Anyone who commutes to a big city knows how loud and distracting things can get -- whether it's the whine of a bus engine, a subway car's ca-clank or just that screaming baby seated behind you. Some folks may find cranking jams through their headphones helpful for blocking out the world, while others would prefer a bit more relative silence. Thankfully, in this modern age there exist headphones with noise-cancelling goodness to help you zone out.

Sony hasn't been a stranger to such cans, and recently introduced its $200 MDR-NC200D noise-cancelling headphones; a mid-range option for folks wanting similar benefits of its over-ear NC500D in an on-ear package. The claim is that these pups will reduce "98.2 percent of ambient noise" for up to 22 hours on a single AAA, so we sported the MDRs for the past few weeks as our primary set of headphones to hear for ourselves. You'll find all of the rock blockin' deets just after the break.

Sony MDR-NC200D noise-cancelling headphones unboxing and hands-on

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Hardware


So what does that $200 price tag snag you? Once we got the NC200Ds unboxed we found an instruction manual, a zippered travel case loaded with the cans, a detachable 3.5mm right-angled cable, an airplane / right angle adapter and a AAA battery for juice -- not bad.

The NC200Ds won't turn heads as you wear them, but that's not meant as a negative knock -- they're a handsome shade of black and effectively functional. In hand, the headphones feel pleasing with a light, yet sturdy build and a variety of smooth textures from their faux leather pads to the slightly matted earcups. This set's a master of angles as well, making them easily portable in the most stuffed of bags. The yokes smoothly swivel from flat to about 90-degrees, fold in and out with a secure click and also provide a wide range of tilt for the earcups. All that mixed in with the moderately flexible build and metal-supported head-rails made for a presentation that's more than adequate overall, seeming right inline with the price.


Around the left cup is is where you'll find all of the controls. Near the front we're greeted by an AI NC button (Artificial Intelligence Noise-Cancellation, more on this in a bit) and a sliding power switch, next to which is a green LED status indicator. On the underside is a 3.5mm input jack and beside it is a mic (also found on the right cup) for NC -- sadly, there's no voice support here. On back, you'll notice a Monitor button used for hearing the outside world with the headphones on, and lastly, there's push button pop-out slot for the battery up top.

The controls were accessible using just two fingers and a thumb, and with every button press we're greeted by chimes (one for AI NC, and two for Monitor) assuring us of our selection. As of this writing, we're on our second battery with the NC200Ds after about a week of using them for a few hours everyday. Basically, you'll get a fair amount of active listening and noise-cancellation time, but we'd recommend squaring off with a rechargeable battery -- unless you're trying to fund the pink bunny a new drum, that is. We should also note that if the battery does die on you the headphones will still work for music -- just without digital amplification or NC abilities.

Fit and Comfort


We really like that Sony decided to go with an ergonomic oval shape on the NC200D's earcups rather than a circular design. The fit here is very similar to Bowers & Wilkins' P5, which we consider very ear-friendly for longer bouts of listening, and slightly better in humid weather as the earpads didn't stick to our ears. Even after repeated multiple-hour sessions of rocking out at the office, these put very little pressure on our ears. Best of all, we experienced relatively no ear cartilage cramping. We found the head-rails have a longer range of extension than we've been used with others, making these a viable option for larger noggins. Lastly, you'll notice the cups fold flat; this allowed us to wear them around our collar when we needed an intermission without choking our neck. In a sentence, these are about as comfortable as one could expect a portable headphone to be without grabbing yourself a set of circum-aurals.

Sound


Let's talk about this AI NC business. With some noise-cancelling 'phones you'll have a few preset modes or the ability to manually create your own. Sony's approach, however, takes most of the control out of your own hands and instead lets the headphones decide. Anytime you press the AI NC button (with the power on) the cans pause for a few seconds to listen to the external noise and then initiate one of three digital noise-cancelling modes for planes, cars or indoor environments. Should you need to hear the hubbub around you, the Monitor button on the back lets it all leak in so you don't need to take them off -- perfect for when it's in-flight meal selection time.

We figure Sony's assuming most people will be using these with the power on, because in comparison to our B&W P5s, passive isolation wasn't nearly as good. Though, once we enabled the NC200Ds cancellation mode -- which is listed to provide up to 17.5 dB of noise reduction -- they were unsurprisingly the clear winner. We especially noticed it when listening to music, but that 98.2 percent figure from earlier mainly applies to sounds in the lower registers.

Noises such as engine rumble and air-conditioner hum were certainly done away with effectively, but anything in the higher areas remained a slight hiss -- if not sometimes a bit easier to discern. (Read: you'll be out of luck if you'd want to totally hush the yada yada of that chatterbox next to you.) There's no doubt that a load of ambient noise was welcomely taken out of the equation, although, in quieter areas the anti-noise signal pushing through its 40mm drivers can be just as distracting. Simply put, the noise-cancellation provided was quite effective so long as we used 'em within their limits.


Strapped 'round our ears there were two ways to go about our music: passively, or with the power on, actively with NC and Sony's own blend of equalization. We found that the passive sound was just so-so. Lots of bass seemed to be missing from the mix and the overall audio quality was on the tinny side -- not to mention a fair amount of external noise was seeping in. Once we hit the power on, though, it was like using a completely different set of 'phones. To describe the quality difference in a few words: bright and tight.

Essentially, all of the missing bass seems to come right back in along with the highs and mids becoming delectably crispy. Better yet, if you've got some low-bit rate files hanging out on your PMP, the NC200Ds seemed to make them sound a little bit better. To our ears, we'd say there's a fair bit of compression added in achieving this -- audiophiles be warned, as pleasing as the mix is, it's totally a colored sound.

As far as volume levels go, we noticed that with noise-cancellation off we'd need the volume at ten or above (out of a possible 20) on our Zune 30GB while on a bus, which still wasn't ideal, but it was all our ears could handle. Conversely, with it on we didn't need to place the volume past seven to be almost completely immersed in our music. Overall, the NC200Ds made a welcome difference whether we were commuting on a bus or subway car, or just typing away out our desk in the office.

Wrap-up


Everything said, we enjoyed our time with Sony's MDR-NC200D noise-cancelling headphones. The fit is excellent, the active sound quality is pleasing, the build quality is solid and most importantly, the automatic noise-cancellation works seamlessly and easily. Our main gripe is that the passive sound quality is well, passable, but if you're picking up these headphones we'd imagine you'll plan on using 'em with the power on. On a lesser note, an in-line remote would've been welcome along with a built-in rechargeable battery. Nitpicks aside, the NC200Ds delivered well enough in most aspects to warrant the $200 asking price in our eyes. They're currently available from Sony if you're looking for this kind of kit, just don't expect to drown out your roomie's Glee addiction.
Sony

Sony MDR-NC200D noise-cancelling headphones

Pros

  • Effective noise-cancellation
  • Ultra comfortable fit
  • Pleasing active sound quality

Cons

  • Eats batteries
  • Passive sound quality is so-so
  • Passive noise-isolation needs improvement
Conclusion

Nitpicks aside, the NC200Ds delivered well enough in most aspects to warrant the $200 asking price.

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Sony MDR-NC200D noise-cancelling headphones review