The only issue we really had with the Sony MDR1-RNC, the noise-cancelling headphones we reviewed earlier in 2013, was the extremely high price. Comparable-quality headphones had far lower prices, but the MDR1-RNC was a winner in every other regard. When Sony announced the MDR-10RNC with a $269.99 list price, we hoped they would be basically the same headphones as the MDR1-RNC at half the price. From a noise-cancelling standpoint, this is pretty much the case, but the audio performance loses us a bit. It’s by no means a weak pair, delivering deep, distortion-free bass at high volumes with gusto, but it lacks definition in the high-mids and highs and can sound murky at times.
The overall look of Sony’s latest MDR line of headphones is at this point familiar. It’s a simple, graceful design with black as the main color and red and metallic accents. The headband and earpads are well-cushioned black leather, and they feel lightweight and comfortable throughout long listening sessions.
A power switch sits on the bottom panel of the left earcup, with an AINC button next to it that adjusts noise cancellation modes—more on that in a bit. The MDR-10RNC can be used in passive mode without switching on the power, which is a great feature for when the battery is low or you simply don’t need any noise cancellation.
The left ear also holds the 3.5mm audio jack for the included two cables. One cable has no phone controls, and the other features an inline, single-button remote control. The extra cable is nice, and having detachable cables adds to the headphones’ longevity, since it’s far cheaper to replace a malfunctioning cable (a common problem) than repair or replace the headphones themselves. The single button remote feels a bit limited for this price range, however; there is no way to adjust the volume, and you can only play/pause, answer calls, or navigate tracks (by using multiple clicks of the button).
The earcups pivot on hinges at the bottom of the headband to fold down flat, and they store easily inside the included hard shell zip-up protective case. An adapter for airplane jacks and a single AAA battery also ship with the headphones—the compartment for the battery, which powers the noise cancellation feature, is located in the right earcup’s outer panel.
The decision to go with a AAA battery rather than a rechargeable option with a cable is regrettable. Sure, it’s quicker to replace your battery rather than recharge, but it’s not cheaper, nor is it very environmentally friendly, and since the headphones work in passive mode it seems downright unnecessary. Sony rates the MDR-10RNC’s battery life at up to 20 hours, but results may vary depending on usage and what type of battery you purchase. And a warning: Don’t forget to turn them off, as the headphones have no auto-shut off function if they are powered up but not playing music over a long time period.
In powered mode, tracks with serious sub-bass content like the Knife’s “Silent Shout” get a healthy amount of low frequency presence from the MDR-10RNC at top volume levels and without distortion. In passive mode, with the noise cancellation circuitry not engaged, the MDR-10RNC experiences a noticeable drop-off in volume but no radical changes to its sound signature. Bass lovers won’t be disappointed, even if it’s not the most booming pair around. Fans of super-crisp high-mids and highs, however, will notice a lack of definition.
This is most apparent on tracks like Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” where his baritone vocals can get a little buried in the mix and sound a little muddy without sufficient high-mid and treble presence. Here, it’s not that the bass is overly-boosted, which can also cause problems for this track by overloading the drums (the MDR-10RNC graces both the drumming and Callahan’s voice, with a nice, articulate richness in the lows), but there’s just not much treble edge to help balance things out and give definition. The track sounds overly weighted towards the lows and low-mids.
Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” has a similar problem on the MDR-10RNC. The bass and low-mids sound very nice, neither overly boosted nor anemic, but the attack of the kick drum loop and, to some extent, even the varied vocals on this track would benefit from more crispness in the mids and highs.
On classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” the MDR-10RNC finds its best application. The naturally crisp sound of most classical recordings, which favor the mids and highs and rarely feature any added deep lows, is an ideal showcase for a headphone pair that boosts the lows and doesn’t boost the high-mids much. Everything ends up pretty nicely balanced, with the lower register strings receiving a nice subtle richness and the brass growls remaining bright enough to have a strong effect.
As for noise cancellation, the MDR-10RNC is another addition to the family of Sony noise cancelling headphones that use what the company calls “AINC,” where the “AI” stands for “artificial intelligence.” It’s a silly name, and what’s really going on is quite simple. There are three modes of use: for airplanes (mode 1), buses or trains (2), or offices (3), as Sony describes it. The NC circuitry defaults to mode 1 when you power it up, but pressing the AINC button will change modes. You cannot actually select the mode you wish to use yourself; it selects the mode for you by analyzing the ambient noise around you. It only performs this analysis if you actually press the AINC button, however. Otherwise, you’re always in mode 1.
The circuitry works quite well in moderately noisy environments, like an office or a room with a loud AC unit, and it’s also pretty effective in louder travel scenarios, like buses and planes. It’s not quite up there with leading models like the latest from the Bose QuietComfort series, which can outright eliminate irregular, transient audio in certain scenarios, like voices, but the MDR-10RNC does a great job with constant, ambient noise.
The Editors’ Choice Bose QuietComfort 20 is actually an in-ear option, and while it’s a game changer, there are other options if you want to stay with headphones. The Bose QuietComfort 15 is still an fantastic product, and the AKG K 490 NC offers excellent synthesis of audio and noise cancellation performance. For $270, the Sony MDR-10RNC is a better noise cancelling pair than it is a solid audio performer. Those seeking a more crisp, defined sound might find the MDR-10RNC too soft in the high-mids, but if noise cancellation is your main priority, this very comfortable headphone pair is worth checking out.
|Active Noise Cancellation||Yes|
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