If you want a pair of noise cancelling headphones, your choice is much more restricted than the hundreds of quality headphones already out there. If you want noise cancelling headphones that sound great, well, that's even harder. Of the limited range you can choose from, Audio-Technica's brand new ATH-MSR7NC are the thinking man's choice -- they're not flashy or blingy or over-the-top, but they block out the outside world and produce incredibly detailed audio at the same time.
The noise cancelling isn't strong, but it's in for the long haul. If you've used noise cancelling headphones from Bose or Parrot before, you might be initially underwhelmed with the $549 Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7NC's active noise cancellation. Unlike Audio-Technica's other ATH-ANC9 noise cancelling 'phones, there's only a single noise cancelling mode on the MSR7NC and it's definitely not as strong as its competitors. It does a great job of cancelling out noise from a nearby desk or ceiling fan, and it'll do a good job on a relatively new and not unreasonably loud passenger jet, but it won't completely isolate you from your office colleagues' consultations or commuting noise. That, though, actually means it's less fatiguing and better for longer periods.
Battery life is phenomenal, enough for an intercontinental return plane trip. I took the Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7NC on a flight with me from Sydney to LA and back, and a full charge over the integrated microUSB port got me a solid 30 hours of powered active noise cancellation and moderate-to-loud music listening and movie watching. That's a huge improvement on competitors -- Bose's otherwise excellent QuietComfort 25 headphones use disposable and quickly depleted AAA batteries, and Parrot's otherwise amazing Zik 3's internal rechargeable cell is stressed by their super-powerful noise cancelling, Bluetooth and built in equaliser and concert hall audio effects. Audio-Technica's headphones find the right compromise between cancelling and battery life.
Oh, and they sound good, too. At this price point, you'd rightly expect your headphones to sound amazing, and the MSR7NC does. These over-the-ear cans compete with other powered headphones in their price range, and although you'll get more detailed sound from some similarly priced in-ear monitors like RHA's T20i you can't compete with the wide soundstage of the ATH-MSR7NC; that's a surprising feat considering the fact that most noise-cancelling headphones sound very locked in and compressed. Frequency response is more or less even with no obvious dips or valleys and a little bit of a boost to bass and higher treble. You'll want to keep them powered, though -- things get relatively flat and monitor-esque when you switch active noise cancelling off.
These headphones love a bit of high-resolution audio. More than just ticking the 'Extreme' quality option on your Spotify account or actually downloading a couple of albums from Apple Music, you'll really want a good quality source and some very high quality tunes to make the most of the ATH-MSR7NC. I'm on a Taylor Swift kick at the moment, and the 24-bit FLAC master of 1989 is one of the most detailed and musically rich albums of the last few years, and it sounds incredible on these headphones. The addition of a slightly lower ambient noise floor with the noise cancelling, and the slight extra oomph given to lower bass and higher treble, means they don't sound flat or bland like some other noise cancelled cans I've tried.
They're well built and look good, which makes them an investment. Audio-Technica has built some very well regarded headphones at a variety of price points, including the gamer-idolised ATH-M50X and the beautiful wooden ATH-W1000X. The ATH-MSR7NC doesn't try to re-invent the wheel, with a strong metal headband with good clamping force, soft but compliant memory foam earpads and headband cushion, and the same flat, single-piece earcups as we've seen on previous Audio-Technica headphones and Sony cans like the MDR-1RBT Mk2. Everything fits well, is easily adjustable to a range of head sizes, and looks good at the same time.
You'll pay a premium for the combo of noise cancelling and hi-res audio. Now that hi-res audio is a thing -- and it's a valid thing, because as much as it is a marketing term it also expects a wide 40-40,000Hz minimum frequency response and support for 24 bit/96 kHz playback (on a compatible source device) -- you'll see more headphones pop up with that label, and it's a genuine sign of quality. But you do pay proportionally more, in the same way that you pay for noise cancelling. Put those two together and you can see why the ATH-MSR7NC is $549. But the combo of good noise cancelling without a hit to battery life, good build quality, and the detail and frequency response of hi-res, makes them worth the asking price. [Audio Technica]