Friday, February 28, 2014

Review of Sony MDR NC-13, the budget Active Noise Cancellation option

Aah... the charm of a Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) earphone is something different!

I first experienced active noise cancellation in 2007 on a 179 EUR Sony digital music player NW-S706F. It was a mind blowing experience. Especially since I was in Germany, where the ambient noise is quite low, even the rumble of the local train or bus was cut off completely. Suddenly there was silence like in Ramakrishna Ashrama. Imagine listening to music in good quality speakers in such an ambiance.
Only problem was that the noise cancellation algorithm was in the player and therefore, the earphones with mic + mp3 player was needed to experience the noise cancellation. Never the less, I was very excited about the prospect of using it in India. Long commute to office was finally going to be easy on the ear drums without blarring volume levels in the traffic. Alas, I was disappointed. The ANC couldn't remove the high level noise of Bangalore traffic. Although in office it could immerse you in pure awesome music, on the run it was quite useless.

Now, in 2014, I started using company transport to commute to office. A thought came to my mind about utilizing the 2-3 hours spent everyday for watching movies\listening to music. However, with traffic noise, I can't come to terms to burden my ears with high volume, which seems to be the only solution. Then, I thought why not try ANC, especially since these days we get earphones with a built-in ANC unit with a convenient toggle switch. Plus, since I had upgraded to a Nexus 5, I liked the idea of watching videos on it. Hence, RnD started on available pocket friendly ANC options.

I hit this page:

I was impressed with the frequency response vs noise dB level analysis of earphones. Of course I couldn't afford a Bose. So, I decided to try out Sony, my trusted partner with noise cancellation. found me a seller from Hong Kong charging 55 USD and free shipping and voila, the MDR NC 13 was in my hands!

Before I go on to tell my verdict on the earphones, I would like to show a couple of graphs taken from an app RTA analyser which is a tiny (79kb) app that gives frequency vs dB level plot!

Fairly silent room:
Fairly Silent Room

Cab (Tempo Traveler) running on the Whitefield-ITPL road in Bangalore:

Noise Cab

If you see the Noise cancellation frequency response of the Sony from the article on, you would notice that the Sony would be able to reduce roughly 15-20 dB avg. The difference between a silent room and a noisy cab is around 35 dB (I'm not sure why the RTA app uses a -ve scale, but for my explanation, it really doesn't matter, assuming there aren't any strings attached with the scale.).
Hence, it was quite encouraging to buy it. Note that the higher frequencies (3kHz to 6kHz) are attenuated more than the average. Although the cab noise is more in the lower frequency range (60Hz to 1kHz) which would mean I would need a Bose quite comfort, I went ahead with the Sony purchase.

Results time...

I must admit I'm not blown away by the earphone. The noise cancellation is as expected, about 'half' the noise is removed. The main effect is evident because of the fit of the earphones itself. The noise isolation is very effective, plus excess noise is removed by the ANC. Overall, I'm able to set the volume dial a bit lower, although it is still higher than a silent room. But, as Murphy's laws would have it, the cab driver changed, on the day I got the Sony and this new guy likes to listen to Radio while driving. Damn! More noise to handle and I'm almost never using the Sony until Radio is switched off!

Sound quality verdict:
My previous earphones was (now my bro has it :P) the brilliant VSonic GR02 Bass Edition. As the name says, it was a mini sub woofer in the ear. The Sony MDR NC 13 has a more balanced output. Not that the earphones aren't capable of extreme Bass, but just out of the box, they behave more balanced. So, god bless Android, I downloaded the PowerAmp, which has a splendid 10 band Equalizer among other dials to pump up the Bass and boy now, my smile returns!

ANC verdict:
I haven't listened to the Bose, or any other active noise cancellation earphones for that matter, except the Sony I mentioned in the beginning. In the MDR NC 13, the noise cancellation isn't very evident at first. Especially since there is a few seconds fade-in before it kicks in fully. Plus, since the noise isolation is damn decent, you are left wondering if it cancels any noise at all. But, once in the cab, I was able to make out the difference. Although not pin drop silence, it is decent. Only recurring expense would be for an AAA battery, which Sony claim will last 50 hrs. So, it seems like a fair trade-off.