This review forms part of a group of noise-cancelling headphones reviews appearing in Sound+Image Vol 29 #4.
Reviewing rarely feels a chore, but realising when fatigue sets in is important to making valid conclusions, not to mention the accompanying ear fatigue. We thought ourselves at that point after finishing a less expensive model in the later stages of this test, but we plugged up the Audio-Technicas just to remind ourselves of their fit, and half an hour later found ourselves wandering around the house packing up kit boxes while listening through our folder of test tracks for sheer pleasure — these songs we’ve played to death through reviewing were all lit up and alive, like a dancer in a spotlight. How good is that? — the MSR7NC is a lovely, musical headphone.
That’s just as well, because they’re the largest in this test along with the Plantronics model; they have the largest carrycase, and to be honest we hadn’t appreciated their merits so much when testing them earlier on our 747-700 flights. They were bulky things to have in a squashed Economy row (we explained to the nice lady that more space would be useful, but apparently the flight was full), and even their connection plug, 90-degree though it be, is oversized and a big thing to be easily bashed when it’s sticking out of a plane adaptor plugged into the seat arm.
You certainly need the active operation of ANC to use these in the plane, as they’re not the loudest headphones (A-T quotes them at 97dB sensitivity, 30 ohms impedance in passive mode), but the relative silence with ANC engaged allows plenty of audible dynamic range for music on the go.
Size aside they performed well enough in the air — the noise-cancelling was excellent and the controls intuitive, even if we didn’t appreicate the quality of sound at the time. One quirk noted later on the bus commute was that rapid vibrations could send a short audio-collapsing shudder through the drivers, but this was relatively rare. And as noted, these are headphones good enough to double for use in the home as well as on the road.
Although not small, nor are they particularly heavy at 305g, and they’re beautifully balanced on your head; they have sturdily solid steel headbands with adjustment notches to note your perfect fit, while the memory foam earpads seal around your ears with excellent comfort and very little distracting inward pressure. Two cables are provided, one with an inline mike and control, one without — there’s also your airline adaptor plug, the USB charging cable plus both a soft pouch and a luxurious logo-embossed hard case, which was the largest in this test at 21 × 23cm, and 6cm deep. The inline control is singular, just one button — it feels like it pivots, but seems only to play/pause (or answer/end calls). So for next/previous track selection and volume control, bring out your player. Hold the single control button and iOS devices will launch Siri.
The highlight is their sound quality — and unusually there’s very little variance between their quality of sound with the noise-cancelling in or out, just a tad more weight when playing passively. They are strong across the frequency range — and these are headphones that carry a logo for high-res audio, specified from 5Hz to 40kHz indeed, should you appreciate such superhuman heights. Certainly the top-end is about as sparkling as closed headphone designs get — not the open skies of a planar or electromagnetic, but considering A-T has used a large 45mm diaphragm, the detail in the highs and the speed of the bass are impressively delivered. The percussive tones of, say, Keith Jarrett’s piano in ‘The KÖln Concert’ are hard-edged and dynamic, the timing is kept tight and softness-free, the piano tone accurate and the hall ambience enjoyably present. The bass sounds real, not forced or bloated, even keeping under control the high level of bass on Belle & Sebastian’s ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’, which can become a bloatfest on headphones with exaggerated upper bass; not a problem here, yet there’s plenty of support to the well-balanced sound.
That edgy treble could be caught out on occasion by light mixes — Dion’s ‘I Read It (In The Rolling Stone)’ was one recording rendered too thin through its lack of midrange content, leaving that incisive top-end sounding peaky and shrill.
But the run of our test tracks, as mentioned above, emerged with high fidelity, musicality, and especially attention to detail. The MSR7NCs are fine headphones to use either passively in quiet surroundings or actively with the NC circuits keeping noisy environments at bay. Lovely-sounding straight-forward noise-cancellers.
NC: selectable via button
Power: internal rechargeable Li-polymer
Quoted music time: 30 hours
Passive play with cable: yes
Carry case: yes
Product page: Audio-Technica Australia