Sony MDR-1RNC noise cancelling over-ear headphones

We've had the Sony MDR-1RNC noise cancelling over-ear headphones in the Pocket-lint offices for weeks now and have been using them non-stop - while at work, when commuting, out on the streets and at home. We already had a lot of love to give to the baby of the range, the similar-named MDR-1R model, but can the top-spec noise cancelling model - with its eye-watering £449 recommended retail price - closer to £330 in the real world - deliver the goods a step above?

Design

Sony describes its MDR-1-range as "prestigious" - a bold claim, but one that we're sold on from the design point of view.

Visually we think the MDR-1RNC cans look great. The black version with red trim and silver-like finish that we've been using look subtle yet stylish. They're comfy too - all soft headband with three dimensional adjustment of the enfolding earcups for best fit.

But there's no mistaking that these are big cans. They fully encompass the ear, yet avoid excess weight which means they rest gently on the head and don't pinch like a clamp either. It's only the larger-lobed of us who may find frustration with ears meeting the inner cloth-covered drivers - a minor discomfort, but one that will only feel notable after extended period of wear.

The NCs come with two non-tangle cables - one for iPhones, and another shorter-length cable for other devices - which each plug into the left side earcup and merge seamlessly with the design. Also included in the box is a carry pouch.

Sound

Having spent a lot of time with the MDR-1RNC we're very pleased with the sound quality. Far from a casual listen, we've fully immersed this product into daily life.

READ: Sony MDR-1R headphones review

As per the MDR-1R model, the NCs don't have a particularly neutral sound, but they sure do have a good sound. It's heightened for a variety of music - from pushed-up pop through to, at least some degree, bassier dance music. There's plenty of clap in the mids, the high-end twinkles and bass sits in the mix rather than washing over everything. As much as Sony's not fallen into the over-bearing bass trap here, the bass can feel a little rolled off and held back at times. The 4Hz-80,000Hz range sure is wide, wider than humanly audible in fact, but it delivers an equally wide sound.

But the thing is we don't hear much difference in audio between the NC and the base MDR-1R models, bar from some added bass pressure. So where's that extra £130 price tag come from (more if going by RRP)?

The active noise-cancelling mode is the obvious answer, which is activated by a small switch to the base of the left earcup. You'll need to charge up via the USB under the right earcup to fill up the internal battery, otherwise deathly silence will fall to your ears. A charge will last for around 20 hours of listening, which matched up to about two days for us.

With noise cancellation active the sound changes rather dramatically. It feels like everything has been somewhat skinned. Bass is too thin and the experience, while avoiding most of the outside world's noise, just isn't as pleasing to the ears at all. When outside wind is easily picked up by the exterior mics too, which makes for a tearing sound. Not so good.

Without noise cancellation active we still found the clasped-to-the-head fit of the 'phones makes a good enough seal to not spread sound everywhere. Of course having it activated will blot out external sound, but at the cost of final audio quality.

Overall we're impressed with the MDR-1RNC's quality audio, but feel the price hike for the sake of noise cancellation just doesn't add up.

Verdict

We think the MDR-1RNC headphones are exceptional in part, but not as a whole. The build quality, design and overall sound quality is excellent, yet the active noise cancellation strips the sound back a step too far for our ears.

Not only that but the significant price will mean you'd have to cancel all manner of things to own a pair. The best solution? Buy the base level MDR-1R model and save the extra cash. Nice though the NCs are we don't feel that they warrant the extra money for what amounts to little extra.