Sony MDR NC-33 Noise Canceling Headphones review

MDR NC-33 from Sony is the first pair of noise cancelling earphones I have tried. Seeing them in the Sony store I got mixed feelings as most in-ear earphones isolate against noise by blocking the ear canal. On the other hand I thought that if you first have noise isolation by blockage, and add 90% less noise by using noise isolating circuitry you might end up with 100% noise free listening.

The NC-33 comes with the standard extras such as a carrying pouch, extra earbuds and flight plug headphone adapter. One AAA-battery to power the noise cancelling circuitry, and according to Sony one battery will last at least 50 hours depending on whether it is rechargeable or not. A dry-cell battery is supposed to last for up to 100 hours. I have yet to run out of my first battery, but then I have not had the circuitry on at all times. The sound quality is just as good without the noise cancelling on.

The NC-33 are quite bulky due to the noise cancelling circuitry, but I still enjoy the unique look of the earphones. What is less appealing is the large lump found about 0,6 meters from the Y-cable to the earphones. It is and looks bulky, and with a shiny red light when the noise cancelling circuitry is active makes me feel like a cyborg or something. I understand that the battery has to be put somewhere, and it is better to have it on the cord than near the earphones due to weight. I have been trying the black NC-33, and they are also available in white, blue and red. The most commonly sold is the black one though.

3I have always had the same problem with the earbuds that I have got with the Sony Ericson phones I have owned prior to the iPhone. They feel squidgy when inserted, and actually make wet noises in my ear when I touch them. They seem to take what little moisture I have in my ear canal, and kind of multiply it into a puddle. I have tried really drying my ear canals with tops, and still the earbuds do this. And it is the same kind of earbuds used in the NC-33, and sadly they behave as I am used to. I have not had this problem with any other brand or style of earbuds.

The positive side to it is that the earbuds are really comfortable, and fit really well into the ear canal. You get them in three different sizes, and I guess everyone will be able to use at least one of them comfortably.

The box containing the circuitry and AAA-battery is quite heavy, and if you don’t clip it to a belt or any other piece of clothing they tend to put strain on the earbuds. Using them in bed before going to sleep for example is a pain when I have to go to the bathroom, and the lump dangles within my range of aim. It also tends to bang against furniture if you don’t fasten the clip, and it feels quite unsafe because of the fact that it contains high tech electronics.

The cord I would say has a medium tendency to tangle itself, which isn’t too bad.

The best feature of the NC-33 is the great audio, which gives a good representation of the recorded materials. In my opinion they are suitable for all kinds of music, and games when it comes to keeping the sound tight. Those who want to have their music layered, and separated should look elsewhere. To place the sound of the NC-33 in a real world situation I would say that they sound like being at a concert using foam ear protection: a bit muffled but still those sounds you are there to hear come through really well.

1The selling point for the Sony MDR NC-33 is the high tech noise isolating circuitry. I do not understand the noise isolating feature at all. I have compared using it with the circuitry on or off, and to me there is not much difference. The earbuds themselves are designed to block out unwanted noise. When I turn the noise cancelling feature on the red light is all that is happening as far as I can tell. I can still hear the printer in the background printing drivel that I heard with the circuitry off. If I want to talk to someone there is a button to press to get to monitor mode. While I hold the monitor button the circuitry almost mutes the audio. I can still hear the music in the background, and it is easier to actually remove one earphone to be able to talk instead of holding the button. Part of the problem is also finding the button depending on where the circuitry/battery compartment is located. If I have it in a pocket it is too hard to find, and actually hold the small monitor button.

Ok so I can’t notice the 90% noise cancellation due to the earphones themselves blocking the sound, but that is only the first aspect I have trouble with. The second is the fact that the circuitry is prone to interference. So far all of the tested headphones using active noise cancellation have had trouble with using the Edge/3G networks as well as surrounding phones and modems. What the larger headphones have in common though is that the interference isn’t louder than the music you are listening to, and thus isn’t as intrusive. When using the NC-33 I almost tear them out of my ears when the loud interference hits me. Considering the noise cancelling circuitry itself isn’t all that needed I conclude the following: If you want to have a comparable sound and fit to the NC-33 get little brother Sony MDREX300SLB instead at less than half the money, and without paying for a feature that is not worth the cost.

specsThe NC-33 presents game audio really well with good power in everything from weapon fire to zombie grunts in Call of Duty World at War Zombies. More mellow sounds are also presented really well such as the music found in Ravensword. To play any game that uses Edge/3G for highscores or online games you need to shut off the noise cancelling circuitry.

Final rating

The Sony MDR NC-33 comes equipped with a noise cancelling circuitry that does more harm than good. Seeing that this both puts a bulky battery compartment, larger earphones and a heftier price tag on the NC-33 I can’t recommend them even thought they have a great fit for most ears, good noise isolation, and really good sound quality.

Sony MDR NC-33 Noise Canceling Headphones at $99.99

Sony MDRNC33 Noise Canceling Earbuds (Black) at $76

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  • Glenn

    I’m also disappointed that it was not shielded from interference. It would have been good if there was a volume control too. But to put it in another perspective, I think the MDR NC-33 is value for money. I smile every time I fly and see those people using those big noise-canceling head phones. If you’re on an 8-hour flight, good luck using those. Also, they don’t require that much space in my hand-carry bag. During flights, telephone interference is not really an issue. I use it without the noise-canceling on a day to day basis. Try it in a plane or in a car, I’m sure that you’ll find it very useful.

  • michael sheilin

    Since im a frequent flyer, i recently just bought a pair of noise canceling headphones for when i fly. And can i say how great they are? They seriously block out all surrounding noise, its really great! Owing to these noise canceling headphones, my last plane trip was the first time i was able to sleep since the Noise canceling headphones canceled out the background noise. This is where i got mine from Noise Canceling Headphones

  • paul bhail

    I actuality am not as disappointed by these as I thought I would have…

    This series is based upon the new EX300/500 headphones w/ the verticle 13.5 M driver, which is the new versions of the NC22/EX90/EX85 predisessors.

    The big difference I found to improve SQ was to remove the wax filter, and ordered the new tx400 Comply medium foam tips, which gave an extra bit of passive isolation…

    as such… everything is incredibly balanced, works great off my 2gen nano, and even better off a Total Airhead portable amp.

    w/ the comply tips, these isolate very well… I mean the TX400 is uses in a number of other IEMs and coupled w/ a reasonable active isolation system w/ 100hrs of battery life.. you have a great compromise.

    Not as bad as reviewed deffinately

  • Jean-Pierre Schnyder

    I’ve been using the sony mdr-nc33 for a couple of days now. Here are my findings (I am only evaluating the effect of the noise cancellation circuitery, not blocing effect of the ear buds):

    * noise cancellation is excellent for low frequencies, but has no effect on high frequencies, more precisely:

    * rumbling of a fridge in a restaurant: massively reduced

    * moving cars: noise of the tires on the road massively reduced. Noise of the motor marginally affected

    * children crying or shouting: no effect

    * lawn mower noise: no effect

    * heals on the floor: no effect

    * disturbing radio music in a restaurant: no effect

    * people shouting on the phone: no effect

    Finally, this kind of device makes wonders in a plane, but something that really elimiates all the sonic nuisance of life in the city still needs to be invented !

  • lupo

    totally dissapointed with these.. as the review says I hear more celluar interference then my music! Annoying.. bulky and marginal sound quality, will never by a SONY brand again.

  • Gene

    Just a note: All of these noise cancelling headsets, whether over the ear or buds like these, work on cancelling low level background noise that is fairly constant – think the constant hum of highway tire noise or air plane cabin noise. The method used does not cancel out sounds varying in frequencies e.g. human speech, baby crying.

  • Warre

    Don’t buy these if you are not traveling. You only feel the noise canceling difference in the plane. These headphones are designed for aircraft use. There they are quite good and you really see the difference between on and off, not on the ground

  • Robin

    On the point of cellular interference, I have not noticed this at all, either at work or on the train

  • Max

    I just bought one pair of these, and tried them during a 4-hour night flight. I was very pleased with the “flight noice cancelling” abilities.

  • Ergin

    Kind of a late comment yet I’d love to drop it for this review still comes on top or thereabouts when a potential mdr nc33 buyer does a google search. (I think Sony has cancelled the production of these but they can still be found in a lot of places. Especially second hand pairs.)

    The active noise cancelling thingy does almost nothing, as Torbjorn stated, when you turn it on on a normal life situation (such as while listening to music at home, at the office…) This is perfectly true, hands down. So, if you put them on without activating the nc thingy, when somebody speaks to you in a rather normal voice, you can somehow hear it. (Unless you’ve cranked up the volume to near full.) Yet, if the music is on and at a loud level, you can barely hear them. That is to say, its passive isolation is not the worst.

    Yet… Now, imagine another situation, the situation of a commuter (be it a long bus ride or a tram/underground ride) or an airways traveller: There is this constant humming on airplanes, or a constant rattle on a tram. What this ACTIVE NOISE CANCELLATION excels at is MINIMIZING these CONSTANT SOUNDS. So, if you’re are a commuter who spends at least 2-3 hours on your way in a noisy metropolitan city notorious for its noisy and crowded public transportation system (London, New York, Boston and İstanbul comes to mind), or if you travel long-distane by planes, you can benefit from this active noise cancellation to a profitable extent. Again, mark my words, these will never stop you from hearing that annoying baby crying and that crane unloading steel alloys on your street, or that idiotic couple fighting their guts off right on the seat behind you. In these situations, the changes in frequency are too quick and happen in too short a time that active noise cancellation is helpless.

    Other than that… The earphones are solid. The cable is solid, yet, it’s always the cable that breaks first with a Sony earphone. Better be careful. The highs are not the best, but they are not the worst either. The lows are good. Bass extension and warmth is cool, but it’s not as punchy as middle-high end Sennheiser. I mean, they punch you, but not on the inside of you skull as many bass-oriented phones do. They punch you in the ear canal, and warm you inside. That’s all. The mids are not perfect, but passable at this price range. Team it up with comply Tx-200 foam tips, and you have a useable pair of earphones for at least 2 years. Then again, spare some money regularly while you’re using these and upgrade them with a better iem at your will. They cannot satisfy one forever.

    If you’re really looking for active noise cancelling at this price range, go for it. If you’re looking for active noise cancelling and find these cheaper than $25-30, run for it. Other than that, buy them at your will. I use them on my daily route to work in the hellish İstanbul traffic: a shaky minibus first, then a tram, then an intercontinental metro-bus… (Yeah, I also wonder why I haven’t died yet.) It helps me a bit.

  • meeld

    i have got nc033 from lunashops. good

  • Tonaroma

    Dude stand next to the road or better yet next to your girlfriend while she’s blow drying her hair and, without playing music, turn on the noise cancellation. I fly often and these are one of the best headphones I’ve ever used. These of course are extreme examples but most ears aren’t fine enough to note the subtle improvements the noise reduction makes like most tongues can’t tell the difference between a decent beer and piss water. For these ears I would recommend a pair of $9.99 RadioShack generics.

  • Tonaroma

    You have the ears of a cromagnon