If you're commuting, you want a pair of headphones without a cord that's going to get tangled in your bag and in your clothes. If you're commuting, you also want a pair of headphones that blocks out the rattle of the train or bus and the chattering of the people next to you. It's usually a little hard to find a pair of headphones with both of these features packed into one, but Sony's new h.ear on Wireless NC combines both Bluetooth and active noise cancelling in an over-the-head, over-the-ear design finished in five different striking colours.
What Is It?
- Bluetooth: Yes, Bluetooth v4.0 + EDR, LDAC
- Noise Cancelling: Yes (1 mode)
- Battery Life: (up to) 20 hours
- Wireless Range: (up to) 100m
- Weight: 290g
Sony's $499.95 h.ear on Wireless NC headphones are the latest and greatest from a company with a long, long history of excellence in personal audio. This is the brand that invented the Walkman, for god's sake. The h.ear on Wireless NC is a little more advanced than a portable cassette player, though -- these headphones pack in a brand new Hi Res Audio wireless standard for Bluetooth, have noise cancelling that adapts itself to the different
The h.ear on Wireless NC weighs a not-insignificant 290 grams, and is available in five different colours -- red, pink, yellow, blue and black -- in what seems like a wholehearted attempt to dethrone Beats as the brand of choice for all the headphone-wearing fashionistas out there. It joins the rest of the new Sony Hi Res Audio family -- the full-size $299.95 h.ear on (no noise cancelling, no Bluetooth), the $299.95 h.ear in (Bluetooth, no noise cancelling, in-ear), the $299.95 h.ear in NC and portable $349 h.ear go Bluetooth speaker -- and represent the absolute top of the new line-up.
Bluetooth is your main connection method with the Sony h.ear on, and as well as regular Bluetooth 4.0 EDR protocols there's also LDAC, which is a Sony proprietary protocol that requires a Hi Res Audio Walkman or Sony Xperia Z smartphone. You can connect with the h.ear on Wireless NC's NFC tag if your phone or tablet or laptop supports it, too, although we only got it working on the second try once we already had one other device connected. If you don't want to use a wireless connection for any reason, a 1.2-metre three-pole 3.5mm audio cable is included in the h.ear on's retail packaging and hides away within the hard-shell carry case.
What's It Good At?
The high-end detail out of the h.ear on headphones is excellent, and there's a goodly amount of lower bass too, making a wide range of music sound good whether you're listening wirelessly or through the included audio cable. The headphones don't sound excessively bass-heavy and powerful; there's instead a focus on overall detail in the high ranges without sacrificing bass. My only qualm with the audio is that there's no equaliser function through any kind of Bluetooth-connected complementary Android or iOS app, and while it's not normal on cheaper headphones we've come to expect it around the h.ear on Wireless NC's circa-$500 price point.
If your goal is to block out the mid-frequency drone of your building's air conditioning or the hum of a pair of airplane engines around you for 12 hours, you'll find these Sony headphones extraordinarily effective. Active noise cancelling is always useful in situations like these, but the h.ear on continues Sony's quality tradition of noise cancelling at only the small cost of a tiny amount of background hiss. There's no way to adjust the strength or frequency range of the noise cancelling, so you won't be able to tune out your colleagues' conversations, but it does mean that you'll listen to music at slightly lower volumes overall.
Battery life from the h.ear on was right on Sony's 20 hour estimate, and that's with music playing at moderate volume levels for the entire time. That's an impressive result, made even more so by the fact that the headphones are using power for both Bluetooth and the noise cancelling mics and circuitry simultaneously. You can get longer results from Bose's QuietComfort 35 headphones, but only if you are happy to sacrifice Bluetooth and listen with the 3.5mm audio cable connected. Recharging, over microUSB, is relatively quick, with a full charge being piped in within around four hours of charging from a 2-amp USB port.
What's It Not Good At?
Where its competitors have simplified touch interfaces or accompanying apps that give you a little more detail and a little more control over the strength of noise cancelling, the Sony h.ear on Wireless NC seems a little confusing -- but only by comparison. After some muscle memory education -- this button is for noise cancelling, this is for power, hold this for Bluetooth -- you'll be able to use the headphones on your ears like any others. But the rim of the earcups themselves have quite a few controls, and it might be initially daunting to an otherwise unaware user.
These aren't especially small headphones. Sony's 40mm Hi Res neodymium drivers and all the associated circuity and battery for noise cancellation and Bluetooth means each earcup is quite large, and the headband itself is quite thick. They're absolutely comfortable to wear, in part because of these traits, but you'll find the ovoid carry case a little less compact than Sony's main rivals from Bose and Parrot. The headband crucially hugs the sides of your head when you're wearing the MDR-100ABN though, and the earcups curve smoothly to their outer edges, so they don't look bulky at least.
You're also paying a significant premium over non-noise cancelling and non-Bluetooth headphones for the h.ear on Wireless NC, and the premium for a pair of headphones is exponentially more than for one or the other. If you don't need both of these features at once, you really should consider whether you might just need the regular Sony h.ear on headphones, which sound substantially the same -- just a slightly flatter frequency response, without the quiet background silence of noise cancelling and without the slightly boosted lower bass and higher treble of actively powered speaker drivers. They're also $200 cheaper.
Should You Buy It?
- Effective noise cancelling.
- Great detail in high frequencies.
- Hi Res Audio and LDAC support.
- Strong competition from Bose's QC35.
- Bulky design and carry case.
- Initially confusing controls.
The market for Bluetooth noise canceling headphones is small, and the $499.95 Sony h.ear on Wireless NC can stand up against its chief rivals from Bose and Parrot. You're paying $100 less than you are for a set of Parrot Zik 3.0 cans, which is appropriate given the h.ear on's lack of an adjustable equaliser or adjustable noise cancelling. But the main competition for these headphones will come from Bose's new QuietComfort 35, which have an identical price.
If you've bought into the Hi Res Audio hype -- if you use a compatible smartphone, and you're happy using the wired cable for the best possible sound quality, and you have an equally high quality set of audio material (we're not talking streaming Spotify here) -- then you will be genuinely impressed with the audio potential of Sony's MDR-100ABN headphones. Even Bluetooth transmission of Hi Res Audio tracks is better than it's ever been with headphones thanks to Sony's use of the LDAC wireless audio standard, which has three times the bandwidth of the regular Bluetooth A2DP profile.
Even with Hi Res put to one side, the h.ear on headphones remain a great choice if you're looking for that normally elusive combo of Bluetooth and active noise cancelling. The Bluetooth is versatile enough to connect multiple devices simultaneously, and although the noise cancelling doesn't allow you a choice beyond on and off, it works well in a wide variety of scenarios. And the MDR-100ABN just sounds good and looks even better -- two of the most important things to consider when you're buying headphones. They're not the most compact headphones, but they're worth the extra bulk.