For someone who travels a lot on public transport, having a good set of noise cancelling headphones is indispensable for making the trip a lot more enjoyable and stress free. By shutting out the external noise with passive cancellation, and actively generating phase-reversed waves to cancel the lower frequencies which can make it through, they achieve a much quieter noise floor which allows you to enjoy your audio more clearly and at lower volumes which reduces hearing damage and listener fatigue.
Noise cancelling headphones have been falling in price rather rapidly, however, have always carried a premium price-tag. To some extent, many people are happy with the isolation with in-ear monitors, making noise cancelling headphones a less popular option for travellers as they are bulky and require batteries. However, as I often get irritation after long-term use of in-ear monitors, and I really prefer the sound of an over-the-head headphone, I have stuck with the cans.
My Noise-Cancelling Quest
My first set was the Audio-Technica ANC7’s, which I was very happy with as it offered comparable performance to the other options, namely the Bose QuietComfort series, for about half the price. The one down-fall was its sensitivity to RF, namely that of mobile phones which would modulate the audio. The unit lasted me almost four years, when one microphone/driver had failed resulting in crackles and occasional loud squeaks.
I soon replaced that with the Audio-Technica ANC7b, which was an upgraded version with new looks and improved RF immunity. Unfortunately for me, this unit didn’t survive as well taking just two and a half years, with rattling on the swivel battery cover mechanism and periodic loss of audio from one side due to a failing mechanical change-over switch. Right at the end, I also got some strange squeals which had me fearing for ear damage.
Around the time I bought the 7b, Audio-Technica also launched their flagship ANC9 which I attended a store in Sydney at their launch to audition a set. They sounded slightly different, slightly more bassy, and slightly more detailed on the treble with a bit of a “hollow” in the midrange. The noise cancelling was improved, and the three-mode cancellation allows for some optimization of the background hiss to noise cancelling efficiency.
I eventually replaced the failed ANC7b with an ANC9, only to have that one fail quite badly with total loss of one driver and RMA hassles with the grey importer. The second set I received has a bit of an imbalance on the right side, but I’d rather live with that than to return it and go through the hassle again.
In all, it seems that quality is no longer a strong point of Audio-Technica’s ANC-series. Unit after unit seems to live for fewer and fewer years, first approaching the warranty and then failing within warranty even though my usage had not changed. I’m gentle with my devices, always using the included carry cases, but it seems the quest to improve profits and reduce costs has led to a reduction in quality. When my last commuting unit fails, I’m not sure I will be replacing it with another A-T product.
A New Failure Mode
While my previous units have generally failed electronically, my ANC9 is beginning to show signs of physical failure on the ear cushions.
As supplied, and in good condition, the inside edge of the ear cushion has a seam which is held together without stitches. As the cushions themselves are filled with memory foam pushing outwards, the seams are always under stress.
It seems the seams themselves may have been welded together by heat, or maybe with some adhesive, but this arrangement doesn’t last. The overlap is a few millimeters, but after some time, it starts to spread apart. At the first sign of foam, it only takes a few uses for the seam to start seriously unraveling around the inner circumference.
Most people might see a failure like this, and their instinct is to replace the earpads entirely, it isn’t as simple as that for me. For one thing, if you do a cursory search online, the earpads on offer can be as cheap as AU$10 for a set, but they are not original. This will affect the quality of the sound, and also the comfort. Part of the specialty of the ANC9 cushions are the use of memory foam which is somewhat compliant and forms a good seal, evening out the pressure on your ears, and making it a comfortable seal. A listing which looks vaguely genuine seems to go for AU$90, which makes it a good slice of the price for a new set – seeing as this has done some miles, something else might fail, so economically it might make sense to dispose of it and replace it with something new. Sadly, this is terrible for the environment so instead, I decided to repair it.
The (Sticky) Repair
Before anyone goes and says “well that was damn obvious“, I’ll pre-face this part with a few qualifying sentences. Of course, I’m not someone who invented super-glue, and I’m not the first guy to come around and repair something, but I have actually repaired my ANC9 about half a year ago, and have again come around to needing repairs, so I have developed some techniques which you might find useful.
What you will need for the repair is a super glue bottle with a nice fine tip, and some fingernails. A bottle of acetone to remove excess superglue on fingers might be advisable, but not essential.
The key with the cushion repair is to do it as soon as possible as it starts unraveling. If it unravels more than half-way, you will find that repair is more challenging in terms of maintaining alignment between the inner and outer facing material, and you might get ripples turning up in your material.
Begin by securing the edge of the unraveled section.
In the case of the earcup above, there is a section to the right which is under risk, but the open section is near the middle of the image. I applied super glue to the seam near where it is still closed.
The next step is to use your nails to pinch together the front and back cushions where the seam is. It helps to first squeeze together hard so that the memory foam compresses and takes its compressed form, then re-squeeze to make sure the glue spreads down the seam and takes a good hold.
Repeat that for the edge of the seam at the other side, thus temporarily containing the possibility of further unraveling. The next step is to start compressing the visible foam by squeezing or pushing it in with your fingers, so as to reduce its volume to allow the seams to be glued together.
I generally go around and “stick” together portions about a finger width apart to smooth out alignment issues, ending up with something that looks like this:
Once you have it resembling what it should look like, it’s simple to put some glue in the segments in between, and squeeze to produce a nice glued seam.
It may not be as pretty as the original, but don’t be too concerned as the inner edge is unlikely to contact your ears or irritate it. In my case, there was a little too much glue, which results in the visible residue because I “pinched” the surfaces together for a short while, and then let them part to their “natural” orientation. You should let the glue set completely before wearing it to avoid any potentially embarrassing incidents.
Here is an example of the repair on the other ear-cup that I made about half a year ago but never decided to document at the time.
What you will find is that over time, the original sections which haven’t been glued will begin to unravel, and I think it’s wisest to repair those sections as they unravel, rather than trying to tear it apart and repair it all in one go. By repairing small sections, the shape of the earpad is maintained and problems with the material surface separating from the rear (e.g. when you peel it apart) are avoided.
While I can’t say I’m impressed with the quality of the later Audio-Technica ANC products, I do advocate the use of quality noise cancelling headphones as essential travel gear. While my ANC9 has given me trouble of an electronic nature, it seems that even their physical build is beginning to fail.
That being said, outright replacement of ear cushions is the suboptimal result, because many of the replacements are not genuine, can change the character of the sound, and are not as comfortable owing to the use of regular foam as opposed to memory foam. Genuine replacements are expensive, making them less economically sensible.
As a result, I would advise that users should try to repair it themselves, especially when outside of warranty, as it’s a simple and cheap fix which seems to hold well.