Sony MDR-NC11 Noise-Canceling Earbuds

One of the most mortifying moments of my life came when I realized I’d lost my Sony MDR-NC10 noise-canceling earbuds. Well, I didn’t exactly lose them—what I lost was one of the rubber earpieces. I was ransacking the front pockets of my Levis in the men’s room of the Dallas airport and the friction of dragging out the earbuds must have dislodged the precious morsel of rubber. That effectively exiled the MDR-NC10 to my useless-gear drawer. Living without them was so impossible that I broke down and bought the successor model, the MDR-NC11.

One hundred bucks may seem a lot to pay for a pair of earbuds. But these aren’t just any earbuds. They combine the not inconsiderable benefits of noise cancellation, which can make a nasty flight more tolerable, with the pocket-friendly convenience of earbuds. Of course, shoving them in a pocket is what lost me that critical earpiece—you’d be better off using the supplied soft case and stow the buds in your carry-on.

Sony claims 10 decibels of nose reduction. It works mostly in the lower midrange and upper bass region, where it is quite effective at canceling out the dull roar of jet plane turbines. Bose claims 17 dB for its category-leading QuietComfort headphones, but those are bulky full-sized cans. In practice, it’s much easier to carry the earbuds.

Spec sheets for the current MDR-NC11 and outgoing MDR-NC10 reveal a few differences. The most important one is that the new model has 9 millimeter drive units, as opposed to the larger 13.5 mm of the older one. That results in lighter-weight bass. Sensitivity has increased to 106-dB (with power on) from the former 102 dB, providing greater volume potential. While the unit still runs on a single AAA battery, battery life has decreased from 60 to 40 hours (with an alkaline battery).

Rated frequency response is the same, at 10 to 22,000 hertz, though the prospect of earbuds performing at 10 Hz is ludicrous. Regardless, both models sound excellent by earbud standards, with a pleasant lower-midrange emphasis that mitigates harshness in cheap portable signal sources but doesn’t go too far.

One significant innovation of the new model is extra earpads. The MDR-NC10 had only one set; the MDR-NC11 provides three in varying sizes. Assuming only one size fits a given user, that doesn’t cover you in event of loss, but it does assure that you’ll get a pretty good fit, with three options available.

The old model did have one feature absent from the new one—a large button on the control unit that, when pressed, muted the volume and turned off the noise cancellation. I always thought of it as the flight-attendant button, since I used it most often when ordering glasses of sparkling water. The new unit has only a power button, volume control, and a supplied plug adapter. It passes a signal whether power is on or off—switching it on engages the noise-cancellation circuit and boosts volume by a couple of decibels.

I miss my old MDR-NC10 but I don’t regret buying the MDR-NC11. There are times when I just don’t feel inclined to put a big pair of headphones into my luggage. In that situation, I’ll always be happy to carry these good-sounding and well-designed buds.

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Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. For links to the latest edition, visit