Previous iterations of Able Planet's Clear Harmony noise canceling headphone line could easily be mistaken for a pair of Bose headphones if you blurred your eyes. Bose's active noise cancellation, most recently used in the QuietComfort 15 ($299.95, 4 stars), is something of an industry standard, partially because Bose made the first ever consumer-level noise canceling headphones, and also because noise cancellation technology is already good, so making improvements is slow and subtle. Thus, a three year-old Bose headphone pair is still an excellent noise canceling option?but others are catching up. Able Planet's latest noise canceling headphones, the Clear Harmony NC1050, at $349 (direct), are priced to compete with the Bose QC15 and QuietComfort 3 ($349, 4 stars). While its noise cancellation performance is not quite as top-notch as Bose's, the NC1050 definitely wins the battle in another very important category: audio performance.
Not much separates the NC1050?visually?from the overcrowded field of Bose competitors. Able Planet ditched the typical chrome and brushed metal accents, opting instead for a matte black design with some nice carbon fiber trim on the ear cups. (Able Planet also offers the NC1150?identical in audio performance and price, but with a glossy black finish instead.) The headband and earcups are luxuriously cushioned and quite comfortable. On a recent five hour flight, I wore the NC1050 for the duration and forgot I had the headphones on.
The right earcup houses the AAA battery compartment and the power control switch. This is also where the detachable audio cable connects to the headphones. The cable has a rather bulky in-line volume control pod?for its size, you'd hope for iPhone playback controls, but you'll only find a volume dial here. (Since it's detachable, however, you can opt to upgrade to an Able Planet "Made for iPhone" cable.) The NC1050 ships with a black, zip-up hard case, an airline jack adapter, a ?-inch adapter for larger headphone jacks, a detachable audio cable, and two AAA batteries.
Unlike Bose's Quiet Comfort line, the NC1050 works in passive mode, when the noise cancellation is not engaged, so you can listen to audio without draining the battery. This is a nice advantage over Bose, but most noise cancellation options these days have this feature, such as the Sony MDR-NC200D Digital Noise Canceling Headphones ($199, 3 stars), so it's not really a unique advantage. As with most models that play passively and actively, the audio sounds more powerful, with better bass response and a higher overall volume level in active mode. In passive mode, however, the NC1050 still sounds quite good, it just lacks the punch provided by the batteries.
On songs with deep bass, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the NC1050 does not distort in passive or active listening modes, not even at top volume. This is to be expected from a $350 pair of headphones, but it's impressive because Able Planet does not employ any of the digital signal processing you'll often find in headphones like the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones ($299.95, 4.5 stars). Digital signal processing is a way for manufacturers to dynamically "limit" lower frequencies that threaten to distort. Audiophiles tend to dislike such tinkering with the purity of the audio signal, but will have little to thumb their noses at with the NC1050, as Able Planet manages to provide very deep bass response without any distortion and without employing digital signal processing.
Even better, beyond the clean bass response, the NC1050 sounds very clear in the mids and highs, and the bass, while intense, never feels like an over-the-top enhancement of the audio. Rather, it sounds as if there's a well-tuned subwoofer in the mix. Instrumental pieces, like John Adams "The Chairman Dances," get a nice bit of low-end presence on larger percussion hits and lower-register strings. Bill Callahan's unique baritone vocals are delivered with a crispness and a resonance that make them stand out on his latest record, "Apocalypse," while the drums underneath his voice in the mix sound almost thunderous. In short, the NC1050 sounds intense and articulate. Audiophiles may still not get on-board with the boosted bass, but in the noise-cancellation field, there are few models that offer tremendous sound performance without exceeding this price point.
The noise cancellation works quite well, too. On the plane, it eliminated much of the drone of the engines, and in other environments, it capably reduced the overall ambient distractions. Bose's noise cancellation circuitry still seems a bit quieter than the NC1050's, which can occasionally seem like it's adding a bit of subtle, high-end hiss?not unlike what you'd hear on an old cassette tape?to the mix. Generally speaking, however, the NC1050 is a strong noise-cancellation option, and when you factor in its strong audio performance, it becomes an intriguing competitor to the Quiet Comfort 15.
If both the Bose and Able Planet options are out of your budget, perhaps consider the Phiaton PS 20 NC ($149, 4 stars). It's an in-ear option, which may not appeal to everyone, and its noise-cancellation performance is not really on the same level as the NC1050 or the QC15, but for the price, it offers reasonably good cancellation?and some extra passive isolation because of the secure in-ear fit. Paired with its quality audio performance, the PS 20 NC is probably the best budget noise-canceling option. If your budget allows, though, the NC1050's audio performance makes it worthy of your consideration if you're looking to dampen the din around you.
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