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Earbud style headphones offer excellent passive noise canceling and are small and lightweight, making them well suited for travelers.

They can either stick firmly in your ear (like these) or rest lightly on the outside (like the earbuds that come with an iPod or Zune).

If they stick firmly in your ear they offer better passive noise blocking, but many people may find them less comfortable.

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Sony MDR-NC11A Noise Cancelling Earbuds

Sony is a respected name in home audio, and this implies their MDR-NC11A earbuds may be a good quality product.

They are small and lightweight and so great for the weight/space conscious traveler.  But do they work well, and are they good value?

Part 15 of a series on noise reducing headphones - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight  Nine  Ten  Eleven  Twelve  Thirteen  Fourteen  Fifteen

Most of our other headphone reviews have been of 'traditional' type headphones, either over the ear or on the ear style.

The Sony MDR-NC11A is an example of a third design style - headphones built into ear plugs.  In the case of the Sony unit, not only are the miniature headphones built into ear plugs, but they also incorporate active noise cancelling circuitry as well as the passive sound blocking that is a feature of ear plugs.

While these headphones offer good passive noise blocking, their active noise cancelling is minimal, and the unwanted hiss introduced by the electronics, when the noise cancelling is switched on, detracts severely from the overall performance of the product.

We ended up using the headphones with the noise cancelling turned off so as to avoid the hiss.  In such a case - where the active noise cancelling adds no value at all, why pay the premium for these earplugs?

Executive Summary

These ear buds (better described as ear plugs) are lightweight and compact, and offer good passive noise blocking.  As such, if you don't mind ear plugs that need to be firmly stuck inside your ears to function, they are a good alternative to regular active noise canceling headphones.

However, the active noise canceling offered by these ear plugs is minimal, and the extra hiss caused by the electronics is objectionable.

If they had no active noise canceling, and were sold for $25 - $50, they'd be a good choice for people who are comfortable with 'in your ear' earplugs.  But if you don't like this approach to hearing your music, and/or if you don't want to pay the premium price for active noise canceling that you'll probably never wish to turn on due to the hiss it creates, stick with one of the other types of regular active noise canceling headphones.

The high level of hiss also makes these headphones inappropriate for use in quieter (eg office) environments.

Sony's MDR-NC11A Earbud style noise canceling headphones - what you get

The MCR-NC11A headphones come in one of those impossible to open type thick clear plastic blister packs.

This created an unexpected problem.  I had forgotten my usual noise cancelling headphones, and so bought a pair of these Sony headphones at Miami airport prior to a nonstop flight back to Seattle.  But I couldn't open them, and of course no-one had a pair of scissors or knife, either in the gate lounge or on board the plane.  It proved impossible for me to open the package, and so I had to endure the almost seven hour flight with no headphones - no way to reduce the airplane noise and no way to listen to my MP3 player either.

When (if) you eventually can open the package, you'll find various items.  The earbud headphones themselves, three different sizes of ear pieces to go on the outside of the headphones, an airline plug adapter, a plastic clip to help store the unit, a small soft pouch with drawstring top, a sheet of instructions, and a warranty certificate.

The warranty is 90 days for labor and one year for parts.

Battery Included?

On the outside of the package is some promotional material about the headphones in both English and Spanish.  Bizarrely, although the English version says no battery is included, the Spanish version promises an included battery.

Fortunately I chose to believe the bad news rather than the good news, and also bought an AAA battery for the unit, which it requires to operate.

Opening up the pack revealed no battery - you don't get much for your $100, do you!

An alkaline type long life battery is rated as providing up to 40 hours of active noise cancelling; regular batteries are good for up to 20 hours of operation.  When the LED dims, it is time to replace the battery (this is a very vague and subjective measure).

Ear Plugs vs Ear Buds

The Sony MDR-NC11A style headphones are best described as ear plug type headphones.

Ear buds are devices that rest lightly on the entrance to your ear passage - these are the type of units that come as standard with all iPod and Zune MP3 players, for example.

Ear plug type headphones, on the other hand, are devices that you must insert directly into your ear tube, and they have some type of soft rubber flange/gasket that creates a seal between your ear and the world outside it.

This type of design has a good feature and a bad feature.  The good feature is that this tight seal provides an excellent degree of passive noise blocking, often better than you'd get from active noise cancelling technology.

Another good feature is that the units are very small, making them well suited for travelers who usually are struggling to keep down the size and weight of their carry on baggage as much as possible.

The bad feature is that if the ear plugs aren't well designed to fit your ear tube's shape and size, they can quickly prove to be uncomfortable.  If your ears generate measurable amounts of wax, you're going to need to be continually cleaning the ear plugs to prevent the sound passage inside the ear plug from getting blocked up.  And, for sure, it is much less pleasant to share a set of ear plug type headphones with other people.

These limitations are the main reason why many people prefer regular type headphones.  But if you're comfortable with these issues, and the ear plugs, then they can be a great alternate choice, and often at lower prices than regular headphones.

It is common to find earplug style headphones that have no active noise canceling at all.  The reason for this is simple - they offer so much passive noise blocking they don't need any extra active noise canceling.  But these Sony headphones offer both passive noise blocking and also active noise cancelling too.

Headphones Description

The Sony MDR-NC11A earplug style headphones are very small and light.  The perceived 'on the head' weight is about half an ounce - in other words, almost imperceptible, and the total weight of the unit, including the AAA battery, is a mere 1.8 ounces.  Add the carry pouch, airline plug adapter, and storage clip and you're at a total of 2.4 ounces in a small pouch that measures less than 3.5" x 5.5" and is no more than 0.5" thick in any part.

The ear plugs are connected to a control box which in turn has a wire from it to a plug you can connect into a music source.  These wires are fixed in place, you can't plug and unplug them, or substitute one cable for another in case of failure or wishing a longer length of cable.  The triangular control box has space for a battery, with an on/off switch and power indicating LED on one side, and a gentle clip on the other side to affix it to your clothing on the other side.

The cord from the ear plugs to the control box is about 33" long, and from the control box to the plug is another 25".  The 25" length from the control box to the plug is a bit on the short side, but you could purchase an extension cable (eg from Radio Shack) if you found this to be a constraint.

The headphones come with three different sets of rubber tips to match different sizes of ears.  Experiment until you find the ones that give the tightest fit (for best noise blockage) without being uncomfortable.  They tips are easy to remove and replace.

The drawstring pouch is not very useful, because the drawstring top doesn't always close well unless you tightly cinch it up with the 'bead' on the string loop.  If you're trying to keep the headphones, plus the plug adapter, and maybe a spare batter all in the pouch, there's a danger that some of the small items may fall out of the pouch while it is being carried in your carry-on bag.

The plug adapter to enable the regular mini stereo jack at the end of the headphones to fit into the double jack plugs on some airplane seats is of a curious design.  It can function both as an adapter (with two prongs to go into the socket on the seat, and a single socket for your headphones to then plug into) but it is also possible to fold over one of the two prongs and have a regular 'extension jack'.

This extra feature seems to serve no purpose and seems to be nothing more than a gratuitous complexity and something to go wrong.

Noise Blocking and Cancelling Functionality

The ear plugs provide good passive noise blocking as soon as you fit them firmly into your ears.

Unlike active noise cancelling, the passive noise blocking seems to work across a broader spectrum of sounds, including reducing higher frequencies than does active noise cancelling.  However, this is not entirely a good thing.  Most of the objectionable noises when traveling tend to be at low and mid range frequencies, where active noise cancelling works best.

Active noise cancelling, due to its selective reduction of some frequencies rather than others, has an interesting side effect.  It can sometimes make voices easier to hear, or, at worst, no harder to hear.  This means you still hear in-flight announcements and can converse with flight attendants without having to remove your headphones.  But the passive sound blocking in the Sony ear plugs is such that you'd definitely need to remove them before talking with a flight attendant or traveling companion, or to hear in-flight announcements.

Turning on the active noise cancelling circuit in the Sony MDR-NC11A headphones caused an immediately apparent electronic hiss sound to occur.  But the reduction in background noise was not so obvious, and in part the background noise was being masked by the hiss rather than cancelled out.

Sony are to be commended, however, for resisting the trend by some other manufacturers to make unrealistic claims for their noise cancelling performance.  Their specification merely claims that some attenuation occurs in the frequency range between 50 Hz and 1500 Hz, with a maximum of 'more than' 10dB at 300 Hz.

In a very noisy environment the hiss isn't as obvious, because of all the other noise, but in quieter environments, the hiss can be quite bothersome.  Some people like to use noise cancelling headphones while working in an office - you'd definitely notice the hiss in such a case and would probably end up doing the same thing I did - turning off the noise cancelling and relying exclusively on the passive sound blocking.

Comfort and Convenience

You either feel neutral/positive at the thought of sticking ear plugs in your ears, or alternatively you may be like me and hate the idea strongly!

Comfort wise, these are no worse and no better than other similar products.

In terms of convenience, in addition to the small size and light weight, the unit is easy to operate.  You simply plug the plug into your music source, and put the ear plugs in your ears.

The unit works almost identically with the noise cancelling turned on or off, and probably most people will generally have the noise cancelling off rather than on.

There is no volume control or noise cancelling adjustment, but these are usually unnecessary gimmicks anyway, so their omission is no great loss at all.

The headphones aren't very sensitive.  That is, music doesn't come through them as loud as it does through some other types of headphones, and you'll probably have to turn the volume up higher on your audio source to get a comfortable listening level.  The sound level is very slightly higher when the noise canceling is on (102 dB/mW claimed with noise cancelling on, 98 dB/mW claimed with noise cancelling off).

Where to Buy

Sony make both a regular version of these headphones and a slightly more upmarket version which includes an (unnecessary) volume control.

Strangely, we've found the version including volume control to be available for less money than the regular version.  The units list for around $100 or $150 for without and with volume control, and Amazonoffers the units with volume control for $68.

Summary and Recommendation

The Sony MDR-NC11A ear plug type headphones combine good passive noise blocking with poor (and largely unnecessary) active noise cancelling technology, all in a very small and lightweight set of earplugs.

If you don't dislike earplugs, you may find these a good alternative to traditional larger headphones.  Although they list for $100 - $150 depending on model variants, Amazon offers them for only $68.

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Originally published 5 Jan 2007, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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