Not long ago Playback published a two-part survey of six of today’s best noise-cancelling headphones. Issue 14 reviewed models from Audio Technica, Creative, and Dr. Dre/Monster Cable while Issue 15 covered models from Bose, Sennheiser, and Sony. This month we wanted to continue in the spirit of the original survey, and to begin checking models we weren’t able to include the first time. Before we begin, though, you may want to take a look at some background information we’ve prepared to show you which performance characteristics we think are most important in noise-cancelling headphones.
In this review I’ll take a look at Denon’s latest entry in the noise-cancelling headphone marketplace—the AH-NC732 ($300). Unlike many of the noise-cancelling headphones I have tested thus far, the AH-NC732 is a light, compact, on-ear model (most competing noise-cancellers I’ve tried have been over-the-ear models) that comes with a useful though by no means extravagant set of accessories. But although the Denon tips the scales at a feathery 5.1 oz., its sound, as you’ll see in a moment, certainly packs a heavyweight punch
Consider this headphones if: you want a light, simple-to-use, on-ear noise-cancelling headphone that offers very good noise suppression and sound quality, with a pleasing mix of clarity and neutral tonal balance tempered by a just-right touch of natural warmth. The Denons can collapse to fit in very small spaces—or to be packed up in their compact carrying case (included).
Look elsewhere if: you would prefer the somewhat different feel and potentially better acoustic isolation that over-the-ear headphones might afford. Also look further if you want a headphone that offers switch selectable sound enhancement or simulated surround sound processing modes.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced noise canceling headphones):
Denon’s AH-NC732 is one of the better-balanced noise-cancelling headphones I’ve encountered, combining much (though not all) of the clarity and sonic transparency of a headphone such as Audio Technica’s ATH-ANC7 (reviewed in issue 14) with the natural, uncolored tonal balance of a headphone such as Creative Lab’s Aurvana X-Fi (also reviewed in issue 14). Extreme highs are just slightly rolled-off, but not to a terribly noticeable degree (in fact, I think some listeners would interpret those slightly subdued highs as freedom from edginess and glare). Two particularly appealing aspects of the AH-NC732 are its solidly weighted bass (some of the best I’ve heard from an on-ear design) and it’s gentle, just right tough of natural warmth, which makes the headphone sound inviting and engaging. At 105dB, the Denon’s sensitivity is decent, but falls 4-5dB below that of the class leaders, meaning you’ll need to turn up your iPod to get optimal output from these ‘phones. But overall, the AH-NC732 offers a pleasing mix of virtues. The AH-NC732’s active noise cancellation circuit is quite effective, though I felt its on-ear design offered slightly less acoustic isolation (that is, the ability to block out rather than “cancel out” incoming noise) than some of the better over-the-ear models I’ve tested.
Put on “Split Window” from jazz/bluegrass/country bassist Viktor Krauss’s debut album Far From Enough [Nonesuch] and the Denons will immediately reward you with a warm, rich rendition of the brooding and highly atmospheric track. Through the AH-NC732’s Krauss’s opening acoustic bass solo has an appropriately deep, sonorous growl while the bass drum that provides a rhythmic foundation for the song has near-ideal low frequency weight and punch. Later, higher percussion instruments join, followed by Bill Frisell’s haunting electric guitar, which picks up and then carries the melodic theme, putting forth evocative lines that float like question marks above the bass and percussion commentary going on below. The Denons do a fine job of expressing the lush and sumptuous vibe of the track, and especially of expressing the soulful, melancholy lilt of Frisell’s guitar. But that said, the headphones also come up a bit short in that they cannot quite capture the finely filigreed treble percussion and guitar details and harmonics that can and should give this track an air of mystery, suggesting a giant, wide-open recording space. The good news, here, is that the AH-NC732’s strengths are compelling and self-evident, while its shortcomings are relatively minor “sins of omission.”
The AH-NC732’s are extremely light, compact, and very comfortable, although the feel of on-ear headphones may not suit all tastes. The seal that the Denons achieved on my ears was good, but perhaps not quite as good as that of some of the better over-the-ear models I’ve tried. The trade-off, of course, is that the Denons weigh roughly 2-3 oz. less than competing over-the-ear models do—a difference you can really notice over time.
Ease of Use
The AH-NC732 offers simple, foolproof, single-switch operation. There is also a back-up, passive mode if battery power runs out, though I found that sound quality was much, much better when the ‘phones were powered up.
Because its overall sound is well balanced and clearer than most, Denon’s AH-NC732 is easy for us to recommend, especially for listeners who will appreciate its compact, lightweight design. In particular, this Denon does a better than average job of cancelling out ambient noise while offering solid and well-defined bass and smooth, revealing mids.