Playback has long admired Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC7 and ATH-ANC7b noise-cancelling ‘phones and now the ATH-ANC9 ($349.95) has raised the bar higher still, both in terms of sound quality and flexibility. Before we begin our review of the ATH-ANC9, though, let’s consider the qualities that attracted us to A-T’s noise cancellers in the first place. In a nutshell, we loved the fact that, while the ATH-ANC7b offered good (even very good) noise-cancellation technology its primary focus was on sound quality (priorities near and dear to many Playback readers).
Realistically, some folks focus their attention on a noise-cancelling headphone’s noise reduction capabilities, often trying out the ‘phones in noisy environments and then listening to see how much noise gets eliminated. After that, almost as a secondary consideration, they play music through the ‘phones to check out the sound quality. If they like the noise reduction capabilities they’ve heard and find the sound quality at least adequate, they may well make a purchase.
To be honest, we think this noise-reduction-über-alles approach has its priorities backwards, because in our view the first job of a headphone—any headphone, whether noise cancelling or not—is to sound good. The effectiveness of noise cancellation circuitry is also important, but sound quality must always come first. After all, if a headphone didn’t sound good, would it really matter if it did a great job of blocking out noise? Seriously, if all you wanted were peace and quiet, then your best bet would be to pop into the nearest drug store and snap up a pair of HEAROS earplugs (they’re cheap, comfortable, and very effective).
But frankly, most discerning music lovers want something more from their noise-cancelling headphones: namely the best combination of high fidelity sound and low noise they can get for a sensible price. And it’s in finding that elusive balance point between high sound quality, low noise, and affordability that Audio-Technica’s past ANC-series headphones have won praise from our staff.
With the ATH-ANC9, which is Audio-Technica’s most ambitious noise-cancelling headphone to date, the firm is taking steps forward in sound quality, while adding a raft of new features including three discrete noise cancellation modes, each optimized for different noise environments, plus headset functionality. These changes sound good in theory, but how do they play out in real life? We’ll attempt to answer that question in this review.
• Drivers: 40mm dynamic drivers
• Passive or Active Modes: the headphone can be operated in passive more or driven by its built-in amplifier, which is powered by a single AAA battery.
• Headphone Frame: The ATH-ANC9 features an adjustable frame that allows the headphone’s ear cups to swivel side-to-side and up-and-down for an optimal fit. The frame allows the ear cups to fold flat to help the ANC9 fit within its included compact travel case.
• Ear Cup Pads: The ATH-ANC9 provides headband and ear cup pads covered in a leather-like material and that use “luxurious memory foam padding.”
• Easy Access Battery Compartment: The ANC9 is powered by a single AAA battery, which fits in an externally accessible slide-out tray positioned on the side of the ATH-ANC9’s right hand ear cup.
• Battery Life (for various AAA battery types):
o Up to 35 hours (Lithium)
o Up to 25 hours (alkaline)
o Up to 20 hours (rechargeable).
• Three Noise-Cancellation Modes: As above, the ATH-ANC9 provides three distinct, switch selectable noise cancellation modes:
o Mode 1 (“Airplane Mode”): Mode 1 provides up to “95% noise isolation at 200 Hz.” According to an Audio-Technica press release, Mode 1 is said to be “ideal for use on airplanes, trains and buses and applies maximum noise-cancellation to low frequencies.” The ANC9 uses a multicolor display light that glows Blue to indicate Mode 1 is engaged, and whenever Mode 1 is switched on, a single “beep” is heard through the earphones.
o Mode 2 (“Office Mode”): Mode 2 provides up to “95% noise isolation at 300 Hz.” Audio-Technica says Mode 2 is “designed especially for use in noisy offices and crowded places, and targets midrange frequencies.” The ANC9’s multicolor display light glows Red to indicate Mode 2 is engaged, and whenever Mode 2 is switched on, two brief “beeps” are heard through the earphones.
o Mode 3 (“Study Mode”): Mode 3, which deliberately uses less aggressive noise cancellation than Modes 1 or 2, provides up to “85% noise isolation at 200 Hz.” Audio-Technica says “Mode 3 is best for already-quiet locations like libraries and creates a pristine, peaceful environment ideal for study.” The ANC9’s multicolor display light glows Green to indicate Mode 3 is engaged, and whenever Mode 2 is switched on, three brief “beeps” are heard through the earphones.