The world is an extremely noisy place, full of chattering teenagers, screaming babies and big cars revving engines. If you can't cope with that aural assault, you'll need a pair of sound-cancelling earphones.
The Sony MDR-NC100Ds are just such a pair, offering active cancellation and a quirky design.
They're available now from Sony for £150.
Design and build quality
The NC100Ds' aesthetics are pretty unusual. The earpieces are made up of a large stalk, with a big circle attached to it, on which is perched the silicone ear tip. It's certainly a design that's different to others on the market, and one that will undoubtedly split opinion -- you'll either love it or hate it.
Although they're pretty chunky, each earbud weighs only around 5g, so they're not so heavy that they'd rattle out of your ears as you walked down the road. The reason there's such a big disc stuck on them is that they house 13.5mm drive units, which is massive for earphones, so I was hoping for a similarly big sound. I'll come to that later.
The earpieces are made of plastic that feels firm although I don't reckon they'd survive being stamped on, so make sure you always put them safely away in the leather case that's provided. The 1.5m cable is rubberised and feels no more or less sturdy than most headphone cables. It seemed rather prone to tangles, which doesn't bode well for the long-term life of the product.
Halfway down the cable you'll find the unit that powers the noise-cancelling system. The NC100Ds use active noise cancelling, which requires the earphones to 'listen' to ambient noise and then -- through some wizardry I don't understand -- cancel it out. Unlike passive sound isolating, which just seals off the ear from external noise, active cancelling requires power, so you'll have to put up with the extra weight of a battery.
The unit on the NC100Ds is rather chunky, due mostly to the AAA battery. There's a clip on the back for attaching to your shirt, rather than it hanging down and tugging your ears, but these are definitely not earphones designed for running about with. They're much more suited to sitting in a bustling train carriage than pounding a treadmill in a noisy gym.
Noise cancelling and sound quality
Operating the noise-cancelling system is a simple case of switching it on or off with a button. It samples the ambient noise and creates an 'anti-sound' to block out any rowdiness. I found it worked rather well. It was able to cancel out the general hum of our office environment. I then took it for a walk near traffic and found that while it couldn't eradicate the noisier vehicles, it was certainly an improvement over no cancelling at all.
If you want to block out the general chatter of a busy train carriage, then the NC100Ds will suit you well. But if you find yourself stuck next to a screaming toddler, you're still going to need to be listening to something pretty brutal to drown it out. I suggest Meshuggah's Combustion, with the volume cranked somewhere north of 'ear-splitting'.
With the noise cancelling turned on, I found the sound quality to be acceptable. The large drivers provided a pleasing warmth, but the bass lacked the punch I'd normally like to hear -- they were certainly nowhere near as powerful as the ludicrously aggressive Atomic Floyd SuperDarts.
Things weren't much better for the higher frequencies. The NC100Ds lacked the open brightness and sparkle that some other quality earphones provide. I was left underwhelmed when I listened to the delightfully produced acoustic guitar and jingly cymbals on Ingrid Michaelson's Die Alone.
You don't have to listen with the noise cancelling switched on, which is good news if your battery runs out when you're miles away from a newsagent. Sadly though, with the switch in the off position, the earphones lose most of their bass response, resulting in a very weak sound.
They do at least function without power, but if you care about the quality of your music, then you'll dash to the nearest shop and buy several hundred batteries so you never have to endure that disappointment again.
Sony would be wise to brag about the NC100Ds' noise-cancelling skills over their sound quality. While they do a good job of filtering out even quite loud ambient noise, they lack the punchy bass and crystal clear highs that I'd hoped for. But if you're more concerned about hearing your music over the bustle of your commute than you are about high-quality audio, then the NC100Ds are worth checking out.