Prior to a recent plane trip, I decided I was going to finally pack light. So, not only did this mean leaving out all of the nice‑to‑have items, it also meant that my big bulky noise cancelling headphones were not going to be taking up the bulk of my personal carry-on space. However, I still needed something for use with my tablet on the plane and this resulted in a search for something small, lightweight, and just as importantly, something which still provided the noise cancelling capabilities of my old headphones.
Noise cancelling headphone technology has been around for a while, but it was only when I decided to turf my headphones that I stumbled across noise cancelling ear buds. After a bit of research, I discovered, albeit disappointingly, that there were really only two primary contenders. The first was the Bose Quiet Comfort ear buds which had awesome reviews but an absurd price tag of around $300. The second was a low‑cost offering from Sony going by the name of MDR-NC13, which was retailing for around $50 but was getting very mixed reviews.
Since a pair of $300 ear buds was out of the question, this meant that my research became focused on reviews of Sony`s offering in hopes that I could gather enough confidence to try them out. At one of the spectrum were the rave reviews which boasted that the headphones performed as expected, offering great value for the price, while acknowledging that more expensive offerings like that from Bose would obviously be superior. At the other end were the reviews saying that the ear buds did not deliver as expected, with many reviewers citing that noise cancelling was virtually non existent.
However, with enough rave reviews I decided to bite the bullet and try out the Sony ear buds. Unfortunately, not only did the negative reviews make the initial purchase a bit nerve racking but so too did the store`s return policy which would not accept returns on “hygienic” items that had been opened, which includes in-ear ear buds. So be ready for such a return, or non‑return policy I should say, when making this purchase as this is common with many stores.
With the purchase a done deal, I was fully committed to the product. Unboxing the product unveiled a well‑made set of ear buds along with three sizes of rubber inserts which, as I’ll discuss later, play an important role in noise cancelling. Also included was a clip which allow the wires to be held against a shirt collar and can be used to coil up excess wire, as well as a small cloth travel pouch for keeping it all together, along with a twin‑prong adaptor for using the ear buds with the typical twin‑prong audio plugs found on airplanes.
The unit requires one AAA battery which is used in a small processing unit to perform the noise cancelling. The processing unit has an on/off switch allowing you to turn off noise cancelling when not required. And according to what I’ve read, it will default to non‑noise cancelling mode should the battery die, allowing you to continue listening.
The real test however was on the plane trip. With my desire to reduce engine and cabin noise I was immediately and pleasantly surprised by the performance of the ear buds.
A lot of the positive reviews had indicated that the product cancelled noise well, but required that the proper size rubber inserts be installed on the unit based on the size of the listeners ear canal opening. I could immediately see why, as these rubber inserts make the ear buds act like ear plugs to block out the majority of the noise, so if you purchase this product be sure to spend some time selecting the correct inserts.
Installing the rubber inserts is relatively straight forward, but does require some finesse to twist them on. Once installed, you’ll also need to spend some time fitting the units into your ear as directed. Their overall comfort level was fairly good, but any unit which gets inserted into the ear will eventually cause a bit of fatigue.
The other half of the noise cancelling equation comes from the processor itself. After turning the switch to on and waiting through the half second or so delay, I could immediately hear most of the ambient engine and cabin noise disappear. To say that it was completely eliminated would be an overstatement, but it was more than sufficient for comfortable listening. If you really must have a number of some sort, I would say noise was cancelled by %60-%70, though I’m sure this others could debate this figure up or down.
The one major issue I did find, which may or may not have been caused by the ear buds, was that I could not get both the left and right ear buds to work correctly with the audio outputs on Air Canada’s Boeing 777.
After plugging in the unit with the twin‑prong adaptor, the left ear would cut out completely after a few seconds. I also tried it without the twin‑prong adaptor, and got the same result. Thinking this was perhaps just a bad audio port at that seat, I tried again on the return flight in a different seat and got the same result yet again. I hadn’t read about this in any of the reviews, so it’s possibly that I was dealt bad seats, or perhaps have a defective product, but it’s definitely something to watch out for if you’re planning on using them for travelling.
All in all however, I found the Sony MDR-NC13 noise cancelling ear buds performed as advertised and offered excellent value for the price. Would you get better sound quality and noise cancelling from the Bose or another more expensive option? Almost certainly yes. But if you just have the occasional need for noise cancelling, such as with infrequent travelling, and aren’t an audiophile with an ear for minor imperfections, then Sony’s $50 offering is a great way to go. Just be sure to select the correct ear bud, and spend some time fitting the unit as directed and you should get great results.