Review: Sony MDR-NC11A Noise Canceling Headphones
By: Cliff PennockPrintablePaged

A friend of mine is a co-pilot on a Boeing 767. Most of his flights are between Europe and the United States, which often means long hours in the cockpit doing, well, nothing. Teasing flight attendants gets old really fast (so he claims) so he uses that time to listen to music. And although the cockpit is in front of the engines, the noise level is still overwhelming when trying to listen to music, even with headphones. So that's why he decided to buy a set of noise canceling headphones not so long ago. And he's ecstatic about them.

I don't fly anywhere near as much as he does, but I do make long trips between Europe and the States at least once a year. I also travel quite a bit by train and bus so it didn't take much convincing to go on the lookout for a pair of noise canceling headphones myself. My friend was using the Sennheiser PXC-250, which are over-the-ear headphones. Since I was planning to use them as every day headphones for my PDA (which I carry around everywhere), I opted for earbud style headphones instead. After reading up on the specifications, I decided to go for the Sony MDR-NC11A noise canceling headphones.

What's in the box?
The Sony MDR-NC11A comes with a small cloth carrying pouch, an airplane adapter, earbud cushions in three sizes (small, medium and large) and something resembling a manual (I bought mine online so the manual was in chinapanese or something). The MDR-NC11A retails at US$ 99.99.

Officially, the airplane adapter is for using the headphones on a plane (duh!). But when I tried them out during a flight last summer, I did not need the adapter at all. One nice thing is that the earbuds are not one-size-fits-all. The silicon cushions are replaceable, and you get a choice of three different sizes (S/M/L).

Look & Feel
One thing that immediately becomes apparent when you wear these earphones is that the earbuds are really comfortable. The ones that came with my PDA for instance, hurt after only a few minutes of use and easily fell out of my ears. It's worth trying the different size ear cushions to feel which gives you the best and most comfortable fit.

Because the earbuds actually seal your ear, you will notice right away that a lot of ambient noise is blocked right there. So hopes for a near perfect noise cancellation once the active noise cancellation is switched on should be good. Or maybe not. More on that later.

There are some definite drawbacks to the design of the Sony MDR-NC11A. First of all, I wonder whose brilliant idea it was to use different lengths of wires going to the Left and Right earbuds. I see this more and more on this style of earphones and it's just a very silly idea. First of all, it means that you can never have the wire hang directly centered in front of you. Second, if you let the rectangular box that holds the noise cancellation circuitry and the AAA battery hang, its weight hangs on one ear only.

Another huge nuisance was that when the wires rubbed against my clothing, the sound traveled up the wire to my ears, and it is very noticeable. In fact, it was one of the biggest annoyances I experienced when using these headphones (amongst other things as you will read later on).

Finally, the earlier mentioned box with the MDR-NC11A's circuitry is small and light, and has a clip attached. It also houses the volume control and the On/Off switch for the noise cancellation circuitry.

Usage & Sound
The first thing I connected this headset to after receiving them was my A/V Receiver. Much to my surprise I had to crank up the volume of my receiver to near maximum to hear anything from them, wheras with the headphones I normally use, I only set the volume to about one-quarter. By this time, the receiver was over loading the headphone output and the sound was distorted. Since I didn't buy this headset for use at home, that didn't worry me much and I hooked it up to my PDA instead. This time the sound was much louder. I still had to set the PDA's volume and the headset's volume to max, but at least the sound wasn't distorted.

I wasn't impressed with the sound quality at all. Most earbud style headphones lack bass, but with these it was actually the other way around. The bass was absolutely overwhelming and pretty much drowned the mid- and high range sounds.

The second thing I tested was it's active noise canceling capabilities. I wasn't in a plane, train or bus of course, but I figured it should be able to cancel out the noise of my computer's fan. When I switched on the noise cancellation I could hear no difference. Again, that didn't worry me much since I figured that even though my computer's fan is loud, it ain't no plane engine.

The next day I had a long train and bus trip planned so this would be the perfect time to test the MDR-NC11A's noise cancellation capabilities in environments for what it was actually made. First up was a 30-minute train trip. Once the train left the station, I put on the headphones and switched on the noise cancellation circuitry without playing music, so I could fully hear the difference. There wasn't any. I fiddled with the earbuds to fit them differently in my ear, I switched the circuitry off and on again several times and I even replaced the battery with a fresh spare. It did not make any difference. There was no noise cancellation going on whatsoever. The only thing I noticed was some added white noise. While listening to music, the music simply got a bit louder and drowned the background noise a bit, but in no way was there any active noise cancellation going on. I was utterly disappointed.

The bus trip was next. I did the same tests here and this time I did hear a slight difference with the noise cancellation activated. The only thing I can think of as to why, is that the bus engine's noise is of much lower frequencies than the train's - and noise cancellation works by counteracting low frequency noise only. Sony claims a reduction of 70% of the background noise. My guesstimate was more in the neighborhood of 5%.

Needless to say that by now I was pretty much disgusted I wasted more than a hundred bucks (including shipping) on headphones that sounded worse than my old $4 earbud style headphones, and had no active noise cancellation at all. When I got home I tossed them aside. Because it was a few weeks before a trip to the States, I ordered the same noise canceling headphones my friend (the co-pilot) had: the Sennheiser PXC-250. When they arrived, I pretty much did the same tests as with the Sony headphones. I sat next to my computer and switched the noise cancellation circuitry on. Ever had it happen to you when you flicked on a light switch and the light bulb blew? I actually thought for a second something similar happened here, that somehow by switching on the headphones it shorted something out in my computer, because I actually thought my computer had switched itself off. What in fact had happened was that the Sennheiser just about completely cancelled out the noise of my computer's fan! A few days later I was able to test the Sennheiser in a bus as well and again it was able to almost completely cancel out the bus engine's noise. The difference with the Sony was huge. It was more than huge, it was humongous.

Just for giggles, I brought the Sony on that plane trip too and the result was the same. With the Sony MDR-NC11A, there was hardly a noticeable difference with or without noise cancellation, while the Sennheiser had no problem canceling out the plane's noise almost completely.

Break-in period
A few weeks after my trip to the United States, I stumbled upon a thread on some audio & video forum about the Sony MDR-NC11A. Apparently there were a lot of people like me who bought these headphones and they too were utterly disgusted about the fact they simply did not work nor sounded as advertised. But a few other people were raving about them and they could not all be Sony employees, could they? Then somebody made a remark that often headphones like these need some kind of "break-in period", that somehow the tiny speakers inside the headphones are very stiff when they are factory-new and that it takes a while for them to "loosen up".

This prompted me to hook up the headphones to my PDA and play music over them for about 8 hours at end. After this period, I checked if that made any difference. And it did - but ever so slightly. This time I did hear a slight difference when turning the noise cancellation on and off while sitting next to my computer. Also, the overwhelming bass had become slightly more tolerable. But it was still nowhere near the results I got with the Sennheiser. So who knows, perhaps they will work much better after a break-in period of several days - but I'm not going to find out. When I buy something, I expect it to work out of the box. Just like the Sennheiser did.

Whether the Sony MDR-NC11A is actually any good, seems to be hit or miss if you read all the user reviews on the Internet. For about half of the people they don't work at all and the sound is awful (which is my experience as well), while for the other half they work flawlessly.

For US$ 99.99, you would at least expect the Sony MDR-NC11A to be able to achieve some of the claims it makes. But in my case it didn't. The sound quality is far below par and even worse than some cheap $4 earbud style headphones I bought in a supermarket while on holiday in France. Noise cancellation is virtually non-existing. Some people claim a break-in period is needed with these kind of headphones and although a quick test I did supported this idea to a certain degree, I still think these headphones are a huge waste of money. People buy these things on airports and expect them to work immediately. In my opinion, if they don't work for their intended use, they don't work at all.

The only reason I rated these headphones a 4.5 (and not a 1.0) is because apparently, they do work for some people.

The good
  • Nice design (available in white, black and blue)
  • Very light
  • Earbuds fit very comfortably

The not-so-good
  • Volume way too low
  • Sounds travel up the wires to your ears
  • Uneven length wires to earbuds

The downright ugly
  • Terrible sound quality
  • Noise cancellation does not work
  • Headphones might need "break-in period" before they work satisfactory

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