(Pocket-lint) - Top-end Sony MDR headphones of recent years have offered a fantastic range of over-ear and on-ear products with leading audio. So when we received the new Sony MDR-100ABN wireless noise-cancelling headphones we were rather excited about using them on various long-haul journeys.
But it seems as though something has happened in MDR land. From the questionable "h.ear on" moniker - "H-dot ear-on?", "hear on?", "H-ear on?", we don't know - through to a slip from the 5-star standard in sound quality at this price point, especially for passive use, the MDR-100ABN do have some positive points, but miss the top mark at this level. Here's the lowdown.
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Sony MDR-100ABN headphones review: Design
If you're into bright colours then this could well be your lucky day: the MDR-100ABN are available in four luminescent colours - cinnabar red, Bordeaux pink, lime yellow, viridian blue - and a more standard charcoal black. It's that fifth monotone shade that we're lucky enough to pull in for this review.
The main thing the MDR-100ABN headphones achieve beyond their MDR predecessors is a better fit. There's no looseness around the head, so no slippage, yet they're comfortable around the ears and don't pinch at all. Indeed, they're rather comfy.
This is helped along by the slanted-back earcups, which ensure they avoid pressing down onto your lobes. These padded earcups have plenty of foam in them too, further aiding the soft-to-touch appeal. This slanted positioning also gives a more distinctive look than most over-ear headphones, which we rather like.
Thing is, despite their quirky appearance in the colour and design stakes, the actual make-up of the MDR-100ABN cans isn't up to much. They have a plasticky sheen, so look and feel like more budget headphones than their £220 price point suggests. From Bang & Olufsen to Audio-Technica, we've used plenty of competitors that exude a better overall build quality.
Sony MDR-100ABN headphones review: Noise-cancelling
What sets the ABN model apart from other MDR-100 derivatives is their built-in noise-cancelling. An on-board battery can be charged via the exposed micro-USB port on the left side, with separate on/off and NC (noise-cancelling) buttons above it. On the opposite ear is a track-skip and play/pause lever, next to volume controls.
You'll really want to ensure this battery remains charged - and not just for the wireless Bluetooth connection prospect, but for sound quality too. The headphones do operate passively if the battery has depleted, but the sound quality when they're powered is considerably better. It's immediately obvious when engaged, but just to make absolutely sure you'll hear a digitised female voice say "power on" (or "power off"), which seems unnecessary and breaks-up the audio temporarily. The noise-cancelling button, conversely, just makes a beeping sound whether turning the feature on or off.
Noise-cancelling operates really well, cutting out a significant level of surrounding external sound, ensuring you can better focus on the listening experience. In a car journey to an airport, for example, that low-level "fizz" from the road was largely cut out, although not entirely. The noise-cancelling further enhances the sound, too, with a more engaging listen. It's this noise-cancelling feature that's the main reason to consider these cans.
As we found with earlier MDR noise-cancelling cans, however, the microphones (used for the feature) aren't positioned perfectly for outdoor use. A bit of wind and there's that catching "tearing" sound as a result. It's a feature better reserved for when in transit, as per most noise-cancelling cans.
Sony MDR-100ABN headphones review: Sound quality
The MDR-100ABN need to be considered in a multi-layered approach when it comes to sound quality. We've spent quite a lot (i.e. too much) time listening to them passively once the battery has depleted, which gives a hollow, floaty and poorly balanced sound that lacks punch in any of the right places. That these headphones sound like this makes us think their passive functionality should simply not be available - it's just not up to standard.
With the battery charged the sound quality take a steep upward turn. Everything sounds more "locked in" with enhanced bass and better spatial distribution. However, it's not class-leading. We much prefer the Audio-Technica MSR7 headphones and their more neutral and driven sound.
Pop the noise-cancelling on and it's like an audio airlock is activated, delivering an even more engaging sound. It's tighter and if the volume is turned up sufficiently has a lot more pop. This is the MDR-100ABN at its best.
However, we're not convinced the balance is quite right. When listening to the bass in Heavens' Patent Pending it sounds as though it has an EQ curve on it pushing things out of proportion. Certain mid-levels feel misrepresented or drowned-out, while high-end lacks the clarity of some competitors.
These h.ear on Wireless NC can certainly crank out the volume, which is very much needed: drop the output to lower levels and much of that engagement is lost. We would expect a more standard listen throughout the range.
With the battery charged, power on, volume up high and noise-cancelling activated the h.ear on Wireless NC MDR-100ABN headphones are at their best. In this situation the output is solid, albeit not class-leading and not of the quality of previous top-end MDR models. The noise-cancelling is exceptional though.
Listen to them passively, however, and sound quality lacks drive and cohesion. This, coupled with the plasticky build quality and high price-point puts a question mark over the MDR-100ABN. They're comfortable, and certainly colourful, but not leading in every department.