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Old 04-11-2013, 11:44 AM
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3602 3602 is offline
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Default Sony MDR-NC500D "review"

Preface

The MDR-NC500D retailed for $350 CAD. As a long-time customer of the local Sony Style, I obtained these headphones, brand new and all, for $150. I will try to review these headphones from a $150 point of view. Just food for thought.

Introduction

Just about nobody talks about noise-canceling headphones when it comes to "serious listening". This is absolutely not without reason as the circuitry in these headphones almost always mess with the sounds in all kinds of interesting ways. I once proposed a multi-driver design - one for the music and one for the anti-phase signal - but as I am not an acoustic engineer, that design is likely to never see the light of day.

People usually choose IEMs for noise-isolating purposes. My personal experience with IEMs is enough for me to summarize the following points, aka. why IEMs don't work for me:

  • I spend little time walking on the streets and much time in transportation vehicles. IEMs block irregular street noise very well but they do jack against petrol/diesel engines, railroad track gaps and turboreactors (jet engines).
  • My ear canals might be more sensitive than average. Sony Hybrid tips work the best for me and even then they cause itching after about half an hour of usage.
  • I somehow cannot manage to breathe correctly while wearing IEMs (or earplugs, really). This forces me to remain relatively stationary while using them, which more or less defeats their purpose.
I have tried several supra- and circum-aural headphones. While being closed, most of these do not isolate noise despite some of them carrying the "PRO" or "DJ" mark. They include the Sennheiser HD215, HD280, HD380 and Sony MDR-V700DJ. I tried also Ultrasones when I was at B&H.



Noise canceling headphones to the rescue!


MDR-NC500D


I was always fascinated by noise-canceling technology. I find it amazing how we can take a signal, flip the phase, feed it back out and just let physics take over. My first pair of noise-canceling headphones are the Sony MDR-NC60, which I managed to salvage from a room downstairs. After prolonged abuse by some other people, the drivers finally failed. So I was more or less stuck with IEMs for about 2 years.


Sony must have been clearing these out in preparation for the new MDR-1RNC headphones. Because they actually used to retail for $500 when they just came out. There were other choices, of course, such as the BOSE QC15, but since I "knew" the local Sony salesmen, why not?


Packaging


If you buy one in Canada, yours may or may not come with an Air Canada Maple Lounge pass. Mine did not.


Build


Sony claims "generous use of lightweight metal alloys" in their product brochure. These headphones might as well be all plastic because I cannot see any metal on these, apart from a few screws. One of my connections also uses these headphones and he claims that the metal parts are all inside and concealed. I really wonder why because I believe having some metal parts really accentuates the build quality. The MDR-NC60 feels better built in every way: The earcups are almost entirely metal (on the outside anyway) and the telescopic headband is visibly metal. Most importantly, the buttons on the NC60 are not loose! If you move your head around while wearing the NC500D you will hear the buttons rattling in their sockets.


So basically, no, this level of build is not worth $350. But hey, when both BOSE and Sennheiser use silver-painted plastic on their flagship headphones (yes, I handled the HD800 back in B&H) and Sony actually doesn't, maybe I should shut up.


Also can some call Immigration to check on Grado's "factory"?


Comfort


Sony does one thing well. Angled drivers. Doing this makes sure nothing inside the earcup touches your ear without adding earcup depth or thickness.


Sony did this better on the NC60. I don't know whether the lining material in the NC500D is fluffier, but my ear lobes itch when wearing the NC500D while the NC60 did none of this to me. This usually isn't that serious as I just have to wiggle the ears a bit, but it is an added distraction.


The earpads are deceptively thin. It's actually made of two parts: The "external" part, which touches your skin, is made of a leather-like material. It feels much better than the paper-like "urethane leatherette" found on so many other headphones that flake off after a while. The "internal" part, or the part that sits between this external part and the earcup structure, is a ring of dense and firm foam. This is actually a spectacular design as the while earpad molds around your ear almost perfectly. I wear glasses and the added protrusions don't seem to lessen the isolation one bit.


They don't get hot at all, perhaps thanks to the backside of the "external" pad being made of vented mesh. Which reminds me of how so many luxury cars don't have vented leather seats for some reason.


The headband is thin, but it doesn't cut into your skull. NC60's headband did. It might also use the two-stage pad structure. It is much thinner yet somehow more comfortable than MDR-7509HD's headband.

Sound

Source: SanDisk Sansa Clip+, Rockbox 3.7 (I believe)
Subjective comparison: Bose QC15 (very limited)

One important thing to note is that I don't (never) listen to real vocals out of portable sources. It is my personal, purely subjective belief that portable sources are not deserving of rendering real vocals and instruments.

So I listen to Vocaloid.

Vocaloid is synthetic music. Purely synthetic music. It might have acoustically recorded passages of guitar and drums, but most of the music is composed by something like Fruity Loops and the "vocals" are provided by Yamaha's Vocaloid technology. Hence the name "Vocaloid": It only somewhat resembles vocals. Most Vocaloid songs are in Japanese, of which I understand none. Here's an English Vocaloid song, if you want to hear for yourself:

I should start giving people medals for actually tolerating throughout the entire performance.

All in all, when it comes to Vocaloid, you can't talk about dynamic range. You can't talk about stereo separation because often there is none. You can't talk about recording and mastering. What you can talk about is clipping and distortion. Lots of them. I've listened to Vocaloid versions of Ave Maris Stella (Guillaume Dufay) and it's a clipfest. Throw whatever piece of Vocaloid music into Audacity and see for yourself - yet some people are still bashing Death Magnetic.

You need equipment that actively masks sonic details. The MDR-NC500D excels at doing just that.

Kurousa-P's Senbonzakura is unlistenable on the MDR-EX1000 nor the XBA-4. It is, as I just called it, a clipfest. This is no longer the case with the MDR-NC500D. Sony agrees and even boasts that the NC500D does an extra AD-DA stage to the music and applies "equalization" to it. I don't know how this is supposed to work (it involves the TI AIC23B and a bunch of other chips) but it makes Vocaloid sound so much better by just outright destroying so much of it. All I hear is a smooth background melody with the "vocals". No details, no clipping. Maybe the distortion is so bad that the resulting sound is appreciable - much like thermionic valves.

The MDR-NC500D renders bass with just enough "fatness" to feel a bit of impact. No, it has no depth, but it's not the flabby resonating one-note fart that comes out of BOSE Acoustimess systems either. And that is good enough. For the rest of the frequency range, all I can say is that the NC500D is very inoffensive.

Now, for you real music listeners (Classic strings, symphonies, Sarah McLachlan and the like), the "qualities" of the NC500D might as well be very offensive to you. But the thing is, when I started to listen to Vocaloid, I wanted something that can deliver an enjoyable experience. The EX1000 and the XBA-4, with their advanced this-and-that, are too good for their own good. For once, noise-canceling headphones do something right to music.

Good headphones should not sound like anything. What the NC500D sound like is much like if you install sixteen inches of drywall in front of the Martin Logan CLX-Art and then perforate the drywall just right. It's an intricate balance; and for Vocaloid music, the NC500D is right on the money.

That said, for folk, blues, jazz, country and Punch Brothers listeners, for the love of God please stay away from the NC500D.

Noise-canceling performance

Insane.

Sony claims "AI noise-canceling". What it actually is is just three preset modes, each with a different effective frequency band. Whenever you press the AI button, the circuitry "listens to" surrounding noise, Fourier out the most intense frequencies and apply a resembling profile.

The best part is, these profiles work. I have mostly used the NC500D in buses and in "offices" and while I don't know whether the correct mode is applied, the noise-canceling always leaves me stunned. With IEMs, there is always a background low-frequency droning, be it an engine or a centrifuge, or some background chattering: With the NC500D, there is none of this. I can say that IEMs leave me in a sea of darkness while the NC500D leaves me in the Void, where there isn't even darkness.

It even suppresses unruly infants and loud arguments of whether to use iso-octanol in the HPLC. Something that neither IEMs nor the BOSE QC15 can do. Digital noise-canceling really isn't just for show. I cannot wait to see hear how well the 1RNC performs.

Other thoughts

The internal battery, fully charged, can easily last 10 hours. I haven't tried that external battery case.

The removable cable is rather thin. I guess this is for its own good so it doesn't disconnect itself from the socket (as this is not the Ultrasone-type screw-in cable).

Conclusion

There isn't much else to say. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing. I do believe that most of what I said are self-tapping and require no previous hole drilling.

Well that's a load off my mind. Moving on and thanks for reading!
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  #2  
Old 04-11-2013, 01:39 PM
Jeven Jeven is offline
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Nice review - I wasn't very familiar with the technology. I don't have very loud noises that I need to block out, when I'm walking outside I like iems that have moderate isolation but still let me hear traffic.

It shows, too, that with Sony it can be fruitful to wait a while before their prices come down - because they nearly always do.
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Old 04-12-2013, 08:16 AM
vashta_nerada vashta_nerada is offline
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Great objective review.

I like the alternate point of view seeing as most phones seem to strive for transparency and clarity. This sounds like its good for listening to less-than-perfect sources.

Do these work with and without the battery? Is there a noticeable difference in sound quality if it works without the battery(passive)?

I was pretty impressed by the noise cancelling of the QC15 and I've also heard great things about the Ultimate Ears ANC phones.
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Old 04-12-2013, 08:42 AM
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3602 3602 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by vashta_nerada View Post
Great objective review.

I like the alternate point of view seeing as most phones seem to strive for transparency and clarity. This sounds like its good for listening to less-than-perfect sources.

Do these work with and without the battery? Is there a noticeable difference in sound quality if it works without the battery(passive)?

I was pretty impressed by the noise cancelling of the QC15 and I've also heard great things about the Ultimate Ears ANC phones.
Hey, who turned off the lights?

Sadly the NC500D do not work without batteries, either internal or external.

Another good thing I can say is that many "lesser" noise-canceling headphones produce a "pressure" on your eardrums. Some people are sensitive towards that. These don't.
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