We couldn’t be bigger fans of noise-cancelling technology. It’s one of those innovations that, once you’ve tried it, ruins everything else for you – how can you possibly enjoy your episode of Making A Murderer on the train now you know you could be hearing it without all the rumbling?
As with all great tech, noise cancelling can be expensive – as with the amazing Bose QuietComfort 20s we reviewed recently (£260). But does it need to be? The terribly-named Philips SHB8850NC on-ear headphones offer both noise-cancelling and Bluetooth for £89.99, but is this one of those cases where you’d be better off paying a bit more? We took them on our 9-hour flight to Las Vegas to find out.
Turning off the world
These headphones claim to cancel 97% of ambient noise, and to our very un-mathematical ears that sounds about right. Holding down the NC button on the left ear cup results in a blissful quieting of just about all the annoyingness around you – except for voices.
Screaming baby to the left of me Screaming baby to the right Here I am, stuck on this plane for nine hours ?— Holly Brockwell (@holly) January 3, 2016
Unfortunately, noise cancelling technology doesn’t work very well on the human voice. That’s not Philips’ fault – it applies to all NC headphones. It’s best at getting rid of low-frequency sounds, like humming, droning and rumbling, but that does mean it won’t silence crying babies or a lot of conversations around you. Worth knowing if you haven’t had a pair of NC headphones before.
However, for the sound they can get rid of, the SHB8850NC headphones do an amazing job. It’s genuinely quite astonishing to turn noise cancelling off and remember exactly how loud the plane you’re sitting on is. The sound of the air rushing past the plane wall, the engines, the air con – it’s all gone. This made our in-flight movies and music much easier to listen to, especially comparing with a normal set of in-ear headphones, where I had to turn the volume up past the safe level to even hear the words.
Since they’re wireless, you’ll need to charge your ‘phones every so often. They claim to go for 16 hours on a charge with noise-cancelling on – we found it to be more like 12, but that’s not half bad (and obviously it’s considerably longer if you’re not using NC). If they run out, you can use the included cable to carry on listening to music. Philips even include an adapter for those weird double-pronged audio jacks you get on some planes, which is a nice touch at this price.
Important note: you’re not allowed to use Bluetooth on flights until you reach cruising altitude, and sometimes not at all. Use the included cable when you’re using these on a flight – we did.
Buttons, buttons, buttons
The design of these on-ears isn’t amazing, in our opinion. They’re not particularly stylish, coming in a standard black and silver colourway with a dot pattern – in this regard, they look as cheap as they are. Frustratingly, the buttons and ports have been haphazardly thrown all over the cups, so it’s really difficult to find the button you’re after by touch alone. The Bluetooth call button is lovely and large, sitting in the middle of the right cup, but that’s where the consideration ended.
The noise-cancelling function is a button rather than the usual switch, and it’s tiny. It sits on off-centre on the bottom of the left cup and you have to hold it down for about three seconds before it kicks in. There’s always a pause before NC starts, but at least with a switch you’re not left awkwardly holding the button. The power button is the same, too: hold it down for ages to turn the ‘phones on.
Even worse is the right cup. The volume up and down, track skip back and forward, power and Bluetooth buttons are all scattered around this cup, and they’re all about the same size. You just can’t tell the buttons apart by touch, so I ended up taking the ‘phones off to check which button was which a lot. That’s rubbish. I also discovered while fumbling for the right button that the big Bluetooth calls key also activates Google Now when you’re not on a call.
Went to adjust my headphones and hit a button and a virtual assistant asked what I wanted and 2015 is ridiculous— Holly Brockwell (@holly) December 22, 2015
Similarly, it took me an actual age to find the USB charging port. It’s hidden underneath the hinge where the right cup attaches to the headband, so you have to tilt the cup before you see it. Aaargh. At least the audio cable jack is in a sensible position, on the bottom of the right cup.
The cups fold up into the band, which is helpful for reducing storage space when you’re carrying them about. They don’t come with a travel pouch, but that’s fair enough at this price.
Connecting in comfort
At first, I thought the Bluetooth 4.0 connection to my phone was faulty. But it turned out to be a known issue on the Nexus 6P (with all headphones, not just these ones). Once I tried them on another phone, connection was flawless. Even better, you can connect to two devices by Bluetooth simultaneously, which is excellent – I can pair up my laptop and phone without having to laboriously unpair every time I want to switch.
You can also use NFC (the tech behind Apple Pay) to pair easily with one tap, but not all phones offer NFC – ironically iPhones don’t currently except for Apple stuff, and certain phones like the OnePlus Two leave this functionality out. Most Androids can do it, but I suspect many people will connect the usual way anyway.
The cushions on the Philips SHB8850NC are described as “soft and ergonomic for long-wearing comfort” and we’d agree. We’ve never had a pair of on-ear headphones that didn’t make our ears ache after a while, but in the case of these ones, it took a good four hours before that happened. Give your ears a break (during the in-flight meal, in my case) and you’ll be good to go again.
Sounds good to me
The sound quality on these headphones is very good for the price. Music sounds full and well-rounded, highs and lows are all where they should be. They go far louder than you’ll ever need, and details are clear. There’s no hissing, which is often the case on headphones with AAC (advanced audio coding – for better sound), but I’d have liked a little more bass.
Overall, quality is great and I can happily listen to hours and hours of my terrible emo music without bugging people with taste.
We’re pretty happy with the Philips SHB8850NC headphones for the price. Yes, the buttons are badly placed and the design leaves a lot to be desired, but the NFC, Bluetooth and noise cancelling features are impressive for £90, and the sound quality is plenty good enough for our ears. If you’re looking for a dependable pair of budget NC headphones, these are a good call – especially if you’ve got a long flight to contend with.