Paradigm, the venerable Canadian speaker manufacturer, continues to roll out new headphone options—this time we have a look at its first noise-canceling pair, the H15NC. At $299.99 (direct), it’s priced to compete with Bose and other leading noise cancellation brands. In terms of audio performance and extra features, the H15NC keeps up with the Boses, and sometimes surpasses them—these headphones can output powerful audio in passive mode, for instance, and also include the rare (for noise-canceling pairs) inline microphone and remote control for mobile devices. Purely as a noise-canceling pair, however, the H15NC offers a curiously subtle level of active cancellation.
Visually, the Paradigm H15NC is likely to be a headphone pair you either love or hate. It’s all clean lines, thick padded black leather, and brushed metallic accents, but some might find the overall look a bit bulky and bland. I happen to like the look, and the stamping of the confident Paradigm logo across the top of the headband, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The overall fit is soft and comfortable at first, but over long listening sessions—particularly if you wear glasses—the pressure on the ears can be a bit much.
A Power switch on the left earcup turns the noise cancellation circuitry on and off, and this is also where the audio cable plugs in. The cable, unlike many noise cancellation models, includes an inline microphone and remote control for mobile devices. The included USB charging cable connects to the right earcup, and the other end either connects to your computer or USB multi-charger, or to the included wall charger.
Many noise-canceling headphones are not rechargeable and run on AA batteries—the H15NC’s solution is more environmentally friendly, and Paradigm estimates the battery life at roughly 40 hours for a full charge, but this will depend upon your personal usage habits.
Call clarity through the inline mic is about what you’d expect—your call partner will understand you just fine. The remote control’s three buttons control playback and volume, and you can skip tracks or answer calls with them, as well. The buttons themselves are a little stiff, but they work nonetheless.
Also included: a two-prong airplane jack adapter, and a handsome zip-up hard-shell carrying case that the headphones fold down flat into.
Before we discuss the sound signature of the H15NC, there are two interesting, even odd, aspects of the performance to discuss. First off, the headphones output audio in passive mode—something some industry leaders, like Bose’s QuietComfort 15, don’t do. That’s a plus, but what’s even better is that the audio doesn’t seem to sound much weaker in passive mode, when the noise cancellation is not activated. Typically pairs that reproduce audio in passive mode tend to get significantly quieter and often have less bass response in this mode. The H15NC only seems to sound slightly different, which is a huge plus.
But then, to negate this huge plus, more or less, we have to discuss the noise cancellation. It’s worth mentioning that the on-ear pads, with their thick cushions, do seem to block out a decent amount of ambient room noise on their own. But the active noise cancellation, to be blunt, blocks out very little. I would rank it very near the bottom in terms of noise cancellation performance in currently available headphone pairs I’ve tested.
However, there’s one major mistake the H15NC does not make that saves it: Unlike many active noise cancellation pairs out there, the H15NC does not add audible hiss to the equation. Many competing pairs produce what sounds like tape hiss when the noise cancellation is activated. The H15NC may not actively eliminate much sound, but it doesn’t produce any audible hiss when active. The ear pads also passively block out a decent enough swath of room noise that there is, indeed, some noise reduction here.
Moving along to the audio performance itself, we’ll generally discuss the audio performance of the H15NC when it’s in active mode—but with the knowledge that there is very little difference between active and passive modes, in terms of audio performance. However, for our deep bass test, we’ll talk about it in both modes.
With the noise cancellation disabled, on tracks with challenging sub-bass content, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the H15NC does not distort, even at maximum, extremely loud (and unsafe) listening levels. Not only does it not distort, but it offers some serious bass response, and at high volumes the headphones vibrate dramatically despite producing a clean, distortion-free sound. At more reasonable levels, most of the vibration disappears, and there is still plenty of low frequency thunder. Bass lovers will enjoy the boosting, while purists will probably wish things were a bit more flat. On this same track with the noise cancellation engaged, at very top volumes, the sound signature sounds very similar, but a tiny bit of distortion creeps in—but this is at an unreasonable listening level, and at just slightly lower volumes, the hint of distortion disappears. This is the only type of track (one with deep, intense sub-bass content) that produces this minor distortion.
On Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” the bass boosting adds some low-end richness to the drumming, as well as to Callahan’s unique baritone vocals. Luckily, there is some high-mid tweaking, too, which gives his voice just enough treble edge to stay out in the front of the mix. Things could be a bit crisper in general—the vocals and his guitar work would stand-up to the lows a bit more—but things never get muddy or undefined.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop could also use a bit more high-mid presence to give its attack more crunchy presence. Instead, the bass boosting wins out on this mix—both the drum loop and the sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat receive plenty of extra low-end here. The vocals are clear, but like the Callahan tune, the overall sound leans noticeably towards the low frequency end of things.
Classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” probably sound the most balanced through the H15NC—there’s a natural crisp edge to many classical recordings, which tend to lack bass boost. So they can naturally fend for themselves in the high-mids, without any need of boosting, while the lower register instruments are graced with added richness. It’s not a sound for purists, as stated earlier, but it’s a pleasant sound with plenty of presence in both the highs and lows.
If you’re looking for better noise cancellation from an on-ear headphone pair, Bose’s QuietComfort 3 is an industry standard for active noise cancellation, and its audio performance is solid, though again, not for purists. If you want a more balanced audio performance than the H15NC’s boosted low-end offers, the AKG K 490 NC is a great option. And if all of these are too pricey, consider the in-ear Phiaton PS 20 NC—it’s far cheaper, and so your expectations for noise cancellation performance should go down a bit, but it’s decent enough in that regard, and also packs quality audio performance for the price.
At $300, the Paradigm H15NC is a bit of a conundrum. Its actual noise cancellation is oddly weak compared with a typical pair, but it also gets more out of its earpads’ natural passive noise reduction than most pairs do. Chances are, if you’re a bass lover looking to lower the den of noise around you, the H15NC’s positives, which include an inline mic and remote and solid passive audio performance, will outweigh its negatives, but it seems slightly overpriced.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc