Eradicating the battery pack is a step forward, but the NC85s are incredibly expensive
Active noise cancelling earphones regularly divide opinion in the Expert Reviews office. The frequent travellers love them for their ability to drown out the sound of fellow passengers on the tube, but others hate them for their bulky battery packs and high-pitched circuitry whine. Sony’s latest set of high-end earphones aims to address both of those concerns. It moves almost all the circuitry to the earphones themselves, eliminating the need for an in-line battery pack.
Through some serious miniaturisation, Sony has managed to squeeze a balanced armature driver, active noise cancellation circuitry and a battery into earpieces barely larger than some budget headphones. They protrude slightly from your ears, but remained comfortably in place, even when we used them at the gym. They weigh 6g, so shouldn’t prove tiring over a long period of time.
The tiny in-line power button enables and disables the noise cancellation circuitry, although you can’t listen at all when the power is off. Run out of battery and you won’t be able to enjoy your music until you’ve found time to charge the NC85s again.
Sony bundles the headphones in a carry case that also holds the USB charger. It’s no bigger than the average USB flash drive and will plug into any USB socket, giving you a wide range of options for recharging the NC85s. We charged the NC85s from flat in around three hours, which was enough for 20 hours of music playback.
Sony says the NC85s use three different noise cancellation algorithms to suit your environment. One for the office, one for the daily commute and a third for air travel. We put them through their paces in all three situations, where they held up admirably.
They virtually cut out all noise when sat at our desk, to the point where someone had to tap us on the shoulder to get our attention. Noise cancellation comes into its own when travelling on public transport. We didn’t have to increase the volume at all to reduce the noise of our fellow passengers on the morning commute, although it couldn’t completely silence tube trains.
They worked wonders in the air too, all but negating the engine noise from a small short haul Airbus, even though we were sat in line with one of the engines. There’s still an unmistakeable hiss from the circuitry in certain listening environments, but it’s difficult to hear over most tracks. Unless you really can’t stand it, we don’t think it’s a deal breaker.
For a pair of balanced armature headphones, the NC85s sounded very well-rounded. Bass was present in all the right places, but didn’t swamp the rest of the frequency range. The high-end was clear and crisp without sounding too harsh, having a warm mid-range that brought out the subtler details of our test tracks. Bass-heavy rock and electronica had plenty of boom, but acoustic tracks were delicate. Although they can’t beat a pair of multi-driver earphones such as the Phonak Audéo PFE 232s, they’re excellent all-rounders.
The one downside to such complex miniaturisation is the price of the NC85s. You can get cheaper noise-cancelling earphones, but those will have an in-line battery pack that you must carry with you. For portable, undisturbed listening without a bulky battery pack, the Sony NC85s are an excellent choice.
|Power source||rechargeable Lithium polymer battery|
|Plug type||3.5mm stereo jack plug|
|Extras||pouch, airplane adaptor, foam covers, USB charger|