Philips has been out of the headphone game for a while, but the company certainly knows a thing or two about audio, so we’re keen to see what it can do with its first pair of noise cancelling cans, the NC1. Are these Bose beaters?
Features and performance
Noise cancellation headphones are a big deal these days, and we’re not surprised: more than just useful for flying and killing the non-stop drone of the aircraft, noise cancellation can also be used practically every day to silence the ambient hum of the train, the chugging noise of the bus, and anything else that becomes background noise.
Philips is keen to get in on this area, though, and show us what it can do in its Fidelio range of products, headphones and speakers that are aimed at the more premium end of sound. We’ve seen some pretty expensive and spesh headphones pop out with this name in the past, so are very curious about what Philips can produce.
And what have they produced?
They’re called the Fidelio NC1, with that “NC” obviously translating to “noise cancellation” telling you ahead of time what these headphones are all about.
Plastic, metal, and pleather appear to be the main materials being used for this pair of cans, with a design that incorporates both rotation for the cups and folding with a hinge at the end of the band for each cup to fold into the band for easy portability.
Philips is using 40mm neodymium drivers for this pair, and working with four microphones to make the cancellation possible, two on each ear with one mic on the outside and one on the inside.
A case is included, and you’ll find a replaceable cable using the standard 3.5mm to 3.5mm jack, which we like to see, a change from what some other companies use with the lesser found 3.5mm to 2.5mm.
It’s also coated in fabric and feels more resilient than the standard rubber or plastic cables we see, and features an in-line microphone with a button to let you pause and play audio or answer calls. With only one button, this button feels equipped to handle any smartphone operating system, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about compatibility here.
You’ll also find a flight adaptor in the box — handy if you want to plug into the on-board audio system of some aircraft that haven’t switched to the standard single 3.5mm stereo.
And then there’s the battery, and Philips has provided a built-in battery here, so you’ll never have to buy another AA or AAA for a pair of noise cancelling headphones again (provided you use these).
The battery here is built in, with a microUSB to USB charge cable in the box, and the headphones will work both powered and unpowered, handy if your battery ever runs out of charge and you don’t have a way of charging it nearby.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this, but we’re still fans, and if you don’t like carrying batteries with you and you’re reliant on a microUSB cable in general — you know, like with a smartphone that isn’t made by Apple — you’ll have the parts you need to charge.
Conversely, if you’ve used a Bluetooth headset in the past few years, you’ll also be familiar with the port and how it’s used with the headsets.
With all of that out of the way, it’s time to get stuck into our headphone review, and the first thing we need to note is the size and weight.
On the one hand, the Philips Fidelio NC1 are fairly small and good for packing away, but on the other, the weight is also noticeable, the metal adding to the construction and helping the headphones tip the scales at a little under 200 grams.
That’s not an issue to us, and we’ll deal with comfort later, but it does mean the premium materials that have popped up here can add to the weight on your head just a little.
In any case, let’s get stuck into our sound test, because that’s what matters most with headphones.
As usual, with 2015 reviews, we’re testing with our updated GadgetGuy 2015 Sound Test, which you can try on your own headphones, and sees us starting with Tycho’s “Awake”, and here the instruments in this light electronic acoustic starter are all very clear, though lack a solid punch to their presence, with most of the work in the mids and highs. The bass is barely there, too, a thwack absent, mostly the same sound with both cancellation switched off and on.
Over to Imogen Heap’s “First Train Home” and the instruments are clear and vibrant — tight mostly — but the bottom end is mostly missing still, with only a push on some of the sounds.
Already after two tracks, it feels like these headphones have been made without so much of a strong bass recreation, which could bode well for those like poppy tracks and various instrumentals, but we’ll see.
Heavy electronic is first, and we’re hoping this will give the bass reflex a solid work out, pushing it with Mooro’s “M66R6” and The Glitch Mob’s “Skullclub”, both of which make the bass more noticeable, likely because each of these tracks accentuate bass as does a lot of electronic styles.
That said, it still lacks the punch and boom you expect from music of this nature, and while there’s more here, something about the NC1 headphones feels like the sound is being restrained in some way.
The same lack of dynamic bass is noticed on the recent Imagine Dragons tracks “I’m So Sorry” which is recreated with a decent balance, though again without the good punch you might expect from headphones. Bastille’s “Bad Blood” is much the same — bass that was there, but not an overall push, at least in comparison to the other sounds — but at least there’s solid separation between the vocals and instruments.
If you don’t like the bass much more beyond “noticeable”, the Philips NC1 headphones are — so far — a pair of cans that will appeal to you. We prefer a little more punch, a little more kick, but each ear is different.
Over to rock, and “Digital Bath” by The Deftones starts things off with well translated drum hits that sound full and real, mid and high vocals, and a clear harsh guitar sound. Bass is still a little lacking, and it’s something we continue to note Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that leaves some, but not all, even though the other parts of the song are all clear and quite happily prodding along, with much the same in Clapton’s “Layla”, The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.
Instruments are all quite clear here, so it’s nice to see Philips bringing its understanding for audio to these headphones, but again, the bass just needs a little more action on, more warmth, more punch, more tonality. It’s there, we can hear it, but sorry Philips, it needs something else, because it feels more like we should be at deafening levels of everything else just to get that punch we’re looking for, almost as if we’re being held off from being hugged be a friend named bass.
That restraint is something we’ve already noted in this review, and we feel it again in The Beatles test track, because it’s just in the distance, waiting to be spoken to, almost as if we’re being held back. It’s a little surprising, especially for a track that is generally so good to be run through headphones and speakers.
Over to hip-hop and R&B, and we start things off with a track designed to push bass, Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc”, and while the track is clear and snappy, again, the bass is subtle and just noticeable, more on the percussion than the electric bass line. Galactic’s more raw “Find My Home” amps up the bass response as does the older “Hypnotize” from The Notorious B.I.G., and in each of these tracks, the sound is collected and snappy, though the bass is still sitting in the back, the mids and highs taking priority.
Interestingly, the emphasis in the bass line for “Hypnotize” allows you to hear the rounding of the bass string being plucked, the solid sound, just not enough of the oomph for your ears.
One track will let us test this out better than others is Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” which is up next and again, shows a really tight sound with attention to the extra parts in the back — the clicks, the sighs, the spoken additions that complete a track — and a separation between the tracks. Bass is more noticeable in this song, telling us these headphones like beautifully mastered songs more than anything else, making us keen more than anything to play these with jazz.
That’ll be coming up, but first we need to get through some soul, with Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” coming off a little empty — again, bass pulled back while everything else sounds clear and bright — and Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” a little improved on this, though again feeling restrained.
Pop next, and this gives us a good chance to see what modern engineering does, going with Maroon 5’s “Sugar” and Katy Perry’s “Roar”, both of which are clear and bright, with emphasis on the vocals above everything else, but lacking the bottom end of the spectrum, with only a subtle nod to those low sounds.
To blues, and Solomon Burke’s “None Of Us Are Free” shows how sharp the high recreation is, the back organ noticeable behind the guitar sitting up front, the vocals above it all, with drums with presence, though without so much as a hint of obvious warming bass the song generally has.
It’s a little better with the more modern engineering in Jonny Lang’s “Bump In The Road” and The Black Keys’ “Fever” which each push the bass a little more aggressively, but not so much as the rest of the sounds.
Jazz and classical end the test, and usually the lack of bass isn’t a huge problem here with headphones, signalling we’re going to get a more rounded sound, and perhaps something a little warmer.
That’s not quite the case with the Philips Fidelio NC1 headphones, with clear instruments all around, but that subtle bass disappearing into nothingness, heard in Dave Brubeck’s “Maria” and Louis Armstrong’s “Cheek to Cheek”, with Nat King Cole’s 20-bit remastered “It’s Only A Paper Moon” bringing it back just a bit, back to those totally subtle levels.
Better engineered jazz — such as “All Blues” by Miles Davis and “Blue Train” by John Coltrane — fares a little better, though the bass is still very subtle, and only really noticeable when the volume is pushed up. Overall, the instruments are still clear, and we’d still enjoy our time with these headphones, but it feels like more work needs to be paid to the bottom end of the spectrum in these cans. In this instance, Coltrane’s “Blue Train” feels like it’s working with the headphones better, something that surprises us greatly.
Interestingly, Jacques Loussier’s “Theme of Symphony No. 7” — a jazz interpretation of Beethoven — is vibrant and strong across all the sounds, right on highs, mids, and even low, with just enough of that overly subtle bass to make us happy.
Spatially, though, the sound is clear, with a soundscape that puts you in the same room but doesn’t accentuate the arrangement dramatically, making you feel as if you are a part of it, though more in front of it than inside it, a feeling we get on other pairs of headphones.
Overall, the Philips Fidelio NC1 headphones aren’t bad and are reasonably balanced, but that more work needs to be paid to the bottom end of the sounds, with the enjoyment mostly going to people whose tracks have been totally engineered with an emphasised bass.
Or just modern engineering. We could say that.
Yes, these headphones mostly play to modern engineering in music, with older music feeling like it gets left out from the overall lack of bass the headphones have.
That’s not bad, and there are many who will find this lack of oomph appealing, especially as many headphone brands try to push an excess of bass these days in cans, but not all, obviously.
In terms of noise cancelling headphones, this doesn’t make the Philips Fidelio NC1 the king of the crop, sitting behind the Bose QC25i, Plantronics BackBeat Pro, and Parrot Zik customisable cans, at least as far as balance goes.
When we start talking about noise cancellation, the Philips NC1 headphones are about as good as the rest, with solid cancellation in a style of headphones that won’t encompass the ear or press too hard, which is something neither of these three can claim, since they’re all relatively noticeable circumaural (around the ear) designs, with the NC1 adopting the supra-aural or “on-ear” design.
For people who don’t like the head clamped, this style will likely accommodate them better, especially with a fairly light gauge headphone band, and one that reminds us in strength of the Audio Technica ANC-1 noise cancelling headphones that are compact, too.
In the Philips NC1, however, the ear pads are completely flat with holes cut out for the sound and what feels like memory foam underneath. In the beginning, we weren’t too fussed with the comfort of these cans, but they grew on us, especially after spending more than six hours with them.
Once you get past that six hour mark, the pads are quite comfortable, with a decent range of movement to accommodate several ear and head sizes.
One thing we do need to comment on is the price, and at $349, Philips is making a play for a territory dominated by Bose, which itself pushes its noise cancelling QuietComfort range in this category for about $50.
We’re not sure if the Philips cans themselves are as good as Bose QC25’s that we’ve played with recently, but they’re definitely close. Whether they’re a $50 deduction, we’re not entirely sure.
If only they had something else, you know, like Bluetooth, then they’d be a much better deal, and something Bose isn’t competing with.
Of course, then they’d be playing in the Plantronics part of the market, providing stiff competition to the BackBeat Pro headphones, but that’s a conversation for another day.
For its first pair of noise cancelling headphones, Philips has made pretty good headway with a pair of headphones, especially since they can do things other noise cancellation headphones struggle with, and that’s play back sound nicely without the battery being used.
Seriously, this is something some headphones have issues with, such as the Parrot Zik and Bose QC25, with each able to play sound without power, but not doing a tremendous job at it. Philips wins in this area, at least, and manages to produce a sound with minimal difference between the headphones being powered and unpowered, and that’s great.
What we do wish would be better is the bass response, which is just very, very subtle for ears.
If you don’t mind bass that’s a little underpowered and you’re after a pair of highly portable noise cancelling cans, you’ll likely enjoy what the Philips NC1 headphones offer.