- Review Price: £69.99
No matter how much you spend on a portable music player, the quality of sound that reaches your eardrums will always be dictated by your earphones. The problem is that most players, even expensive ones, ship with very poor earphones. And most of them, like Apple’s earbuds, require you to pump the volume up to unhealthy levels if you happen to be in a noisy environment. There are a couple of solutions to this ambient noise issue – active noise cancelling or in-ear noise isolating – but now Philips has taken things a step further and employed both.
There’s no denying that Philips has put a lot of thought into the design of these headphones, and to be honest I would expect nothing less from the Dutch technology giant. While Apple and Sony tend to grab most of the headlines for product design, Philips is generally up there with the best in this area, as well as the realm of innovation.
One of the major problems with active noise cancelling headphones is that they need power. This means that you usually have a big, heavy, battery compartment hanging from the headphone cord and generally dragging at your ears. Of course with larger headphones you can install the battery in one of the ear cups, but with smaller, more portable headphones, that’s not possible.
Philips has solved this problem by applying a somewhat innovative design approach. Basically, the electronics of the set up and the battery reside in a small cylindrical unit that hangs around your neck from a strap. But the clever part is that the earphone cables run through this strap to the control unit, so there’s no messy cabling hanging off your ears. Located at the bottom of the control unit is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack – you then plug the supplied cable into this and into your player.
If there’s one problem with this setup, it’s the excessive length of the audio cable. With the control unit around my neck, the 3.5mm jack hung just above my waist, so the last thing I then needed was a 1.2m cable to connect to the player in my pocket. I understand that you may have the player in your bag, or perhaps in a pocket down by your knee, but I’d wager that the majority of users will have their player in a pocket just below their waistline. This problem could be easily solved if Philips supplied two cables in the box, one short and one long – as things stand, I constantly seemed to have a mass of cable either hanging down by my legs or rolled up in my pocket.
With the active noise cancelling in mind, Philips is pushing the idea of using these earphones on an aeroplane where the constant drone of the engines can seriously spoil your listening pleasure. It’s therefore a good thing that these earphones are extremely comfortable – I found that the silicone cups fitted my ears very well, while the earphones themselves are also extremely light. The end result is that these are among the most comfortable earphones I’ve used, even if you keep them in for hours on end.
But these earphones aren’t just comfortable when you’re sitting around doing nothing, they’re also brilliant for the active user. I went for a run wearing the SHN750s and they were definitely the most comfortable earphones I’ve ever used for running. The reason for this is that all the weight is dealt with by the neck strap, so there is nothing tugging at your ears as you run. By contrast, running while listening to my Shure E500s, results in constant tugging, since all that heavy cabling is hanging directly from my ears.
Another issue with active noise cancelling is that it can often muffle the sound, giving it a slightly unnatural trait. Of course it depends on the quality of the headphones, with units like the Sennheiser PXC 450s managing to maintain excellent fidelity, even with the active noise cancelling switched on – but then when you consider the price of those Sennheisers you’d hope that they sounded good! The good news is that the Philips SHN7500s don’t suffer from the sound muffling problem either, mainly due to the fact that the active noise cancelling is extremely subtle, perhaps too subtle in fact.
I find that one of the best tests for active noise cancelling is to stand under the office air conditioning unit, which simulates the drone of aircraft engines quite well. Without any music playing, I then switch the active noise cancelling on to evaluate how well it deals with the ambient drone of the fans. While most active noise cancelling headphones will almost completely filter out the sound of the air-con, these Philips phones didn’t. What they did do was cut out the most annoying hiss, but the background rumble was still there.
Another problem is that if the earphones are plugged into anything connected to mains power, you get a low frequency background buzz as soon as you turn on the active noise cancelling. I experienced this problem on multiple PCs and notebooks, and even with my iPod nano when I attempted to listen to it while it was charging. Listening to anything on battery power is not a problem at all, but it’s still worth considering what devices you’re likely to be plugging into before buying.
Considering how small and light these earphones are, the sound produced is surprisingly full and clear. Listening to Changes by 2Pac highlighted the SHN750’s breadth of ability. This track is based on the Bruce Hornsby classic, The Way It Is and marries Hornsby’s superb piano work with heavy beats, and of course 2Pac’s lyrics. The SHN750s coped with this eclectic composition very well, with the beats thumping through my head, while the piano was still crystal clear, driving proceedings on to the chorus.
The SHN750s demonstrated their generally impressive range once more when I fired up Big Empty by Stone Temple Pilots. The weeping steel guitar was beautifully rendered, while Scott Weiland’s vocals start off suitably subtle, growing stronger towards the full guitar crescendo.
The SHN750s do lose some of their cohesion if you pump the volume up high though, with more subtle sounds, instruments and vocals being lost in the mix. That said, you don’t really need to push the volume up too high in most cases.
There is a slight lack of bass though, which is mainly due to the fact that these earphones simply don’t seal as well as a set of Shures. Although the SHN750s ship with three sizes of silicone tips, there is no foam tip option – foam tips create a superb seal inside your ear and give you stronger bass sounds, while having no detrimental effect on the clarity. Shure, Etymotic and Ultimate Ears all offer foam tips with their earphones, and Philips would do well to follow suit.
The other advantage that you get with a good set of foam tips with a tight seal, is that they block out the vast majority of ambient noise, thus completely negating the need for active noise cancelling. So, I can’t help wondering whether Philips should have implemented a better seal for its earphones, instead of opting for active noise cancelling.
With a retail price of £69.99 you’re getting a lot for your money, especially since Philips ships aeroplane and full-size headphone adapters in the box, as well as a large carrying case. Also, once stock starts to hit the retail channel, you’ll probably find an even more attractive street price. Personally though, I’d still prefer a set of Shure SE210s, which offer superior sound quality, while still blocking out the majority of ambient noise.
There’s a lot that’s good about the SHN750 earphones. The design is excellent and makes them very comfortable to wear, even when running. The sound quality is decent, while the price is also surprisingly reasonable.
However, I have to question the need for active noise cancelling when it comes to in-ear earphones. With a good seal, you should barely be able to hear ambient noise anyway. Add to this the fact that the active noise cancelling in the SHN750s is very subtle at best, and also results in low frequency buzzing when hooked up to a mains powered device. The latter being a potentially major issue for anyone who wants to listen to various source devices.
I’d still say it’s worth saving up a bit more cash for a set of Shure SE210s, but if Philips produced a set of earphones with similar drivers, a neck strap design, no active noise cancelling and an even lower price, it could have a winner on its hands.
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