Headphones and Earphones
- Written by Stephen Hornbrook
- Published on 05 September 2013
Design, In Use, and Rating of the Paradigm H15NC Noise-Cancelling Headphones
There is nothing flashy about the Paradigm H15NC design. These headphones are finished in matte black and silver and are certainly more conservative looking than some flamboyant, bright colored designs. Both the headband and the ear pads feature soft, squishy memory foam that really helps in the comfort department.
The headband is flexible enough, along with the adjustable extension of the ear pads, to fit a range of head sizes. There were times when I felt the flex was too loose; certainly not flimsy, but also not overly rugged. Since these feature a powered active noise cancelation mode, an on-off switch is located on the back of the left ear.
Also on that side is a plug for the removable cable. The cable, at 1.2m, is just long enough to reach from your pocketed playback device to your head and even features in-line controls to change tracks, adjust the volume, or answer phone calls. On the right ear is a small USB plug used for charging the lithium battery. Paradigm claims a 40 hour battery life for active noise cancellation and although I did not specifically time this, I inadvertently left them on over night after a couple days of listening and they were still functioning the next day. 40 hours of life before the next recharge should be no problem at all. Best of all, if you are on vacation and do not have a way of recharging, they still function like normal headphones, just without active noise cancellation.
Comfort-wise, I felt the Paradigm H15NC's will appeal to most head sizes and ear shapes. I found the memory foam padding to be quite comfortable and eased some of the discomfort I often find with on-ear (as opposed to around-ear) designs. My only complaint would be regarding snugness. There were times when I was wearing the headphones where I needed to bend down or lean forward and the headphones would want to slip off. Not a big concern, but I would not recommend these headphones for use when working out or other high movement activities.
Active noise cancellation is tricky business. The goal is to analyze outside noises, create a 180 degree out of phase signal of the unwanted sound, and send that inverse though the speakers. While it might be theoretically possible to cancel out every sound wave entering your ear, it would take a lot of processing and speaker power to do so. Instead, engineers focus on the more distracting lower frequency tones: consistent sounds like the drone of airplane engines, or HVAC systems are the ideal target for noise cancellation. My office has a rather noisy HVAC system with a vent directly above my workstation that puts out a constant hum. Your brain is smart enough to realize the sound isn't fluctuating and so you tend to forget it's there, that is until you take it away. After fitting the H15NC comfortably over my ears, I noticed some isolation from the office clatter and didn't really think about the HVAC hum, but when I flipped on the active noise cancellation, that nasty hum revealed itself as it disappeared. Without that low frequency hum the music came through much clearer, and a tiny bit louder in part to the small amp built in for noise cancellation. Whenever I listened to these headphones in the office, switching the noise cancellation on was a must. I could still hear that people were talking, or cars honking down on the street, but those noises did not pollute the music like the constant drone of the air conditioning system. Removing that from the mix made for a less fatiguing experience. I can only imagine how much they would help on a plane.
The Piano, by British composer Michael Nyman, is one of my go-to tests for equipment. The H15NC handled the soundtrack with a bit of angst, throwing each note at you with force. Tracks like "The Fling" are meant to be in your face and melded well with the H15NC. The more delicate tracks such as "The Scent of Love" still felt romantic and the sound from the Paradigm H15NC drew me directly into the haunting theme.
Listening to, in particular, the percussion on a few of Hans Zimmer's film scores I noticed a couple things. I found that some of the high end detail was missing in instruments such as the cymbals. Without that high frequency detail, some dimensionality was lost. Secondly, there were occasions that the timpani and other drums sounded a bit bloated, drowning out other instruments. If you want tight, neutral bass, or just less bass in general, then there are better headphone options for you.
Moving into mainstream music, I found the H15NC to perform with excellence. Their increased bass output along with a softer high-end compliment the mixing style of most popular music (of course there are always exceptions). With clean lyrics and a strong bass line, Jay-Z's latest album Magna Carta sounded superb on the H15NC. 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifia's "We Own It" bumps with deep bass and lyrics that are crisp but never harsh or fatiguing. Hip hop tracks really shine with the Paradigm H15NC headphones.
I think Paradigm is definitely targeting a wider user base than that of the picky audiophile the H15NC headphones are clearly designed with that in mind. If you take a look at the charts for July 2013, at the top are Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, Jay Z, Imagine Dragons, and Makelmore & Ryan Lewis. These are not what I would consider "audiophile mixes", yet they sounded great on the Paradigm H15NC. For listening to Pop, Rap, and R&B, if you have a $300 budget and want active noise cancellation, then the Paradigm H15NC simply rock. Don't need the active noise cancellation? Then save a hundred dollars and pick up the Paradigm H15 which are essentially the same as the H15NC, sans noise cancellation.