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The search for good performing noise cancelling headphones at less than ridiculously inflated prices is difficult and ongoing.

Here's a medium priced headphone that offers good functionality at a more sensible price than its more expensive competitors, but even so, it has one flaw that may argue against it.

 
 
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Sony MDR-NC60 Premium Noise Canceling Headphones

Good performance at a reasonable price = good value

Good looking and conservatively styled, the Sony MDR-NC60 headphones are appealing to the eye as well as the ear.

Part 14 of a series on noise reducing headphones - click the links on the right for extra reviews and commentary

 

 

We've prided ourselves, to date, on our ability to find good performing noise cancelling headphones at prices under $100.  Anyone can go out and spend $300 on a set of Bose headphones; the real trick is to spend much less money but to get headphones that work almost as well.

With the disappointing performance of the current model Plane Quiet headphones, we've had to look further afield for good performing mid-priced headphones, and these Sony headphones seem to be about the best of the bunch, although they are street priced slightly higher than we'd like to see (ie $134 on Amazon).

Noise cancelling is very good, but their sound quality, with the noise cancelling activated, is a bit disappointing.

However, unless you've the most discerning of ears and the deepest of pockets, you'll probably find these an acceptable value choice compared to the $300 Bose or the $400 top of the line Sony MDR-NC500D headphones.

Sony MDR-NC60 Premium Noise Canceling Headphones - what you get

These headphones come packaged inside an attractive black cardboard box with a cut open window to display the headphones.

Inside the easily opened cardboard box is a harder to open plastic container.  Once you've struggled your way into that, you find, of course, the headphones themselves, plus various other things.

A single AAA battery is included to power the headphones.  A 61" connecting cable is provided, with iPhone compatible standard 1/8" plugs at both ends.

Strangely - and regrettably - Sony has adopted the same restrictive design for its connecting cable plug/socket that Apple did with its original iPhone (and which Apple then thought better of and abandoned for its later 3G iPhone).  This design has the connector at the end of a short tube/tunnel, which requires connecting cables to have a special and unusually narrow type of connecting plug body.

Why does Sony do this?  It is a stupid limiting act on their part, making it harder to get a replacement cable from any electronics store if you lose or break the one they supply.

An adapter plug is included if you want to use the headphones with a 1/4" jack, and a double plug is also included to use with the still sometimes found airline seats that require this type of connector.

There is also a nice semi-soft/hard carry case and even a carry strap if you should wish to carry the case slung over your shoulder (not that I've ever seen anyone doing this...).  The case zips open around three sides, and inside has a preformed area to hold the headphones and a pouch with slots for a spare battery, connectors, and the connector cable.

A warranty sheet detailing the one year limited warranty, and a useful sheet of operating instructions complete the contents of the package.  It is a good and complete collection of all the things you're likely to need.

The headphones have a recommended retail price of $200, but can sometimes be found for less than that.  Sony's approach to discounting seems to vary - their top of the line MDR-NC500D headphones used to be available for a discount, but currently can only be found at full price, but the MDR-NC60 can be found below the recommended retail price.

Currently, Amazon sell them for the peculiar price of $134.31, or possibly less if you go to their page of 'used and new' that are sold through third party merchants.  The Amazon price seems to vary semi-randomly up and down a bit from time to time, but is usally one of the best available.

Sony MDR-NC60 Headphones Description

The headphones are of the large around-the-ear type design.  They have a nice padded headband, and the ear cups tilt and swivel in the usual manner.

The headphone earcups can be rotated to lie flat for packing.

On the right ear cup is a hinged cover underneath which you place the battery - there is a nice press button to open the cover.  This is an elegant design and nicer than some of the fiddly covers on other headphones.

The right ear cup also has a slide on/off switch and a red indicator light that comes on when the power is switched on.  You are told that the battery needs replacing when the indicator light dims, but how dim is dim?  It is much better and less ambiguous to have a feature that makes the indicator light flash when the battery gets low (such as on the Bose QC2).

Battery life is quoted at 30 hours for an alkaline AAA battery, which is fairly typical.

On the left ear cup is a connector into which the (non-standard) cable connects.

There is also an interesting 'monitor' button - if you press this, any music that you might be playing back is silenced, and a little microphone picks up outside sounds (ie someone talking to you) and plays it back through the headphones.

This feature is more trouble than it is worth - if someone is talking to you, simply remove the headphones and/or stop whatever music you're playing rather than grope for the monitor button that you're probably not able to instinctively and quickly reach.  The monitor button only works if the noise cancelling is switched on, it does nothing if it is switched off.

The two ear cups have reasonably soft foam padding, much more so than on the MDR-NC500D.  This soft foam quickly forms a good seal between the earcup and your skull, and so creates a passive noise block to augment the active noise canceling technology.

The headphones and connecting cable weigh 8.5 oz, and together with the carry case, the weight increases to 14.0 oz.

Sony self-rates the headphones as offering a maximum of more than 16.5dB of noise canceling at 200 Hz, with noise canceling working, to a varying extent, in the frequency range between 40 and 1500 Hz.  The headphones are claimed to have a frequency response of 14 - 24kHz, but with no +/- dB figures quoted, this is a meaningless specification.

My approach to manufacturer claims for noise cancelling is to largely ignore them, because they are so vague, but they can be useful for establishing the relative performance of headphones within a range from the same manufacturer (presumably the manufacturer uses a consistent rating system for all the models in their range).

In this case, the 16.5dB claim contrasts with a 20dB claim for Sony's top of the line MDR-NC500D, and a 14dB or lesser claim for Sony's MDR-NC40 and other lesser units in their product range.

The unit will play music with the noise cancelling turned either on or off, and is slightly more sensitive when the noise cancelling is turned on (102dB/mW as opposed to 100 dB/mW).

Using the Headphones

Sound Quality

The good news - the sound quality is acceptably good - maybe even very good.  There's a lovely warmth to it, while the high notes are clear and easily cut through the warm lower range.

The bad news - this description relates only to when using the headphones with the noise cancelling off.  The sound quality nose-dives when you switch on the noise cancelling.

In particular, some piano pieces (piano solo music is generally considered one of the most demanding tests for headphones) that sounded crystal clear through other headphones, and sounded very good with the noise cancelling switched off, became distorted and almost unacceptable with the noise cancelling on.  This was repeated with some soprano songs.  It seemed as though the audio input was overloading the processing circuitry, but even when turning down the volume, quality was less than with the noise processing off.

There was also increased background hiss and noise preceding and following each note.  To confirm this, I double checked with a different model iPod and with different music, but the sound degradation consistently occurred no matter what variation of music and player I used.

The sound quality loss wasn't as obvious with orchestral music or when listening to movies, but the noise cancelling definitely impacted on sound quality.

Comfort and Convenience

The headphones are comfortable to wear for an extended period of time and are easy to use.  The cups are large and deep enough to comfortably fit around one's ears without squashing them.

One minor annoyance - when walking with the headphones on, the 'DC' component of walking around transferred up to the headphones and caused some annoying interference noises.  But while seated normally, this was not an issue at all.

Noise Cancelling

Noise cancelling is very good.

While not as outright excellent as either the Bose QC2 or the Sony MDR-NC500D headphones, the noise cancelling is still very good and definitely massively reduces the background sounds while on a flight, without introducing any noticeable sound coloration or other undesirable issues.

In a quieter environment (eg home or office) they perform almost as well as the Bose QC2 headphones, and their hiss level is very low and unobtrusive, although a bit louder than the Bose or their ridiculously overpriced top-of-the-line siblings, the Sony MDR-NC500D headphones.

Most people will consider the noise cancelling to be sufficient - there is a large and very beneficial reduction in background noise, and while it is true that the Bose and top of the line Sony headphones reduce slightly more noise, it is possible that the extra cost for this little extra increase in noise reduction may not make sense for all but the most dedicated and deep pocketed of audiophile travelers.

Comparing the MDR-NC60 to other Headphones

In terms of noise cancelling, the MDR-NC60 headphones are not as good as the MDR-NC500D or the QC2 headphones, but they are better than the Plane Quiet Platinum and the Philips SHN9500 headphones.

In terms of Sony's hierarchy of headphones, and using both Sony's claimed noise cancelling capabilities and also their pricing, the MDR-NC60 is the second from top in their line of (currently) six models of noise cancelling headphones.

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 $199.99, but can often be found for less.  We generally buy most of our electronics through Amazon, where the price varies a bit (for reasons we can't guess at).  In December 08, they were selling for the strange price of $134.31, and sometimes for less through third party merchants linked from Amazon's 'New and Used' tab from the page link above.

Summary and Recommendation

These headphones provide very good noise cancelling, but at a cost - not only financial ($135 or thereabouts) but also at a cost to sound quality.  When you activate the noise cancelling, the sound quality deteriorates.  Perhaps less sensitive listeners might not notice this, and when listening to only average or below average quality soundtracks, the deterioration is not so noticeable.

But audiophiles will be disappointed in the sound quality with the noise cancelling on, and while the quality is much better with the noise cancelling off, the whole point of these headphones is to use their noise cancelling capabilities.

You'd be well advised to buy these headphones from a company (such as Amazon) with a generous return policy and no massive restocking charges.  That way you can hear the sound for yourself and decide if it is a deal breaker or just me being trivially over-critical.

Although not bargain priced, the headphones are also not premium priced, and until something better comes along at a lower price point, they present as a good mid level product at a fair value point.
 

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Originally published 19 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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