Flying sucks. It’s claustrophobic, uncomfortable and noisy. As a tech journalist, I fly a little too often for my comfort (and health). To make it easier on my sanity, I’ve tried it all. But when it comes to noise-reduction solutions, I’ve come up short.
You see, I’m bespectacled, as are almost a third of all fellow Singaporeans. Circumaural noise cancelling headphones like the Bose QC series do not work well for me since the arms of my spectacles break the seal around my ears and let in a significant bit of ambient noise and clamp painfully on either side of my temples. They’re also inevitably larger and take up more real estate in your carry-on baggage.
In-ear monitors do a neat job at block out extraneous noise, but they often have shorter battery lives owing to their smaller size. I don’t particularly enjoy the tight soundstage they offer, especially on long flights where I pay more attention to the sound quality my devices deliver.
That’s where AKG’s premiere active noise cancellation headphone comes in. Released in 2015, the AKG N60NC Wireless has a supraural design and sits neatly atop your ears while achieving a proper seal. Foldable and lightweight, it is designed with travelling in mind. I landed a unit for review, just in time for a spate of three overseas trips that required me to endure return flights to Italy, Shanghai and Taiwan from Singapore within weeks of each other.
Design and First Impressions
The AKG N60NC Wireless is noticeably more sophisticated than the earlier N60NC that did not sport wireless technology. Pain points regarding durability and build quality have been addressed with stronger cup swivels, better cushioning and better-built peripherals. I still think the competition from Bose and Sennheiser look better (and more recognisable), but the AKG is the best if you prefer a supraural design.
For travel, these headphones are small. They’re similar in size to most supra-aural headphones like the Marshall Major and the Beats by Dr Dre. I travel light, usually bringing a small camera sling bag as carry-on – the same one I also happen to carry on my everyday business. But yet on my most recent trip to Shanghai for CES Asia, I was able to fit in two laptops, an iPad Mini, 500ml bottle, and still find ample room to fit the headphones in question. There was still enough space for my extra pairs of earphones, chargers, wallet and passport.
I received the unit in black, which had a premium chrome trim around the rim of the ear cup. The headband and the earcups are covered with a soft leather with ample cushioning that keeps the headphone comfortable.
All the controls reside on the right ear cup, while the left ear cup houses the micro USB and port for analogue input. There are two toggle controls that consist of a switch that can be manoeuvred to three positions easily while wearing the headphones.
Starting from the rear, we have the power switch that clicks to turn on the headphone. A solid blue LED indicates that the headphone is connected while pushing the toggle to the third position and holding it there activates pairing mode. The LED will blink in this mode.
Below that is the toggle that allows users to navigate the tracks in their playlist. Pushing the toggle in pauses and plays the music, and picks up calls.
Build Quality and Form Factor
I have been lugging it about on my overseas trips (and some significant commuting) for the past three months. I would have preferred a hard case, but stowing it in its included neoprene soft case, the headphones have withstood all the abuse I exert on it, without any scars to show for it.
Despite this, I noticed that the plastic toggles feel rather light and have significant give, rattling about their positions when touched. The two buttons for volume are plasticky and aren’t the clickiest in the business, which is a bit of a pity.
The extendable joints on the headphones extend pretty far, and I’m confident this one would fit most heads. There’s a useful numbered rule on either arm to help you adjust it accurately every time you pull this bad boy out. It’s numbered to 10, with still a little more room above the scale, and my medium-sized head measures midway at 6.
I’m starting to nitpick but aesthetically, I did have some issue with the AKG N60NC sticks out vertically from both ears like I’m some sort of Martian. But that tinge of self-awareness didn’t last long after I realised how well they worked and sounded. Plus, if you’re on a long plane ride or a train journey, no one’s judging you. I still felt self-aware enough to refrain from wearing it on my daily super short-haul commutes, though.
These were the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever had. I use AKG studio headphones at my work desk, which sport a super-comfortable mechanism that self-adjusts to my head: the AKG N60NC Wireless beats it with super plush cushions that I never had to take off during the longest flights.
Putting the headphones on for its maiden voyage, I piped up Michael Jackson’s Workin’ Day and Night, and I jumped when I actually felt the plosive whispers in the introduction right at my ear. The soundstage and imaging was worth particular note, delivering a very authentic listening experience despite its pedigree as a noise cancelling headphone. Active noise cancellation (ANC) technology on headphones gives a ‘sucking’ sensation that sometimes limits how wide the sound space can be reproduced. The AKG N60NC had none of that issue.
With aptX on board, the AKG N60NC Wireless should not suffer as big a penalty against its wired counterparts. However, it did sound slightly muted and lost some detail especially when it came to vocals.
They still delivered an absolutely enjoyable listening experience notwithstanding.
The mids and lows are full-bodied and tight, delivering a very satisfactory percussion and bass on any song. The bass remained delightfully responsive in the lowest and fastest of musical passages.
With active noise cancellation on board, however, vocals tended to sound ever so slightly subdued. That also meant that the sound these headphones delivered muted the sharpest tones, which meant they were excellent for long periods of casual listening.
Listening wired brought the music forward, and rasps and breaths in the vocals become more apparent – and more intimate. Details in the instrumentation also become more apparent – the timbre of the percussion, the acoustics of the room occupy your attention as the layers of music fall apart.
At lower volumes, however, music tended to sound dry and sterile, making it difficult to delve into the richness of instrumentation and harmony. Listening to my music at high volumes for a 10-hour flight was also less than ideal, and induced significant ear fatigue before long.
With an almost casual nonchalance, the AKG N60NC Wireless headphones delivered hours of enjoyable sound – with a full-bodied sound that trades detail for musicality and thumping rhythm.
The superb musicality of the AKG N60NC Wireless can only be matched by its excellent set of functions and peripherals.
The AKG N60NC came with plenty of peripherals that help enhance your overall experience. The 3.5mm analogue cable included lets you enjoy the headphone if the battery is flat, and is well-constructed with aluminium surfaces and braided cables. There is a single button on the control panel that lets you control the pause and play.
A compact flight adapter attaches seamlessly in case you are keen on in-flight entertainment options but still want to block out the snoring on your red-eye flight. There’s also a matching USB-A to Micro USB cable for charging, which is similarly finished with blasted aluminium.
The active noise cancellation is activated when turning on the headphones, although the AKG N60NC Wireless can be used passively with the included cable. At 15 hours of battery life in normal wireless usage, and 30 hours wired with the headphones turned on to provide noise cancellation, the AKG N60NC Wireless outlasted even the most dreary flights (and the transit to my hotel thereafter).
If you’re struck by misfortune (or plain forgetfulness) and stuck with a flat battery on the N60NC Wireless, the cups provide decent passive noise isolation with their solid build blocking ample noise. When working, however, the AKG N60NC Wireless delivers ample noise cancellation – I would know since I was stuck next to an obnoxious snoring man with on knee in my legroom.
It, however, falls short of Bose’s industry-leading noise-sucking vacuum of the QC35 in the same bracket. However, for about SGD150 in savings, the AKG delivers more functionality than you would need, so why fork out more?
Should I get the AKG N60 NC Wireless?
The AKG N60 NC Wireless has been out for quite a while and although the MSRP is SGD449, you’re able to find many retailers selling it under SGD300, with plenty of other deals going far below that.
Competing products from Bose, Sony and Sennheiser are priced around the same bracket and are in many ways more prominent than the N60NC Wireless. However, this relative obscurity means that the AKG N60NC enjoys many other rebates.
Its on-ear design means greater comfort for spectacle users while making it one of the smallest and best performing noise-cancelling wireless headphones in the market. With a very enjoyable listening experience, super-long battery life and premium-looking (and feeling) accoutrements, the AKG N60NC Wireless is in our books for top-notch quality and value.
Noise cancellation isn’t the best, and the sound isn’t the most accurate or detailed. But who cares? It works, works well, and delivers a whole package of functionality, quality and enjoyability at a great price.
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