Making a good headphone these days is more than just building a good can with solid audio recreation, as you also need modern features like wireless and noise cancellation. The latest pair from Philips has both of those, and it even has a low price to boot.
Features and performance
In the box, you’ll find a cable to switch these wireless headphones into something not quite so wireless, a USB charge cable, an airline adaptor in case you feel so inclined, but no protective pouch, which means good luck protecting the headphones.
Oh, and you’ll also find the headphones. Important thing, too, since you’d expect to find headphones in a headphone box.
Looking at the design, it is nice to see something that isn’t quite your typical standard matt look, and the Philips SHB8850NC certainly don’t have that.
There’s a metallic dimpled design, and it’s more than just a mere look, with those dimples resulting in a texture, slight as it is.
You can’t see yourself in the mirror finish, but that’s fine, with the dots making it harder to get your fingerprints all over the design, and that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, as metallic as its looks, these Philips cans are still merely made of plastic, and that’s something you feel when you hold the headphones, and when you put them on.
Doing so, it’s clear we’re ready for our sound test, and pairing these headphones is the next step, a pretty easy step to do thanks to the wonders of Bluetooth and — if your device supports it — Near-Field Communication, or NFC.
If you have a supported device, say an Android phone with NFC or one of those Windows Phone products, you simply need to bump the phone to the side with the NFC logo and this will kickstart the pairing process.
But if you have an iPhone — or any phone without NFC — you’ll want to hold down the Bluetooth button on the bottom of the cans to start the pairing process and the subsequent blinking LED. From here, simply find the headphones in settings and connect, and then away you go.
Alternatively, you can use the cable found in the box, something which will be a little more than necessary on so many flights, though as wireless friendliness opens up in travel, that could change.
In the regular day to day, however, the Philips can serve either need, providing wireless headphones with active noise cancellation or wired with active noise cancellation, or either without, just make sure the battery is charged if you want ANC on. Charging is easy, mind you, thanks to the use of the microUSB port on the side of the can.
Controls are, however, a little clumsy, with quite a few plastic shapes lining the right can with different sizes for most of them, at least giving you some semblance of change, making memorisation easier. We’ve certainly seen better controls on wireless headphones, but at least the Philips wireless active cans we’re testing don’t try to make things so minimalist that they become downright confusing.
From there it’s on to the sound, and as usual, we’re doing this with the 2016 GadgetGuy Sound Test, which can be listened to and checked if you have an Apple Music, Spotify, or Google Play Music account.
And we start this with electronic, where the first feeling we get out of Imogen Heap’s “Headlock” is that while the Philips headphones are clear and offer a decent soundspace, they’re also quite bright, with the low-end background hum of the bassy instruments lost in translation.
That feeling is echoed in tracks from Demi Lovato and The Weeknd, where the often seductive moody undertones carried by the low-end are absent, with the only discernible bass there from a drum attack. In the latter, in the fact, the total absence of low sounds makes the “Can’t Feel My Face” weaker and shallow, with the bass attack barely a slap compared to the punch you want it to offer.
Neither Daft Punk nor Mark Ronson’s music can save the bass in these headphones, no matter how well engineered both “Get Lucky” and “Uptown Funk” are, and the only time we feel like the low tones are actually noticeable is in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” which feels a little more subtle than it should.
The bright poppy sound of Sara Bareilles is bright and cheerful as we expect, but even it loses the massive punch it normally receives, while our Ben Folds test track “Phone in a Pool” highlights the vocals and keys, though the broad bow swipe of the remaining strings are barely noticed with the cans.
Rock suffers much the same problem, because while the bottom end of the guitars in both Radiohead’s “Exit Music” and Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” are heard, they lack the dynamism of the top section of sound.
Even Brubeck’s jazz in “Take Five” feels a little empty, with the bottom end of the piano feeling lost while the bass struggles to make its presence known.
Even the raw gutsy bass of Christian McBride’s “Afirika” feels like it is missing something, though given there are only two instruments recorded and mixed in this track, this is the one piece of music in our playlist where it feels like you can feel the bass, as light as it is.
Unfortunately, these cans demonstrate the complexity in sound product research, and that’s the idea that bright sound isn’t particularly complicated, and accurate mids and lows are usually where the work of a speaker or headphone engineer gets a little difficult.
If anything our first taste of the Philips cans shows us the SHB8850NC need a little more work on the low end to be a great headphone, rather than something that is merely passable for performance. The mids are fine, the highs are good, and everything is clear, but most of low-end is definitely gone, and that was apparent through all of our testing.
Noise cancellation also feels like it needs work, though it isn’t something we were able to test on an aircraft.
Wireless noise cancellation cans tend to be made for every day life, but the SHB8850NC headphones feel like they’re made for air travel more than anything else simply because day-to-day transit didn’t make much of a dent on audio dampening. Buses, for instance, are one area where wireless noise cancellation comes in super handy, though here the cancellation feels a little lighter than we’re used to.
While we’re not quite sure how the Philips “ActiveShield” is supposed to differ from standard microphone noise cancellation systems, it doesn’t do a tremendous job with the hum of buses or the ambient noise from conversation, muting it only ever so slightly. That suggests to us air travel is the primary use, and for that we suspect these should be fine, though again, not the best noise cancellation you’ll hear.
Again, much like the audio quality, it’s a passable experience, though not the best you’ll ever see, though it isn’t bad for the asking price.
At least Philips has worked out how to keep the audio levels roughly the same, because regardless of whether noise cancelling was switched on or off, we found levels were actually not bad, needing us to keep at around 60 to 70 percent volume on the Apple iPhone we were testing with.
One thing we did notice was the Bluetooth transmission, which on these headphones can be a little spotty. It’s not bad all the time — it’s actually decent most of the time — but in areas where there is plenty of human foot traffic and the potential for other people using wireless technology, not just you, cut outs were frequent.
Something we did like was the hinge, with an almost DJ-like hinge provided whereby you can fold the cans up for portability, can also keep them around your neck, making it super handy.
Noise cancellation can drive the cost of a headphone up, but there’s usually a good reason for this: noise cancellation technologies tend not to be cheap, partly because it involves throwing in microphones but also because headphone makers know this is a premium feature, and premium tends to demand moolah.
Wireless is also one of those areas that drives the cost up, and it’s one reason why you’ll frequently see noise cancellation only offered with wires, because this can get a little exy.
But Philips has found a way to package both into the one pair of headphones and for a price that is quite unbelievable, making the SHB8850NC so tempting.
We’ll say it as simply as we can: for the price, they’re not bad, but there are much better headphones that are either wireless, noise cancelling, or a combination of both that you’ll find out there. Not necessarily for the price Philips has been able to package it into, but certainly if you spend a little more.
If $200 is your budget and you need both, however, take a look at them, as we suspect your mind will be made up, especially if you don’t mind losing out on the bottom end of music or generally just listen to bright and poppy music as it is.