Smart silence

There was a bit of déjà vu when testing the latest and greatest wireless noise-cancellers from Audio-Technica. It’s only a few issues since we reviewed the ANC700BT (that review linked here), and the new 900 model proved to have the same sonic characteristics, the same controls combining hard switches with a bit of finger-swiping across the headshells, and even the same quirk of fit. So what’s different?

Well the specs match for most of the sound generation stuff, hence the sonics being the same. These ANC900BTs seem to have a slightly better battery, as their life is extended to a handy 60 hours with cabled NC (as on a plane) or 35 hours of Bluetooth with NC (as on a train). Their sensitivity when using a cable is increased, so there’s more level available. And they move from Bluetooth 4.1 to Bluetooth 5, though we know of no clear audio benefits in doing so, with Bluetooth 5’s advances being more about range and speed, neither of which will improve the audible performance of the codecs on offer here, which rise from basic SBC through the Apple-friendly AAC to the Android-friendly aptX, as on the ANC700BT. Bluetooth 5 will quite likely reduce power use, however, which may feed into that longer battery life.

The noise-cancelling is here described as “digital hybrid noise-cancelling”, so is perhaps different from that in the ANC700BT, which presented the innovation of using an extra microphone behind the driver. But both systems offer reduction up to around 300Hz, and our notes indicate them to be similarly effective, though we didn’t have both on hand at once.

What’s definitely different is the access to app control, and a bonus called ‘Hear through’, which copies Sony’s idea of feeding through external sound when you cover (long press) the whole right headshell with your hand. This is handy for any number of things, but we’ve come to call it the “beef or chicken” button, as it enables you to communicate fully with your inflight food service representative without the complex courtesy of actually removing your headphones.

Soundwise there are several different options, since they can work passively or actively with the cable, or actively via Bluetooth. We found the passive cabled sound to be just a little boxy, not entirely natural, though still a detailed and powerful sound, musically enjoyable, and the usual credit to the brand. Staying with the cable but moving to the active mode brightened things up nicely, at the cost only of introducing a little sibilance to vocals — and of using battery power, of course. Switching to Bluetooth, with noise-cancelling automatically engaged, a little of this sibilance remains, but the overall quality of the headphone continues to deliver fine music, well supported and impressively devoid of the degradations Bluetooth can impose on the sound.

App control, however, allows a far greater control over many aspects of the ANC900BT headphones. You can choose from three levels of noise-cancelling — ‘airplane’, ‘on the go’ (e.g. traffic) and ‘office/study’ (plus the important option of turning NC off entirely). As noted, the full implementation of Bluetooth with NC sounds pretty good, but light NC removes nearly all the muddying effect of heavy NC, its musical quality almost indistinguishable from having NC fully off, while still delivering a fair level of casual cancellation. This is a useful improvement over the lower model.

The level of ‘hear-through’ is also variable using a slider on the app.

We found another unusual but potentially very useful option — the ability to force the Bluetooth connection into the most basic codec of SBC. While this is likely to minimise your audio quality, it may well reduce latency over AAC connections, so if you’re experiencing an unbearable delay when listening over Bluetooth from a TV to your wireless headphones, or while watching, say, an iPad video, then use the app (or check the final pages of the product manual) to discover how to cut the codec concatenation to a minimum and get your soundtrack back on track.

The aforementioned quirk of fit, by the way, was that we found the seal required between cushion and head for effective noise-cancellation would break down when we turned our head sideways and we’d hear a little rush of external noise. After time spent with two models, we find it interesting but not much distracting, especially when playing music, and besides, it might not affect your differently shaped head at all.

If you feel you don’t desire the extra dimension of app control, then the lower ANC700BT model likely represents the better sonic bargain, as the $150 between them is significant. But with the app allowing that scaling of noise-cancellation in particular, we can definitely say we enjoyed the new ANC900BT model even more than we did the 700, despite the many similarities between the two. Whether the price difference persuades you to invest in those additional abilities will be up to you. 

audio-technica ATH-ANC900BT
Price: $499

Type: active, noise-cancelling, Bluetooth, overear dynamic
Driver: 40mm: minijack headphone (900mV at 32 ohms, minimum 16 ohms)
Sensitivity: 103dB/mW cabled with NC on; 100dB/mW cabled with NC off
Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC, aptX
Quoted playback time: 60 hours cabled with NC; 35 hours Bluetooth with NC.
Weight: 263g