Review: three weeks with Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC3 noise-canceling headphones


Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC3 headphones, the third in our review series (after the Etymotic hf2 and Ultimate Ears super.fi5), were the first I encountered with active noise canceling. Active noise canceling (ANC) headphones produce an inverted sound wave based on exterior sounds. While the hf2 and super.fi5 create a seal around the audio canal to tone down the outside world, the ATH-ANC3 attacks the situation head-on.It has a little unit on its cord, with a power switch for the noise canceling, and a monitor button that turns the ANC off. The noise-canceling sound wave results in hiss when no music is playing. Audio is amplified, so that sounds are more powerful at low levels.

The ATH-ANC3's noise canceling is terrific. On a commuter jet, these headphones were much more assertive at shutting out the plane's 87 db white noise than several noise isolating models. I'm typing this three feet from an in-window air conditioner, and I can barely hear the compressor or fan, while my music is powerful and clear. The headphones also did a pretty good job in the office, where conversations and abrupt noises were more prevalent. Coupled with the audio amplification, they were almost universally effective.

The same can be said for the ATH-ANC3's overall sound: they're wonderfully balanced, satisfying headphones for a wide spectrum of music. Sounds across the spectrum were crisp and clean, with a good balance of low-end oomph and general richness. I didn't find a single song that didn't sound good through them, even a 56 kbps mp3 recorded off an old vinyl 45. Performance is equally good at low and high volumes.

Wind is the ATH-ANC3's Achilles' heel. I found it next to impossible to wear these headphones on my bicycle. As best I could tell, the microphone that processes the external noise had trouble understanding the variable wind and ended up amplifying rather than canceling it. I couldn't hear my low-volume music, and the wind noise actually felt louder than if my ears were bare. With the ANC turned off, the headphones lost a lot of their dynamic range, diminishing their performance. They're best used with the ANC on.

The Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 active noise canceling headphones come with an extra cord segment, rubber earbuds in three sizes, an airplane seat adapter jack, and a large, four-pocketed hard case. They're very comfortable and don't create fatigue over time. Which is an extra perk, since they're perfect for long-haul flights. Highly recommended for travelers, and anyone who likes to get great sound that overcomes noisy environments.

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15 Responses to Review: three weeks with Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC3 noise-canceling headphones

  1. hohum says:

    Unless they’re actively EQing to make up for the sound quality of the MP3 era, then I’m a little bit frightened by this…

    Nothing can make a 56kbps MP3 sound good. If a 56kbps MP3 sounded the same as everything else you piped into it, then it sounds more like the overall sound quality is so bad that you don’t notice any drop in quality.

    This is generally how it works… Anything sounds ‘good’ on a low-end system because, really, nothing sounds good… Everything just sounds the same. When your equipment gets better, you start to notice the nasties between 56kbps, 128kbps, 256kbps…

    Anyway, I won’t rule these out, I’d have to try them myself… Too hard to get much useful info out of reviews of monitors in my opinion… But doesn’t sound all that promising to me…

  2. exhilaration says:

    How much do they cost? It looks like there’s no price in the other reviews either. What’s up with that?

  3. MB says:

    Noise isolation when on a bike? Now *that’s* a brilliant idea . . .

  4. Ray Cornwall says:

    Agreeing with MB. Why would you wear noise-isolating headphones while biking? That sounds tremendously unsafe.

  5. jakekingdead says:

    I had the same experience with active noise canceling and wind. I went through a couple of sony’s active noise canceling headphone/mp3 player combos (they’re pretty great) and anything more than a slight breeze would come through as a huge hiss.

    My theory is that the mics on the headphones that are used to generate the canceling signal are hearing things that aren’t getting through to your ear because the buds are there (in this instance, the wind rush). So you end up with a very strong canceling signal with no source equivalent to cancel out.

    Also, east side river bike path? Amirite?

  6. David Wertheimer says:

    Jumping in quickly to the comments here:

    #1 – It’s relative, of course. My point was that these headphones do a good job of making the low-quality files sound respectable. The Eytmotics I reviewed last week, on the other hand, try their best to show you exactly what the music sounds like, which is for me less than ideal on a 56k hip hop mp3.

    #2 – Sorry, true. I’ll start including prices. These have a retail price of $169; the Ultimate Ears Super.fi5 are also $169 and the Etymotic hf2 are $179.

    Regarding headphones and biking, please see my comments here. I listen at very low volumes–that’s why I have a personal interest in noise isolation–and at all times I can hear traffic and conversations around me. Just a lot less of it.

  7. David Wertheimer says:

    Jake – Good theory. That’s certainly what it felt like.

    I ride down Riverside Drive and the Hudson River greenway. Haven’t attempted a crosstown trip.

  8. jakekingdead says:

    ah, west side. forgot there’s a helipad over there as well.

  9. therevengor says:


    What kind of bourbon were you drinking while you wrote this review? What kind of insight did the headphones give you about yourself?

    This is Boing Boing Gadgets, not Consumer Reports!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Looking at the prices, I’m wondering if these headphones really justify it. Could you maybe do a comparison between some of these $150+ models and the <$30 models that advertise noise cancelling (skullcandy, for instance)? Setting aside durability/quality aspects, is the sound really improved enough to justify more than four times the price? Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  11. Anonymous says:

    $169 retail? I bought my pair for $70 online. I’ve been quite happy with them for long flights and the case is roomy enough to also hold a mp3 player.

  12. sauce says:

    Please dont try to make yourself deaf to the outside world while riding your bike. That is a very bad idea.

  13. remmelt says:

    Hi David, just noticed you specifically answered my post in the other thread.

    I would just like to point out that there’s a third possibility besides ANC or cranking, and that is open cans without the crank. This compromises music quality on the go, but greatly enhances security because 1: I have the open cans so every noise can get in unhindered, and 2: I’m not trying to drown out road noise.

    Another thing to consider is that it’s not necessarily your safety I’m worried about, but my own. If I’m trying to overtake you with my bike, you may not hear or see me. This could lead to serious accidents, accidents that you might not even be aware of.

    That said, you argument about low volume strikes a chord. Damn tinnitus. I’m just worried that the noise canceling and the ear plug nature of these headphones would lower my safety and the safety of others.

  14. remmelt says:

    Also, what therevengor said.

  15. Kalyke says:

    Cycling with headphones is fine until you don’t know what’s hit you.

    Really surprised anyone who posts for BBG could be that blasé towards cycling safety.

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