Lately, it seems like every manufacturer wants a piece of the market for high-end noise-canceling headphones, a business invented and more or less dominated by Bose. Last year, I reviewed that company's QuietComfort 3 headphones and was nearly breathtaken by their $349 price, but they proved so likeable I was hard-pressed to hammer them for being expensive. As I wrote in my review for Sound & Vision's Web site, the QC 3s, which boast a lightweight on-ear design, were extremely comfortable for lengthy listening sessions (for me, at least). And their sound was cannily balanced, providing just enough of a bump in the upper bass to give a sense of fullness (but not boominess) with most recordings and just enough of a rolloff in the highs to avoid sizzle that can become fatiguing. By year's end, I had probably logged several hundred hours with my QC 3s, and we honored Bose with one of our 2006 Editors' Choice Awards.
Recently, Audio-Technica and Sennheiser, two companies that know a thing or two about both headphones and good sound, introduced models that take square aim at the same customer. The subject of this review, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint noise-canceling headphones, sell for $220 - about 35% less than the QC 3s - and, as you'll read, also proved highly recommendable. But whereas the Bose phones create a seductive sound that many listeners will find appealing, the A-Ts have a refreshing accuracy that speaks to a completely different experience. You might call these two headsets the yin and yang of noise-canceling phones.
FEATURES The ANC7 headphones feature a nice black-and-silver, sculpted earcup design made of an obviously high-impact molded plastic. A small slider switch with a blue LED on the left cup activates the noise-canceling circuit. A couple of small mesh screens on each cup protect the embedded microphones used to process the ambient noise. The phones have a nice solidity to them; the pivots for the earcups are thick and strong, and they gave the impression of being able to withstand a fall (although I didn't test this). The earpads are covered in faux leather and also appear to be made of top-grade materials.
Like the Bose phones, the ANC7s come in their own hard case with a velvet-covered, molded insert to protect them for storage and travel. Make no mistake: These are not compact phones, and they require a serious commitment of briefcase or backpack space to carry around. The ANC7s' case is well finished in black woven canvas, and there's a zippered web pocket that Velcros to the inside cover to hold the 1.6-meter (5.2-foot) headphone cord and the two plug adapters that come with the phones: a mini-to-dual-mini for airline use and a mini-to-quarter-inch for a receiver or preamp. As with the QC 3s, the cord is fully detachable so the phones can be used for noise canceling alone without a dangling wire. This cord has standard stereo mini-plugs on either side, but Audio-Technica has thoughtfully made one a right-angle plug; either works at the headphone end so you can reverse the cable as needed to accommodate your source.
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