Sony MDR-NC500D Digital Noise
Canceling Headphones part 2
headphones - should you buy a pair?
Two buttons and a slide switch on the side of the right
ear cup control the operation of the MDR-NC500D headphones.
The left ear cup has two sockets - one for audio in and
the other for power.
Part 15b of a series on noise
reducing headphones - click the links on the right for extra
reviews and commentary.
This is a two part review.
Part 1 provides background information about the
There is a lot to like about
these headphones, and in most respects they score highly and
even very highly compared to other headphones available.
But at their massively inflated
$400 price, are they sufficiently better than lower priced
alternates? We test and compare these headphones to other
models, both at similar and at very much lower prices, to come
up with an answer to that essential question.
The Sony MDR-NC500D Noise
Canceling Headphones - Description
The headphones use a fairly
traditional and typical around the ear design, and the cups are
'deeper' than on, eg, the Bose headphones.
pads that press on the sides of your skull are firmer
than on the Sony MDR-NC60 or most other around the ear type
headphones. It takes some time for them to gradually
adjust to the contours of your head and to create an effective
seal. The time it takes to create an effective seal makes it
hard when comparison testing headphones because you really have
to wait until the headphones have settled against your skull
optimally before making a determination of their total combined
active and passive noise
Once the pad has formed to
fit your skull, the passive noise cancelling is
excellent and very little noise leaks in around the pads.
The left ear cup contains
the batteries, and the right ear cup the electronics and the
controls on the outside. There is an on-off slide switch
and indicator light, and then two extra controls not usually
seen on noise cancelling headphones (illustrated above).
The first says 'Monitor'.
Press this, and while you hold it down, it turns off the noise
cancelling and mutes any music that you're playing, and
activates a couple of microphones (one on each ear cup), feeding in the sound from
outside the headphones, enabling you to more clearly hear if, for example,
the flight attendant is offering you a refill on your glass of
The second says 'AI NC Mode'
which is short for 'Artificial Intelligence Noise
Cancelling Mode'. You press this to tell the unit to
re-calculate the best of the three noise cancelling profiles to
use (discussed in the first
part of this article). Or, if you think you know
better than the AI logic, you use it to step through the three
different profiles yourself, choosing the one that sounds best.
Both the connecting cable to
your audio source and, as/when required, the recharger cable,
connect to the left ear cup.
The connecting cable uses a
standard 1/8" stereo connector jack, but Sony turns around
and destroys the universal compatibility of its connector (and
your ability to conveniently and inexpensively buy a replacement cable at just
about any electronics store) by using the same stupid design
feature that Apple briefly used on its original iPhone (and
which Apple stopped using on its newer 3G iPhone) - it hides the
connector at the end of a narrow tunnel, requiring a special
connector barrel extension on your cable for the plug to be able
There is no design or
functional reason for this; it seems to be nothing more than
Sony attempting to come up with a subtle way of forcing you to
spend more on replacement cables should you ever need them.
Thanks for nothing, Sony.
There is a silly little
protective cover over the power connector. And - again massive
minus marks to Sony for this - although the headphones use a
regular 3.7V Li-Ion battery, the same as almost all other
consumer electronics these days, they use a nonstandard power
plug. Why, oh why, couldn't Sony have blessed us with a
USB type connector, so we could have recharged the headphones
from any USB cable? Instead, and particularly as a result
of the very short battery life, we're cursed with the need to
travel with yet another power supply.
Unnecessary Power Supplies
unnecessary explosion in power supplies that
we must travel with these days is a major
problem. Think about it - when you
travel, maybe you need power supplies for :
Except for the computer, all
of these almost certainly use standard 3.7V Lithium-ion
batteries and could use the same charger, and/or could be
charged from the USB ports on your laptop.
would you prefer - traveling with ten power
supplies, or only one?
Adding to the desirability
of a USB power supply connector, this could, in theory, also allow for
updates to the digital noise cancelling algorithm employed to be
loaded into the headphones. For a $400 purchase cost
(almost as much as an entry level laptop computer these days),
it doesn't seem unreasonable to hope for occasional updates to
the noise cancelling algorithm.
The headphones and
connecting cord, by themselves, weigh 7.8 oz. Add to this
the carry case, charger, and battery pack, and the weight
increases to a hefty (and bulky) 25 oz (compare this to the
MDR-NC60 which weighs 8.5oz or 14oz in its carry pack).
Sony self-rates the
headphones as offering a maximum of more than 20dB of noise
canceling, but is a bit vague as to the details of how this is
The headphones have a
claimed frequency response of 5Hz - 24kHz but we're not told the
upper and lower bounds for this frequency response (ie +/- how
many dB) so this is a meaningless figure.
They have a rated
sensitivity of 102dB/mW, and will only feed through sound when
the noise cancelling is turned on.
The electronics in the Sony MDR-NC500D
headphones are hard on their batteries. The Li-Ion
rechargeable battery that is built in to the headphones is rated
at a 15 hour life, assuming a moderate volume level is being
played through them (the louder the volume level, the higher the
battery drain and shorter the battery life).
A 15 hour life is of course an optimum
scenario, from a
new and freshly fully charged battery, and with each discharge/recharge
cycle, its life span reduces further.
If you are running off a
pair of AA batteries, then the battery life for a set of
batteries is estimated as a mere 10 hours only.
While 15 hours and 10 hours
might sound like a lot of time - and it is if you're only
considering a short flight somewhere - it is easy to use up your
batteries on a roundtrip journey internationally.
Maybe you fly to Europe (10 hr flight) then a second flight
somewhere in Europe (2 hr flight), and add an extra hour of time
before each flight while at the airport waiting for your flight,
and that represents 14 hours of usage. If you don't want to bring
the recharger with you, then you have to take the fully charged
built in battery plus four AA batteries for the return flights.
Yuck. In comparison, the Bose QC2 headphones will still be
happily running off one single AAA battery, even after 28 hours
Like the Bose Quiet Comfort
headphones, the MDR-NC500D headphones won't 'pass through'
sound if the battery is dead, so the power issue is an important
The rechargeable battery is
user replaceable. But (and unlike the Bose QC3) it is an inconvenient and difficult
procedure, so you wouldn't keep a spare battery pack with you to
swap when one gets low; however when the battery loses its capacity
to hold a decent amount of charge, it is possible to replace the
battery rather than to have to junk the expensive headphones
It takes about 3 hours to
recharge the Li-Ion battery.
Using the MDR-NC500D Headphones
The sound quality is very
good. Indeed, the first time I started listening to a test
track of music I was so drawn in by the sound I had to
stop what I was doing and enjoy the music right through to the
end. It is clean and clear and brings you very close to
the music without the feeling of anything between you and the
But after listening for a
while I became aware of a 'wowing' effect - the music would
sometimes seem to pulse in volume a bit - not so much the music
in the 'foreground' (ie the loud bits) but the echo/background (ie
quieter) parts of the music. This was sometimes apparent
and sometimes not, even when replaying the same piece of music
repeatedly. Sometimes it would be so pronounced as to make
the music impossible to enjoy, other times, it would be almost
entirely absent - resetting the headphones seemed to stop it for
a while before it would randomly return.
Possibly this was another part of
fault with the headphones that also manifested, on planes, as a
nasty clicking sound intermittently appearing. No other
reviewers have commented on either of these issues, and while
the 'wow' effect is subtle and not so noticeable on rapidly
changing popular music pieces, the clicking is definitely
unsubtle, so perhaps both issues are related and are due to
faulty headphones rather than a design limitation.
Note that if the battery
dies, the headphones won't act in 'pass through' mode. You
need a power source for the headphones to work, with or without
their noise cancelling. Well, actually, to state that more
accurately, the headphones only work with noise cancelling
switched on - there's no way to use them without the noise
Comfort and Convenience
The headphones are
comfortable to wear for extended periods, such as on a long
flight, and the ear cups sufficiently roomy, at least for my
The monitor button seems to
be a gimmick rather than a useful feature. Rather than
having to reach up and then hold the button pushed in while
talking to someone, it was easier (and also, I felt, politer) to
simply remove the headphones.
Flight attendants sometimes
talk about how much they dislike people wearing headphones who
don't remove them to talk to them, requiring the flight
attendant to repeat things they don't hear and forcing them to
shout rather than converse normally.
The digital signal
processing and the noise cancelling these headphones offer is
As a quick initial test of any headphones,
prior to taking them on a plane for the real-world
(and therefore most
important) testing, I do two simple things. I
turn them on and listen to them in a quiet environment to check
the residual background hiss noise, and I go downstairs to where
my gas furnace is and stand close to it while it is operating.
The noise of the furnace burners and fans provides a good broad
source for a quick noise cancelling test.
Delight and double delight.
There was almost no perceptible hiss at all - these were the quietest of any
headphones ever tested (and this is a benefit one would indeed
expect from the digital rather than analog circuitry inside the
And as for the furnace test, I was
stunned. It was almost as if the furnace stopped!
The headphones eliminated most of the rushing and roaring and
burning/throbbing sounds, leaving only the slightest suggestion
of something in the background when I got very close. In
this moderately noisy environment, the MDR-NC500D headphones
provided the best noise cancelling of any headphones ever
I found myself eagerly
awaiting my next flight and a chance to test them in the crucial
(and much noisier) airplane environment. Fortunately, the next flight was
only five days away, and I boarded my BA flight to London with
four sets of headphones - these ones, the Sony MDR-NC60
headphones, the Bose Quiet Comfort 2, and the Philips SHN9500 to
do careful comparison testing.
The clear excellence of the Sony
MDR-NC500D headphones in a less challenging environment (ie at
home next to my gas furnace) reduced in the ultimate
noise environment of an airborne jet. As best I could
distinguish, the Sony digital headphones were closely comparable in noise
cancelling to the Bose QC2s. They were better than the
Sony analog headphones (the MDR-NC60) and also better than the
Philips SHN9500 headphones.
I experimented with the
ability to switch between three different noise canceling modes
(see part one for a discussion of
Sony's digital noise canceling
feature). There were clearly audible differences in the noise
cancelling with each setting.
I liked the A and B profiles
better than the C profile, and noticed that the narrower
filtering band of the A profile added more coloration to the
background noise than did either of the other two profiles.
On balance, my favorite
profile on the plane was B, but A was nearly as good. Sony
says that A is the best profile for planes, so we're reasonably
Comparing the MDR-NC500D to
These top of the line Sony
headphones tested better than their lower priced sibling, the
MDR-NC60 in all respects, and also tested better than all other
headphones recently reviewed with the exception of the Bose QC2.
These Sony headphones are
closely comparable to the Bose in terms of sound quality and
noise cancelling, but have a much shorter battery life and a
$100 higher price.
Where to Buy
Sony headphones can often be
found in regular electronics retailers, as well as online
through a fairly wide range of stores.
They carry a recommended
retail price of $399, and currently aren't available at a
discount price anywhere that we've managed to find. Sony
goes through stages of rigorously policing its recommended
retail price policies, and while it seems content to allow for
discounting of its lesser model headphones, it recently
(November 08) appears to have acted to eliminate the discounts
formerly available on the MDR-NC500D headphones.
We purchased our pair
Amazon, due to the company's free shipping and excellent
return policies. Other companies will charge for shipping
and may charge you a restock fee if you choose to return them.
Summary and Recommendation
Make no mistake - these are
great headphones in all respects. Splendid audio, and
excellent noise canceling.
They are comparable to the
Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headphones in almost all respects, except
one - they are $100 more expensive. They also have
inferior battery life and the added encumbrance of either an
external battery pack or the need to travel with a power
There's no compelling
reason to choose these Sony MDR-NC500D headphones in preference
to the Bose QC 2 headphones, and with a $100 price
differential, there would seem to be more reason to choose the
Bose unit, which we're accordingly recommending as the best 'top
And if you're looking for a
lower priced product, perhaps the
Sony MDR-NC60 ($135 or thereabouts) would be a better
Read more in Part 1
In Part 1 we
MDR-NC500D headphones and discuss whether the digital noise cancelling is a
cheap gimmick or a sensible (and expensive) feature.
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26 Dec 2008, last update
21 Jul 2020
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