Review: Monoprice 10010

I’ve been searching a long time for a good noise-cancelling headphone priced around $100—something that might approach the performance of the $299 Bose QC-15 but at one-third the price. On Monday, I finally found the first ~$100 NC headphone I can live with: the NoiseHush i7. Will the Monoprice 10010—currently $112 on the company’s site—be the second?

While the 10010’s design is obviously influenced by the QC-15, its gloss black side pieces actually make it look much sleeker, in my opinion. And in the opinion of the woman who sat next to me on a recent flight; she complimented me on my headphones (that doesn’t happen, like, ever) and was surprised when I told her they cost only about $100.

Like the QC-15, the 10010 has a detachable cable so you can use it just for the noise cancelling function, and includes a slim semi-hardshell travel case. One AAA battery powers the NC circuitry. Monoprice includes two cables: one with an inline microphone for use with your smartphone, and one without. The only control on the headphone is an on/off switch for the NC function.

10010 vs. MD-80

As with the i7, I put the 10010’s noise cancelling feature to the ultimate test: sitting in the rear section of one of American Airlines’ 1980s-vintage MD-80 airliners, about 6 feet from the intake of one of the plane’s side-mounted engines. It’s probably the loudest place on any commercial jetliner now operating in the U.S. For my ears, the 10010 didn’t seem to diminish the low-frequency hum of the engines quite as well as the i7 did, but still, it was a lot better than subjecting my naked ears to the MD-80’s cabin noise.

The comfort, though, was a step down from the NoiseHush i7, and a big step down from Bose. After about 30 minutes, I started to feel the left earpiece mashing my pinna, and I couldn’t last an hour with the 10010 on. Turns out the foam on the 10010’s ear pads is stiffer than that used on the Bose and NoiseHush headphones. However, my large ears don’t fit entirely inside the 10010’s earcups; those with smaller ears (i.e., most people) will probably get better results.

I noticed right away that the 10010 has below-average sensitivity. Cranking my iPod touch all the way up gave me just a reasonably loud volume on the plane with noise cancelling on, and not enough volume with noise cancelling off. One nice thing is that the sound is pretty much the same with NC on or off. We’ve tried $500 noise-cancelling headphones that couldn’t do this.

So how’s the 10010 compare to the i7? It depends … on a lot of things. Sitting in the MD-80, the big difference I heard was in the sensitivity—i.e., the 10010 just barely played loud enough for me, while the i7 had volume to spare. Not a problem on dynamically compressed material like the Rick Rubin-produced ZZ Top tune “Chartreuse,” where the 10010’s strong bass gave it more oomph than the i7 could muster. In fact, on tunes with compressed dynamics, the 10010s’ fatter sound gave it the advantage. But on tunes that weren’t mastered for max volume, such as Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days,” the 10010 didn’t let me get into the music—not when I was on the plane, anyway.

At home, the 10010 improved, giving me a satisfying tonal balance with a welcome boost in the bass relative to the i7. In this quieter environment, it’s harder to choose among these two headphones. The i7 in passive mode has a flatter tonal balance and a more audiophile-approved sound, but the 10010 is more fun to listen to. Neither has a particularly smooth or sophisticated treble, but neither has the nasty, raspy treble usually associated with inexpensive headphones. At home, I preferred the 10010 in passive mode, in which it sounds like a decent $100 headphone, and I enjoyed listening to it with all sorts of material. In NC mode, in the quiet environment of my home, the mids sounded somewhat sucked-out and the tonal balance seemed artificial and colored.

I asked frequent West Coast headphone listening panelist Will Huff to give the 10010 a spin at my house, and as with the i7, he came away unimpressed. “No matter if it’s in NC or passive mode, the imaging is weak and it seems to blur the sound. To me, this is a novelty, something you buy only if you really want noise cancelling and really don’t want to spend a lot of money.”

Measurements

I measured the technical performance of the 10010 using a G.R.A.S. 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. Measurements were calibrated for ear reference point (ERP), roughly the point in space where your palm intersects with the axis of your ear canal when you press your hand against your ear. I experimented with the position of the earpads by moving them around slightly on the ear/cheek simulator, and settled on the positions that gave the best bass response and the most characteristic result overall.

The measurements suggest show a pretty flat frequency response, with slight emphasis at 1, 5.8, and 8.5 kHz. Response is admirably similar in NC and passive modes. The most notable feature is the bass roll-off in the right channel. I’m always skeptical of my own measurements because they’re so dependent on the fit of the earpads on the simulator; moving an earpad just enough to introduce a sound leak can radically change the measurement. Still, the measurements you see here are the result of many attempts to get the best bass response from the 10010. Perhaps the volume taken up by the battery on the right earpiece changes the response. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp has no effect with NC on but a significant effect in passive mode, boosting bass by typically +2.5 to +3 dB and cutting treble a like amount.

The spectral decay plot shows a strong resonance at 1.3 kHz (this measurement taken in NC mode); this is not reflected in the frequency response measurements but does seem to be mirrored somewhat in the distortion measurement.

With NC off, isolation is excellent for a pair of over-ear headphones: -17 dB at 1 kHz, and typically -20 to -30 at higher frequencies. The effects of the NC circuit, though, are modest: -5 dB at 100 Hz, -10 to -15 dB from 150 to 500 Hz.

Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is modest in passive mode: 1% to 3% in the midrange, and about 3% below 70 Hz. But in NC mode, THD is very high in the midrange: above 10% for most of the range between 1 and 3.3 kHz. This measurement is taken at loud levels, but still, it’s rare for me to measure distortion this high.

Impedance is pretty much flat in NC mode, averaging 300 ohms, but changes a lot in passive mode, dropping from 190 ohms in the bass to a low of 30 ohms in the treble. That’s one of the biggest shifts I’ve measured, and the reason the response in passive mode varies so much with output impedance of the source device. Average sensitivity from 300 Hz to 6 kHz at the rated 32 ohms is 94.5 dB with NC off, 99.4 dB with NC on.

Bottom Line

While I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the NoiseHush i7 for those seeking a good ~$100 NC headphone, the 10010 carries caveats. It definitely looks cool, and it sounds pretty good overall for the price. But it may not be sensitive enough for many listeners, and it may not be comfortable enough for those with large ears.

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