Making a set of noise-canceling headphones that sound good and cancel noise well is no easy task. Able Planet’s Clear Harmony kills plenty of racket and pumps out some sweet-sounding audio, which is why it mystifies me that they’d do a less-than-stellar job on the fit and comfort, especially when they’re playing in Bose’s $350 sandbox. Still, these are worth a listen, even if they don’t blow away the competition.
Able Planet’s Clear Harmony ($349 list) is basically a me-too product with not much to differentiate it from the crowd besides its better-than-average sound and quieting. The overall design is standard fare, with full-size earcups, plenty of imitation leather padding, and a 5-foot detachable cable that plugs into the left earcup. There’s an inline volume control on the cable — better than buttons on an earcup — and the power switch (and LED indicator) is toward the back of the left earcup.
The package includes a rigid case covered in what feels like neoprene, as well as an airplane adapter (dual-mono) and a quarter-inch adapter (for use with a home stereo or amplifier).
The headphones don’t go all the way around my ears, so I felt constricted compared with the luxury of larger cans like Bose’s QuietComfort 2 and Sennheiser’s PXC-450. That’s not a huge problem for short listening sessions, but if you’re on a long flight, you’ll definitely need a break after maybe a half hour.
The headband tension is pretty snug, but it didn’t touch the top of my skull even when I adjusted it to the smallest size (though it fit more than half the other people I enlisted for comfort testing).
These aren’t painful headphones to wear by any means, but for $349 I want to feel like my head is nestled in Pamela Anderson’s bosom.
The Clear Harmony hold their own in the quieting department. The Bose QuietComfort 2 and Sennheiser PXC-450 are a little quieter across a broader range of sounds, but all three take the bass and edge out of any noise New York City can throw their way. Voices don’t really get shut out very well, but that’s true of all active noise-cancellers, and those are easily drowned out by music. The headphones don’t block noise passively as well as they could if the headband fit my odd-shaped melon better.
What’s that sound?
I auditioned the Clear Harmony using an Audible audiobook (America: The Book, by Jon Stewart), John Coltrane’s Blue Train, the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication, and a DVD of The Fifth Element running off my laptop.
The Clear Harmony uses Able Planet’s Linx Audio technology to preserve clarity in the human vocal range at any volume (like a little sharpening on a photo), and although it’s subtle, it bumps up the detail in stuff like movie dialogue and audiobooks. Acoustic jazz comes through with good tonal balance and plenty of crispness on the cymbals. The bass is a bit on the mushy side, especially compared with tightness of the Sennheiser PXC-450, but it’s not overbearing and doesn’t muffle the rest of the music. Hip-hop and rock come through clean and clear and aren’t affected as negatively by the tubby bass, though movie explosions are a little flat.
The Clear Harmony are a little too expensive and not quite comfortable enough for me to recommend them over, say, the Bose QuietComfort series or even Audio Technica’s excellent (and less-expensive) ATH-ANC7. If price is no object, the Sennheisers are truly impressive, and you pay an extra $150 for the privilege. But if you happen to have a colossal cranium and tiny ears — and if you can find a good online deal on them online — the Clear Harmony is one of the better-sounding sets of noise-canceling headphones out there.