Par­a­digm H15NC Ac­tive Noise Can­celling Head­phones

NOVO - - PRODUCT REVIEW - Jeremy Phan

Par­a­digm is a Cana­dian com­pany known across the world for its wide range of speak­ers, both large and small. Based in Mis­sis­sauga, On­tario, they have been build­ing speak­ers for the past 30 years but it’s only in the last two years that they’ve ex­panded their of­fer­ings into portable au­dio.

de­sign | fea­tures

The new H15NC head­phones are their lat­est of­fer­ing with the added func­tion­al­ity of ac­tive noise can­celling (their sib­ling, the H15 lack the noise can­celling func­tion­al­ity). The head­phones ar­rive in a zip­pered, hard black case that holds the head­phones, stan­dard mi­cro-USB charg­ing ca­ble, USB wall charger, and lastly, dual-prong mono-to-sin­gle stereo adapter (used on old air­planes). The head­phones them­selves are well padded with mem­ory-foam ear cups that swivel and pad­ding along the top of the head­band, which ex­tends on both ends. I have a bor­der­line large-sized head (ac­cord­ing to au­tocross hel­met siz­ing) and the head­phones fit com­fort­ably for ex­tended lis­ten­ing ses- sions (1-3 hours) without much fa­tigue or neck strain thanks to their rel­a­tively light­weight 179g mass. How­ever, due to the elas­tic na­ture of the head­phones and their ten­dency to close to­gether, af­ter a long ses­sion I could feel the ef­fects on my ears.

The de­tach­able cord comes with an in­line mi­cro­phone and re­mote con­trol for use with a smart­phone and un­for­tu­nately, only fully sup­ports Ap­ple iOS de­vices (an­swer/re­ject, play, next/pre­vi­ous track, vol­ume up/down) and has limited An­droid sup­port (un­of­fi­cially). The ac­tive noise can­cel­ing is pow­ered by a built-in lithium ion bat­tery which charges in ap­prox­i­mately 4 hours and lasts up to 40 hours on a sin­gle charge. Each 40mm my­lar driver takes in up to 15mW of power to de­liver a re­sponse of 20 Hz through 20 kHz.

per­for­mance

To com­pare with these head­phones, I used my well-worn Shure E4c in-ear ear­phones (also re­ferred to as in-ear mon­i­tors or IEMs) which cost $50 cheaper when I bought them six years ago than the H15NC’s $299 price tag. The E4c IEMs of­fer a de­gree of noise iso­la­tion thanks to their foam tips which you in­sert in your ear. I was cu­ri­ous to hear the dif­fer­ence be­tween phys­i­cal noise iso­la­tion ver­sus ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion of these Par­a­digm overear head­phones. It should be noted that since H15NC’s ear cups don’t cover the en­tire ear, that el­e­ment of phys­i­cal noise iso­la­tion is not present.

To test out the sonic per­for­mance of the head­phones, I wanted to try a range of dif­fer­ent au­dio con­tent, from clas­si­cal to cross­over in­stru­men­tal to loud, vo­cal pop/rock. Most of my testing was per­formed with the noise can­celling fea­ture ac­ti­vated.

Pop­ping in Me­di­aphon’s Vi­valdi disc from their Clas­sics set, I con­cen­trated on the sound­stage, pres­ence, and de­tail of the strings and orches­tra. From the start of “Spring”, the Par­a­digms pro­duced a deeper, fuller sound­stage than the Shures which helped to sur­round me and pull me fur­ther into the mu­sic. The Shures on the other hand made the per­form­ers sound more like they were out­side with no walls. Near­ing the end of the opus 8, no. 1 of Spring, a harp­si­chord is in­tro­duced and through the Par­a­digms, the sound was more sub­tle, softer, and fur­ther back on the stage than with the Shures. In ad­di­tion, the Par­a­digms more ac­cu­rately ren­dered the dis­tinc­tive “twang” that the plucked key­board in­stru­ment is known for. Through­out the opus, the in­di­vid­ual in­stru­ments didn’t get mud­dled to­gether – some­thing that fre­quently oc­curs when the sound­stage is too small, which causes record­ings to sound like ev­ery­one’s fig­u­ra­tively in the same spot, play­ing their in­stru­ments. The strings were clearly po­si­tioned at the front of the stage, while the per­cus­sion in­stru­ments and the harp­si­chord could be heard fur­ther back left and cen­tre, re­spec­tively.

Mov­ing onto Strauss’ Blue Danube, the dis­tance be­tween the dif­fer­ent in­stru­men­tal sec­tions on the stage was even more

ev­i­dent, pro­vid­ing a clear sep­a­ra­tion. This piece also has brass in­stru­ments such as the tuba and larger per­cus­sive in­stru­ments in­clud­ing the enor­mous tim­pani, which can be heard in the far back with its deep, sooth­ing long notes, pro­vid­ing a foun­da­tion for the strings to keep up the melody. Of par­tic­u­lar note was the abil­ity for the wood­winds to peek out with their trills through­out the mid­dle of the waltz, yet still I was able to hear the strings fade nat­u­rally in front of them. If there was one short­com­ing of the midrange, it was that it lacked the pierc­ing sharp­ness that in­stru­ments such as trum­pets are known for. They still sounded dis­tinc­tive but their metal­lic edge was rounded off so as to not be so glar­ing. The tre­ble re­sponse was gen­tle, which could be heard on the rapid­fire snares, which were ur­gent and en­er­getic as ex­pected but not overly harsh or tight. Cym­bals also clanged to­gether well without leav­ing the lin­ger­ing metal­lic “sss” found when tre­ble is too bright. Dur­ing the string stac­cato (plucked) move­ment, the back and forth play be­tween the left and right orches­tra sec­tions re­ally showed off how wide the sound­stage was. My mind drew a men­tal pic­ture of the con­duc­tor turn­ing from one side to the other. At the end of the waltz, the Par­a­digms re­ally shined with bass that was punchy - there are nu­mer­ous drums across the en­tire stage all revving up for the fi­nale.

Next, I tran­si­tioned to an al­bum from clas­si­cal cross­over group called Bond, a string quar­tet that in­te­grates syn­the­sized in­stru­ments, sounds and vo­cals. Lis­ten­ing to the open­ing track “Ex­plo­sive” on their de­but al­bum “Clas­si­fied”, it was easy to vi­su­al­ize the four mem­bers of the quar­tet stand­ing in front of an ac­com­pa­ny­ing band with a clear sep­a­ra­tion of strings and per­cus­sion that sur­rounds them. When the wood­wind solo be­gan, I could hear the mu­si­cian en­ter­ing in from stage right and mov­ing in front of the quar­tet. Ad­di­tion­ally, the skewed nat­u­ral tran­si­tions that oc­cur when the pan-flute is be­ing slid around sounded more ac­cu­rate, and there­fore more re­al­is­tic than with my Shures. Con­tin­u­ing with “Lul­laby” the Par­a­digms were be­gin­ning to reach their lim­its, hav­ing trou­ble keep­ing the sound­stage vast. The in­tro­duc­tion of the repet­i­tive per­cus­sive syn­the­sizer and op­er­atic vo­cal­iza­tions, in the midrange, showed that the head- phones had a hard time pro­vid­ing sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the back­ground ac­com­pa­ni­ment, and the string quar­ter and elec­tric gui­tar that carry the melody. The opera singer how­ever, was dis­tinctly stand­ing in the back of the stage so while her vo­cals had too much em­pha­sis, at least she was not a float­ing ethe­real voice. When there are fewer elec­tronic ac­com­pa­ni­ments, the var­i­ous stringed in­stru­ments (vi­o­lin, vi­ola, and cello) sounded less smoth­ered. I also lis­tened to the DVD of Bond’s live per­for­mance at Lon­don’s Royal Al­bert Hall, which re­ally made the Par­a­digms shine, cre­at­ing an im­mense­ness that trans­ported me to a seat in the venue.

Fi­nally, mov­ing onto a vo­cal al­bum, I loaded up Met­ric’s lat­est al­bum “Syn­thet­ica”. Want­ing to test out if the same shrink­ing of the sound­stage oc­curs with a vo­cal­ist, I started off with “Dreams So Real,” a track with a con­tin­u­ous, buzzing syn­thetic ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Here, the main el­e­ment, Emily Haines’ vo­cals, weren’t as sti­fled by the ac­com­pa­ni­ment as the strings were. The syn­thetic ac­com­pa­ni­ment didn’t have a dis­tinct po­si­tion on the stage, but at least it wasn’t cut­ting off other fre­quen­cies in the mid-range. Next up, “Breath­ing Un­der­wa­ter” per­formed bet­ter due to its dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments such as elec­tric gui­tar, bass, drums, and more sub­dued synth use.

To test just how well the noise can­celling fea­ture of the H15NCs works, I flicked the noise can­celling switch, lo­cated on the left ear cup, to the off po­si­tion. With the noise can­celling dis­abled, the vol­ume di­min­ished by about a third which is typ­i­cal with noise can­celling head­phones. I also ob­served a slight in­crease in the weight of the bass. Acous­ti­cally, this didn’t al­ter the dy­nam­ics of the tracks – it just gave them more ‘oomph’ when bass was present. I should also say that the noise-can­celling per­for­mance was not as iso­lat­ing as I had ex­pected. I found that the ear pads them­selves pro­vided more iso­la­tion than the ac­tive noise can­celling fea­ture, which was just enough to keep out the low rem­nants of peo­ple talk­ing from a few feet away. The noise can­celling was also more adept at tun­ing out lower fre­quency sounds. High-fre­quency chimes, such as the ring­ing of a smart­phone, still made it through the ac­tive noise-can­celling bar­rier. How­ever, that said, the cru­cial part is that the ac­tive noise can­celling didn’t in­tro­duce any ar­ti­facts com­monly found on poor­erper­form­ing ac­tive noise-can­celling de­vices – namely buzzing, hiss­ing, or other metal­lic back­ground noise.

Over­all, the Par­a­digm H15NCs are a solid per­form­ing pair of head­phones that pro­vide bass that is ar­tic­u­late, weighty, and pre­cise without be­ing bland and boom­ing. Their abil­ity to pro­vide a vast, lay­ered sound­stage is im­pres­sive and is put to good use es­pe­cially when lis­ten­ing to live per­for­mances.

It must be noted that with any portable au­dio, in­di­vid­ual lis­ten­ers will ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent fre­quency em­phases depend­ing on the type of portable au­dio de­vice they lis­ten to. For ex­am­ple, one per­son us­ing in-ear mon­i­tors may hear a strength­ened low midrange, while some­one else may not when us­ing the same de­vice. Tak­ing those same peo­ple, one may hear thicker bass, while the other may not when us­ing over-ear head­phones. This is due to the phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences of how the sound is pro­duced, ear shapes, canal shapes and sound prop­a­ga­tion. There­fore, while re­views are an ex­cel­lent place to start when look­ing at portable au­dio prod­ucts, there will be in­stances where you don’t hear the same track as the re­viewer did.

But I di­gress. If the mu­sic you lis­ten to con­tains a mul­ti­tude of nat­u­ral sound­pro­duc­ing el­e­ments, the H15NCs en­sure that each gets to shine and has suf­fi­cient space. If you’re look­ing for com­fort­able head­phones with ac­tive noise-can­celling, I def­i­nitely sug­gest try­ing out these Par­a­digms – es­pe­cially if you’re trav­el­ling by air as low-fre­quency noise such as en­gine noise should be well in the range of their noise-can­cel­la­tion abil­i­ties. And the 40-hour bat­tery life should last for most round trips. At $299, they are well priced and should hold up well when taken care of and kept safe in their hard-shelled case when not in use.

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