To experience sonic character of the ATH-ANC9 in action, try listening to the very revealing track “Senia’s Lament” from Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas’ Lookout for Hope [Sugarhill]. The song revolves around the plaintive, soaring voice of Douglas’ Dobro, which is ably supported by crisp, delicate percussion and the deep, woody, powerful sound of an amplified acoustic bass. The voice of the Dobro falls right in the middle of the ANC9’s midrange “sweet spot” and sounds, as you might expect, appropriately evocative and engaging (I’ve always loved the way Dobros simultaneously embody some of the qualities of guitars, bluegrass fiddles, and pedal steel guitars—qualities the ATH-ANC9s reproduced in a satisfying, vivid way). The acoustic bass, which is well represented in this track, had plenty of weight, warmth, and growl through the ATH-ANC9s, although the bass at times took on a larger-than-life quality that—while appealing in its way—was not quite right. High frequency details, most notably the high pitched sounds of a triangle (or chime?) and the very high-frequency harmonics that normally give this recording a wonderful sense of “air”, were for the most part present but downplayed to a degree. As a result, the track sounded less open and “airy” than it can when heard at its best, though the overall sound was undeniably relaxing and smooth.
To get an even better handle on the ANC9’s performance capabilities, I turned to an old favorite: the track “Remote Stories” from Christopher Roberts’ album Last Cicada Singing [Cold Blue], which captures Roberts performing one of his own compositions on a 7-string, fretless Chinese instrument called the Qin (pronounced “chin,” I am told). There are several things that are really cool about the Qin and that make it a great audio test vehicle. First, the instrument spans a remarkably wide range of pitches, reaching down to about the low range of a cello, but also extending quite high up. Next, the instrument is astoundingly expressive, as part of the tradition of the instrument is to use not only the sounds of its string but all of the performer’s performance noises (plucking sounds, harmonics, note bends, finger sliding on strings or deftly damping notes, etc.) as part of the music. Finally, the Qin is capable of a wide range of moods, sometimes delivering a hard, sharp, aggressive sound, but at other moments sounding smooth, ethereal, and delicate. In short, the Qin gives headphones a real work out.
The ATH-ANC9 tackled “Remote Stories” with grace and a good measure of subtlety, capturing the lingering, almost floating sound of the Qin in Roberts’ hands, while reproducing most, though not all, of the nuances of his fingering and plucking techniques. As with the acoustic bass on “Senia’s Lament”, above, the low strings of the Qin sounded a little larger-than-life, though in a way I admit I found quite moving. Much of the inner detail of the Qin came through intact, although the highest frequency transient details and harmonics (of which there are—or should be—many in this recording) were rolled off in a way that made the overall presentation sound noticeably less realistic and three-dimensional than it can when heard at its best. My thought is that the ATH-ANC9 gives you much of the music most of the time (and in a satisfying way), but that there are certain subtle sonic fine points that do inevitably go missing.
Consider this noise-cancelling headphone if:
• You want a headphone that offers one of the most versatile, effective, and cleverly conceived noise-cancellation systems ever offered on any headphone at any price. (Sony’s more costly and complicated MDR-NC500D offers similar functionality, but the ATH-ANC9 stands as a simpler, more effective, and more affordable solution).
• You like the idea of a noise-cancelling headphone that offers a mode geared specifically for use in already quiet listening spaces (this something few if any other headphone makers have thought to provide).
• You want a headphone whose core sound is slightly warmer than neutral and that offers a good measure of transparency.
• You want a noise-cancelling headphone that, in a pinch, can keep right on running even if its battery fails.
Look further if:
• You were hoping for a noise-cancelling headphone that matches the sound quality of today’s best passive headphones in this price class. Good though the ATH-ANC9 is, passive ‘phones still have the upper hand in terms of openness, transparency, and neutral tonal balance.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced noise-cancelling headphones):