If you take a peek at some of what I've written here (including things like reviews of other headphones) over the years, I travel. A lot. I'm sure some of you do it more. I used IEMs (customs, noise cancelling, stock, esoteric ... you get the idea) for years going back to the ER-4P. My current favorite is still the MDR-7550. That said, over the past year or so, I've been doing many more longer haul flights where IEMs - no matter what tip - just get uncomfortable. This is after years of using them on the road.
I've been on the hunt for a decent sounding pair of noise cancelling over ear headphones that balanced the following: size, weight, sound quality, and noise cancelling. Until recently I've been using the Sony NW-Z1070. I recently switched to the NW-F807. Shortly after getting the 1070, I purchased the MDR-NWNC200, which is the Walkman-specific version of the MDR-NC200D I believe. As far as I know, you can't get them outside of Japan in a store, but they can be had via eBay or importers. They don't have a battery and only work with the noise cancelling function in the Walkman.
The NWNC200 was OK and more comfortable than IEMs for longer periods of time, but I was on the hunt for something better. I was looking at everything from the P5 to the PSB M4U 2 and everything inbetween. The new Denon looked intriguing, but they lost me at 10 hours of battery life. The K490NC got good reviews (and arguably better ones than its sibling the K495NC) and seemed to strike a good balance. After a few months, I found myself wandering again. Enter the MDR-1RNC. I'm in the midst of a trip to Australia and Japan, so I have plenty of long plane flights. I picked up the 1RNC down here in Australia for cheaper than the US plus I got the 10% GST back, so I figured what the hell. I also have the K490 and NWNC200 with me, so now is as good a time to do a comparison. You may argue with me, but I’m not a big believer in break-in periods. They sound good out of the box or they don’t to my ears.
Size, Weight, and Portability
The winner here is the AKG K490NC. They are the smallest, about the same weight as the NWNC200, and come with a nice small neoprene bag to put the K490 in. The NWNC200 is second. They fold up fine and are just slightly bigger than the K490, but I am not in love with the case (pleather semi-hard). Then we have the MDR-1RNC. Compared to the other two, these are big. The case is big ... and very similar to the one for the NWNC200. Not a fan of the cases Sony provides. Unlike the NWNC200 and the K490 where the can parts essentially fold in towards the headpiece, the 1RNC basically becomes flat. So from a portability factor, the 1RNC is definitely not very if you ask me. It takes up a lot of room and I like to travel light, but if the sound quality is there, it may not matter. We’ll see.
In the cases
Side by side comparison - flat
Side by side comparison - from the side
I think the K490 is very comfortable on my ears, but I'm not sure they'd work for everyone. The cans don't fit over the years (like the 1RNC). They sit on, so finding the right placement will be important for you. That said, no matter where they sit they are nice and cushy. I've worn these on flights all around the US, to Europe, and down to Australia with no issues like I have with other things like IEMs. They feel light on the head, but don't take that to mean so light they will slip or feel chintzy. This is the best part of the K490. I can wear these for long periods of time even without listening to anything and they are not fatiguing. Sometimes I forget they are there – and that’s a good thing.
I’ve read a few reviews where the 1R series didn’t fit some people’s ears. I have no issues with the 1RNC. As I’m typing this, I’ve been wearing them for just under 5 hours on a flight from Sydney to Australia. They are comfortable to me, but I can still see why I feel something like the K490 could arguably be a better choice since it sits on the ear but not around it. I do feel a little warmth where the seal is, but not an uncomfortable one. While definitely bigger than the K490, they don’t feel heavy on the head or the ears. I think Sony’s headband design is a good one.
The NWNC200 is the least comfortable of the bunch. For me, it’s literally the size/shape of my ear and has never felt wonderful on longer haul trips. And unlike the headband design of the 1RNC, it feels heavy on the head even though it is a much lighter can. The headband has a weird slight tilt forward on the head, too.
Driving the Cans
The F807 drives the K490NC easily. I would think most sources could easily use this and not sweat too much.
While the F807 drives the 1RNC just fine, I need to crank the volume a bit more to get the same level on the 1RNC as compared to the K490. Take that for what it's worth.
The F807 easily drives the NWNC200, if not a touch easier than the K490. Not surprising.
Sound Quality – Airplane (With Noise Cancelling)
The NC feature is good, but in comparison to the 1RNC, you hear some engine and low rumble. It’s much better than not having them on. There is some bass, but not a metric ton of it. While not as good as it, the sonic signature is much more neutral than either of the other two I am comparing here. The soundstage is not very wide, but also not claustrophobic either. I tend to like something a bit wider. Watching a movie, the sound quality is good enough here.
For the time I’ve used the K490, I find it’s pretty balanced top to bottom. Highs are not shrill. You get bass, and for example, on Rush’s “Spirit of Radio” from the live album Exit … Stage Left, you can hear the Taurus pedals clearly, so sub-bass can happen. I find where they sit on my ear definitely influences how much bass – or not – I get. Listening to Phil Collins’ tune “I Cannot Believe It’s True” (from Hello, I Must Be Going!), the snare drum sounds pretty natural but the issue is more the cymbals – they sound a bit off. I like the way the horns sound, so it’s got a bit of mids going on – warm in the right way. “Have You Met Miss Jones” (The Great Jazz Trio – July 5th) is OK, but the smaller soundstage makes things seem a bit claustrophobic and the piano sounds somewhat boxy. There is not much bass, so trying to make out what John Patitucci is playing is a bit harder without Eqing. You can hear him, but the sound isn’t balanced. You hear mainly ride cymbal and piano.dominating. To round out the comparison, I listened to Arthur Rubenstein’s Selections from the Chopin collection. The piano sounds better than on the Great Jazz Trio, but it lacks an overall 88 key end-to-end balance. The soundstage doesn’t help.
There is no question – the 1RNC has more bass. I do like the soundstage as well – wide, but not too wide; there’s nice stereo separation. It’s not bass heavy at all and of course it is a bit of a colored sound, If you want neutral, these are not your cans. I’ve already watched two movies and they work in that context just fine.
When not playing any music or movies, yes there is a bit of hiss. I’ve heard the Bose (albeit a long time ago) and I don’t remember their NC signature. Maybe it is better, but I’m literally sitting right over the wing and the engines are right here. If you turn off the NC and/or take off the headphones, clearly you’re going to hear the low rumble. That goes away with NC on, which is what it is supposed to do.
In comparison to the K490 when it comes to music, things are definitely detailed and you can feel the bass much more on a song like the aforementioned “Spirit of Radio”. The bass is not bloated, and that’s a good thing. The top end is much more digital sounding and less natural than the K490 – no question about it. The glockenspiel part in “Spirit" pops right out at you. That is most likely due to the S-Master amp in the headphones. On “I Can’t Believe It’s True” the upper range is where the possible issue is depending on what you like. The snare drum doesn’t really sound as natural as the K490 and the horns sound thinner, but the cymbals sound better. If you use the EQ on the F807, that can all be for the most part smoothed out, which is a good thing – the sound signature can be altered to your taste (within limitations of the source material and your hardware, of course). I didn’t feel like I lost any of the sound or detail by EQing. This tells me that the 1RNC definitely resolves more and is more accurate even though the sound spectrum may be more even than the K490. “Have You Met Miss Jones” (The Great Jazz Trio – July 5th) has the right balance for a jazz trio of bass, drums, piano, but the ride cymbal just sounds a bit tinny without trying to EQ it. With EQ, it sounds so much better and it sounds like you’re in the room with them. Rubenstein sounds good here – the low end of the piano has gravity, the soundstage adding the right depth. Here where we have a solo instrument like piano you can hear the slight digitalness caused by the NC/S-master, but it still sounds better than the K490.
One nice feature about at least the Japanese Sony Walkmans is that you can have a line in cable and use the noise cancelling. I didn’t bring that cable with me (I do have it) so I couldn’t test the sound with the in-flight movies..
The NWNC200 actually has a good soundstage – maybe not as wide as the 1RNC but not as narrow as the K490.
“Spirit” on the NWNC200 has bass-a-plenty, but too much and way too bloated. For a song like “I Cannot Believe It’s True”, here’s where these work. While the bass is a bit bloated, slow, and not as accurate as the 1RNC (but far from horrid), the horns sound great. The snare sounds a bit thin, but not too bad, and the highs are not too shrill either. It almost cuts the difference (bass nonwthstanding) from the other two. “Have You Met Miss Jones” sounds OK here – nothing too offensive but the bloated bass rears its ugly head here. The smaller soundstage doesn’t help, either. Even though the soundstage is narrower than the 1RNC, the piano IMO sounds a bit better here than the K490 because the overall tonality is warmer, but the bloated bass reminds you this is not a great can for classical.
I’m not including the NWNC200 in this comparison since it is dependent upon the Walkman to provide the noise cancelling. I will say this: I do like the fact that both the 1RNC and the K490 are rechargeable via USB. Each is rated at 20ish hours, and in my limited testing of the 1RNC so far and my travel with the K490 for awhile, I do not see any reason to doubt this. Using AA or AAA batteries IMO would make these bigger and heavier, and of course I’d need to carry spare batteries. What I do not like is that the K490 uses a proprietary cable (2.5mm jack à USB, similar to the 2.5mm à 3.5mm cable used for sound) to do so. The 1RNC uses a standard USB cable like most portable devces, and virtually any charger will work with it. To put it another way: you’re screwed if you lose the cable from the K490 until you can get some sort of replacement from AKG. Out of nearly everything on the K490 – good and bad – that to me is the worst aspect of the whole package.
I still like the K490, and the 1RNC is new to me so at this point. The 1RNC I think has an overall better sound (but far from perfect). Sony got more right than wrong here. The only real negatives sonically would be the top end and the slight digitalness that sometimes comes out. When you are on a plane, sound quality will be compromised to a degree anyway, and when you add NC, that will always affect the sound. I remember when I first heard a pair of Bose my IEMs blew them out of the water – it wasn’t close. I can’t compromise on SQ that much since I’m a music guy.
Having said all of that, if portability and weight are my main concerns, of these three, the K490 wins heads down. They’re comfortable, NC is OK and SQ is decent. The $249 list is pretty fair, but if you can get these at a real bargain, they would be worth a listen and may even be a steal. At a $499 list, the 1RNC is not cheap but has better NC, better soundstage, and arguably better sound save the slight digitalness which sounds worse typing than it is to hear. All genres of music perform admirably. I think at $349 - $399 they’d be much more fairly priced. Since I didn’t pay $499 and got a good deal, I think the sound to performance ratio was about right for me. The NWNC200? Well, clearly not the winner here but if you have a Sony Walkman with NC that supports these and can get them cheap, they may be OK for you. However, what the NWNC200 shows is that the NC feature built into the Walkman is pretty effective overall, and for that I give big kudos to Sony. If they could do something akin to a NW1RNC, I think it’d be a great blend of things.
On the way home from Tokyo, I was sitting just forward of the right wing. I used the 1RNC only and had them on my head for over 10 hours. They were very comfortable and I still liked the sonic signature of them. My only real gripe is that I wish they were smaller like the other two to be more portable, but this is a case where size probably won't matter to me. Both the NWNC200 and the K490 have served me well. I'll probably hang onto the NWNC200, but let go of the K490.
Edited by FenderP - 12/22/12 at 8:56am