Sony MDR-NC11A Noise Cancelling
Sony is a respected name in home audio, and this implies
their MDR-NC11A earbuds may be a good quality
They are small and lightweight and so great for the
weight/space conscious traveler. But do they work
well, and are they good value?
Part 15 of a series on noise
reducing headphones -
click for Parts One
Most of our other headphone
reviews have been of 'traditional' type headphones, either over the ear or on the ear style.
The Sony MDR-NC11A is an
example of a third design style - headphones built into ear
plugs. In the case of the Sony unit, not only are the
miniature headphones built into ear plugs, but they also
incorporate active noise cancelling circuitry as well as the
passive sound blocking that is a feature of ear plugs.
While these headphones offer
good passive noise blocking, their active noise cancelling is
minimal, and the unwanted hiss introduced by the electronics,
when the noise cancelling is switched on, detracts severely from
the overall performance of the product.
We ended up using the
headphones with the noise cancelling turned off so as to avoid
the hiss. In such a case - where the active noise
cancelling adds no value at all, why pay the premium for these earplugs?
These ear buds (better
described as ear plugs) are lightweight and compact, and offer
good passive noise blocking. As such, if you don't mind
ear plugs that need to be firmly stuck inside your ears to
function, they are a good alternative to regular active noise
However, the active noise
canceling offered by these ear plugs is minimal, and the extra
hiss caused by the electronics is objectionable.
If they had no active noise
canceling, and were sold for $25 - $50, they'd be a good choice
for people who are comfortable with 'in your ear' earplugs.
But if you don't like this approach to hearing your music,
and/or if you don't want to pay the premium price for active
noise canceling that you'll probably never wish to turn on due
to the hiss it creates, stick with one of the other types of
regular active noise canceling headphones.
The high level of hiss also
makes these headphones inappropriate for use in quieter (eg
Sony's MDR-NC11A Earbud style
noise canceling headphones - what you get
The MCR-NC11A headphones
come in one of those impossible to open type thick clear
plastic blister packs.
This created an unexpected problem. I had forgotten my usual noise cancelling
headphones, and so bought a pair of these Sony headphones at
airport prior to a nonstop flight back to Seattle. But I couldn't open them, and
of course no-one had a pair
of scissors or knife, either in the gate lounge or on board the plane.
It proved impossible for me to open the package, and so I had to
endure the almost seven hour flight with no headphones - no way to reduce
the airplane noise and no way to listen to my MP3 player either.
When (if) you eventually can
open the package, you'll find various items. The earbud
headphones themselves, three different sizes of ear pieces to go
on the outside of the headphones, an airline plug adapter, a
plastic clip to help store the unit, a small soft pouch with
drawstring top, a sheet of instructions, and a warranty
The warranty is 90 days for
labor and one year for parts.
On the outside of the
package is some promotional material about the headphones in
both English and Spanish.
Bizarrely, although the English version says no battery is
included, the Spanish version promises an included battery.
Fortunately I chose to believe the bad news rather than the good
news, and also bought an AAA battery for the unit, which it requires
Opening up the pack revealed
no battery - you don't get much for your $100, do you!
An alkaline type long life
battery is rated as providing up to 40 hours of active noise
cancelling; regular batteries are good for up to 20 hours of
operation. When the LED dims, it is time to replace the
battery (this is a very vague and subjective measure).
Ear Plugs vs Ear Buds
The Sony MDR-NC11A style
headphones are best described as ear plug type headphones.
Ear buds are devices that
rest lightly on the entrance to your ear passage - these are the
type of units that come as standard with all iPod and Zune MP3
players, for example.
Ear plug type headphones, on
the other hand, are devices that you must insert directly into
your ear tube, and they have some type of soft rubber
flange/gasket that creates a seal between your ear and the world
This type of design has a
good feature and a bad feature. The good feature is that
this tight seal provides an excellent degree of passive noise
blocking, often better than you'd get from active noise
Another good feature is that
the units are very small, making them well suited for travelers
who usually are struggling to keep down the size and weight of
their carry on baggage as much as possible.
The bad feature is that if
the ear plugs aren't well designed to fit your ear tube's shape
and size, they can quickly prove to be uncomfortable. If
your ears generate measurable amounts of wax, you're going to
need to be continually cleaning the ear plugs to prevent the
sound passage inside the ear plug from getting blocked up.
And, for sure, it is much less pleasant to share a set of ear
plug type headphones with other people.
These limitations are the
main reason why many people prefer regular type headphones.
But if you're comfortable with these issues, and the ear plugs,
then they can be a great alternate choice, and often at lower
prices than regular headphones.
It is common to find earplug
style headphones that have no active noise canceling at all.
The reason for this is simple - they offer so much passive noise
blocking they don't need any extra active noise canceling.
But these Sony headphones offer both passive noise blocking and
also active noise cancelling too.
The Sony MDR-NC11A earplug
style headphones are very small and light. The perceived
'on the head' weight is about half an ounce - in other words,
almost imperceptible, and the total weight of the unit,
including the AAA battery, is a mere 1.8 ounces. Add the
carry pouch, airline plug adapter, and storage clip and you're
at a total of 2.4 ounces in a small pouch that measures less
than 3.5" x 5.5" and is no more than 0.5" thick in any part.
The ear plugs are connected
to a control box which in turn has a wire from it to a plug you
can connect into a music source. These wires are fixed in
place, you can't plug and unplug them, or substitute one cable
for another in case of failure or wishing a longer length of
cable. The triangular control box has space for a battery,
with an on/off switch and power indicating LED on one side, and
a gentle clip on the other side to affix it to your clothing on
the other side.
The cord from the ear plugs
to the control box is about 33" long, and from the control box
to the plug is another 25". The 25" length from the
control box to the plug is a bit on the short side, but you
could purchase an extension cable (eg from Radio Shack) if you
found this to be a constraint.
The headphones come with
three different sets of rubber tips to match different sizes of
ears. Experiment until you find the ones that give the
tightest fit (for best noise blockage) without being
uncomfortable. They tips are easy to remove and replace.
The drawstring pouch is not
very useful, because the drawstring top doesn't always close
well unless you tightly cinch it up with the 'bead' on the
string loop. If you're trying to keep the headphones, plus
the plug adapter, and maybe a spare batter all in the pouch,
there's a danger that some of the small items may fall out of
the pouch while it is being carried in your carry-on bag.
The plug adapter to enable
the regular mini stereo jack at the end of the headphones to fit
into the double jack plugs on some airplane seats is of a
curious design. It can function both as an adapter (with
two prongs to go into the socket on the seat, and a single
socket for your headphones to then plug into) but it is also
possible to fold over one of the two prongs and have a regular
This extra feature seems to
serve no purpose and seems to be nothing more than a gratuitous
complexity and something to go wrong.
Noise Blocking and Cancelling Functionality
The ear plugs provide good
passive noise blocking as soon as you fit them firmly into your
Unlike active noise
cancelling, the passive noise blocking seems to work across a
broader spectrum of sounds, including reducing higher
frequencies than does active noise cancelling. However,
this is not entirely a good thing. Most of the
objectionable noises when traveling tend to be at low and mid
range frequencies, where active noise cancelling works best.
Active noise cancelling, due
to its selective reduction of some frequencies rather than
others, has an interesting side effect. It can sometimes
make voices easier to hear, or, at worst, no harder to hear.
This means you still hear in-flight announcements and can
converse with flight attendants without having to remove your
headphones. But the passive sound blocking in the Sony ear
plugs is such that you'd definitely need to remove them before
talking with a flight attendant or traveling companion, or to
hear in-flight announcements.
Turning on the active noise
cancelling circuit in the Sony MDR-NC11A headphones caused an
immediately apparent electronic hiss sound to occur. But
the reduction in background noise was not so obvious, and in
part the background noise was being masked by the hiss rather
than cancelled out.
Sony are to be commended,
however, for resisting the trend by some other manufacturers to
make unrealistic claims for their noise cancelling performance.
Their specification merely claims that some attenuation occurs
in the frequency range between 50 Hz and 1500 Hz, with a maximum
of 'more than' 10dB at 300 Hz.
In a very noisy environment
the hiss isn't as obvious, because of all the other noise, but
in quieter environments, the hiss can be quite bothersome.
Some people like to use noise cancelling headphones while
working in an office - you'd definitely notice the hiss in such
a case and would probably end up doing the same thing I did -
turning off the noise cancelling and relying exclusively on the
passive sound blocking.
Comfort and Convenience
You either feel
neutral/positive at the thought of sticking ear plugs in your
ears, or alternatively you may be like me and hate the idea
Comfort wise, these are no
worse and no better than other similar products.
In terms of convenience, in
addition to the small size and light weight, the unit is easy to
operate. You simply plug the plug into your music source,
and put the ear plugs in your ears.
The unit works almost
identically with the noise cancelling turned on or off, and
probably most people will generally have the noise cancelling
off rather than on.
There is no volume control
or noise cancelling adjustment, but these are usually
unnecessary gimmicks anyway, so their omission is no great loss
The headphones aren't very
sensitive. That is, music doesn't come through them as
loud as it does through some other types of headphones, and
you'll probably have to turn the volume up higher on your audio
source to get a comfortable listening level. The sound
level is very slightly higher when the noise canceling is on
(102 dB/mW claimed with noise cancelling on, 98 dB/mW claimed
with noise cancelling off).
Where to Buy
Sony make both a regular
version of these headphones and a slightly more upmarket version
which includes an (unnecessary) volume control.
Strangely, we've found the
version including volume control to be available for less money
than the regular version. The units list for around $100
or $150 for without and with volume control, and
the units with volume control for $68.
Summary and Recommendation
The Sony MDR-NC11A ear plug
type headphones combine good passive noise blocking with poor
(and largely unnecessary) active noise cancelling technology,
all in a very small and lightweight set of earplugs.
If you don't dislike
earplugs, you may find these a good alternative to traditional
larger headphones. Although they list for $100 - $150
depending on model variants, Amazon offers them for only $68.
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5 Jan 2007, last update
19 Dec 2013
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.