With the 2011 CES fading into the background, many of the products we saw on the show floor are starting to hit retailers and make their way to customers. One product that was introduced a while back but is still an active sell is the Able Planet NC300
noise-cancelling headphones with LINX Audio that I first saw in 2010. These have actually been available for some time, but the updated version I saw at the 2010 CES are one of the best noise-cancelling headphones I have experienced to date.
Out of the Box
some Able Planet products previously, I knew what to expect when I received the NC300s from the company, but I still get amazed at how much they give you for your money. The NC300 headphones come shipped within a box that contains a zippered hard-shell protective carrying case, 1 AAA battery, airplane adapter and 1/4 Home Stereo Adaptor.
The NC300 comes in both a black and white matte finish and GamingNexus receiving the white NC300W to review. Form a style standpoint, the headphones are attractive, look good on your head and reflect the level of audio quality that they produce. The ability to select them in white or black also allows you a couple of choices to reflect your personality. I liked the white ones, although they did tend to pick up dirt that was visible, but it was easily wiped away with basic cleaning solution.
The cord length (around 5’) is perfect for whatever use you plan to do with the NC300s. It doesn’t get in the way and actually has a volume control built in about 12 inches from the end that plugs in your mobile device. It could have used a clip on it, but the design and placement are perfect.
The comfort level of the NC300s is exactly what you would expect from a large, over-the ear headphone. They are nicely padded and do not have any obvious pressure points that cause your ears or face to hurt. You basically slip them on, flip the switch and forget about everything except the music, movie or game you are currently playing.
Because of their weight and size (like any over-the-ear headphones), I can see where some users may start to “feel” them over lengthy time frames, but this would only be in extreme cases where you have them on for 4+ hours. I have tested them in many situations (airplane, office use, gaming marathon) where I had them on uninterrupted for several hours and never had any issues with them, but that is me.
One thing I have found is that Able Planet produces headphones that are designed to do everything, but they truly excel at playing back music. After spending countless hours using the NC300s in a variety of ways, these may be one of the best active noise-canceling headphones on the market at their $130 MSRP price point. Although the stated frequency response is 20Hz - 20,000Hz, they go much deeper with the bass than you could ever want, especially with the LINX Audio and when the active-noise canceling is engaged. You can actually feel the punch of the bass, unlike other headphones where the base just peters out instead of hitting quick, hard and concise. To me, that is the hallmark of a well-built headphone and the NC300 fits right in that mold.
I really noticed during testing that music playback on the NC300s really came to life. One great example of where the NC300s brings song to life is Rascal Flatt’s “What Hurt’s the Most”, The song sounds exceptional, as the NC300 pulls out every audible detail including the those of the banjo, steel guitar and vocals. So you end up hearing what constitutes the entire piece of the music instead of just a mashed together final product. You can also hear this with “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant. The song has several different distinct layers to it including a heavy bass line, guitar chords, vocals and a touch of synthesizer as well. The NC300s allow these individual music layers to come across clear and concise. Another example of this can be heard within “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z where all of the underlying music (Pianos, drums, etc…) just pop out of the recording when using the NC300s.
For video playback I watch several movies on both my iPod Touch and laptop, including Up, The Hangover and Bolt and several more using Netflix. While the NC300s aren’t surround headphones, they do a pretty good job of creating a sound field for movies and TV shows. The one quirk I noticed (that most headphones and earbuds have) is that the soundtrack tends to emphasize the equivalent of the front surrounds more than the centre channel when surround audio is piped into 2-channel audio. An example of this is in “The Hangover”, when the vocals were a bit overshadowed by the background music and surround audio in the “Lucky Charms” sequence (when Ken Jeong’s character and posse T-Bone the boys Mercedes and make a deal to get his $80K back.) The vocals seem a bit “flat”, but I notice this with several different headphones. However, it just seemed a little more pronounced with the NC300s and didn’t change when adjusting the equalizer.
One test I do for noise-cancelling headphones is to find a noisy locale and see if I can get lost in the audio coming through the headphones, or if I am still drawn into my surroundings. I tested these in a noisy office setting to see if I could focus on my work instead of getting distracted by surrounding activities. On several occasions, folks that sit around me in my cube farm couldn’t get my attention by saying my name or calling my phone because the noise-cancelling and LINX Audio would counteract them. It became a standing joke that they would have to get up and tap me on the shoulder or toss something at me to get my attention.
I did want to share one last note on the quality of the active noise-canceling of the NC300s LINX Audio. These are by far my favorite headphones to fly with. I have been on several trips now where they absolutely shut out the engine and cabin noise of the plane I was traveling on. The cool thing is that the pilot’s voice tends to come through clear over the intercom even though every other man, woman and child was effective muted out.
Probably the most impressive thing about the NC300’s is that they provide a huge audio range that covers all types of music with equal quality. Whether it was some classic Megadeath, Natasha Beddingfiled’s “Unwritten” or the hardcore rap of Snoops “Doogystyle”, the headphones hit all the highs, lows and everything in between.
Game Audio Testing
As with most game play tests nowadays, I tend to gravitate toward my portable devices like the iPod Touch, PSP and Nintendo DS. However, I do not overlook PC gaming, as it allows developers to opportunity to provide great audio to accompany a game. For the NC300 headphones, I tested it on multiple gaming platforms to get a nice cross-section of results.
First up was the iPod Touch, as I ran through a small snippet from a handful of titles to see how the NC300s performed. After utilizing earbuds for the vast majority of my gameplay, it actually was nice to use the noise-canceling NC300s as it was much more immersive than just the buds. The one title that I played a ton of was Angry Birds and surprisingly, the games sounds (despite being limited) really stood out with the NC300 headphones. Usually, we are used to hearing the game through our portable devices meager speakers, but after playing it with a quality pair of headphones like the NC300; you can pick up on all of the audio nuances that make up the game. This game is already addictive enough, but when you immerse yourself in it with audio from the NC300, you just go to another place. Other titles used for testing were Madden, Bejeweled Blitz, Tiger Woods and a multitude of classic arcade titles. All of them sounded phenomenal and you could clearly pick up the nuances of the audio soundtrack for each title.Not to be forgotten, I spent an entire afternoon (about eight straight hours) playing some PC games to get the feel for how well the NC300s worked in a fast-paced game environment. A couple of the titles I went for were the Halo 2, Gears of War and some extensive time playing Guild Wars. The NC300s provided me with excellent game audio, and most importantly, took me away from the distractions of physical surroundings and kept me in the game. I once again was able to pick out the small nuances of the games audio that you just don’t hear with basic earbuds or external PC speakers.
The last game I spent some time with was Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the PSP. This is a great game (check out our review
) that has underrated audio (sadly, all dialogue is MIA in the game) mainly due to the background noises and the availability of the radio stations. As mentioned in our review, the PSP version has a lot more licensed audio than found in the DS version and the NC300 was able to present it like you were listening to a real radio. What I liked about this is that it helps create the overall ambience in the game and the NC300s once again took me into the game and away from the distractions of the real world.
I think the most impressive thing about gaming with the NC300s is that I was able to get to a whole different level of immersion into the game than traditional audio output allows. Due to the large frequency response, active-noise cancelling and the LINX Audio, you can just focus on what you are doing and block the real world out.
Miscellaneous Items of Note
• Cord length over 5ft
• Uses a single ‘AAA’ battery
• iPhone Compatible 3.5mm plug
• Comes in White of Black
• Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20,000Hz
Active Noise-cancelling is highly effective
Could use a clip on the back of the in-line volume control
White finish will pick up dirt over time
Video vocals a bit lower than expected
Items utilized in the testing of the Able Planet NC300W headphones included, but not limited to:
iPod Touch, Sony PSP, Nintendo DS Lite, Asus Laptop, PC Desktop
All devices that utilize any type of equalization had testing done with it both on and off.
The Able Planet NC300 headphones are simply fabulous for the person that likes to use their portable electronics to do everything. Whether it is gaming, watching videos or movies, playing music or trying to block out a noisy neighbor at work, the NC300 headphones are really good at every aspect. Considering the MSRP is only $129 (and found much lower online) with active noise-canceling, these out-perform many so-called high-end brands of headphones with the same specs that can cost twice as much.