While the audio world is littered with on-ear and around-the-ear noise-canceling headphone pairs, earphones with active noise cancellation circuitry remain a fairly rare beast. For years, the size of the circuitry and battery compartments made in-ear options cumbersome, but recently AKG and Bose introduced new in-ear options. The AKG K391 NC ($199.95 direct) still features an inline compartment that houses the noise cancellation circuitry, but it lacks a bulky battery compartment (it charges via USB). It also includes the relative noise-cancellation rarity of an inline remote control and microphone for mobile devices. While its actual noise cancellation performance is only slightly above average, the K391 NC packs some powerful bass response and clear, clean overall audio performance.
The AKG K391 NC’s design is simple and straightforward. Besides some nice, etched detail work on the metallic end of each ear piece, we are presented with a functional design rather than gobs of visual flourishes. The earphones fit securely and comfortably, but the weight of the cable and the compartment described below can at times create a little extra tug.
Descending from the left ear piece, the plain black cable houses an inline remote control and microphone. The cable then meets with a compartment housing the noise cancellation circuitry. A switch activates the circuitry, but the earphones can be used in passive mode for audio playback as well. On the other end of the compartment, there’s a connection for the USB charging cable, and a 3.5mm connection for the removable second half of the audio cable (the earphones come with two cable types for the two types of smartphone headphone jacks, and the cable is swapped at this input). External compartments for noise cancellation are annoying, but to this point, no in-ear pair except the Sony XBA-NC85D has managed to do away with them. While it’s an annoyance, it’s one we’ll accept, as the Sony pair was overpriced and underperforming.
The remote is of the single button variety, which makes it a little less useful than the three-button remotes we often see on earphones. You can control playback, navigate tracks, and answer calls. Call clarity is fine.
It’s nice to see a rechargeable battery being used. Not only does the K391 NC work in passive mode, like a regular pair of earphones, it also doesn’t require the cumbersome AAA batteries most noise canceling headphones rely on. This better for the environment, but it also makes for a less bothersome circuitry compartment. Sure, the compartment is still a little annoying, but it would be even more so if it had an AAA battery compartment as well.
AKG estimates 40 hours of playback per full charge, but your results will depend upon volume levels you choose and other variables. Also included with the K391 NC: an airline jack adapter, a shorter USB charging cable, and three pairs of silicone ear tips in various sizes.
In both passive and active modes, the K391 NC outputs audio, though typically the passive mode is less powerful, with less low-frequency presence. Regardless, in either listening mode, the earphones do not distort, even on tracks with intense sub-bass content, such as the Knife’s “Silent Shout.” The earphones remain distortion-free at top volumes, as well—maximum volume is loud but tolerable in passive mode, and uncomfortably loud in active mode. Not only is there no distortion, but the bass presence in active mode (which will be the mode we discuss from here on out) is quite powerful.
On Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” the drumming gets some very noticeable bass-boosting, taking it to a not-quite-thunderous, but certainly modified level. Purists seeking flat response will probably be turned off a bit by this, but bass lovers seeking added low-end without sacrificing clarity in the rest of the frequency range will be pleased. There’s plenty of high-mid and high frequency boosting and sculpting, so Callahan’s baritone vocal delivery doesn’t get lost in boosted bass territory, maintaining enough of a crisp edge to stay in the forefront of the mix.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop is delivered with slightly less hi-mid attack than I tend to prefer. The K391 NC doesn’t deliver a muddy mix, but the focus of this track seems to be on the very highs (orchestral synth parts sound bright, but not harsh) and very lows (the sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with serious intensity). Vocals sit in the mix well, but the big bass steals the show.
Classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” sound lively through the K391 NC, receiving a nice richness in the low-end and enough presence in the highs to give the high register strings and percussion, as well as the growl of the brass, a nice treble edge. The large drum hits at the end of the piece sound particularly powerful—almost a little over the top, as they receive plenty of bass boost—but it doesn’t sound bad, just exaggerated enough that purists might roll their eyes.
The noise reduction itself is effective, but not mind-blowing. Partially, the in-canal earphones do a healthy amount of passive noise reduction by plugging the canal and acting as earplugs. When the circuitry is switched on, a decent swath of ambient room noise is eliminated, but a slight-yet-audible hiss is created. This hiss is typical in less-expensive noise cancellation circuitry, which, at $200, believe it or not, the K391 NC qualifies as. It’s also not at all overwhelming, so it shouldn’t be thought of as a deal-breaker. The bottom line here is that the overall noise reduction is not as powerful as with some of the leading options. For the price, however, it is solid, and when you throw in the excellent audio performance, the K391 NC only becomes more attractive.
If you’re looking for the best noise cancellation available, and it matters to you even more than audio performance, you might consider checking out the around-the-ear Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones—or consider waiting until August 2013 for our review (and the release) of the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear noise canceling pair. If excellent audio performance is the main priority, and noise cancellation a perk, both the K391 NC and the on-ear AKG K 490 NC are excellent options. Finally, if this is all a bit pricey, but you still really want an in-ear noise canceling pair, the Phiaton PS 20 NC is decent and less expensive than the K391 NC.
There aren’t a ton of in-ear noise cancellation pairs on the market, however, and the upcoming Bose pair costs a full $100 more than the K391 NC. With solid audio, decent noise cancellation, and a thoughtful overall design, the K391 NC earns its price. It may not be affordable enough to be considered a bargain, but it’s a solid option in this price range.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc