Over a year ago Playback published a series of reviews of active noise-cancelling headphones, collectively called the “Sounds of Silence”, and one of our favorite models at the time was Audio-Technica’s “Quiet Point” ATH-ANC7. Though it was neither the most expensive nor the most elaborate of the designs we sampled, the ANC7 represented one of those “less is more” scenarios where everything about the headphone just plain worked as intended, giving excellent levels of noise reduction and very refined sound without any fuss, bother, or superfluous gongs or whistles. From off-the-record conversations I had with manufacturers of competing noise-cancelling phones, I learned the Audio-Technica had attracted their attention, too (so that some regarded the ATH-ANC7 as a worthy competitive benchmark to try and surpass).
Now, however, Audio-Technica has replaced the ATH-ANC7 with an updated model called the ATH-ANC7b ($219.95) that is said to offer incremental improvements vis-à-vis the original model. Since the audio universe is littered with examples of products that supposedly offer improvements but that in fact sadly represent steps backward, I decided to withhold judgment until I heard the ANC7b in action. Having now lived with the new model for several months, I’m pleased to report that it really does take meaningful steps forward from the original ANC7, yet with no increase in retail price and no sonic downsides whatsoever. In short, the ATH-ANC7b’s motto could well be, “All gain with no pain,” which certainly works for me. And as with the original ANC7, the new model represents a simple, elegant solution that works to deliver unexpected levels of quietude with genuinely sophisticated sound.
When you get right down to it, active noise cancellers involve—as a matter of necessity—balancing delicate and difficult design tradeoffs. To remove (or cancel out) background noises, active noise cancellers must produce noises designed to exactly offset environmental noises from without, while at the same time reproducing the finer points and nuances of well recorded music without skipping a beat. It’s a tall order to fill, yet one that Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC7b addresses with rare grace and sophistication, which is what makes this headphone so special.
Consider this active noise-cancelling headphone if: you want one of the most sophisticated and musically satisfying noise-cancelling headphones on today’s market—one that combines very significant levels of noise reduction with the kind of sonic refinement approaching the sound of today’s higher-quality passive headphones.
Look further if: you want the very highest levels of noise reduction possible (or perhaps multiple noise reduction algorithms each optimized for handling different kinds of noise) and are willing to trade away some of the Audio-Technica’s sonic sophistication to achieve that goal. But that said, be aware that no other noise-cancelling headphone we have yet tried offers a better overall combination of noise cancellation and sonic excellence.