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The MDR-NC500D noise cancelling headphones offer good noise cancelling and music playback.

But are they sufficiently better than competing products to justify their massive extra cost?

 
 
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Sony MDR-NC500D Digital Noise Canceling Headphones part 2

Testing the headphones - should you buy a pair?

Two buttons and a slide switch on the side of the right ear cup control the operation of the MDR-NC500D headphones.

The left ear cup has two sockets - one for audio in and the other for power.

Part 15b of a series on noise reducing headphones - click the links on the right for extra reviews and commentary.

This is a two part review.  Part 1 provides background information about the MDR-NC500D headphones.

 

 

There is a lot to like about these headphones, and in most respects they score highly and even very highly compared to other headphones available.

But at their massively inflated $400 price, are they sufficiently better than lower priced alternates?  We test and compare these headphones to other models, both at similar and at very much lower prices, to come up with an answer to that essential question.

The Sony MDR-NC500D Noise Canceling Headphones - Description

The headphones use a fairly traditional and typical around the ear design, and the cups are 'deeper' than on, eg, the Bose headphones.

The foam pads that press on the sides of your skull are firmer than on the Sony MDR-NC60 or most other around the ear type headphones.  It takes some time for them to gradually adjust to the contours of your head and to create an effective seal.  The time it takes to create an effective seal makes it hard when comparison testing headphones because you really have to wait until the headphones have settled against your skull optimally before making a determination of their total combined active and passive noise cancelling capability.

Once the pad has formed to fit your skull, the passive noise cancelling is excellent and very little noise leaks in around the pads.

The left ear cup contains the batteries, and the right ear cup the electronics and the controls on the outside.  There is an on-off slide switch and indicator light, and then two extra controls not usually seen on noise cancelling headphones (illustrated above).

The first says 'Monitor'.  Press this, and while you hold it down, it turns off the noise cancelling and mutes any music that you're playing, and activates a couple of microphones (one on each ear cup), feeding in the sound from outside the headphones, enabling you to more clearly hear if, for example, the flight attendant is offering you a refill on your glass of champagne.

The second says 'AI NC Mode' which is short for 'Artificial Intelligence Noise Cancelling Mode'.  You press this to tell the unit to re-calculate the best of the three noise cancelling profiles to use (discussed in the first part of this article).  Or, if you think you know better than the AI logic, you use it to step through the three different profiles yourself, choosing the one that sounds best.

Both the connecting cable to your audio source and, as/when required, the recharger cable, connect to the left ear cup.

The connecting cable uses a standard 1/8" stereo connector jack, but Sony turns around and destroys the universal compatibility of its connector (and your ability to conveniently and inexpensively buy a replacement cable at just about any electronics store) by using the same stupid design feature that Apple briefly used on its original iPhone (and which Apple stopped using on its newer 3G iPhone) - it hides the connector at the end of a narrow tunnel, requiring a special connector barrel extension on your cable for the plug to be able to fit.

There is no design or functional reason for this; it seems to be nothing more than Sony attempting to come up with a subtle way of forcing you to spend more on replacement cables should you ever need them.  Thanks for nothing, Sony.

There is a silly little protective cover over the power connector.  And - again massive minus marks to Sony for this - although the headphones use a regular 3.7V Li-Ion battery, the same as almost all other consumer electronics these days, they use a nonstandard power plug.  Why, oh why, couldn't Sony have blessed us with a USB type connector, so we could have recharged the headphones from any USB cable?  Instead, and particularly as a result of the very short battery life, we're cursed with the need to travel with yet another power supply.

Unnecessary Power Supplies

The unnecessary explosion in power supplies that we must travel with these days is a major problem.  Think about it - when you travel, maybe you need power supplies for :

  • Mobile Phone (or, in my case, phones)

  • Bluetooth Headset

  • Camera

  • Camcorder

  • Computer

  • MP3 Player

  • DVD Player

  • Headphones

  • Game Player

  • E-book Reader

Except for the computer, all of these almost certainly use standard 3.7V Lithium-ion batteries and could use the same charger, and/or could be charged from the USB ports on your laptop.

Which would you prefer - traveling with ten power supplies, or only one?

Adding to the desirability of a USB power supply connector, this could, in theory, also allow for updates to the digital noise cancelling algorithm employed to be loaded into the headphones.  For a $400 purchase cost (almost as much as an entry level laptop computer these days), it doesn't seem unreasonable to hope for occasional updates to the noise cancelling algorithm.

The headphones and connecting cord, by themselves, weigh 7.8 oz.  Add to this the carry case, charger, and battery pack, and the weight increases to a hefty (and bulky) 25 oz (compare this to the MDR-NC60 which weighs 8.5oz or 14oz in its carry pack).

Sony self-rates the headphones as offering a maximum of more than 20dB of noise canceling, but is a bit vague as to the details of how this is calculated.

The headphones have a claimed frequency response of 5Hz - 24kHz but we're not told the upper and lower bounds for this frequency response (ie +/- how many dB) so this is a meaningless figure.

They have a rated sensitivity of 102dB/mW, and will only feed through sound when the noise cancelling is turned on.

Battery Life

The electronics in the Sony MDR-NC500D headphones are hard on their batteries.  The Li-Ion rechargeable battery that is built in to the headphones is rated at a 15 hour life, assuming a moderate volume level is being played through them (the louder the volume level, the higher the battery drain and shorter the battery life).

A 15 hour life is of course an optimum scenario, from a new and freshly fully charged battery, and with each discharge/recharge cycle, its life span reduces further.

If you are running off a pair of AA batteries, then the battery life for a set of batteries is estimated as a mere 10 hours only.

While 15 hours and 10 hours might sound like a lot of time - and it is if you're only considering a short flight somewhere - it is easy to use up your batteries on a roundtrip journey internationally.  Maybe you fly to Europe (10 hr flight) then a second flight somewhere in Europe (2 hr flight), and add an extra hour of time before each flight while at the airport waiting for your flight, and that represents 14 hours of usage.  If you don't want to bring the recharger with you, then you have to take the fully charged built in battery plus four AA batteries for the return flights.  Yuck.  In comparison, the Bose QC2 headphones will still be happily running off one single AAA battery, even after 28 hours of usage.

Like the Bose Quiet Comfort headphones, the MDR-NC500D headphones won't 'pass through' sound if the battery is dead, so the power issue is an important one.

The rechargeable battery is user replaceable.  But (and unlike the Bose QC3) it is an inconvenient and difficult procedure, so you wouldn't keep a spare battery pack with you to swap when one gets low; however when the battery loses its capacity to hold a decent amount of charge, it is possible to replace the battery rather than to have to junk the expensive headphones entirely.

It takes about 3 hours to recharge the Li-Ion battery.

Using the MDR-NC500D Headphones

Sound Quality

The sound quality is very good.  Indeed, the first time I started listening to a test track of music I was so drawn in by the sound I had to stop what I was doing and enjoy the music right through to the end.  It is clean and clear and brings you very close to the music without the feeling of anything between you and the performers.

But after listening for a while I became aware of a 'wowing' effect - the music would sometimes seem to pulse in volume a bit - not so much the music in the 'foreground' (ie the loud bits) but the echo/background (ie quieter) parts of the music.  This was sometimes apparent and sometimes not, even when replaying the same piece of music repeatedly.  Sometimes it would be so pronounced as to make the music impossible to enjoy, other times, it would be almost entirely absent - resetting the headphones seemed to stop it for a while before it would randomly return.

Possibly this was another part of an electronic fault with the headphones that also manifested, on planes, as a nasty clicking sound intermittently appearing.  No other reviewers have commented on either of these issues, and while the 'wow' effect is subtle and not so noticeable on rapidly changing popular music pieces, the clicking is definitely unsubtle, so perhaps both issues are related and are due to faulty headphones rather than a design limitation.

Note that if the battery dies, the headphones won't act in 'pass through' mode.  You need a power source for the headphones to work, with or without their noise cancelling.  Well, actually, to state that more accurately, the headphones only work with noise cancelling switched on - there's no way to use them without the noise cancelling active.

Comfort and Convenience

The headphones are comfortable to wear for extended periods, such as on a long flight, and the ear cups sufficiently roomy, at least for my ears.

The monitor button seems to be a gimmick rather than a useful feature.  Rather than having to reach up and then hold the button pushed in while talking to someone, it was easier (and also, I felt, politer) to simply remove the headphones.

Flight attendants sometimes talk about how much they dislike people wearing headphones who don't remove them to talk to them, requiring the flight attendant to repeat things they don't hear and forcing them to shout rather than converse normally.

Noise Cancelling

The digital signal processing and the noise cancelling these headphones offer is excellent.

As a quick initial test of any headphones, prior to taking them on a plane for the real-world (and therefore most important) testing, I do two simple things.  I turn them on and listen to them in a quiet environment to check the residual background hiss noise, and I go downstairs to where my gas furnace is and stand close to it while it is operating.  The noise of the furnace burners and fans provides a good broad spectrum noise source for a quick noise cancelling test.

Delight and double delight.  There was almost no perceptible hiss at all - these were the quietest of any headphones ever tested (and this is a benefit one would indeed expect from the digital rather than analog circuitry inside the headphones).

And as for the furnace test, I was stunned.  It was almost as if the furnace stopped!  The headphones eliminated most of the rushing and roaring and burning/throbbing sounds, leaving only the slightest suggestion of something in the background when I got very close.  In this moderately noisy environment, the MDR-NC500D headphones provided the best noise cancelling of any headphones ever tested.

I found myself eagerly awaiting my next flight and a chance to test them in the crucial (and much noisier) airplane environment.  Fortunately, the next flight was only five days away, and I boarded my BA flight to London with four sets of headphones - these ones, the Sony MDR-NC60 headphones, the Bose Quiet Comfort 2, and the Philips SHN9500 to do careful comparison testing.

The clear excellence of the Sony MDR-NC500D headphones in a less challenging environment (ie at home next to my gas furnace) reduced in the ultimate noise environment of an airborne jet.  As best I could distinguish, the Sony digital headphones were closely comparable in noise cancelling to the Bose QC2s.  They were better than the Sony analog headphones (the MDR-NC60) and also better than the Philips SHN9500 headphones.

I experimented with the ability to switch between three different noise canceling modes (see part one for a discussion of Sony's digital noise canceling feature).  There were clearly audible differences in the noise cancelling with each setting.

I liked the A and B profiles better than the C profile, and noticed that the narrower filtering band of the A profile added more coloration to the background noise than did either of the other two profiles.

On balance, my favorite profile on the plane was B, but A was nearly as good.  Sony says that A is the best profile for planes, so we're reasonably in agreement.

Comparing the MDR-NC500D to other Headphones

These top of the line Sony headphones tested better than their lower priced sibling, the MDR-NC60 in all respects, and also tested better than all other headphones recently reviewed with the exception of the Bose QC2.

These Sony headphones are closely comparable to the Bose in terms of sound quality and noise cancelling, but have a much shorter battery life and a $100 higher price.

Where to Buy

Sony headphones can often be found in regular electronics retailers, as well as online through a fairly wide range of stores.

They carry a recommended retail price of $399, and currently aren't available at a discount price anywhere that we've managed to find.  Sony goes through stages of rigorously policing its recommended retail price policies, and while it seems content to allow for discounting of its lesser model headphones, it recently (November 08) appears to have acted to eliminate the discounts formerly available on the MDR-NC500D headphones.

We purchased our pair through Amazon, due to the company's free shipping and excellent return policies.  Other companies will charge for shipping and may charge you a restock fee if you choose to return them.

Summary and Recommendation

Make no mistake - these are great headphones in all respects.  Splendid audio, and excellent noise canceling.

They are comparable to the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headphones in almost all respects, except one - they are $100 more expensive.  They also have inferior battery life and the added encumbrance of either an external battery pack or the need to travel with a power charger.

There's no compelling reason to choose these Sony MDR-NC500D headphones in preference to the Bose QC 2 headphones, and with a $100 price differential, there would seem to be more reason to choose the Bose unit, which we're accordingly recommending as the best 'top end' unit.

And if you're looking for a lower priced product, perhaps the Sony MDR-NC60 ($135 or thereabouts) would be a better choice.

Read more in Part 1

In Part 1 we describe the MDR-NC500D headphones and discuss whether the digital noise cancelling is a cheap gimmick or a sensible (and expensive) feature.
 

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Originally published 26 Dec 2008, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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