craving more. One major criticism I have about these headphones is that in certain songs, the drums and cymbals sound very distant, as if the drummer were sitting a different room.
I was anxious and curious to see how well active noise cancellation worked but was severely disappointed. There is minimal difference between having the noise cancellation circuit turned on or off. The only difference can only be detected when there is very low frequency ambient noise and of very low decibel. It will get rid of wind and tire roar if you are listening to your music in a car, hopefully not while driving. The thing I find counter-intuitive about the NC6s is that when you switch on the noise cancellation circuit, the volume increases noticeably. Isn’t the whole point of noise canceling headphones to listen to your music at a lower volume without having to blow your ear drums out from cranking up the music to overcome ambient noise? It even advertises this fact on the box.
I would not recommend these headphones for sound quality or noise cancellation but if you are fashion conscious, they might be for you. Everything about these headphones is average and I was not impressed by them at all. The sound quality is similar to that of Sony’s less expensive, passive headphones and the noise cancellation circuitry is rubbish. If Sony designed these headphones to passively and actively block out ambient noise, NC6s would have been a much better pair of headphones. If you paid more than $30 for Sony’s MDR-NC6s, you horribly overpaid. For those who are serious about getting rid of ambient noise, I would recommend ear buds that plug your ear canal such as the Shure E4Cs, Etymotic ER-6i’s, etc.