How do you define “true fidelity?"
We don’t consider ourselves dyed-in-the-wool audiophiles, but we do tend to look askance at audio hardware that adds to, subtracts from, or otherwise monkeys with what a recording artist intended for us to hear. We’ve made the occasional exception—praising Creative’s X-Fi Crystalizer technology, for instance—but we welcome “features” like active noise cancellation about as warmly as an oncoming bout of jock itch.
As you’re probably aware, active noise cancellation produces white noise to mask steady background noise, such as the thrum of a jet engine or the drone from your PC’s power supply and cooling fans. The active noise cancellation in Able Planet’s True Fidelity NC300B headphones was very effective at masking the noise of our desktop rig, but there’s no way to prevent it from also masking some of the frequencies in the music we listened to. And that renders its promise of delivering “true fidelity” more than a little hollow.
Able Planet uses a circumaural design, with bulky ear cups that encircle your pinna and vinyl-wrapped foam pads that rest on your skull. The cups themselves are quite deep, reminding us of the muffs an aircraft carrier’s flight-deck crew wear. In spite of their bulk, however, the cups—which are 3.75 inches long on the outside, but only 2.5 inches long on the inside—didn’t fit all the way around our average-sized ears, cramping the lobes. The uncomfortable cups also leak a considerable amount of sound; so not only would we not relish the idea of wearing them on a long, crowded flight, we wouldn’t want to sit next to someone wearing them either.
An AAA battery powers the active noise cancellation chip and boosts the signal. You can control the volume using an inline thumbwheel on the removable cable, but there’s no transport-control mechanism for newer-model iPods. Able Planet provides an airline adapter and a 1/8-inch-to-1/4-inch adapter as well as a sturdy hard-shell carry case.
Comparing the NC300B to our old favorite conventional headphones, Sennheiser’s HD 555, we found that it took a lot more amplifier power to drive Able Planet’s product, even with the battery engaged (the company doesn’t publish impedance numbers; Sennheiser claims nominal impedance of 50 ohms for the HD 555). The NC300B delivers much stronger bass response than the HD 555, but their performance is not at all balanced: frequencies at the other end of the spectrum come across muted and flat. The issue is particularly noticeable on Julianna Raye’s Dominoes release (we downloaded the 16-bit FLAC tracks from Bowers & Wilkins’ Society of Sound music service). Raye’s retro vocal stylings on this bossa nova-infused album sound positively luscious through the Sennheiser phones, but restrained and compressed on the NC300B. Important sonic details, meanwhile, such as the drummer’s brush work on the snare that sound so present and alive on the HD 555, become lost in the background on Able Planet’s product. We don’t actually think the missing frequencies reside in the same band as the white noise the headphones are generating—we’d need a spectrum analyzer to be sure—but they didn’t emerge when we turned the noise cancellation off.
If you’re looking for a personal listening solution that eliminate background noise, we’ve found in-ear monitors that physically occlude sound—versus masking it with noise of their own—to be a far superior solution. And while you can turn off the JC300B’s active noise cancellation, you lose a lot of volume without gaining any improvement in audio fidelity. In short, we’ve heard plenty of comparably priced headphones that deliver much better performance.