Lightning Review: Sony MDR-NC500D Digital Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Gadget: Sony's MDR-NC500D, the "world's first headphones with digital technology for noise cancelling." These over the ear noise cancelling headphones have three different environmental modes, a monitor mode, internal reachable battery and a case full of accessories and adapters.

The Price: US$400.00

The Verdict: As with any expensive noise cancelling headphones that are geared towards frequent flyers, comfort, sound quality, and noise cancelling are all equally important when reviewing.

Doesn't matter how great a pair of headphones sound, they must be comfortable to wear especially when they're cancelling out noise on long haul flights. My first comfort impression: they're surprisingly light when wearing. Usually big over-the-ear headphones are uncomfortably heavy; but not these. The ear-cup padding is relatively thin and firm, but still comfortable. The padding on the top head strap has this same firm feel and is more than adequate. A month ago on a SF to Paris flight, I wore these headphones for a continuous 10 hours before I started to notice discomfort. So I can safely say they pass the comfort test.

Sound Quality
Now I'm no audiophile, but I do enjoy a crisp vibrant sound. It must be noted that these headphones always have the noise cancelling feature on, so they aren't exactly like a pair of normal headphones. The overall sound quality is great, but it's not astonishing. With volume at medium level the depth is there with a clean undistorted sound. In the higher volume levels the headphones start to produce very light noise and some minimal distortion. But this is at very high levels which I couldn't handle for more than a few seconds. Even though the headphones are expensive, it's excusable that the sound quality wasn't amazing because the noise cancelling totally makes up for it.

Noise Cancelling
I'm still a bit confused to how this "digital technology for noise cancelling" exactly works. But I do know it works very well. It's my understanding that it converts the analogue signal digitally by using a digital processor, and then it can apply different environmental filters based on the surroundings. When you first turn the headphones on they use the standard non-environmently filtered noise cancelling. This setting worked well, but by clicking the AI (artificial intelligence) button located right next to the power switch, the audio cut out for a second then came back even better. The AI NC mode uses an automatic environmental filter mode where it can detect the HZ range of noise and apply a filter to mask it. There are three different modes, one for a plane, one for a train/bus, and another for an office/study environment. I did play with the different manual modes for a bit but found that the automatic setting could choose the right one for me, so I had no need for the manual settings.

Once I figured out the AI NC feature I started to enjoy the headphones even more. I could barely hear the roar of the jet's engines, but at the same time I could slightly hear important outside sounds, like my girl friend asking me to get her ice cream. I tested the noise cancelling against a pair of US$200 JVC HA-NC250 on-the-ear noise cancelling headphones. Compared to the JBLs, the Sonys were amazingly better. The JBLs let in more outside noise and had a slight distortion/buzz in sound. The Sony's clarity and overall enjoyment was much better.

These headphones come with a huge carrying case that is packed full of accessories. The case is so big that it makes carrying it sort of a hassle, but it does have every accessory you could ever need. It's got an in-flight adaptor, 1/4" stereo adaptor, 2 3.5mm stereo cords, a charger, and even a AA battery powered adaptor for when you run out of internal juice.

Final Verdict
I'm currently 30,000 feet above the Atlantic in a Boeing 747 and I can't hep but gush over these headphones. They're simply amazing. But are they worth the price? For most people I would say no way. I think these are only for those frequent flyers who are regularly taking flights longer than 5 hours. The US$400 price tag can only be justified if the headphones are being used a few times a month and not just to block out sounds around the house.

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