Blissfully Effective, Unabashedly High-End


Such was the feeling in my head as my recent Virgin America flight went wheels up and into the skies above JFK en route to San Francisco.

While my contentment was in part due to the new carrier's state-of-the-art cabin seating, this is not a travel guide, so I'll stick to the gadget that induced this reaction.

Indeed, the "ahhh" came as soon as I placed Sony's top-of-the-line noise cancelling headphones around my ears and turned the power switch to ON.

One second I was immersed in a din of engine noise and chitchat about where seat 5E thinks seat 5D should go for the best Mexican food in SF (the Mission district, if you're wondering).

The next, I was in my little audio cocoon, hardly noticing the muted jet hum and muffled banter so sonically offensive just a moment before.

I plugged the headphones into the plane's personal entertainment system, cued up "Drive on, Driver" by The Magnetic Fields, reclined my seat and closed my eyes, feeling like I was on a deck chair listening to my iPod on a lazy Sunday.

Sony, one of the most established and respected names in consumer audio, has lived up to its brand promise with the MDR-NC500D, which retails for $399. The headphones function via digital technology that recognizes ambient noise, and delivers opposing waveforms to counteract the noise. The result is a substantial dampening, if not elimination, of surrounding sounds.

Testing them on the Airbus 320 that afternoon turned out to be a perfect measure of effectiveness at the upper limits of noise pollution. The NC500D performed so well that it made me realize I had forgotten just how deafening an airplane cabin can be. Each time I pressed the monitor button to temporarily suspend noise cancellation, it became screamingly apparent. In other environments one might look to use these headphones — trains, coffee shops, etc. — the noise reduction is that much more pronounced.

Not Without Some Quirks

Despite excellent performance for the majority of the time, there were several instances when pulsations or dull taps could be heard out of one ear or the other. It is unclear whether those were due to issues with the cancellation technology, or perhaps somehow related to the pressurization in the cabin.

I also received a considerable "chopping" interference when I occasionally adjusted the earpieces more tightly to my ears. In fairness, this may be a bit nitpicky when taking into account the fact that the headphones fit rather comfortably on my head and ears, requiring much less adjustment than others I have owned over the years.

Additional Features & Functionality

The MDR-NC500D boasts a feature called AI NC MODE that allows the user to recalibrate and readjust to the surrounding noise patterns and optimize cancellation. This is presumably most useful for those getting off a train and entering a crowded station, although when I tested it in such a situation, the push-button feature did not seem to make a noticeable difference.

The headphones also come with accessories, including a plug-in wall charger, as well as a portable battery-powered charger. With the former fully charged and the latter equipped with a couple new AA batteries, the combination is reported to yield 28 hours of life, a nice convenience in this day and age when it is hard enough to remember to charge a cell phone, let alone all the other gadgets commonly used in transit.

To contain these accessories along with the headphones themselves, the NC500D comes with a protective case. Although solid and well-built, it is a reminder of how bulky the product is — about the size of a small photo album — particularly when having to stuff it into an already full carry-on bag. Even without the case, the headset itself is not exactly compact. The earpieces swivel to make the headset flatter, but they do not actually fold up.

Top Performance + Top Brand = Top Price

Ultimately, at $399, this is a high-end product for those willing to pay more both for performance and the Sony brand. Bose, the first to come out with commercial noise cancelling headphones, is also considered high-end, yet is currently retailing its comparable Quiet Comfort 3 product for $85 less.

For those who are more value-conscious, the Sony MDR-NC500D is likely not the best fit. Other products from the likes of JVC, Sennheiser and even Sony itself retail well below $200 and have varying degrees of effectiveness, yet often serve their purpose adequately. However, those looking to buy one of the best products from one of the most trusted names in electronics may find it worth digging a little deeper into the gadget budget this year for the sake of silence, sweet silence.