Unzipping the hard case to check out Audio Technica’s new ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint headphones, you expect no less bang for buck performance and value from the Japanese audio company’s latest version of its excellent noise cancelling cans.
It has been almost five years since the impressive ATH-ANC7 arrived on scene to spoil the party for more expensive rivals (Bose, take note) and Audio-Technica followed it up a couple of years later with a slightly updated ATH-ANC7b.
The ATH-ANC9 that has just been released doesn’t rock the boat as far as the looks or sound go, but it comes with a number of enhancements like better noise cancellation. Oh, there’s also the obligatory microphone for the iPhone crowd to make their calls.
Yet, the most impressive part of the package, surely, is still the sound. Hearing this and comparing it with other noise cancelling headphones, you remember why you are buying headphones for – the music, not the fancy features.
For starters, there is none of that upmixed and bloated bass you’d expect from lesser headphones promising to “enhance” your music. The 40mm drivers in these cans push out the bass nice and tight, and punch quite above their weight.
Fire up something bass heavy from John Legend’s Evolver album, for example, and you’d find there’s nothing overplayed. Even some of New Order’s old tracks will have you tapping your feet – or fingers – because none of the beat is forced and muddled.
Sure, the bass extension can be better, but these are after all portable headphones you’d bring on a plane or train, not pure audiophile cans you’d drive with an external amplifier, so I certainly don’t expect low, low rumbling bass.
I’m also impressed with the way the ATH-ANC9 presents vocals. In jazz and bossa nova pieces, say, in Stacey Kent’s albums, the female vocals are front and centre, without any added colour. There is no added shine, only what’s already there. Indeed, there is a fullness that has just enough warmth, but not too much.
Even more captivating is Tanya Chua’s live acoustic album My Space. The detail is uncanny here, and you clearly hear the Singapore singer drawing breath quickly each time as she delivers on the slower ballads to the accompaniment of the unplugged set.
The good news is the ATH-ANC9 has retained a lot of the sound characteristics of its predecessors, and that is enough reason to check out these S$358 cans, which are no more expensive than previous QuietPoint models. This means, as before, the ATH-ANC9 sounds better than many rivals costing a lot more.
The one thing that users might have a problem with is the sound leakage. It was an issue previously with the ATH-ANC7b, and with the new ATH-ANC9, you may also be telling others what you’re listening to if you turn up the volume a little.
It’s not as loud as teenagers playing their music on their phone speakers on the train, but if you sit close enough, say, on a plane, you can hear what the next guy wearing the Audio Technica is listening to.
That’s probably not an issue for everyone, since open-back headphones are so common these days, but if you are concerned, you might want to check out exactly how loud the leakage can be before buying the headphones.
What I do like, though, is that the Audio Technica headphones’ sound is not trapped in each ear. Instead, there is an imaginary sound stage somewhere between your ears, well, in your head. In many ways, that helps prevent fatigue even after hours of listening, as much as the comfortable all-round cushions on the headphones.
The memory foam used by Audio Technica is one of the best I’ve used and after hours of listening, I don’t feel my ears or head sweating or being numb, despite putting them on in hot and humid Singapore.
That would be a nice thing to know for travellers, who will also find the 220-gram unit easily portable, thanks to the original QuietPoint foldable design. This lets you quickly pack away the headphones along with accessories, like the assorted audio adapters, that are included in the package.
What of the touted new features, like the 30dB or 95 per cent noise cancellation that promises to be an improvement over the previous 85 per cent? I can say the noise cancellation is really useful because it takes out most of the noise when the music is playing. I can’t even hear myself typing when I turn on the music and have the noise cancellation on.
What I’m not so sure about is the three noise cancelling modes that Audio Technica touts here. A button on the left ear cup lets you change from each mode, which promises to work well 1) in noisy planes and trains 2) in offices and indoors 3) in relatively quiet places like libraries. To be honest, I can’t hear that much difference while switching between each mode.
Not that that’s bad, because generally, the active noise cancelling does work very well, together with the ear cups which on their own keep out a lot of the ambient noise.
If there’s one thing to note, it’s that the sound is muffled once you turn off the active noise cancelling. That was the same experience I had with the previous ATH-ANC7b and the same can be said here. Sure, Audio Technica says that that the headphones will still work if you run out juice on the AAA-sized battery, but you will notice that the clarity is degraded.
Fortunately, that’s not a deal breaker, because each battery will last you hours. What impresses the most, besides the added bells and whistles, is that Audio Technica has retained the same audio quality that you’ve come to like about its QuietPoint headphones.
The microphone and added iPhone controls will delight Apple users, as will the more highly-rated active noise cancelling. But all the original attributes – the great sound, the portability and solid build – will help make the ATH-ANC9 another firm favourite for travellers looking for a pair of well-made cans. It helps that the price has remained roughly the same at S$358 in Singapore.