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But getting that signal processed correctly and matching the levels perfectly is not an easy thing to do. No system does it perfectly, and none can reverse really deep bass noise.

Performance

So how did it work with these headphones? Extremely well. Sony doesn’t specify the amount of noise reduction, but it seems at least as good as any I’ve experienced, and they’ve routinely claimed 30dB or more of reduction in the midrange frequencies.

Sure, you can still hear stuff outside if no music’s playing, and even if music is playing if the noise is loud enough. But in general, the noise is reduced to a matter of no consequence, leaving one free to enjoy just the music.

And the Sony MDR-1000X headphones did a very nice job of delivering the music. There was plenty of volume and a very well balanced tonal quality, with excellent control of the upper midrange and treble to deliver a silky smooth, classic sound quality. Some female vocal sibilants which can be bothersome were quite tamed with these headphones, yet plenty of detail was retained, including in the upper frequencies. The bass, also, was powerful and extended.

Something I noticed spoke of the quality of the actual drivers. There can be a temptation with noise reducing headphones to use cheaper, lower quality drivers. After all, the maker is also building the amplifiers in them, and a digital signal processor to do the noise reduction, so why not do a bit of EQ at the same time, correcting for driver deficiencies?

But it was very hard to distinguish between the sound quality of the headphones with the power on and the power off, suggesting that there’s very little if any correction being performed in electronics. There was a slightly greater overall clarity with them on than off, but the effect was very subtle. The only marked difference was the position of the volume control on the source device. When they’re switched on, these headphones will go very loud with any source.

One potential issue with noise reducing headphones is wind noise. Since they depend on capturing environment sound, wind blowing across the face of a microphone could result in phase-inverted wind rumbling. So I sat outside for a few hours with the wind blowing in my face, across my face, and on the back of my head, listening to music with the noise reduction process engaged, and there was only once the slightest hint of wind rumble.

Volume and music control (only available via Bluetooth, not wired) is managed via the touch sensitive face of the right earpiece. Swipe up or down to change the volume. Swipe forwards or backwards to skip tracks either way. Double tap to pause. Repeat to play. All very clever.

A really useful convenience feature is their talk-through capability. By placing your ear up to the right hand earpiece, the music is muted. Just as importantly, the noise cancellation is switched off. Furthermore, the microphones normally used for gathering the sound of the outside world in order to cancel it are pressed into service to feed that sound into the headphones. When someone wants to talk to you, you put your hand up near your right ear and you can hear them clearly right through the headphones. Take your hand away and everything goes back to normal.

But you can also set the headphones to pass through external sounds all the time or for longer periods. Again, this uses the external microphone, and again the noise cancelling is stopped, but the music continues, and rather than external sounds just leaking through the headphones, they are captured by the microphones and fed into them so that you can hear them clearly. There are two modes for this: “Voice” for just the frequencies of humans speaking – perhaps for hearing announcements – and “Normal” for passing through all sounds.

Power, noise reduction and external sound pass-through switches, plus cable input

The Bluetooth connectivity wasn’t as startlingly reliable as that of the Beats Solo 3 headphones I looked at before Christmas, but way better than earbud models. They could manage an outdoors line of sight range of well over twenty metres and seemed largely happy regardless of which pocket on my person I placed the paired iPod Nano. There was the very occasional drop out, extremely brief, as I was walking, suggesting the iPod Nano might have built up a static charge in my pocket.

That said, these are not headphones designed for exercise. The full covering of your ears and a portion of your head would soon result in excessive perspiration.

They do provide a reasonable grip, remaining firmly in place, while also being comfortable.