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Sony MDR-NC500D Noise Canceling Headphones

Just about everybody agrees that noise is bad not only to your hearing, but to your general well-being too. Undue noise increases stress and blood pressure, decreases focus, productivity and IQ (short-term memory stores its stuff as sound!), and is just downright irritating. But still, few of us have the luxury of quiet working or commuting environment. Open office, screaming people and noisy trains is the reality, difficult to avoid.

I’m a computer programmer, and writing code is about juggling lots of little details in your brain, a constant struggle against distraction. And I work in a noisy open office environment and spend about an hour per day in a commuter train. Not good.

It would be possible to wear ordinary hearing protectors. But such things are uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time, and they look pretty ridiculous outside their natural environment. Besides, they don’t attenuate low frequencies well, so instead of down-scaled noise you’ll be listening to muffled low hum. Not a solution, really. The same applies to earplugs.

Another approach is noise-canceling headphones. Instead of trying to insulate noise, they try to reproduce the very same noise in reversed phase, so that the sounds would cancel each other out. Recently I purchased Sony MDR-NC500D Noise Canceling headphones.

Simply put, they’re the best thing that I’ve ever bought.

Build quality and comfort

The build quality is excellent. The critical parts are made of magnesium, and the headphones feel robust despite being reasonably light. They’re quite comfortable to wear for hours. The cord is detachable so it’s also possible to use these just like ordinary hearing protectors.

Noise canceling properties

These headphones produce silence. Has to be heard to be believed.

They’re most effective at attenuating static low- and midrange rumble from sources such as trains, cars, printers or air conditioning. It’s hard to describe, somehow you hear everything almost as well as before if you listen, but the sound doesn’t draw your attention any more if you don’t want to. The outside sounds lose 90 % of their power and obstructiveness.

It’s not until I’ve used these for a few train trips that I realize how damn loud those things are—not to even mention aeroplanes. It’s ridiculous. Now I actually hear my own thoughts. It’s possible to read. I don’t get tired. The psychological effect is amazing.

I’ll never travel without these headphones any more.

Sound quality

We’re talking about headphones, and you can listen music with them. So what about the sound quality? Well, overall, it is good. However, should we want to be critical, then:

  • There’s some dynamic weirdness (pumping?)
  • The sound is (very) slightly distorted.
  • The overall tone is a bit cold and feeble, lacking in details and richness.
  • There’s a (very) slight backround noise (hiss).
  • The phones pick up GSM noise way too well.

However, all the above complaints are minor, and (apart from the GSM noise) they only become apparent when listening to acoustic music in a silent environment. Even then, the sound is pretty pleasant. But most importantly, these headphones bring the experience of listening to music in non-silence (i.e. in the real world) to a quite new level; it’s not only bearable, it can actually be quite enjoyable.

Other things and conclusion

There’s just one bigger issue. These headphones, naturally, require electricity. They contain an internal battery. But for some inexplainable reason Sony doesn’t provide an adapter to the ubiquitous small-power supply of today, the USB port. The only way to charge the headphones is to use the wall wart that comes with them. Aargh! Luckily the internal battery lasts for quite a few hours, but still… I’ll probably tinker some work-around for this soon.

We can’t escape noise. We can’t insulate it. But we can cancel it!

Last modified: 2010-01-26 16:16 +0200

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