Able Planet strode onto the portable audio scene nearly two years ago with itsClear Harmonyheadset , a $300 pair of headphones that stood up well against even Bose's best. With the NC200 Clear Harmony Foldable Headphones ($99.99 but as low as $70 online) the young company is now aiming at a more budget-conscious market of audio-loving students and travelers who don't want to pay $300 for a set of top-flight cans but still want first-class sound. These compact headphones offer top-notch active noise cancellation and decent sound quality, making it a fine choice for budget-conscious audiophiles.
Cushy, Foldable Design
Thick padding and a lightweight design make the NC200 headphones comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time. The cups are covered with durable pads, and the cushioning along the adjustable headband keeps the device from feeling too weighty against your crown.
Speaking of weight, the 15.2-ounce NC200 won't be contributing to any neckaches either. A hinge in the center of the headband lets the headphones collapse inward, forming a crescent shape with the earcups side-by-side at the base. The cups can each rotate 90 degrees in, and the 3.5mm headphone jack (with in-line volume control) is affixed to a detachable 5-foot cord, letting you significantly consolidate the space this device might take up in a crowded backpack or laptop case. The NC200 also comes with a quarter-inch home stereo adapter and a small drawstring pouch.
Big Boost from Active Noise Cancellation
When we turned it on, Able Planet's active noise cancellation--which works behind the scenes electronically as music plays--amplified the audio, making it both louder and richer. Bass thumped harder, tone became more crisp, treble increased, and the overall quality took a big jump. The feature, controlled with an on/off switch on the left cup and powered by a AAA battery (included) in the right one, provides a stark change in the audio that adds voluminous kick to all your movies or music.
Walking down Broadway towards the crowds of Herald Square, music was boomy and plush and the hectic noises of the city were almost totally locked out. Playback of Jethro Tull's "Locomotive Breath" brought the bass guitar's rhythms into the foreground like we'd never heard before and made the flute notes swell with a new vibrato. Even the narration of an NPR news story was raised to new heights in pitch and clearness, as we ducked and dodged Manhattan traffic on a Saturday afternoon.
Performance without Noise Cancellation
Able Planet states that its built-in Linx Audio technology "increases the intensity of higher-frequency harmonics," making it easier to hear music without actually increasing the volume, but we found that playback from other headphones was more booming and louder than with the NC200. Without the added boost of active noise cancellation, many of the songs we screened sounded faint unless we raised the volume above the 50 percent mark; our NPR.com audio streams were sometimes inaudible at normal volume levels.
Able Planet warns that enabling noise cancellation will add a faint hum to the headphones when no signal is played. The fuzz is a by-product of the noise-canceling technology actively tuning out environmental cacophony, but because it is so conspicuous during song gaps and low-volume listening sessions, the hum becomes an annoying distraction in an otherwise aurally rich soundscape.
Another trade-off is that others might hear your music, depending on the volume level. Even with generous padding, these cans offered little protection from noise seepage. Our tunes spilled out into the subway car during morning commutes and our co-workers overheard our music in the office. You won't annoy fellow passengers if you keep the volume at 50 percent or lower with noise cancellation turned on, but the fact that you even have to think about seepage is a bit annoying.
Able Planet NC200 Verdict
In our review of the original Able Planet Clear Harmony headphones, we were impressed by how well the $300 device used a pair of comfortable cans to block out ambient noise while leveraging Linx Audio technology to supply a greatly enhanced audio source. A few of the original's elements are present in the $99.99 NC200 headphones, but the Linx Audio technology is noticeably less effective in this model. Still, the active noise cancellation will give your tunes a big jolt that more than compensates for the loss of juice in standard listening mode--even if it adds a buzzing noise. Add to that a comfortable, collapsible design and you've got a decent set of affordable headphones.