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Sony's new headphones cancel noise, but not people's voices

Sony's new headphones cancel noise, but not people's voices

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One of the biggest problems with wearing headphones — ...aside from this... — is losing awareness of the sounds around you. Once loud music is playing, you can’t hear if a friend is trying to talk to you, or if there’s an announcement on the subway, or if something falls and breaks in the room next to you. It’s all cut out, especially if you’re using noise cancellation.

Sony is trying to solve that problem with its latest pair of headphones, the elegantly named MDR-1000X. The headphones have several noise-cancellation modes, which give you the option to block out as much sound as possible, or to filter in voices or ambient noise. The intention is to let you listen to music in a quiet environment, but make sure you can still hear enough to be aware of your surroundings.

I got to try them out during a brief test at Sony’s offices in New York. While the headphones didn’t make voices loud and clear, voices did come through enough that I could tell when someone was talking. Making out what people said was a bit more difficult, however. And while I could manage that when paying close attention, it wouldn’t be a comfortable way to hold a conversation.

Buttons showing noise cancellation options

That said, Sony doesn’t necessarily expect you to talk through the music. The right earpiece is a touch-sensitive control panel, and by covering it, music will drop to a much quieter level, and you’ll be able to clearly hear what people are saying again. It’s basically like a much smarter version of Beats’ push-to-mute button. Sony has a fairly smooth implementation, and this definitely seems like a feature people will want to use.

There are three different options for noise passthrough on the headphones: you can turn it off completely, let through just voices, or let through both voices and ambient sounds, like chairs shuffling around you. You’ll probably want to do just voices, though, since, at least in my brief demo, the ambient noise mode picked up and amplified sounds that I’d never have noticed with the headphones off, like the rattle of an air conditioner.

Sony’s noise passthrough works by having a microphone built into the headphones record and amplify outside sound. That means what you’ll end up hearing can be a bit unnatural. The voices I heard were a touch robotic, and it was clear that I wasn’t hearing the speaker’s real voice. I don’t think it’s such a problem as to make anyone not want to use this feature, but it does make it weirder to hold a conversation without taking the headphones off, which seems to be what Sony is expecting people to do.

Closeup of MDR-1000X headphones

Beyond these special features, Sony says these headphones have its "best-ever noise cancelling technology." I’m not totally clear on what that means, but they did appear to work pretty well. That’s especially true when it comes to deep bass sounds, which the headphones seemed to block out entirely during my demo.

The headphones are also supposed to adjust their noise cancellation depending on what’s happening with your head; that is, if you have long hair or glasses — and those create a gap between the headphones and your skull — the headphones might crank their noise cancellation up a bit higher since Sony knows more sound will get in. That’s all done automatically by pressing a button on the headphones, at which point they’ll analyze how much sound can get through by playing a series of tones.

And aside from all of that, the MDR-1000X are supposed to simply be solid headphones that are good at reproducing high-quality audio. I didn’t listen to them enough to give a fair assessment — Sony played a jazz track for me off the Walkman, and it sounded great — but they’re supposed to be good enough to compete with Beats and Bose, selling for $399.99.

The headphones come in black or beige, both of which look pretty plain and forgettable, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you want out of a pair of headphones. They’ll be available in October.

Sony isn’t breaking ground with the MDR-1000X’s audio passthrough feature, but it may start introducing it to a wider market. This is still a fairly rare feature on headphones — we saw it recently on the Bragi Dash, for instance — but it’s a feature that’s easy to imagine becoming standard on all higher-end headphones in a few years. Sony’s hoping that by being among the first, it can compete with Beats and Bose as the go-to name for high-quality headphones.