Maxell's NC-II is the budget winner in Noise Canceling headphones.

Mar 29, 2005 (Updated Apr 1, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Cheap, long battery life, decent audio quality, cancels a decent amount of noise.

Cons:Artificial bass level, minor complaints with N.C. quality.

The Bottom Line: If N.C. technology on a budget is what you're looking for, these headphones from Maxell are definitely worth a look.

---- Why do I need ‘Noise Canceling’? -----

During my last cross-country plane flight I was seated next to a young man wearing what appeared to be large silver earmuffs. At second glance I realized they were actually headphones, as if the large Bose logo on the side wasn’t a hint. After talking with him for a little while he explained they were “noise canceling” headphones, which I hadn’t heard of before.

After talking for a bit he asked me if I’d like to try them out. Since I was on a connecting flight using a small regional carrier, the aircraft had virtually no sound dampening. I figured what better time to try out these Bose QC-1 headphones than now, so on my head they went. After turning them on I was completely shocked by how effectively they blocked out both jet turbine noise and general aircraft noise. It was then I resolved to get a set of headphones for myself. I then discovered the $300 price tag on the Bose Quiet Comfort 1 model.

------ Enter the Maxell HP/NC-II -----

After shopping around and looking at various reviews for headphones with noise canceling (NC) capabilities I settled on the Maxell NC-II model. The old NC-I garnered pretty decent reviews and although I hadn’t found any reviews for the NC-II model it seemed to fix a few of the complaints with the first generation ‘phones. I made my purchase at Best Buy (hey, I’ve got to rack up those reward points) and paid just over $50 including tax.

I eagerly ran out to my car, desperate to try out… okay, I actually walked. I couldn’t see expending that much energy since these are just headphones, and only $50 headphones at that. So anyway, I walked to my car and proceeded to check out my new headgear. First thing I noticed, no batteries. The noise cancellation feature requires two AAA batteries to work. Don’t worry; I’ll explain the N.C. features later. The first test I put to my new ‘phones was a wide range of music and spoken word (audio books). The first thing I noticed was a lack of bass in all situations. Highs were quite clear and defined, both instrumental and vocal mid ranges were clear enough I would actually say it’s the high point of this model, but that bass was just nonexistent. I realized why right after I turned on the noise cancellation feature, as the bass was bumped up about 35%. I don’t know why this happens or how to explain it in technical terms, although I assume it’s through some sort of artificial bass boost. If I had to put in words how these phones sound it would be “not enough bass without N.C. turned on, too much bass with N.C. on”.

Comfort and fit is a priority with over-the-ear headphones as uncomfortable models can cause ear discomfort and even pain after an hour or less. Since the NC-II is designed for aircraft travel and long-term usage I assumed they would be comfortable. My assumption was correct, for this price point I was pleasantly surprised with the comfort level the NC-II gives its listeners. Unlike some other comparably priced phones by Koss & Sony, my ear fits inside the NC-II’s ear cups. This helps a lot with the ear-lobe discomfort that comes with smaller ‘phones. Judging by the size difference the NC-II's ear cups are somewhat larger than the departing NC-I.

Headband adjustments are easy with the typical click-type retaining device. Thankfully there’s enough tension in the ratchet mechanism to keep your last adjustment. This model does fold down to a very managable size, with the ear cups swinging in and fitting inside the headband. A carrying bag was also included with my NC-II's, and while it's a little on the cheap side it works fine.

Thankfully Maxell only has one cord coming off the headphones on the left side as I hate those double-corded sets that saw at your neck. The cord is somewhat thick, but since it runs down the side of your body it's no big deal. Just over halfway down the cord is the N.C. control box which houses the two AAA batteries. A simple on/off switch and a green LED let you know when the unit is on or off.

----- How much noise is canceled? -----

Obviously this is the only reason I (and many other) people are looking at the NC-II, since without its N.C. capabilities it’s just another pair of $50 headphones. I first tried out the N.C. feature in my car by running the engine and turning on the blower. Engine noises were dampened by about 50%, blower noises were cut by roughly 40%. Remember, these are my estimates without ever using a N.C. headset in a car before. Sharp and fluctuating noises like radios, speech, and other common sounds aren’t dampened at all. All the NC-II is good at (and all it’s really advertised as) is canceling constant and lower-spectrum noises such as airplanes, electric motors, cooling fans, computer systems, and other similar sounds. In an office environment the NC-II work quite well, subduing the ambient whirrs and thrums down to a quiet hush. In a car they work okay, although the engine changes pitch too much to be canceled effectively.

Airplanes are a different matter, and my memories of that lovely Bose set are still lingering in my head. I’ll say this right away; the Maxell is a poor man’s Bose at best, and in reality isn’t really a substitute at all. The N.C. function does work on Maxell’s model, but only blocks about 50% of the noise the Bose unit did. Maxell claims to block a maximum noise level of 15DB, I can’t substantiate this but it sounds about right. If you wear your NC-IIs for two hours or so on a flight and then take them off you’ll definitely hear what you’ve been missing. Wind noise and turbine roar are reduced enough to make the $50 tag worthwhile, especially if you’re seated two rows in front of the largish engines of a 737 (thank you If only I didn’t remember the tomb-like hush created by those beautiful Bose headphones I’d probably rate the NC-II five-stars.

----- Bottom line -----

For the minimal outlay of $50 I can’t say the Maxell NC-II headphones are a bad deal. They lack slightly in the area of sound quality (specifically bass volume and response), and also get a B to B+ grade in the noise cancellation area. If you want a nice pair of $50 headphones go somewhere else, if you want a nice pair of N.C. headphones pay about a hundred dollars more and try the highly-rated Sennheiser PXC 250 phones, or pony up the dough for the heavenly Bose unit. But, if you’re on a budget and don’t mind a perfectly functional compromise the MC-II is right up your alley.

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