Active noise-cancelling (ANC) technology in headphones often comes at a premium price, but not with Philips’ SHB8850NC Bluetooth on-ears. These headphones are less than a third of the price of the Bose QuietComfort 35s at £90, but the low price is reflected by mediocre performance in every respect.
The SHB8850NC are supra-aural headphones, meaning that they sit on your ears rather than completely envelope them. The circular ear pads are a compact size and make the SHB8850NC smaller than the Bose QuietComfort 35s. They have more in common with the excellent AKG N60 ANC cans in that regard.
They’re relatively light, too, at 230g. You shouldn’t feel fatigue with these resting on your head for long periods. The ear pads are well padded, but I did find that they can become a little warm on hot days, making for rather sweaty ears. At least the headband doesn’t exert too much pressure on your head.
The headphones are foldable, which helps their compact size, and the ear cups can rotate within their hinge so that they conform to the side of your head much better.
The outside of the ear cups come in a diamond-textured contrast silver, and while they catch the light in an interesting way, I found them a little tacky. The SHB8850NC use copious amounts of plastic in their construction and there are a few too many sharp edges and corners for my liking. There’s also a mixing of matte and glossy finishes, resulting in an incohesive design.
Compared to the elegant curves and rounded edges of the Bose QuietComfort 35s, the build and construction of the SHB8850NC are a testament to their low price. Frustratingly, I lost a few strands of hair to the headphone’s hinge, too, which has a habit of snagging when I took them off.
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Most of the controls are found on the right ear cup, but I found that there are simply too many buttons. The Bose QuietComfort 35s offer far more elegant controls, with single buttons performing more than one logical task.
Instead, the SHB8850NC has a separate play/pause button; track-skipping button and separate volume controls, in addition to a Bluetooth pairing button (there’s also NFC) and a power button. It leaves you fumbling blindly against the ear cup to find the control you want. Add to this the active noise-cancelling toggle on the left ear cup, too.
A 3.5mm cable is included in the box, which will enable you to use the headphones in passive mode when the battery runs out. Of course if the battery dies, you lose the noise cancelling functionality. An airplane adapter is also included – but disappointingly, there’s no sign of any carry case for the headphones and accessories.
Philips claims the SHB8850NC can cancel out 97% of ambient sound thanks to its two microphones. In reality, it felt like a far cry from this level of cancellation. Keeping in mind the low price, it was going to be tough to match any of its more expensive rivals, but the level of noise cancellation is still quite poor.
While better ANC headphones provide an instant reduction in ambient sound, the effect is far less pronounced here. If I were to estimate I’d say it was reducing only around 50-70%, depending on the type of sound. The sound of the office air conditioning was reduced but not removed, whereas with better-performing noise-cancelling headphones you'll discover that it's practically eliminated before you even start playing music.
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The effect was barely noticeable during a London Underground commute. Similarly, the roar of a bus engine was still very noticeable while walking down the street. There’s never that feeling of peaceful tranquility.
In fact, the level of noise cancelling was very underwhelming. With the feature disabled, it was evident how much the headphones relied on passive noise reduction in the form of simply covering your ears.
Inside the SHB8850NC are 32mm neodymium closed-back drivers. If I were to pick a word to describe the sound, it would be “uninspiring”. There’s nothing drastically wrong with the sound, it’s just a little lifeless and unexciting in its delivery. The bass is reasonably warm, but its presence encroaches into the mids and trebles, which themselves lack detail and pizzazz.
The soundstage is a little narrow, too, although perhaps not so surprising for closed headphones. Throw on a symphony orchestra and you feel like your listening environment is closer to a town hall than a concert hall.
The headphones can be used for hands-free calls, and in this regard they performed well; my voice was picked up clearly by the caller. You can trigger Siri or Google Now using the Bluetooth button, which is also handy.
The headphones are rated at 16 hours of music playback, which felt about right. I managed around 10 days of listening during my commute and occasionally during office hours before I needed a charge. Charging is via a micro-USB port at the top of one of the ear cups. The option to fall back on a wired, passive mode is always welcome for when the battery dies, too.
I found the Philips SHB8850NC rather underwhelming. While the low price (for active noise-cancelling cans) may be tempting, the actual ANC performance is sub-par.
For the same money, I could instead opt for a pair of passive noise-cancelling headphones, which will likely do just as a good a job with superior sound quality. The Plantronics BackBeat Sense are now available for around the same price and would be the pair I recommend. Otherwise, for better performance it’s worth stretching to more expensive noise-cancelling cans.
Unfortunately for the Philips SHB8850NC, the budget price equates to budget ANC performance.
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