Pros: Comfortable and attractive design; Effective noise cancellation with optional tailoring; Audio still plays without power; Good battery life
Cons: Uneven mids can be fatiguing with extended listening; Bass is a bit muddy; Inline mic/controller lacks volume controls
Verdict: Sony's MDR-10RNC headphones are comfy and cancel ambient noise well, but they don't sound quite as good as they should for the price.
Seeking to bring its flagship noise-canceling headphones (MDR-1RNC, $500) down into the "affordable" price range, Sony has released the similar-looking MDR-10RNC at slightly more than half the price ($270). These cans promise to block up to 99 percent of ambient noise via sensors mounted on both the inside and outside of the earcups. You can also keep listening after the batteries give out. But how good is this sound for your money?
The MDR-10RNC's matte black finish with subtle silver and red accents give the headphones a classy look, and the soft leather padding on the earcups and headband inspire confidence that these cans will be comfy. The earcups swivel so that the headphones can lie flat in the rigid zippered case, and the package comes with two detachable cables -- one with an inline mic/controller, and one without.
You also get an airplane attenuator and one AAA battery for powering the active noise cancellation. The case has a small fabric pouch to hold the extra goodies.
Each earcup has a mic built into the bottom so the internal circuitry can monitor ambient noise.
The inline controller is a little disappointing. It has a single button and a mic, so you can only control playback, answer calls and activate Siri on iOS devices, but you can't control the volume. The left earcup sports a power switch, an AINC button (for Sony's Artificial Intelligence Noise Cancellation feature) and a 3.5-mm jack for the audio cable. The right earcup houses the battery compartment, which holds a single AAA battery.
MORE: Best Laptops 2013
While the earcups aren't quite as deep as the roomy Bose QC15 headphones, and the earpads aren't as lushly thick as the Beats Studio, we comfortably wore the MDR-10RNC headphones for an entire 3.5-hour flight. The headband padding was on a par with Bose and noticeably better than the Beats' hard rubber headband lining.
The active noise cancellation on the MDR-10RNC headphones is quite good, though as we've grown used to pointing out, they aren't as effective at producing a near-silent experience as the Bose Quiet Comfort 15 headphones. There is a slight hiss introduced, but when you're playing music or drowning out a jet engine, it is negligible. Next to the main power switch, there's a button that activates the Artificial Intelligence Noise Cancellation, which uses the cans' built-in mic to analyze ambient noise and adjust the level of cancellation accordingly. In quieter environments, the noise cancellation is lessened somewhat, though the effect is very subtle. We're not convinced all users will find this particularly useful, but we applaud Sony for distinguishing itself in this area. The feature didn't appear to have a significant effect on battery life.
The MDR-10RNC are plenty easy for any portable device to drive to fairly loud volumes, which puts it squarely in between the somewhat underpowered Bose QC15s and the very sensitive Beats Studio. The Sony's midrange frequency response made male vocals and horns such as trumpets and saxes sound muddy. John Coltrane's "Blue Train" and Mumford & Sons' "After the Rain" both suffered from this, as do the classical excerpts of works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
Tracks with clubby thump, such as "What Does the Fox Say?" by Ylvis, and The Knife's "Let's Talk About Gender Baby," have plenty of bass impact, though the low end isn't particularly well-defined. Highs seem a bit recessed, taking some of the liveliness out of complex tracks such as Ray Manzarek & Bal's "Shinjuku Nights." Female vocals such as Brandi Carlile's "The Story" come through quite well, though the acoustic guitar lacks a bit of clarity and sparkle.
The Sony's battery life is rated for roughly 20 hours of playback, but the good news is that unlike the Bose QC15 headphones, the MDR-10RNC will play music even after the battery runs out. And even better than that is the fact that the audio quality doesn't suffer significantly, you'll just experience a slight drop in volume.
Overall, the Sony MDR-10RNC headphones are well-built, comfortable, loud enough and effective at turning a jet whine into a whisper. But at $269, we expect more clarity in the midrange and tighter bass as well as an inline volume control. While audiophiles will be disappointed, the MDR-10RNCs may very well satisfy travelers whose primary concern is blocking out ambient noise.