Anyone who has performed the slightest bit of research into noise cancelling headphones will notice one thing about the Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1050. They look uncannily similar to the Bose QuietComfort 15, one of the most popular noise cancelling sets in the world. A coincidence? We think not. But as they sell at a similar price, these headphones have a big task ahead.
Noise cancelling headphones differ from "normal" headphones in the way they treat ambient noise. Where others block it out physically, by creating a wall between your ear canal and the environment, headphones like the Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1050 actively combat noise by pumping extra sound waves through the speakers to cancel out unwanted sound.
This extra tech doesn't come for free, but can work wonders in environments like aeroplane cabins and noisy tube trains.
To monitor this external sound, the Clear Harmony NC1050 use microphones nestled within cut-outs on the back of each ear cup. These cups completely surround your ears, further controlling what sound can and can't get access to your ear. To power this active monitoring system, two AAA batteries live underneath a plastic cover that tops off the left earpiece.
This side also sports a power switch. As with most noise cancelling headphones, there's no auto power off function, so leave them overnight and you may well wake up to find them dead in the morning. However, this isn't really something to criticise as some people will want to occasionally use the cancellation function with no music playing, and battery life is excellent. A single pair lasted throughout our 2-week testing period.
Good noise cancellation makes the world outside melt away, boosting all-round comfort in stressful environments. Taking comfort seriously, the Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1050 use 1in thick padding on each ear cup. This is slightly thicker than the pads of the Bose QuietComfort 15.
The fit is altogether different, though. The Able Planet pads are less soft and the headband applies more pressure to the head, meaning they "disappear" less readily. They are comfortable, but they are simply not quite as comfy as the Bose rival.
A build quality comparison tells a similar story. The materials used are similar, but less of the attention to design than makes Bose's top-end headphones almost worth buying has been paid here. The battery storage and the removable cable - here a standard, unsecured 3.5mm cable - are less elegant, feeling like off-the-shelf solutions rather than the bespoke treatment that you might expect at the price.
A volume control housing sits roughly 30cm down the cable, and is perhaps the most conspicuously cheap-feeling part of the setup, using a plastic cog-like controller not commonly seen in portable music devices since the 90s. Also included are a decent semi-rigid carry case, a 3.5mm-to-6.3mm jack adapter and a two-prong airplane adapter - because noise cancellation is great at removing that pesky aeroplane cabin hum.
Noise cancellation is also not as impressive as Bose, though. It's noisier and markedly less effective, with a slight low-end hum. However, when stacked-up against solutions from Sony, Sennheiser and Blackbox, the Clear Harmony NC1050 come across much better, and some may prefer the less aggressive approach taken here. Bose earphones can feel as though they're about to suck your eardrums out, a sensation caused by increased intra-aural pressure.
The NC1050 cancellation performs reasonably well and is able to remove the low-end dirges produced by air conditioning units, engines and so on - and it eradicates significantly more noise than it produces - noise cancelling can introduce its own slight hiss.
There is, however, a great big sore thumb of a problem that will make these headphones unfit for purpose for some. They are not protected against interference from mobile phones and other wireless devices, and your listening will be disturbed by irritating digital noise in phone-filled environments.
We found this an irritating problem on trains, an obvious place to use noise cancelling headphones. Alternatives from Sennheiser and Bose do not suffer from the same problem. To combat this, you can turn the Clear Harmony NC1050's noise cancellation off, but this has a knock-on effect on sound quality.