Review - Two Noise-Cancelling Headphones from Audio-Technica Make Traveling A Little Bit Less Stressful!

A few years ago if you wanted active noise-cancelling headphones or earphones, you had only a few choices. As travelers soon discovered the combination of an iPod or laptop computer and some good headphones or earphones could help to balance the stresses of modern travel. We have tested a wide-variety of models, and found that two models from venerable audio manufacturer Audio-Technica consistently ranked among our favorites, and as such the ATH-ANC7 headphones and their in-the-ear ATH-ANCR cousins represent that rare balance of great audio at an affordable price.

First, we need to explain the concept of “active noise-cancelling” as it applies here. Twenty years ago, when NASA researchers and other scientists first explored the premises of aeronautics, they discovered, among other things, the science that led to the “super-critical wing” which offered more lift then conventional designs. Along with that came increases in the power and energy ratio in jet engine design, and a host of other features. Unfortunately, as legend has it, the noise-level in the airplanes was rising as the engines became more powerful, so methods were employed to reduce cabin noise; the most effective method was active noise cancellation. How does this work? Imagine tossing two pebbles a couple of feet apart in a pond, the ripples spreading out till the meet up in the middle, and then they ripples cancel themselves out. So, active noise cancellation works the same way. Small microphones listen to the noise in the space they are in, and then using a small computer, the system generates an opposing frequency, and the theory is that this cancels out the room noise. Because this actually generates audio, it’s considered “active” as opposed to passive.

A good example of passive would be to wrap your head in a wool blanket, pillows, or even the noise protecting headphones you wear when doing construction or using lawn tools. Since sitting on a subway or plane with a couple of pillows on your head isn’t seen as a cool fashion statement, not to mention that such behavior will be sure to put you on first-name basis with the TSA officers at the airport. Even then, there are limits to blocking noise in a noisy environment. So, just as some modern aircraft actually have small speakers in the cabins helping to quiet the noise with active noise cancelling, modern headphones and increasingly earphones have active noise cancelling technology. The most famous of these are the well-known models from Bose, which have a great reputation for sound quality, but at a very high price, and with a history of physical fragility. Besides, competition is good for the soul, and now you can find noise-cancelling units starting at about $30 and ranging to almost $500, although a higher price doesn’t guarantee perfection.

To be sure, most of the low-priced models we have listened to are just dreadful, with muddy base, brittle treble, and rather than making the user relax, they just don’t sound very musical. And as with all things subjective, audio and fit are highly personal; one person’s perfection is another person’s headache inducer. But they are definitely improving with time.

At this point, just about everyone markets an active noise-cancelling product, but consistently, when we hop on a train, plane, or even in the car, we found ourselves grabbing the new Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 headphones and their in-the-ear ATH-ANCR units.

The ATH-ANC7 headphones are over-the-ear designs with a black-and-silver motif that blends in nicely, evoking an elegant feel. The fit and finish are high, with comfortable cushions that seal outside noise without making you feel like your head is in a vise. It is powered by a single AAA battery located in the left headphone, tucked almost invisibly under the yoke that attaches the headphone to the band that holds them onto one’s head. There is an integrated on-off switch on the left side, and the headphone cable is detachable. The sound is warm and detailed; the bass is substantial, but not overpowering. The overall sound can be best described as musical, with a slightly understated feel at times, that with today’s digital source material helps to tame sibilance. Cymbals sound like cymbals, with a clean, detailed presentation that aids in creating an accurate soundstage, yet avoids that brittle high-end typical of so many units. The noise cancelling is effective and as a result of the over-the-ear design, better than most units. They ship with a black hard case, and a dual-prong airplane adapter. There are a couple of small things that could be tweaked. With my Apple MacBook Pro, I had to keep both iTunes and the system audio almost at full-volume on a recent plane flight, so a bit more sensitivity would be nice. There is also no way to monitor battery strength, which is important since there doesn’t seem to be an automatic off to prevent battery drain when it is not in use. And several times with both the units I ended up with dead batteries as a result when I forgot to turn them off. One issue that might affect those folks who want to use them in a work environment with other workers nearby is that they “leak” quite a bit of sound. When my son used them at home, I could easily hear what he was listening to, but on a plane or train, when I asked folks sitting next to me if they could hear what I was listening to, in every case, possibly due to the ambient noise, no one could hear what I was listening to, so I think it might be an issue only when users are in a relatively quiet, close quarters work environment. But, those are minor quibbles I will put aside. If you want an over-the-ear headphone with active noise cancelling, then the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 represent a great balance of audio quality, fit and finish, and features, at an affordable price-point.

There are times when an obvious over-the-ear design just won’t do, and as we all know from the incredible popularity of the Apple iPod earbuds, folks have become used to a small unobtrusive set of earphones. In the last year we have seen the introduction of active noise-cancelling earphones from a few manufacturers. It’s actually a bit amazing to consider what is going on with these units, since the entire circuitry must be small enough to fit in a few ounces of portable earphones. The approach taken by Audio-Technica in their in-the-ear ATH-ANCR is to have a small (about two inches long, by one inch wide) battery back that clips to your shirt, handling all the electronic wizardry. Powered by a single AAA battery, the control unit has two controls, an on-off switch, and a small silver “monitor” button that kills the volume of the music, as well as the noise cancelling by around 90 percent, so that you can talk to someone (i.e., a flight attendant) without affecting your settings. After spending so much time with superb passive in-your-ear earphones, I was curious if: a) you really needed active-noise cancellation, and b) how they would work in practice.

The result is that I often grab them on my way to work via the train, not only because they effectively shut out the noise of the train, but because they block the ear canal, so they are far safer then using say, an earbud. As I write this review I’m on a cross-country flight, and they are surprisingly effective at cancelling the outside noise, although not to the degree as the more conventional headphone designs. One reason for this might be Audio-Technica’s use of small silicon rubber inserts for your ear canal, which are wonderfully comfy, and easy to take in and out in a snap, but don’t offer nearly the level of noise attenuation that the compressible squeezable foam designs other folks offer. However, even though the audio quality is higher (across all the brands I’ve tested it seems) with the compressible foam inserts, the gross factor is much higher as they get coated with earwax, which everything sticks to, and in no time they can get pretty groddy. The ATH-ANCR offer a similar sound palette to their over-the-ear cousins, with a warm rich sound that not surprisingly has more bass boost. It’s still a clearly defined bass sound, but I’ve found that you can’t overdrive them, lest the bass starts to muddy up. Interestingly, the battery issue is even more important on these units. A few times, I would be listening to an iPod and the sound started sounded screechy, which I immediately thought was a problem with the iPod, or the way that I ripped the music, but the cause turned out to be a low battery in the earphones. So, once again, I’d love to see some sort of energy saving circuit, especially since the little red LED that indicates that they unit is turned on is quite dim, which is nice in not attracting attention, but which also makes it easy to forget about. They are also so quietly designed that I have to always search for the tiny little “L” and “R” symbols to get each into the correct ear. But, that is probably more about my forgetfulness then a design flaw. Even so, a bit larger lettering wouldn’t hurt anyone! They ship with a black soft case, different sized silicon fit sleeves, and a dual-prong airplane adapter, that will hold some extra batteries as well.

If you are in the market for a small set of smarty designed, comfortable set of in-your-ear designed noise-cancelling earphones, then the Audio Technica ATH-ANCR deserve serious merit. They combine serious attenuation of outside noise, a refined black-and-silver design, with a small yet easy-to-use control box, a gutsy musical sound, an increased bass response perfect for rock and roll, and are a perfect mate for your iPod or MP3 player.

Harris Fogel, Posted 7/25/2008

For more information on the ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint® Active Noise-cancelling Headphones visit:

For more information on the ATH-ANC3 QuietPoint® Active Noise-Cancelling In-Ear Headphones visit: