Review: Sony MDR-NC500D Digital Noise Canceling Headphones


The Sony MDR-NC500D Digital Noise Canceling Headphones cost $400. While that might seem like a lot of money, I can only suggest to you that these headphones are akin to sliding a stick of warm, melty butter into each ear — not in the sense that sticking butter in your ears would likely impede your hearing, but more in the sense that butter is delicious and if you could somehow replicate the taste of butter as an aural sensation, it’d perhaps be something like using these headphones.


The main feature that differentiates these headphones from other noise canceling headphones is that these ones cancel the noise digitally. Using a relatively straightforward process, there’s a little microphone built into the headphones that samples the surrounding ambient noise and creates an opposite waveform to block out that sound.


It works really well, too. I initially tested the headphones in a relatively quiet room with a ceiling fan rotating at the highest setting. The whir of the fan was masked handsomely when I put the headphones on. It actually felt kind of weird. Oh, and the airplane too. Man, are these things great on the airplane. Not until you take them off do you realize how loud those engines are. It’s almost overwhelming to come back into audio reality after a three hour flight. I found myself sometimes wearing these without listening to any music — I just used them to block out the airplane noise.

What’s Included?

You get a lot of stuff, to be sure. There’s an overly large zip-up carrying case, a detachable headphone cord, a power adapter, another cord/adapter combo that’s juiced by two AA batteries, an old-school airplane arm rest adapter, and a small-to-large headphone jack adapter. I expected to be able to just open the box and start playing around but I found having to sort through everything first.


The headphones have an internal lithium-ion battery that needs to be charged before the first use. Once charged, you should be able to get about 16 hours before needing to recharge. If you find yourself without access to a power outlet, you can use the included AA battery adapter to get another 12 or so hours.


As I noted, the actual noise cancellation aspect works wonderfully. There’s a “monitor” button on the side of the right earpiece that allows you to temporarily turn off the noise cancellation so you can compare the two environments. There’s also an “AI NC MODE” button that you can press that’ll cause the headphones to analyze the ambient noise wherever you are and adjust accordingly. Very cool.

Listening to music sounds pretty good, although not quite as great as you might expect from a pair of $400 headphones. My iPod Touch sounded a bit muddy at first, with the kick drum of Fall Out Boy’s “THNKS FR TH MMRS” popping and distorting to the point that I had to change the EQ preset from Rock to Spoken Word, of all settings. It was the only one where the bass didn’t overpower everything else. Once that part was tweaked, everything sounded pretty good. Seasoned audiophiles might not be as forgiving but given how well these things block everything else out, I can let an initial EQ adjustment slide. Movies and video podcasts have sounded fine, too.


This is where things might get a little sticky. The headphones are $400. Are they worth it? I certainly wouldn’t spend $400 on headphones even if they were actually made of real butter but I’m not that uppity about my music. I was chatting with audio expert Mike Kobrin about the headphones and mentioned that I liked them and he didn’t throw a tantrum like an audio expert would normally do if someone were to suggest that inferior headphones were, in fact, good. So that’s something.

I also tested these headphones against my Dad’s Bose noise canceling headphones which were originally offered at $400 and I found that Sony’s sounded markedly better. I could hear an audible noise-canceling hiss from the Bose, but there’s no such hiss from the Sony headphones. It’s almost like a sound vacuum. Like anti-sound.

So, should you pay $400? That depends. I think someone who wants to get his or her first pair of noise canceling headphones would definitely be impressed. The kind of people who don’t have a problem spending $400 on headphones, though, might not be. And they’re the ones Sony’s going to have to win over. If I were to spend $400 on these headphones, though, I’d feel like I was getting my money’s worth.

As with all audio stuff, you should definitely try a pair out first to see how you like them. They’ll be available on March 21st.

Digital Noise Canceling Headphones MDR-NC500D []