I do a fair amount of air travel; in 2007 I flew about 50,000 miles without leaving the U.S. As a human factors guy, I know that the airplane rumble contributes to feeling fatigued as a result of air travel. I don’t like having things in my ear canal (I apparently have some skin condition in my ears and they always irritates the skin in my ears) so IEMs (that’s “in-ear monitors” for the non-headphone crowd) are not a good option for me. So, active noise cancellation (ANC) was a possibility. I wasn’t sure about all this but years ago I got some cheap Aiwa noise-cancellers as a gift and I’ve never looked back, active noise cancellation is for me.
So, I’ve owned, and been reasonably happy with, the Sennheiser PXC250s for some time. I got them on sale at MacMall for $90 back in 2003, which was pretty much a steal at that time. That was the only PXC model at the time. The PXC 250 is simply the Senn PX200 with Sennheiser’s active noise cancellation.
A little while back, Audio Technica released a new entry into the ANC party, the ATH-ANC7. Sennheiser also release some new players like the PXC 450 (which I understand to be the drivers from HD555 in closed form with Senn’s ANC circuit). The PXC 450 is a bit on the spendy side and has gotten some negative reviews, so I wasn’t all that interested in them, despite the fact that I really like the Senn HD 555/595 sound signature. I asked for the ATH-ANC7s for Christmas and my wife obliged.
So, now I’ve had them for a couple months and they’ve been on a few plane trips (including two transatlantic flights); how do they stack up against my tried-and-true PXC250s?
I should preface this by saying that Sennheiser and Audio-Technica are currently my favorite headphone manufacturers. My main cans at home are Senn HD595s (the better 120-ohm model), but when I need a closed can, I go for my ATH A700s. So this is a shootout between two companies I’m predisposed to liking.
I’ll face them off on a number of attributes. However, first, details on my usual air travel rig:
• 5.5gen 80G iPod video
• SendStation lineout dock to bypass Apple’s attenuator
• Xin Supermicro amp
• Custom mini-to-mini cable (made by Norm of “Vibe” amp fame)
This one goes hands-down to the PXC250, no contest at all here. They fold up into a pretty small little package and Senn provides a nice zippered cloth case which also has a zippered pocket on the outside, which is perfect for the dock adapter and SuperMicro. The ANC7s fold kind of flat and also have a nice zippered hard case, but the thing is probably almost three times the size of the Senn case and doesn’t have as nice a pocket.
This is more or less a tie. Due to their small size, the PXC250s don’t block out very much sound without ANC engaged. This means they don’t muffle mid-range and higher sounds very well. The ANC7s are much more substantial and do a better job with that. However, the Senn ANC circuitry is flat-out better than the ATH circuitry. With no audio being fed into the headphones at all, switching on the PXC250s just completely wipe out airplane rumble. The ANC7s do pretty well, but not as well as the Senns. Now, with any kind of music playing, the rumble is pretty well masked by the music so it’s not a big deal, but I know the Senns have the better ANC circuit. The ATHs, however, do a much better job with the screaming baby three rows back because of their superior passive noise cancellation.
I’m not sure what other term to use for this. Basically, I want to give a point to the ATHs because the physical setup of the Senns is kind of irritating. The ATH is physically bigger, and the over-ear unit also houses all the electronics and the battery. Thus, you can put on the ATHs and have no cables coming from them at all, so if you just want the noise attenuation and don’t want to listen to anything else, you can do that without having to mess with anything else. The ATHs also take a standard mini-to-mini cable so you cable freaks can recable if you want, or anyone can replace the cable if it breaks. The Senn setup is not so slick. The cable that runs out of the ear cups goes a ways, then there’s a unit about the size of a candy bar which houses the batteries and ANC circuitry (including the mic), and then there’s a few more feet of cable ending in a mini plug. So when you’re wearing them you have to find a place to clip the candy bar thing. I have thus gone to wearing shirts with breast pockets when I fly just so I have some place to clip the stupid thing.
This is again a no-brainer. The Senns are feather-light and very comfortable; I can wear these babies for hours without any discomfort. The ATHs are reasonably comfortable headphones, but they just cannot match the Senns. After about two hours I need to take breaks with the ANC7s. The place where this really matters is sleeping; I find it very hard to fall asleep with the ATHs on, but this is not a problem with the Senns.
So, which one sounds better? The PXC250 is based on the PX200, which is just simply not one of Senns better-sounding cans; both the highs and the lows are a bit rolled off with the PX200 (yes, I own a pair of those, too). I think the PXC250s sound better than the PX200s, though. I know it’s the same driver but the PXC250s are a little more lively. The highs have more sparkle and the bass is not so weak, though the mids are still emphasized. The ANC7s have the Audio-Technica sound signature to them, which means the mids are somewhat recessed overall. Overall I think the ANC7s sound a bit better; they’re a little more detailed and involving than the PXC250s and definitely have more thump for you bass-heads out there, though I would give a slight edge to the Senns for classical and acoustic music.
It should be noted, though this should be a surprise to nobody, that both of these sound dramatically better than any Bose NC product and they cost less. I’ve listened to both the QC2 and QC3 in stores and they both sound like crap, especially for those prices.
That’s probably not a word, but you headphone geeks know what I mean. The Senns are 300-ohm cans. With ANC on, they’re not quite as quiet as that, but even still, they aren’t all that easy to drive. With ANC on and no amp, putting the iPod volume on max still isn’t all that loud. This is why I got the Supermicro in the first place. The ATHs, on the other hand, while also not super easy to drive with ANC off (260 ohm), are much better behaved unamped with the ANC on than the Senns. They do improve when amped, as most headphones do, but not as much as the Senns. In particular, the ANC7s are adequate for watching movies without an amp, where the PXC250s need one even for that.
The Bottom Line
So, which headphone do I like better? I’m kind of on the fence, as there are obvious tradeoffs. I think in the future for transatlantic flights I’m taking the PXC250s because of the comfort and size advantages. (Coming out of the UK you only get one carry-on total, and that includes laptop bags, so space is at a bit of a premium, and I’m rather hoping to make trips to the UK more regularly in the future.) But for domestic flights I’ll probably go with the ATHs.
Postscript: What is ANC?
This is for those of you who don’t know anything about active noise cancellation. ANC is a pretty cool idea. Basically, there’s a microphone on the outside of the headphone which listens to the noise around you. A circuit takes that input, inverts the phase, and feeds that into the audio signal passed into the headphones. The result is that the outside noise is “cancelled out” of what you hear. Phase inversion is a little tricky and only really works at low frequencies. So, for instance, ANC doesn’t really block out voice all that well, particularly high-pitched voice. The good news, though, is that it’s the low frequencies which have an easier time passing through solids. (You know, when someone’s got the music too loud in their car with all the windows closed, all you can hear is the bass; the low-frequency stuff.) ANC is generally very good with any kind of constant, low-frequency rumble, like jet engines.