The (slightly) bad news is that the ATH-ANC7bs aren’t quite as effective at keeping sound in. With the noise-cancelling on there’s less need to put the volume level high, but even so I was aware, with the headphones off and the cups pressed together, that some sound was leaking out. On a noisy jet the impact was minimal, but on the train I was all too aware that, say, the high soprano sections in Wagner’s opera were leaking out and netting me some really odd looks. I had to quickly switch to the new Massive Attack album to keep what tiny bit remains of my street-cred alive.
Sound quality, meanwhile, is good but not quite what I’d hope for from the company behind the ATH-AD series open-backed and ATH-A series closed-back headphones. On the plus side, there’s plenty of low-end grunt and a nice, warm mid-range; both qualities that suit rhythm-heavy tracks from Massive Attack or weighty, power-chord rock from AC/DC or Muse. The sound is also a little more spacious sound than I’d expect from closed-back headphones, and detail at the top-end is far from bad. However, the mid-range can sound crowded and imprecise, and the overall level of clarity isn’t up to AT’s usual standards of excellence.
Don’t get me wrong: the ATH-ANC7bs still sounded better to my ears than the vast majority of similarly-priced IEMs I’ve stuffed inside them, but in comparison to several conventional pairs available for under £100, they fall slightly short. To be fair, this criticism isn’t limited to the ATH-ANC7bs, and while the Audio-Technicas can’t match Sennheiser’s more expensive PXC 450s for clarity, they’re stronger at the bass end than most noise-cancelling headphones out there.
In their defence, I should also mention that the ATH-ANC7bs did a brilliant job with film soundtracks, giving me the gun battles and explosions of Die Hard 4.0 from my PSP Go with boom and bluster to spare. If you want to watch movies on the move, keep this in mind.
And here’s the thing. While, I have my reservations about sound quality, overall, I like the ATH-ANC7bs. The market for noise-cancelling headphones has become very competitive in the last few years, with Bose and Sennheiser fighting it out at the high-end, and Creative, JVC, Sony, Panasonic and others all scrapping for position just below. Luckily, Audio Technica’s babies can easily be found for under £130, and while the audio quality isn’t quite good enough to put them right at the top of any shortlist, their combination of comfort, decent sound and all-round practicality makes them worth including on it.
A solid, well-designed set of noise-cancelling headphones offering good noise-dampening and respectable sound quality at a reasonably affordable price. If Audio-Technica could improve on overall clarity with the next version, it could have a winner on its hands.