Fun fact: most on-ear headphones are terrible. Offering neither the full-bodied sound of over-ear cans nor the minimalist discreetness and portability of earbuds, they're pretty much the point-and-shoot cameras of the audio world. But, just as compact cameras still have quirky superstars like Sony's RX100 among them, on-ear headphones have happy exceptions, too, and this is one of those few: AKG's N60NC noise-canceling on-ears.
Costing five cents shy of $250, the N60NCs are not cheap. They're also not wireless, which can be counted as a growing shortcoming in a world of iPhones without headphone jacks. I don't wish to shrug off either consideration, but I'm confident that these headphones couldn't be as good as they are without accepting those downsides. Their headband is clad in real leather and their aluminum frame supports memory foam pads that are just ridiculously plush. Because it's not budget-constrained, and because it doesn't need a big battery for wireless operation, the N60's construction is solid yet very light, weighing in at 150g (5.3oz).
The noise canceling of the N60s does still require charging, though, and that's done via a proprietary (ick!) USB cable that plugs directly into the 3.5mm port on the left ear cup. One full charge will get you through a claimed 30 hours of NC playback, which in my experience equates to longer than I'll ever go without recharging them just to be safe. Consider it a battery life of weeks when used in conventional intermittent bursts, such as on your daily commute.
Weird charging cable to add to your dongle catalog? Check
When the USB wire isn't charging them, the N60s plug into a 1.2m (4ft) braided cable that's thin, hard to tangle, and, like the headphones themselves, practically disappears when in use. It includes an in-line microphone and one-button remote control. Being noise-canceling headphones, they pose no threat of cable noise disrupting your music, but even when the battery's dead and you're listening to them passively, all you get is clean, undisturbed playback. As is often the case with good design, the strength of these AKG headphones lies more in the absence of inconveniences they impose than anything else.
The absence of annoyance is also the defining quality of the noise canceling on these cans. The NC switch on the left cup is not a mute toggle for the outside world: I still hear plenty of things around me and don't lose awareness of my surroundings. In a crowded mall, the din of the traffic on the street outside is nullified by the N60s, but the heated discussion at a nearby café is not. The headphones cancel out mostly low noises, the types that would be persistent on a long flight or a daily trudge into the city on the underground, and they let through high-pitched things like an alarmed person yelling at you for stepping on their toes.
But if you've been following my headphone reviews, you know that noise canceling isn't the thing that gets me out of bed at 4 in the morning to write, as I am currently doing. That burning inspiration is sound, and dammit, these N60s sound better than they have any right to be. Their sound is full, always detailed and composed, and better balanced than any other on-ear headphones I've tried short of Beyerdynamic's T51i. Granted, you can now get the T51is from Amazon for less money ($214), but their cable is fixed in place at both ear cups and they don't collapse into a tiny pouch like the N60NCs do.
The resolution of these AKG headphones is comparable to that of a good 1080p phone display. You won't get the widest soundstage, best instrument separation, or most impactful bass, but you'll still obtain ample realism and fidelity. In their passive playback mode, I find the N60s light on bass — which is mostly because exterior noise that intrudes tends to knock out low frequencies first — but once I flip the NC switch, that restores the bass to where it should be, and I find myself reducing the volume because I no longer need to use the music to drown out the outside world.
Designed to be a daily commuter's best friend
Overall, I think the N60s have a slight emphasis on the upper mids, which results in some very clear and powerful vocals, such as on Agnes Obel's Aventine. Is that my perfect sound signature? No, I usually favor bass. But it's entertaining, musical, and manifests no sibilance or fatiguing treble peaks. In an ideal world, I'd like to have more bass and sparklier, more precise highs — but I can see how both of those things run counter to the idea of the N60s being a frequent traveler's best friend. These are meant to provide a pleasant background soundscape, substituting the din of an over-urbanized world, and not necessarily the most thrilling or engaging performance — and they succeed at that task.
There's still a part of me that refuses to respect the AKG N60NCs. They're too small for my primitive brain to rate them alongside full over-ear options like Bose's Quiet Comfort series, the incumbent leader among noise-canceling cans. But you know what, I've no complaints about AKG's sound and I can't imagine a more comfortable pair of headphones. The N60s are featherlight and pack away into the smallest package of any headphones that I don't jab directly into my ears. Noise-canceling headphones have tended to sound artificial in my experience, but these belie that tendency with faithful audio reproduction that retains its quality with or without active NC.
Once I got past the price and sidestepped my prejudices about on-ear and noise-canceling cans, I found a surprising amount of things to like about these headphones. They're not for everyone, and you could acquire both OnePlus' Bullets v2 earbuds and Status Audio's CB-1 closed-back over-ears for less than half the asking price of $250 here, but if you want the best of both worlds in one, AKG's N60NC is the closest you'll come to that goal.