Review: Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 Noise-Canceling Headphone

In the unlikely event I ever again decide to pick a fight, it’ll be with someone who looks weaker than me. Obviously, Audio-Technica has a lot more guts than I do. With its new headphone, the $349 ATH-ANC9, Audio-Technica takes on the most entrenched product in the headphone biz: the Bose QC15, widely regarded as having the best noise-cancelling technology in the business. The ATH-ANC9 looks a lot like the QC15, and Audio-Technica has the nerve to charge an extra $50 for it!

What secret weapon did Audio-Technica pack into the ATH-ANC9 that would allow it even a chance against the QC15? Something called Tri-Noise Cancellation. It offers three modes. Mode 1 targets low frequencies; it’s for use on planes, trains, and buses. Mode 2 focuses on midrange; it’s for use in offices and other crowded places. Mode 3 is a milder noise cancellation mode designed to make relatively quiet places even quieter.

Even though I own a nice lab coat and have more than two decades of experience testing audio gear, my personal opinion of a headphone — indeed, anyone’s personal opinion of a headphone — only tells you so much. As we’re seen in our tests, subjective perception of headphone sound quality can vary a lot from person to person. So to get a broader perspective, I called in three of our usual headphone testers: L.A. jazz musician Will Huff, voice actress Lauren Dragan, and my Tech^2 blogging partner Geoff Morrison.

Geoff, Will, and I compared the ATH-ANC9 to a variety of other headphones I had on hand, while Lauren compared it primarily to her own reference ’phone, the PSB M4U 2 — tough competition indeed. Because noise-cancelling headphones are almost always used with portable devices, that’s what we used as our source — a collection of our own iPhones, Droids, and iPods. We didn’t have a QC15 on hand, but I have used it extensively, so while I couldn’t make direct comparisons between the two, I remembered enough to make a rough comparison.

None of us was blown away by the ATH-ANC9’s styling or construction quality, but we thought it was quite comfortable. “Extremely comfy and lightweight,” Will raved, and even though the earcups were a little small for my earlobes, I had to agree. Lauren agreed, too, but pointed out that the light weight comes from what feels like somewhat flimsy construction.

The NC modes are super-easy to access: Flip a switch to turn NC on, then push a little button to change modes. The ATH-ANC9 signals the mode changes with one, two, or three beeps in the earpieces, plus an LED that glows blue in Mode 1, red in Mode 2, and green in Mode 3. Best of all, though, the ATH-ANC9 works with NC off (and when the battery dies), something the Bose QC15 can’t do — so if your QC15’s battery runs out and you don’t have a spare, you’re stuck listening to the airline’s freebie headphones for the remainder of the flight. BTW, the ATH-ANC9 uses a standard AAA battery, which fits into a slot in the right earpiece.

Here’s another great thing: The play/pause/answer control on the inline microphone works not only with iPhones but also with my Motorola Droid Pro Android phone. That’s a very rare treat; most such controls make the sound from my Droid Pro go on and off every couple of seconds.

The Battle Begins

I used to have Audio-Technica’s $219 ATH-ANC7, which I often used as my “bus headphone” when riding Los Angeles’ Orange Line. It was obvious to me that Audio-Technica had studied the QC15 carefully, emulating not only its look but its tonal balance as well. The same largely holds true for the ATH-ANC9. It has a sort of “middle-of-the-road” tonal balance that sounds good with most types of music, even if the sound isn’t super-refined.

Geoff, Will, and Lauren all described the ATH-ANC9’s tonal balance in mostly similar ways, even though their testing sessions took place separately, on different days. We all noted a somewhat boomy and undefined bass that was perhaps just a little higher in level than we’d like, and that occasionally overpowered the mids. We all noticed that the midrange response was a little weak, Lauren describing it as a “donut hole” in the response. And all of us but Lauren noted a vivid treble that had a more open, lively sound than we expected from noise-cancelling headphones.

In fact, the treble is the part of the ATH-ANC9’s sound that seemed notably different from my memories of the QC15; to my ears, the QC15 has a somewhat mellower, subtly muted treble.

As usual, I had a lot more time than the other panelists to listen to the ATH-ANC9, so I was able to zero in better on its strengths and flaws. The main strength is just that it’s a fun headphone to listen to that works pretty well for lots of different kinds of music. Pop, rock, and hip-hop sound best, though. As I write this, the ATH-ANC9 has been strapped to my head all night, playing Led Zeppelin faves from “Whole Lotta Love” to “The Ocean” to the extraordinary performance of “Stairway to Heaven” from BBC Sessions. Every tune sounded well-balanced, dynamic, and basically kick-ass — except for the live version of “Going to California” from BBC Sessions, in which Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar seemed buried and dulled in comparison to the clear and present sound of John Paul Jones’ mandolin and Robert Plant’s voice.

But more sophisticated recordings (I said “recordings,” dammit, not “music”) such as Steely Dan’s Aja and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu’s Living Magic didn’t have quite the — well, magic — through the ATH-ANC9. The balance was always nice enough, but Donald Fagan’s voice and the piano behind him sounded somewhat hard and unrefined. Some vocalists, such as James Taylor and Adrian Belew, exhibited a bit of a cupped-hands coloration, as if the singers had their hands cupped around their mouths.

It’s in the noise cancellation that the ATH-ANC9 most impressed us. I didn’t have any flights scheduled while I was working on this review, but I had the next best thing: a recording of airplane noise made inside a 737 with my Earthworks M30 measurement microphone, played through a Genelec HT205 powered speaker and a Sunfire Super Junior subwoofer. Geoff and I both got to try the “flight simulator,” and we were both impressed by the ATH-ANC9’s ability to block the noise from the Genelec/Sunfire system.

The modes do work as advertised, although the effects can be subtle. Mode 1 does provide a powerful reduction of jet engine noise; it’s pretty quiet under those cans when that blue LED is lit. You don’t get as much low frequency noise cancellation in the other modes, but you do get a little more in the mids. I was surprised to find how useful Mode 3 is. Even just sitting around the house, I enjoyed using Mode 3, because it gave me a totally quiet environment with less of that weird, uncomfortable “suction” effect that noise-cancelling headphones create.

With NC off, though, the ATH-ANC9 doesn’t sound pretty. The resonant peak in the bass moves up in frequency, making the mids muddy and voices unclear, while the treble gets pretty dull. Some sound is better than no sound, of course, but there are NC headphones — the PSB M4U 2 and the Phiaton PS 210 BTNC, for example — that don’t sound radically different whether you switch NC on or off.

Measurements

To measure the ATH-ANC9, I used a G.R.A.S. 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with slight differences in the position of the earpieces to get the best seal of the headphone on the cheek plate and the most representative frequency response curves.

The frequency response measurements of the ATH-ANC9 pretty much mirror what we heard. There’s a resonant bass peak centered at 80 Hz, a somewhat weak midrange, and more energy than usual between 1.2 and 7 kHz. It’s an unusual curve, but suggests a fairly neutral, if slightly midrange-shy, tonal balance. The channels don’t match well in the bass, possibly because the battery and NC circuitry necessitate differences in shape and volume between the left and right driver enclosures. (This is a common flaw in noise-cancelling headphones.) Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a low-quality headphone amp had only a modest effect with NC on, but with NC off, it boosted frequencies below 500 Hz by a maximum of +4 dB.

Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is a little high, running about 3 to 4% from 50 Hz to 2 kHz, and rising to 12.5% at 20 Hz. Impedance is fairly flat in NC mode, averaging 100 dB and dropping from a high of 101 ohms in the bass to a low of 82 ohms in the treble. With NC off, the impedance changes a lot with frequency: 66 ohms in the bass, dropping to 30 ohms in the treble.

Isolation is pretty good even without the noise cancellation active, but it gets really good with NC, depending on the mode chosen. Mode 1 reduces noise in the “jet engine band” between 100 and 300 Hz by -20 to -24 dB. Mode 2’s reduction in this band is less — about -12 dB to -21 dB — but between 500 Hz and 1.5 kHz it beats out Mode 1 by -2 to -4 dB. Mode 3 delivers results similar to those of Mode 2, but with 2 to 5 dB less noise reduction between 200 and 600 Hz.

Sensitivity measured with a 1 mW signal at the rated 100 ohms impedance, with NC off is 99.9 dB average from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 102.0 dB average from 300 Hz to 6 kHz. With NC on, it’s 102.2 dB average from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 103.8 dB average from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.

Bottom Line

So does the ATH-ANC9 stand a chance against the QC15? Maybe. The performance is close enough that it’s hard to predict which headphone you’ll like better, and the two products look and feel similar. But we do like the fact that the ATH-ANC9 still works — not well, but it still works — when the battery runs down. And I did enjoy noise cancellation Mode 3 quite a bit. Perhaps most important, the ATH-ANC9 sells for less, despite its higher list price. Bose products rarely, if ever, sell for less than list price, and I’ve already found the ATH-ANC9 selling for as little as $240.

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