Those who require noise cancellation in their portable rig’s have a severely limited selection of headphones to choose from. Typically, the words “Hifi” and “Noise Canceling” do not go together, but AKG’s recent N60 NC seems to be their first real attempt at a decent sounding on ear headphone that also has Noise Cancellation capabilities.
Thanks to the soft leather pads and lightweight design at only 150g, the N60 feels like as a feather on my head and then some. This is one of those “vanishing” headphones that seem to vaporize or phase out of your mind while you are wearing them. Normally, on ear headphones are something I stray away from like the plague. But, there are a few sets out there that I do find very nice in comfort qualities and this N60 NC is surely one of them. I don’t really have any gripes or complaints to note here about the N60’s comfort qualities, AKG has done a nice job all around in this area.
Poofy is the term I would like to use when describing the earpads and how thick they are. They’ve a good amount of give and plushness, they also lack a firmness or harshness that I usually find commonplace with on ears in general. Thankfully, AKG does comfort well these days…but lets not poke the tiger in it’s cage with a stick, or else we might get the K701 speed bump headbands back in one of their future models. Yikes. We got something eerily similar to the old days of AKG…the darker times…with regard to the headband. Someone thought it was cool to use a hard piece of plastic without any padding there for support…bad idea, but somehow it worked out. I don’t find it uncomfortable at all, likely due to the light weight design, lack of clamp and plush earpads.
Fit & Seal
Clamp factor is a non issue and the headband seems comfortable enough, but what subjectively bugs me here is the shape and design of the earpads: they’ve almost no port hole or vent in the center, but what is there is very small and I am baffled as to how this headphone can sound relatively clean despite having an almost completely sealed earpad like that. Weird, for sure! As for the rest of the headphone, most everything feels sturdy and of a solid enough density to warrant good ratings in terms of build quality. The band feels a bit too rigid and low end on the underside, but the headphone seems more solid than my ESW9A or ESW10JPN from Audio Technica, so I’ve no room to justify a complaint.
Noise Canceling (NC)
I’m not a fan of Active NC that requires a battery, never have been and never will be. I feel like consumers who want noise removal while listening to their headphones would prefer the headphone be designed with a great, Passive type of design instead an Active one. Once that battery charge is depleted…too bad so sad…you are out of the game and can’t use the headphone’s NC anymore. Just because Bose does this in their products doesn’t mean anyone else should, so I say stick with a passive design instead. I am sure there are a lot of people who enjoy it, but a properly sealed and dampened headphone tends to offer superior sound quality over most of the NC headphones out there. I think this is a dead technology and relatively useless, but that is just my opinion. The battery tech right now doesn’t match up with travelers needs, so perhaps later on in the future we can start looking back to NC audio devices that actually won’t run out of juice after a few hours?
The N60’s NC activates with a small switch on the left earcup and once primed, mostly only the low end of the frequency spectrum will be muted a bit: low humming, cars rolling over pavement, the cat purring and maybe some fans or lawnmower’s in the distance will be muted fairly well. Compared to the older QC15 from Bose, this N60 from AKG still lags behind in what it will actually drown out in terms of noise removal. However, the N60 sounds better as headphone for listening to music than any Bose on ear currently in the market. AKG forced a trade off: some loss of NC for better audio quality. Honestly, I think I’d rather have it their way instead of Bose’s way of NC first, audio quality dead last on the list of things to design into the headphone.
All in all, the NC works very well on this headphone, but it isn’t anything special or a Godsend type of a product that can compete with most of the newer Bose models. I think those who fly frequently or who are passengers in cars for daily commutes to work will enjoy this headphone, but tossing my old DT770 from Beyerdynamic on, which is not a NC headphone and is just a solid closed back headphone, I can mute almost as much as the active NC on this N60 when it is active despite using velour earpads on the DT770. That really only enforces the point I was getting at earlier: proper closed back design with great sound and good NC > battery fueled NC that is nice, but lacks sound quality.
This headphone is very linear feeling from top to bottom, it is also moderately forward in physical locale. These two qualities combined made for a very boring and flat sound that as most of you may already know that I am not fond of. The headphone lacks engaging qualities to my ears and isn’t what I would consider musical in tonality. Some headphones have what enthusiasts call “warmth”, others are “sterile” sounding in overall tone and texture. With that in mind, I feel AKG went the incorrect route with this headphone by making it closer to the sterile end of the preference type of sound. It lacks what I consider musicality, but unlike most sterile headphones, this N60 is not harsh/painful to listen my ear. It is actually quite smooth and the headphone seems right in the middle of the road for impact and physical slam in both the bass and treble region, so I’ve come to an odd crossroads where I feel like the tone of the headphone is on the opposite side of what most clinical sets end up offering. It doesn’t share the texturing or common harshness that most mid-tiers offer with regard to physical impact, or “the wince factor“…
Bass and Mids
The lower end of this headphone offers the first step beyond whatever score you might submit to a Bass-light headphone: the N60 is pretty much underwhelming and lacking depth or weight on the low end. I am not fond of it, I’d very much prefer to drop $150 on a used ESW9A for nice bass response if I didn’t already own one. With that, I’d get a more pure sounding bass that is audibly cleaner, as well as deeper reaching. I feel like the N60 is a one-note-bass headphone that doesn’t respond well to EQ at all and that doesn’t extend far enough to do justice to a number of genres and tracks out there. I find myself constantly fumbling for EQ settings that make me happy, only to come out empty handed at the end of the ride.
While the midrange is shoulder shrug worthy at best and is certainly not poor or overly lacking, it just doesn’t compete with my trusty ATH ESW series portable on ears from almost 8 years ago. The N60 feels less clean than my ESW9A and that poses a serious problem. I detect only moderate density and physicality in the vocal experience of the midrange and again, this upsets me because I can name off a load of portables that feel more vivid and weighted in comparison to the so-so physicality the N60 offers in the central regions of the listening spectrum: it really isn’t too thin, but it also isn’t lush or satisfyingly weighted. As a result, the headphone is a snooze fest and lacks a strong point in any genre or track type.
Artificial is a term I wish to strongly invoke here, although I am thankful the upper end is not painful or wince worthy. Sibilance is a non-issue, but the headphone repeats the same oddities found in the midrange as it does up here in the treble region. Something just isn’t right and I am eyeballing those near completely closed off earpads as the suspect causing this distress. I think AKG knew these pads were physically blocking a lot of the sound waves and treble response from the driver below them, so they tuned the headphone with a potent and bright upper region…maybe the idea of forcing the treble to flow through these thick pads wasn’t the best of ideas for the general tone of the upper end. The end result is something I consider to feel forced and unnatural.
As mentioned, the headphone isn’t at all fatiguing, but if you are a seasoned vet with headphones or audio products, you are going to experience some looming feeling that the upper end offered is of a highly compressed nature. The treble is an odd mix of being just a little bright, not particularly clean, lacking accuracy, lacking beautiful density and also putting out a very odd “flavor”. If anything, this headphone feels like a less sibilant and tamed ES-7/700 from Audio Technica, which is their cheapest model from a decade ago.
Very closed in and lacking air, but this is commonplace with on ears and I’ve yet to really experience anything that can even remotely touch the Audio Technica ESW woodie series: The ESW9A, ESW10JPN and the very spacious ESW11LTD. For $250, the N60 is just an average contender and feels neither intimate nor spacious enough to designate it into any specific type of sound staging experience. Some headphones have a very wide and aired out imaging prowess, like the HD800 and that were intended for a large room sound signature. Others are mid-forward and intimate, intended for you to be lulled and sweetly caressed by the lips of the artist smacking together near the microphone, whispering in your ear and almost giving you a free private concert right in front of you. The N60 belongs to neither and this is my least favorite type of sound signature that exists…because it is so middle of the road and so generic, that it doesn’t really classify into anything but being generic and middle ground in nearly every way.
Height, width and depth are all underwhelming, but oddly enough the treble sometimes makes this headphone feel more aired out than it actually is. With just a little fiddling of the EQ on the upper end, I was able to improve things enough to consider it “alright” in terms of staging size qualities for an on ear. Do not expect anything special or amazing here, it is just a step into the world of what I feel to be acceptable and not supremely constrained. AKG has already done better in their older Tiesto on ear K67, which sounds noticeably larger, deeper and realistically formed, more weighted, dense and anis an overall better headphone for musical needs.
AKG fumbled the ball with this one, I am not sure what they were trying to accomplish. Sure, the active NC is nice, but if you are paying $249.99 for something with NC, I’d consider a Bose instead of this. Even though the Bose models don’t sound as clean, I feel like the opposite route in trade off (great NC in exchange for “meh” level audio quality in Bose models) would be the wiser route. Sadly, here we have “good NC” and whatever a step past “meh” audio quality is in this N60. I don’t know what market this headphone was aimed at or why it was tuned the way it was, but for what it is, it is only just squeezing through the doorway and into the world of headphones I consider alright, passable and good for usage as a beater. If you can grab one used and plan to abuse your portable headphone, but also want an NC on ear style, the this is a solid choice and that is the only way I can see myself recommending it to anyone.
The N60 is the definition of middle ground, relatively smooth and very linear/balanced feeling, but they offer nothing I can think of that would make me notice it in a crowd. True, it does have pretty good NC capabilities and plenty of comfort for long listening sessions. You’ll have to decide which type of listener you are when you go shopping for an noise canceling headphone, but I didn’t enjoy the headphone enough to rate it well. The headphone is shoulder shrug worthy at best and maybe I’d recommend it if it were to leap down to $99-$125, but until then, I just can’t justify it when much older headphones exist that I have here pretty much wipe the floor with the N60 in quality across the board.
Is it good? Well, only in the world of on ear Noice Canceling headphones. With the level of raw clarity it offers, which again feels like a step or two behind my ESW9A that you can purchase for $99-150 often in the used market, you can do better if you are shopping for audio quality and not NC capabilities. AKG has done better before and I hope they can do better in the future. As far as NC goes for the foreseeable future, I desperately hope to see some innovations from some other company, instead of always from Bose. I think AKG has a good grasp on what makes a good NC circuit, but their implementation on this specific model is the only really positive quality I can justify.