In Dec, I had the opportunity to review some of the best active noise cancelling headphones released this year. The Sony MDR-1000X was a strong contender to the Bose QuietComfort series of headphones which I first reviewed in 2014. After trying the 1000X which impressed me much, I promptly request for a review of QC35 with Bose distributor, Atlas Sound & Vision, who was as eager to loan me (many thanks!). Meanwhile, Plantronics provided a review unit of the BackBeat PRO 2, of which I am very familiar with the predecessor models, BackBeat PRO and BackBeat PRO+.
When I was about to schedule this comparison article for publishing, I receive another lesser-known headphones with ANC: the FIIL Diva. I was also in the midst of arranging for a review of the Sennheiser PXC 550 and the B&O Beoplay H9. I decided to hold back my article until I finish reviewing them.
The Beoplay H9 ultimately did not reach me. (edit 21 Mar 2017:) The Beoplay H9 is now added to the comparison list.
When rating the ANC headphones, the ANC feature may be critical, but other aspects are equally important. For my review, I will also comment on the design, features, comfort, and audio.
Individual Review Post:
Bose QC35 – it is strongest in eliminating lower frequency, but high frequency is less effective and the ears feel more uncomfortable from the cancelling effect. Very effective in listening to quiet music, with clear bass response despite in an open environment.
Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 – the ANC is to compensate for the lack of passive noise isolation from the ear cups. There are still traces of external noises though it is better than no ANC.
Sony MDR-1000X – it is better at isolating overall noise more naturally across the frequency while achieving identical elimination effect like Bose. Despite a wide sound staging which keeps instrumentation a distance from the ears, there is no lack of enjoying details even at noisy environment.
Sennheiser PXC 550 – ANC quality comes in after Bose and Sony. When music volume is low, I can still hear ambient noises, and due to its more distant sound stage, I have to turn up the volume to hear the details.
FIIL Diva – Slightly better than Plantronics, with still a little mid-frequency murmurs.
Beoplay H9 – Better than Plantronics and FIIL Diva, but not as isolating as PXC 550.
Winner: Bose. It is still most aggressive in noise elimination to create that recording studio effect.
Bose QC35 – it feels the most flimsy and most plasticky, but also the lightest. The ear cups are the largest and feels most comfortable and most breathable. Distinctively Bose.
Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 – its design is least subtle, and many buttons to navigate, but clearly labelled which improves ease of use.
Sony MDR-1000X – it offers the most executive-looking with premium materials, like leather, on the earcups. Subtle design elements make it look the most expensive among the 3 (and it is).
Sennheiser PXC 550 – The design looks premium with metal accents, less cushy than the Sony, less bulky than Plantronics.
FIIL Diva – the only on-ear model in the list, it is naturally the most compact and exhibits the least plastic cracking sounds when used.
Beoplay H9 – Solid design, ranked above PXC 550, not foldable like Plantronics but less bulky.
Winner: To each its own. Sony is the most classy and executive-looking, Plantronics is the most youthful.
Bose QC35 – Like all the other headphones reviewed, it can listen to music wireless, with wired and power, or with wired without power. There is no option to disable ANC unless you turn off the power. There is no ambient mode to let in external sound. These make Bose the least features.
Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 – On top of ANC and Ambient modes, it has sensor to auto-pause music when headphone is removed, which works the best. With clearly labeled buttons, it is also easy to use. But it is also the only headphones among the 4 to be not foldable, making it the bulkiest.
Sony MDR-1000X – Some of its features are unique. For one, ust put the palm against the right earcup and you can ear ambient sounds instantly. The other unique feature is the ability to calibrate the ANC.
Sennheiser PXC 550 – It has 2 ANC options, the first can be adjusted via the smartphone app, the second is fixed 100% ANC intensity. It has one ambient mode and built-in audio effects selection, as well as auto-pause. The app which is also a music player can also adjust EQ. Best of all, there is no power button: just twist the headphones and the headphones will power down.
FIIL Diva – It is the only headphones among these tester to listen to music with ambient modes. There are 2 ambient modes, plus a wind cut-off ANC mode, and a full-fledged app to control the headphones. There are prefixed 2 EQ settings. It also has auto-pause, and the only headphones to allow listening to music with ambient mode enabled, so you can enjoy music while being aware of surroundings at the same time.
Beoplay H9 – It only has ANC on-off option and touchpad controls. There is no ambient mode nor adjustable ANC level. It’s the only headphones that have removable battery.
Winner: FIIL Diva, thanks to its ability to listen to music with ambient modes, full-controls on the settings over the apps, auto-pause feature, touch pad controls. To top it off, it’s the cheapest.
Bose QC35 – the ear cushions are the largest and offer good room to cup over the ears without touching the pads. It is also one of the lightest (235 grams)
Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 – the ear cushions touch the ears snugly. The headband clamp force is the tightest among the tested and the heaviest too. (289 grams)
Sony MDR-1000X – the ear cushions are slightly roomier than the Plantronics, as the cushions are symmetrically oval. (275 grams)
Sennheiser PXC550 – the ear cushions are slightly roomier than the Sony while it is less thick, the headband does not feel too tight. It is the lightest over-ear headphones (227 grams).
FIIL Diva – its on-ear design might not appeal to many but I feel comfortable wearing them. It is the lightest (217 grams) but of course, given it is on-ear.
Beoplay H9 – good comfort without feeling bulky. The adjustable headband does not have click positions and is quite tight to slide.
Winner: Bose, for its largest ear cushion diameter and lightweight.
Bose QC35 – the treble is forward, slightly fat around 2-4Khz, which adds sizzle to the music. Bass is natural and its powerful ANC easily delivers details at the lows.
Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 – the sound is the most impressive, thanks to a seismic sub-bass and pristine treble. Might not bode well for audio purists, but makes modern genres pop out.
Sony MDR-1000X – overall sound is most laid-back, widest sound stage, refined. Excellent for faithful enjoyment of music with a relaxed vocals and treble. Classical and instrumental sounds best.
Sennheiser PXC 550 – overall sound is bright detailed treble and musical bass. Slightly wide sound staging, less forward than Bose. Best treble delivery among all.
FIIL Diva – neutral treble, slightly boosted bass. Warmest among the review units, but because it’s treble is veiled, but because it is not hyped.
Beoplay H9 – delivers the brightest and clearest treble among the headphones, but new listeners might find it too clear. PXC 550 is still more audiophile-sounding. H9 lacks warm mids, while sub-bass is a little less than Plantronics. 2nd most fun-sounding headphones after Plantronics.
Winner: each one has its unique audio tuning. If you like audiophile treble quality, it’s Sennheiser. If you prefer exciting highs and lows, it’s Plantronics or Beoplay. If you prefer warmer highs, it’s FIIL. Sony is laid back and refined. If you want in-your-face music, it’s Bose. Me? I enjoy listening to FIIL.
Bose maintains its QuietComfort signature design style as well as the ANC prowess. Fuss-free feature set makes it very focused in meeting the needs of frequent flyers and public transport commuters.
Plantronics is in the business of winning consumer audio market. Their sound is tuned to give the wow factor, presented with the same feature set and an irresistible price point.
Sony is an established audio company and continues to maintain its sound signature. The MDR-1000X is the most refreshing headphones, with features that matches Bose and Plantronics, plus a few tricks up its sleeve to delight the techie traveler.
Sennheiser is in the business of headphones, so its treble quality is the best among the headphones tested. Bass is humble but offers ample response.
FIIL Diva is the newest brand, focusing on neutral audio delivery, while the ambient modes allow surrounding awareness when listening to music.
Beoplay H9 is the most premium lifestyle brand among the headphones, but delivers listenable audio quality for the modern consumers. If you are into brand and not an audiophile, the H9 is worth considering.
It’s hard to pick a winner, as always. But if all 5 of them are laid on the table for me to pick one for my next travel, I would go for Sony MDR-1000X, because it has the best balance of ANC quality, audio quality, and features. Bose QuietComfort QC35 comes in close second, and should be the preferred choice for listeners who needed a more reassuring ANC prowess. Sennheiser PXC 550 should be the pick for listeners who have a sweet spot for pristine treble. Young listeners who like strong musical impact will be impressed with Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2. FIIL Diva is the only ANC headphones that can listen to music while enabling ambient mode, so this is ideal for urban use. Finally, if you love to flaunt with a premium brand, Beoplay H9 gets you impressive treble clarity and deep sub-bass feel.
Have you purchased one of the ANC headphones featured here too? Share your feedback with us at the comments below.