Swedish audio company Nocs was founded in 2008 by “a couple of guys addicted to Apple products” with the goal of creating headphones that match the aesthetics and performance of Apple’s own devices. The company offers three in-ear models, and I recently had the chance to test the least-expensive model, the $70 NS200 Aluminum.
Canalbuds like the NS200 essentially split the difference in design and price between traditional earbuds and in-ear-canal (“canalphone”) models. (See our in-ear-canal headphone primer for more details.) Since they fit partially in the ear canal, canalbuds block some external noise and aim to form an acoustic seal that improves bass performance. However, they don’t block as much sound as true in-ear-canal models, and, as with those models, getting a proper fit can be tricky, the cord can produce unwanted microphonic noise in a listener’s ear, and using the headset function can be weird due to the occlusion effect of having your ears plugged while talking.
If Nocs’ goal is to match Apple’s design prowess, the company has certainly nailed Apple’s penchant for minimalism. However, the NS200 also lacks the drama of Apple’s designs, and I’m split on whether this makes the NS200 a great complement to Apple’s products by virtue of not upstaging them, or if the NS200 is simply plain to the point of looking generic. The NS200’s earpieces are matte-black capsules adorned with only a small Nocs logo and hosting black, silicone eartips. Black, rubbery, kevlar-reinforced cables are attached to the earpieces, with the right-hand side of this split cord sporting a simple remote/microphone module with three identically sized and shaped—and unlabeled—buttons (for volume up, play/pause/call, and volume down). The size and positioning of the buttons makes them relatively easy to identify and push, but I’d still prefer a way—such as different shapes or a raised hint on the center button—to explicitly identify which button does what.
Bundled accessories include a shirt clip; one pair each of small and large eartips; two pairs of medium tips; and a carrying pouch.
In my testing, the NS200’s microphone performance was just competent. Voices are comphrensible, but thin and distant compared to the iPhone 4’s internal microphone, which offers audio that sounds fuller and more natural. The NS200 will be fine for taking the occasional phone call, but its microphone is far from the best I’ve heard.
As for the the NS200’s audio-listening performance, it’s similar to that of a good number of canalbuds I’ve reviewed, with significant emphasis on the upper bass, some emphasis on treble frequencies, and a slightly recessed midrange. The different instruments within songs are relatively easy to pick apart, but the NS200 reveals only moderate levels of detail in the instruments themselves. There is also a lack of “space” to the sound. The low-end emphasis gives nice kick drums, but bass guitar sounds a little bloated and slow. Similarly, the emphasis on the high end makes cymbals pop out, but some recordings sound harsh.
The NS200 is in some ways similar to V-moda’s $100 Remix Remote ( ), which has a very similar sound but a much flashier design, and is also broadly similar to Thinksound’s $90 ts02+mic ( ), which is a little smoother and more refined. I found a comparison to Maximo’s $80 iP-595 ( ), a longtime favorite, particularly revealing. The iP-595 also emphasizes bass and treble, but manages to do so without as much bloat in the bass and harshness in the highs. The iP-595 also sounds less crowded, giving music the space I miss in the NS200, and overall instrumental detail is better. Finally, Etymotic’s $100 mc3 ( ) offers far better overall sound and detail, but probably not enough bass for some listeners.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The NS200 is a thoughtfully designed set of canalbuds that will appeal to minimalists—and especially those who like V-Moda’s bassy sound but not the company’s flashy designs. The NS200 is good enough overall to be recommendable on its own. However, the market for canalbuds in the $50 to $100 price range is crowded with a number of models that sound as good as or better than the NS200, and the NS200 does little to stand out apart from its intentionally minimalist design.