Review: Sony MDR-NC500D

Record labels, hammered by ever plummeting CD sales, see a ray of sunshine in the recent minor renaissance in vinyl records, whose sales and production continue to steadily expand. The reason for this 33 1/3 RPM nostalgia? The feeding of a demand from a growing minority of audio geeks who have been bitching about the cold sound of digital reproduction since the first compact disc was released. (And don’t even get them started on the sound quality of MP3s.) Records, they claim, have warmer, more natural sound. OK, so what’s this gotta do with Sony’s Digital Noise Cancellation Headphones? That all depends on how you like the sound reproduction of the music you listen to: analog warm or digital cool.

Until now, the Bose QuietComfort 3 headphones have set the benchmark for superior noise-cancellation. Could Sony out-Bose Bose with its new digital headphones? After comparing both on a Southwest Airlines flight, a noisy commuter train and a quiet living room, we found that yes, Sony has outdone Bose … but not necessarily for the better.

Noise-cancellation: Sony’s analog-digital conversion cut out the omnipresent annoying drone of a jet engine, screaming babies and background conversations. The ‘phones literally put you in your own cocoon of silence. Bose does the same, but Sony let us optimize the noise-cancellation mode to three diverse environments: airplane, bus/train and office. By simply pressing an artificial intelligence button on the right ear piece, it was possible to cut out external sounds effectively. Sony also added a handy monitor button that lets you hear external sound such as a flight attendant asking if you want a drink. With Bose, you must power down or remove the headphones entirely to hear sounds from the outside.

Audio reproduction: We threw everything from the Alpha Twins to Yo Yo Ma to ABBA to ZZ Top at both headphones. Bose reproduction was analog warm without any distortion at higher volumes or with heavy bass. Sony’s sound was the epitome of digital cool but performed best with midrange reproduction. Some heavy bass tracks at higher volumes caused enough headbanging distortion to make us actually throw the headphones off.

Portability and Comfort: Check it out — Bose QuietComfort 3 fit inside its 2-inch-thick carrying case weighs in at one pound, Sony’s MRD-NC500D check in at just over 1.5 pounds. The case is 3 inches thick with bulk that exceeds the Bose package by more than inch in either direction. Of course, there is more packed in the Sony case: an AC-power recharging cable with a mini-brick plug and an alternative two-AAA battery case to power the headphones when the built-in rechargeable batteries have no juice left. The Bose QuietComfort 3’s feather-light, ear cup features a soft foam which fits on top of your ears whereas the Sony set surround your ears, not putting any pressure on them. Comfort of course is subjective, but after wearing each for more than one hour, we preferred the softness and material of the Bose more.

Does digital make a difference? Sure it allows for customizing noise-cancellation based on the “noise” around you, but the analog Bose still does the job well, too. Of course, in the end it’s whether you like your sound digital cool or analog warm. For us at the G-Lab, we’re content to stay toasty.

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