I travel for work quite a lot and have for the better part of the past 10 years. I remember when I first started flying in the mid-90s, I tried some of the Panasonic noise cancelling headphones and they colored the sound too much. With the advent of affordable in ear headphones, I’ve been fairly satisfied. Some have been better at isolating the airplane noise than others, largely due to fit and seal. Here’s a brief rundown of what I’ve actively used (not counting things I never took on the road and hated, like the Grado GR8).
- Etymotic ER-4 – A classic, but not always the most comfortable or well made in ear. After two pairs (one of which was stolen), I was over it. Plus, it’s a bit bass shy.
- Westone ES2 (custom) – Nice double driver design that definitely had great isolation, but the tip on one ear just fell apart a little after the warranty period. I won’t do customs again. I’d rather be able to get new tips than re-order a $700 pair of IEMs. The other thing about the ES2s is that they are very accurate, but I wouldn’t say “musical”. I wouldn’t mind them as a gigging musician as they are great for that, but in terms of casual listening, a bit too clinical of a presentation for my liking.
- Sony MDR-EX700 – I looked at a bunch of reviews here and took the plunge, but the only words I would describe for these would be “muffled” and “not detailed”. I was disappointed by these.
- Sennheiser IE8 – Definitely more detailed with good bass. I did like this one for awhile, but I always felt something was not quite right.
- Final Audio Design 1601SB – See my other thread on this. Love them. Still do. No real complaints in terms of sound quality, but they are definitely a love ‘em or hate ‘em proposition.
So that brings me to my new purchase: the MDR-NC300D. If I’ve got the FADs, why bother?
While I happen to get a decent seal and the FADs fit my ear, they’re not the most comfortable in ears for long periods of time mainly due to the weight, and there’s still leakage. I tend to sit in exit rows which are right over the engines. I’m not one to want to crank the volume just to drown things out. As a musician who also uses musician’s ear plugs when I play in loud situations (or just attending a rock show), I’d like to preserve some hearing for when I’m old.
On a flight back home a few months back, I tried the Bose noise cancelling headphones they handed out with the video player. Since I had my FADs with me, I figured I’d do a quick comparison since I didn’t have to pay for trying them. They were pretty bad in terms of sound quality – like the Panasonics, they took too much away from the sound. Plus, they are too big and bulky. I don’t know why people like them. Did they block the noise? Yes, but at what cost?
After the EX700, I was a bit skiddish, but I figured Sony would have to tweak it a bit – maybe for the better. I also had tried the MDR-NC600D (the newer full-sized noise cancelling headphone introduced at the same time as the NC300D) when I was in Japan at the Sony showroom in Ginza last December. They had it paired with an X1060 (which I have), and it sounded pretty decent. Much better than the Bose going off of memory. Too big for me, but I made a mental note.
On that same trip which yielded the 1601SBs, auditioning the NC300Ds (along with a few others like the Ortofon e-Q7) was actually on my agenda. I never got around to it.
Enough rambling … so what do I think of these? Read on and find out. I wrote this review over the course of two flights (Seattle to Boston, and Boston to Los Angeles) to give me plenty of time to not make a quick judgement.
Sony claims 98.4% of the sound you don’t want is dealt with and I have to say, they’re pretty spot on. They cut a lot of the unwanted noise out. You can hear the engines a tiny bit, but it’s not intruding on the sound at all.
There are three noise cancelling modes:
- A for airplanes
- B for buses or trains;
- C for office/computer environments.
You cannot select the mode yourself; the unit/earphone combo selects it for you. It selected A on the plane and C when I was in an office, so I’d say Sony does a pretty good job at intelligently figuring things out. On the end of the earphone are some microphones which serve a dual purpose: the noise cancelling stuff, and what I find to be a useful feature: monitoring. On the unit there is a Monitor button that when pushed, it stops the music and you can hear the announcements or a conversation. Disengaging it puts it right back to the music. You can tweak the noise cancelling if you don’t like the default settings for A, B, or C, though with use of the NC Optimize button.
Let’s dispense with the reality: the NC300D is a completely different beast than the 1601SB. They’re not as open (read the thread linked above for impressions from people who have heard them – they are arguably as close to cans as you’re going to get from an in ear for that “space”). But because of the design and seal, to effectively drown out some of the airplane noise you have to crank the volume more and you can still hear the roar of the engines.
I haven’t listened to the EX700s in a long time, and I’m sure the NC300D has a somewhat similar sound signature, but I’m liking the sound better than the EX700 from memory. The 1601SB is definitely a bit more detailed, but I think the S-Master amp which is in the processing unit has something to do with the improved sound. There’s a decent amount of bass and treble, although I’d say the highs are a tad smeared in comparison to the 1601SB.
There are two sound modes you can enable on the NC300D: Bass and Movie. Bass obviously boosts the low frequencies, and Movie is enhanced for watching movies. Both are do what they are intended to do. You do not have to engage them if you don’t want to. I tried the Movie mode on the flight from Seattle to Boston for a bit, and had no complaints.
Actually, these have solved an issue I was having with the NW-A847 which I also bought in Japan back in December. I’ve publicly talked about how there is a difference between the X and A with the S-Master, and that I slightly preferred the X, but wanted the capacity of the A, so I figured out some EQ settings I could live with on the A. I can now put the EQ to flat on the A847 and just engage Bass mode to get what I wanted.
There’s no question here – the NC300D is a very comfortable in ear. My ears are adjusting to them (in a positive way) for longer trips. On this second trip to LA, I fell asleep with them in and one didn’t wind up on my lap (those of you who own a 1601 of any variety know what I mean).
One of the things I like most about the design of the NC300D is the short right angle plug. The 1601SB is just straight and longer, and I’ve accidentally yanked it out of my player. That’s not happening here.
Microphonics are also much better than the 1601SB. Moving your head or any kind of normal movement against the cord won’t really make much if any noise. You have to grab it and really start rubbing. The 1601SB – well, this was never its strong suit.
It’s not all sunshine and roses with the NC300D. How volume works is a bit counter intuitive to a degree. I’m assuming because of the S-Master amp, it’s got its own volume rocker (up to 20). Combine that with the volume in the player, and if you have the S-Master in the NC-300D at 20, you still have to crank the volume on the unit to get the same volume you would if you just plugged the 1601SBs in directly. It’s just weird.
While the in ear part is comfortable, I wish some of the other ergonomics were better. The unit doing the noise cancelling isn’t huge, but it’s not insignificant, either. I do like the fact that Sony gives you a little belt-clip thing to put in it. The cord going from the unit to the earplugs is quite long; I’d say too long. Sony does include a cord winder to compensate. I also hate how Sony had the left earplug on a shorter cord than the right one. Why not be normal and have equal lengths for both sides?
I also wish Sony had been able to make the whole thing more “modular”. Let me explain: you have the noise cancelling unit, and out of that comes the earphones and a cord which you plug into your player. I would have preferred the unit with one input and one output. It’s certainly possible; the noise cancelling functionality of the X and A players only works with certain headphones plugged in, so why not do that here? It would remove the hump on one side of the unit, and make it easier to pack. I’m also thinking it’d be better if one of those two cords broke: in this case, everything needs to be fixed. I don’t think that will happen, but just raising the possibility.
Last, but not least, you can’t use the NC300D if the battery is dead. I haven’t experienced this yet (in fact, the battery level is about the same well into my second flight), but I can see the pros and cons of this: it’s designed to work as a unit. If Sony had gone more modular as I talk about, maybe it would be possible. If these are going to be your main in ears, you may rack up a bill for AA batteries (the noise cancelling unit takes a single one) if you listen a lot. Since I basically only use these on trips, it’s not going to be a deal breaker.
The MDR-NC300D is not cheap. It lists at $300 US, but can easily be found for about $200. I wanted some instant gratification to use them on the ride back home from Seattle, so I purchased them at the Sony Style store in Seattle for 25% off.
Is the NC300D the best sounding in ear ever? No, bit it is good and definitely IMO a step up from the EX700. Then again, is there a true "best"? I mean, everyone has different tastes, needs, and price points they are willing to accept/can afford. What it does do is a very good job at balancing noise cancellation and sound quality. They are very comfortable to wear, which is really important for longer haul trips, and do cut out a lot of the noise so you can just enjoy the music or the movie. And that’s really the point, isn’t it?