Noise-canceling (NC) headphones sample surrounding sound and then add an inverse signal to the audio produced by the headphones to “cancel” that external noise. (For more on the benefits and drawbacks of noise-canceling headphones, see the first few paragraphs of our review of the Bose Quiet Comfort 2.) Our favorite noise-canceling headphones are the Sennheiser PXC 250 and the Bose Quiet Comfort 2, but these models are $150 and $300, respectively, pricing them out of reach of many iPod owners. Sony’s MDR-NC6 are significantly more affordable at $60 but, in this case at least, you do get what you pay for.
Because they sit on the outer ears and use simple foam earpads, the MDR-NC6 offer no passive noise isolation — the ability to block external noise by physically blocking the sound. In terms of active noise-cancelation, the MDR-NC6 are only decent. They counteract some degree of external noise, most notably constant sounds like computer fans and plane engines; however, while doing so they add a good deal of audible “hiss” — a common fault of less expensive NC models that often results in listening fatique. The net result, at least in my testing, is that I found the fatigue of the headphones’ hiss to be worse, over time, than the annoyance of the external noise I was trying to avoid.
In terms of sound quality, we always note that noise-canceling headphones will sound worse than comparably-priced non-NC headphones, because the former generally spend their money on NC circuitry instead of audio quality. That certainly holds true here, as other $60 headphones we’ve reviewed, such as the Beyerdynamic DT231 and Grado SR60, offer significantly better sound quality than the MDR-NC6. In fact, you’ll find better sound quality in the Playlist Pick Koss KSC-75 (and related Koss models — see our reviews), which sell for $20.
Finally, the comfort of the MDR-NC6 is among the worst of the many headphones we’ve reviewed. The foam earpads are very thin, letting the hard plastic earpads press uncomfortably against your ears. Even worse, the plastic headband is too flat and unpadded, which means the entire weight of the MDR-NC6 is supported by a single, hard point that sits uncomfortably on the crown of your head.
Although we’re always on the lookout for inexpensive noise-canceling headphones, the MDR-NC6 are fairly uncomfortable, they don’t block much noise, their NC circuitry can be fatiguing, and their overall audio quality is average. If you don’t mind canalphones, you’d be much better off buying a pair of Sony’s $45 MDR-EX71, which offer slightly better sound quality and better noise isolation without the annoying hiss.–Dan Frakes