The Able Planet Clear Harmony NC200 headphones offer active noise cancellation in a foldable, flight-friendly design for a low price. But the comfy headphones may prompt you to look beyond the spec sheet.
On the outside, the Able Planet NC200's are exactly what you'd expect for $99: they're a set of relatively plush, over-the-ear headphones that are relatively durable and come with a quarter-inch plug adapter.
They're also foldable and come with a soft nylon bag for portability, and thus are perfect for travel.
I found the leatherette pads and the headband of the Able Planet NC200s to be very comfortable, and despite a finnicky battery door that didn't close with any satisfaction, reasonable in sound quality.
In my tests, the sound sounded a bit muddled and "pushed back," rather than articulate and "up front." For most types of music -- pop, rap, hip hop, electronica, vocal -- that didn't matter too much, but for thick-in-the-middle rock, there was a noticeable difference. A distorted guitar riff that raises the hair on my arms using a pair of old Ultrasone HFI-2200s -- themselves not the best headphones in their class -- just sounded narrow and loud with the NC200s.
But the NC200's distinguishing feature is active noise cancellation, digital technology that uses a combination of a microphone and electronic circuitry that generates an "anti-noise" wave in the opposite shape of what's coming in. Together, they cancel each other out, leaving your ears free of the hum of an airplane turbine or a subway car.
Usually, this technology comes at a price. For example, the new Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones offer the technology, but come with a hefty $299 price tag. So it's fairly unusual to see headphones with this kind of technology at this price point (though others do exist).
Price doesn't always indicate quality, but in this case, it holds true. The Able Planet NC200 headphones certainly do cancel some noise (turn it on and hear the vacuum whoosh of silence), but you can faintly hear the whine of the cancellation antinoise -- not a problem for rock and other muddy music, but an irritant during live performances and quiet sets, such as jazz or instrumental music.
Another problem is that the noise cancellation couldn't handle too much noise. Tested on the clamorous streets of New York, the NC200's did manage perceptible noise cancellation but in no way eliminated most of the low frequency rumble of taxis, food carts and other assorted noisemakers during a stroll home.
In fact, I wasn't sure just how much a part the active noise cancellation was playing, so I tried turning it off mid-walk. Unfortunately, the battery that powers the circuitry also powers the volume -- music is barely audible without the noise cancellation on. So I wasn't sure how much noise was being canceled simply by the passive shape of the earcups sealed around my ears.
So I pulled out my trusty old Sony Fontopia MDR-EX71L earbuds (originally $49), which offer passive noise cancellation through plugging my ear canal by nature of their shape. In a test on the noisy street, my passive noise-canceling earbuds were equal or better than the active noise-canceling Able Planet NC200s. Sure, they handled different frequencies differently, but when it came to overall blocking out noise that ruined the music, the earbuds won.
There's a lesson here: by technology and price, active noise cancellation should best passive noise cancellation. But at the bargain price point, well-designed passive cancellation can triumph -- for less.