Audio-Technica MSR7NC Review: The first Worthy Alternative to the Bose QC25
Bose is arguably the current king of active noise cancelling headphones. Their patents and proprietary technologies mean that they’re always slightly ahead of the competition. Other manufacturers have made a run at competing directly with Bose, and sometimes they come close. The Sony MDR1000X is getting great early buzz, for example.
Active Noise Cancelling tech has a price though: Sound quality often suffers. The processing required means that ANC headphones almost always sound better in powered mode, and in many designs the bass frequencies excel while treble sounds…weedy. You often see the line “This sounds great…for a noise cancelling headphone” in reviews of ANC models.
With this year’s release of the MSR7NC(~$299 USD), Audio-Technica has taken an entirely new approach: a relentless pursuit of sound quality. The goal was to take the critically-praised sound profile of the original MSR7 and marry it with new noise cancelling tech that wouldn’t mar that sound. Did this work?
Yes. This is the first Active Noise Cancelling headphone I’ve ever heard where the powered mode and unpowered mode sound identical. It’s an impressive feat.
Will you like that sound? Maybe. It’s a bit of an acquired taste. But it’s so much different than the typical Bose/ANC sound that it’s very exciting.
When I first put these on, I felt like the upper-mids were stabbing me in the face. “Uh oh,” I thought, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
I knew the highs were going to be prominent. I knew from viewing Innerfidelity, Z-Reviews, and Lachlan’s takes on the MSR7 that this was going to be a bright headphone. But I still wasn’t quite prepared for it. The first thing that hits you with these headphones is oodles of powerful, bright, crisp mids and highs.
After that initial shock, I plunged ahead, and I was rewarded! The highs are just shy of fatiguing. Like, as small a step on this side of the line as they could possibly be. They are also incredibly natural and detailed, without any grain, harsh edge, or sibilance. The focus on high sounds also gives the MSR7NC a nice wide soundstage and good sense of depth. High frequency sounds are much easier for your brain to localize than bass notes.
Speaking of which, the bass is pleasant and accurate, somewhere between punchy and boomy. It’s about 2/3rds as loud as the other frequencies, and quite a bit less prominent than 99 percent of other modern portable headphones. However, it’s still rich, present, and nice to listen to. But make no mistake…these are headphones for “Detail heads,” those that want to hear extreme clarity in things like acoustic instruments, drums, and vocals. If you’re a bass-lover, these won’t be satisfying…but thankfully the bass is still there when it needs to be.
It’s a very different sound than most other headphones I’ve tried. It sounds a little like a more premium M50X or MDR V6, like that same sound signature… but with more engineering and refinement. The sound is the complete opposite of the Bose sound signature, which is warm and smooth and inviting.
To be honest, that’s kind of awesome! If you’re someone who’s always wanted a bright, studio-style sound signature in a noise cancelling headphone, this is your only and best choice. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but I really enjoy it. Listening at loud volumes would probably be unpleasant after an hour or so. It’s a headphone that begs for well-recorded/high bitrate material. It will show you all the details and all the flaws in the sound. The responsiveness and decay in the high details is exceptionally fast, and it gives highs a whole different character than they have on warmer headphones.
The MSR7NC is sensitive and efficient enough to be driven well by everything from my iPhone to my headphone amp. You don’t need any special gear.
The ANC here is not as good as Bose’s, just to get that out of the way. But it’s still quite effective. It produces no pressure on the ear, nor any detectable hissing noise. It’s most effective on low frequencies, but still works well enough to pass my usual loud coffee shop isolation test with flying colors. If the Bose implementation scores 100 percent for isolation, then the MSR7NC would get 85/90 percent.
It runs for 30 hours on a single 4 hour charge. As I said above, the sound is also identical with the power off, so you can run without power confident that you’re still getting great audio. The isolation obviously suffers, but this is the only ANC headphone I’ve ever heard that sounds good in unpowered mode.
The MSR7NC has a great, subtle design, perfect for use out and about without drawing weird looks. I love the overall aesthetic. The ear cups are aluminum capsules with a matte finish and a simple white Audio-Technica logo. The headband is metal-reinforced. The headband and ear cups are plushly padded, which is good because the clamping force is high. You’ll want to break these in for a week or so before you decide if they’re comfy. They’ll produce a hot spot on your head if you don’t adjust them correctly. They are nice and big, adjustment-range-wise, and fit well on my stupidly large head.
Unlike the regular MSR7, these don’t have ports cut into the ear cups, instead there are just tiny holes for microphones. The box mentions that they have a patent pending for how they managed the same sound as the MSR7 without these ports and by using the noise cancelling tech/mic holes instead. I don’t know how they did it, but it’s impressive. I prefer the non-ported look of the MSR7NC ear cups to the original model.
Lots of folks out there think the MSR7 is prone to creaking. And they’re completely right! My ear cup joints totally creak, straight out of the box. But the build somehow manages to still feel good and solid. I think the creaking is just a side effect of how close together everything sits, and not a true flaw in the design. They only creak when you hold and adjust them, not on your head. If creaking bothers you, this is not the headphone for you, but I am confident they won’t break with normal use.
The MSR7NC includes two 1.2m cables and a nice plush bag. A hard case would have been nicer at this price, but the bag is really luxurious to the touch. The cables are a little springy. One of them has a one-button remote, and one is a plain old cable. The ends are standard 3.5mm, so finding a custom cable should be quite easy. The regular MSR7 includes a third 3m plain cable, for studio/home use which is absent in this model.
The headphone folds flat for storage/transport, and will fit into the bag with the cups either flat or in the normal position. The cups do not collapse inward like those on the M50X, but it’s still easily portable.
The MSR7NC is a great headphone with a solid build, a high-focused yet natural sound signature, a strong clamp, and noise cancelling tech that doesn’t interfere with the sound quality. It is priced correctly for what you get.
And now, my impressions compared to other headphones I’ve tried in the price range:
Bose QC25 (~$299 USD)- The polar opposite of the MSR7NC. Warm, smooth, and more forgiving of bad recordings. Many will prefer the sound signature of the QC25, as it’s more accessible and pleasant. The QC25 is more immediately comfy, and has better noise-cancelling. However, its detail is lacking, and its sound when unpowered is horrible. The MSR7NC is the perfect choice for those that don’t like the Bose sound and still want ANC.
Sony MDR-1A(~$299 USD)- The MDR-1A is a muddy bass-monster compared to the MSR7NC. It’s also more immediately comfy, and it doesn’t creak. If you like bass, or bass-focused music, the 1A is probably a better choice. However, it doesn’t isolate as well as the MSR7NC does even when unpowered, and it doesn’t have noise-cancelling. Feature for feature, the MSR7NC is a better value at the same price. I also prefer the look of the MSR7 just slightly.
Audio-Technica MSR7(~$250 USD)- If everything I said above appeals to you but you don’t need noise cancelling, you could save $50 bucks and get the regular MSR7. They’re 99 percent identical. The regular MSR7 has ports cut into the cups, and the left/right indicator text is in an obnoxious font. On the MSR7NC, it says “L” and “R,” whereas on the MSR7 it says the full words “LEFT” and “RIGHT” in a font straight out of the 80’s. Not a big deal to me, but it really bothers some people. The noise-cancelling is absolutely worth the extra 50 bucks, but save the money if you don’t need that feature.
Audio-Technica M50X(~$150 USD)- I include the M50X because it’s clearly the little brother of the MSR7. The bass is punchier, the treble is almost as good, although slightly grainy…but the design is much less stylish and the pads aren’t as big and plush. If you’ve used and liked the M50X, the MSR7NC is a more luxurious, more portable-friendly version (Thanks to the phone remote cable) without the high-end grain and with slightly more comfort in the pads. The M50X is a better starter/all-arounder headphone, with a sound signature that is more immediately satisfying. If you want to upgrade from your M50’s into something that’s like the “next step up,” the MSR7/MSR7NC is a great choice.
Blue Mo-Fi (~$349 USD)- Blue likes to claim that the Mo-Fi is a good studio can…but the MSR7NC is much better for that purpose. The Mo-Fi’s treble detail is muddy and recessed by comparison. The Mo-Fi is great if you want a thumpy bass-heavy speaker-like sound on the go, but it’s also not terribly comfy. I’d take the MSR7NC every time. It’s cheaper, cleaner-sounding, and has ANC built-in.
There’s some debate as to whether a bright, treble-focused sound signature is actually “high fidelity” or not. I’m honestly not sure where I fall in that debate myself. Some bright headphones can sound artificial and grainy in their detail. The MSR7NC doesn’t have that problem to my ears, and has pretty good noise cancelling to boot. It’s an excellent alternative to the Bose QC25, and the only other noise-cancelling headphone in that price range I feel safe recommending. Just know that it might take a few days for your brain to adjust to the sound…and it might make you re-evaluate the quality of some recordings.
Also seriously, don’t play it too loud or your ears will die from the mids/highs.