Audio-Technica QuietPoint ATH-ANC7 Noise-Canceling Headphones
Last weekend I took a Sunday afternoon stroll in Greenwich Village. I was wearing an "Upper West Side 10025" T-shirt to show the Lower Manhattanites who's boss. Following an excellent lunch of cold egg noodles at Mingala, as I strolled down Lafayette Street, I put on the Audio-Technica QuietPoint noise-canceling headphones. Traffic wasn't especially heavy, but you're never really free of internal-combustion noise in Manhattan, and as I hit the switch on the left can, I noticed the low-level hum just disappear, to be replaced by the NC circuit's acceptable low-level hiss. I started grooving on Oleg Kagan's and Sviatoslav Richter's expert performance of Beethoven's "Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano."
I made a stop at Porto Rico on Bleecker Street, paradise for coffee and tea lovers. While I waited in line to pay for my four boxes of giant paper tea filters--I know it's barbaric to use them, but I hate picking bits of tea leaf out of metal tea balls--employees made merry with the coffee grinders. This is a torture test you don't often read about in reviews of noise-canceling headphones because the most excruciating part of coffee-grinder noise lies in the mids and highs, not in the upper bass, where NC headphones typically do their work. But the QuietPoints are full-sized headphones with comfortable cushions that physically seal out noise across the whole audible spectrum, in addition to the more specifically focused effect of the NC circuit. Audio-Technica claims they seal out 85 percent of noise, with a 20-decibel reduction coming specifically from the NC circuit. It's safe to say I liked the sound of the store better with the cans on. The smell of the store, a heady freshly ground coffee aroma, needed no amelioration.
Soon I was at Houston Street and LaGuardia Place, at the terminus of the M5 bus. While I waited in the fancy new bus shelter, traffic roared by on Houston. This was a situation tailor-made for noise-canceling headphones, but I couldn't put them on, because it was a warm humid day and I was moist. This is the downside of headphones that seal in your ears with rubber cushions: they make you sweat like crazy, and if you're already sweating, they make you sweat worse. I settled for putting in my silicon gel earplugs, which were not as effective as the headphones, but more comfortable at that particular moment.
I boarded the M5 and headed north. After I'd basked in the air-conditioned chill for a few minutes, somewhere around Chelsea, the summer sweat had evaporated enough to justify a switch from earplugs back to headphones. Bus travel, like plane travel, is an excellent application for a product like the QuietPoint. The lusty roar of a New York City bus diesel engine (and the marginally quieter roar of the new hybrid diesel) is enough to justify the purchase if you're subjected to the noise often enough. The QuietPoint couldn't kill all of it--no NC headphones I've ever tried can do that entirely--but they cut it down by a good three-quarters. By this time I was listening to Glenn Gould's late-in-life forays into the Haydn piano sonatas. One of them had Gould working at the extreme left side of the keyboard, hitting a bass pitch that coincidentally matched the dominant frequency of the bus engine. Without solid noise cancellation, the bus engine would have masked the pitch, and I surely wouldn't have been able to hear the latter at all.
The QuietPoint sounds excellent. Not just good or very good, but excellent, with extended highs, a reliably uncolored midrange, and good (though not exaggerated) bass. It has a little less gain with the noise cancellation switched off, but a modest volume hike in the player takes care of that, and sound quality remains approximately the same. The supplied cord is about five feet long, which is a bit more than you need for use on a portable music player stowed in pocket or purse--when I put the headphones on, the cord dangled down around my feet, brushing the ground. But it's detachable, so you can replace it with the mini-plug cable of your choice.
While Audio-Technica is not quite a household name in headphones--the company is better known for phono cartridges, microphones, and other pro audio products--it joins the first rank of noise-canceling headphone manufacturers with the QuietPoint. And it does so for about a hundred bucks less than other first-rank products. At this level of quality, they normally go for $300 and up. I'm impressed.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.