Noise cancelling headphones are nothing new, but you can be forgiven for wondering whether the results really justify the expense. As new tech becomes old tech, prices come down and quality goes up, so you can now get noise-cancelling cans for under $100 if you know where to look.
Falling neatly into that price bracket is the Naztech i9BT, which allegedly retails for $149 but can be snapped up for about $85 on Amazon. All that technology might sound good on paper, but how do they sound? Read on to find out.
Style, Bells & Whistles
Thanks to Beats by Dre, headphones have been turned into status symbols — a fashion accessory to be seen in, causing many consumers to consider the look of the headphones over raw performance and sound quality. Though there’ll be none of that in this review, let’s get it the visual appeal out of the way first of all: they certainly look like headphones.
Though the i9BTs aren’t exactly discreet in terms of looks, they stop short of being ridiculously big — despite packing a rechargeable battery, microphone, and Bluetooth receiver in there. Over the course of testing I’ve worn them outside the house without feeling too self-conscious, which is really saying something as they’re a world away from the small Klipsch earbuds I’m used to.
The all-plastic construction doesn’t exactly scream build quality, but overall things feel pretty good in the hand (and on your head). They don’t creak or rattle like ultra-cheap headphones have been known to in the past, but they don’t really feel like they would withstand being sat on too many times either. Fortunately Naztech bundles a protective hard-case for transport, which doesn’t take up that much room once you’ve folded the cans flat.
Arguably the main draw here is the noise cancelling technology, which according to the manufacturer results in 85% of the ambient noise around you. Though it’s not the best, if you’re not particularly familiar with what else is out there for much more money then you’ll likely be pretty pleased for $85.
The i9BTs do a great job of isolating low ranges, but don’t do such a great job when it comes to mids and highs. I live right next to a train station and these headphones are able to nearly completely remove the rumble of the carriages, but the screech of the wheels on the tracks is still very much there (though reduced in volume somewhat).
Overall the headphones do an excellent job of removing outside noise while listening to music, from 40% volume onwards. You’ll get some very audible white noise while using them without music, but this is to be expected at this price point.
The headphones become wireless when used via the Bluetooth 4.1 standard — there’s also a standard 3.5mm jack on the left side, so you can bypass this if you want. Traditionally Bluetooth audio was terrible — the result of a technology that was never designed to carry an audio signal. Thankfully with the introduction of the aptX codec, things got a lot better.
The i9BTs support aptX, and so does Mac OS X and many Android smartphones. Unfortunately iOS does not, but there’s no arguing that Bluetooth sounds better than the early robotic, lifeless headphones. Choosing between wired or wireless matter less for spoken word (podcasts) or very lossy music, but the option to plug in provides a better signal.
When fully charged, Bluetooth performance is great — I can walk two rooms away without any drop outs. Once the battery starts to wane, crackles and drops will let you know. This is the case even if you’re right next to the sound source, and it’s annoying. Battery is rated for 12 hours using both noise cancelling and Bluetooth, or 30 hours using just noise cancelling. That’s a good argument to plug in when you can, and in my experience 12 hours is a generous estimate — expect more like 8-10 hours without noticeable interference.
When the battery dies, you can charge the headphones in around three hours via a standard micro USB connection. There are some nice bright LEDs to remind you that your headphones are still connected via Bluetooth and noise cancelling is engaged, which should help reduce too many instances of forgetting to turn them off.
There’s a belief that modern audio equipment hasn’t really improved much in terms of quality in quite some time — hence the popularity of vintage audio equipment. When you see Bluetooth and noise cancelling technology on a pair of headphones that retail for less than $100, that belief isn’t exactly baseless.
The problem is that the manufacturers are committing more budget and time on new technologies (like wireless and noise reduction) rather than putting effort into improving the quality of sound reproduction. While such a blanket statement shouldn’t be applied to the whole industry, in the case of the i9BT and similar headphones, it’s probably true.
Sound quality of the i9BTs without noise cancelling engaged is disappointing. The treble and midrange seem to be hidden behind a pillow of bass, sound is muffled and turning the volume up only makes things worse. While bass is present, other frequencies sound distant but turning on noise cancelling transforms the sound entirely.
Flick the switch and the mids and trebles are boosted enough that you can actually hear what’s going on. Don’t buy these headphones unless you’re serious about noise cancelling – you’re better off spending your money elsewhere.
Similarly, if sound quality is your number one concern and you haven’t got a ridiculous budget to spend on the best of the best, you’ll probably want to avoid these and most other noise cancelling headphones at this price point. Even well-regarded $300 noise cancelling cans like the Bose QC25s don’t deliver the sort of quality you can get from cheaper headphones that cost less than half the price.
That doesn’t mean that these headphones don’t have a market, and the sound quality definitely good enough for a lot of people — particularly when the price point is taken into consideration. But if you want your music to sound faithful to the recording, these are going to leave you disappointed. The bass response is just too energetic for many genres of music, notably acoustic, rock, metal and classical.
I tested the i9BTs against a few different genres, with both lossy streams (Apple Music) and vinyl via a sweet-sounding mid-70s TEAC amp. Jamie XX’s In Colour sounds like the sort of album the manufacturers expect you to listen to through these headphones, and many similar-sounding artists (SBTRKT, Pretty Lights, and similarly clean-sounding artists) sound punchy and lively. Like many headphones at this price point, the i9BTs feel like they’re designed to make your music “sound good” first and foremost.
Rock and metal isn’t great with so much bass muddying the sound. Black metal headphones these are not, with heavy riffs lacking definition and sounding murky in all but a few songs. I found the bouncy-synth-rock sound of Ratatat to be acceptable on the whole, but less than ideal during the band’s more hectic moments.
On the subject of sound, I noticed quite a bit of leakage when using the i9BTs. Without noise cancelling engaged it’s negligible, but once engaged those higher ranges are boosted to very audible levels. They’re certainly not ideal for using in a quiet room if you need to remain discreet, and you’ll annoy everyone on the train if you like your music loud.
On Your Head
While sound quality is often top priority, comfort comes in a very close second for many. It doesn’t matter how great your cans sound if you can’t wear them for longer than ten minutes. Personally I wear glasses, which means I often avoid larger, snug headphones in favour of lighter models, and earbuds instead. All too often I find that over-head models press my glasses frames into my ears (and now I sound like Milhouse).
Fortunately that’s not much of an issue with the i9BTs, with soft and well-padded earpieces making them comfortable for fairly long listening periods. In fact, they didn’t make my ears or head hurt at all. Unfortunately I did feel like that caps were a bit sweaty, which was slightly unpleasant and noticeable after about an hour of use.
I’m in Australia, and we’re having a warm autumn — from 15-25ºc at the moment. In the heat of summer (30-40ºc) I can’t help but think these earpieces are going to be almost unbearable. Some sort of breathable microfibre covering might have been a better choice here.
While wearing the headphones you can control your source using the three buttons on the left earpiece. It’s pretty easy to hit the play button (with its noticeable “bump”), and skip forward and backward buttons are found on either side. The play button is used for pretty much all functions — hold it to turn Bluetooth on and off, hold it longer to pair with a new device. You can pretty much control all wireless functions without ever taking them off, thanks to audible notification tones.
You can also take calls while using the i9BTs. Both iOS and Android smartphones are compatible, as well as applications like Skype via Mac and PC. The headphones use the noise cancelling microphone for this purpose, so NC cuts out when you take a call. In testing I was told that “sound quality is tinny” but that’s probably to be expected at this price point.
Cheap & Cheerful
If you’re looking for some cheap noise cancelling headphones that work over Bluetooth, these really aren’t a bad choice at $85. You’ll get better sound quality quality if you forego Bluetooth and spend your money on a pair that only offers noise reduction (from someone like Monoprice), and if you can stretch then a pair of $300 Bose will provide superior noise cancelling performance (but don’t expect a massive leap in sound quality).
These aren’t ideal headphones is you place sound quality or a flat response over everything else. They don’t excel at all genres of music like a pair of Stax or Grado headphones would, and Bluetooth performance will largely depend on your source device. They’re great for podcasts, clean-sounding electronic music and highly produced pop, but they’re not restrained enough if you listen to a lot of acoustic, rock or heavier genres.
You’ll get better sound quality by spending the same budget on a pair of cans without noise cancelling or Bluetooth, but if you absolutely have to have those features on a budget you can do a lot worse than the Naztech i9BTs.
If you want noise cancelling on a budget and you’re committed to cutting the cord, you can do worse than the i9BTs. For better sound quality, spend your money on headphones that focus on being headphones.