UPDATE (02/2019): Unfortunately, the review unit has failed due to a defect in the earcup hinge – see full teardown here. As a result, I no longer recommend this unit.
For anyone who travels frequently on public transport or is out and about quite often, having a decent set of headphones is indispensable. Besides allowing you to enjoy your own music and videos on the go, it can really help improve the enjoyment of an otherwise dreary and stressful morning commute.
But not all headphones are born equal, as any self-confessed audiophile would tell you. The most basic of units often have compromised sound quality, poor build quality and lack isolation. This leads to turning up the volume to drown out the background noise, leading to listening fatigue, ringing ears, possible hearing damage and annoying fellow commuters with sound leakage.
As a result, I’ve always insisted on a fairly high quality set of over-the-ear headphones with active noise cancelling. Having used the AudioTechnica AT-ANC7, 7b, 9 and 23 active-noise cancelling headphones throughout the past decade, I’ve enjoyed my music in high fidelity and relative comfort. Unfortunately, noise cancelling headsets tend to be quite expensive. Moreover, modern expectations have led to an explosion of Bluetooth headsets for wire-free convenience. Noise-cancelling wireless headsets are generally even more expensive, especially from the more established brands.
As a result, when Lululook approached me about reviewing the Cowin E7 Pro Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones, it looked like quite a compelling package. The unit has a list price of just AU$121.97, while promising Bluetooth connectivity and active noise cancelling technology. Thanks to Lululook, I have one to review under the review challenge terms – so lets see what you get for the price and whether it’s any good.
The package arrived looking like it had a pretty rough trip along the way.
Luckily, the packaging was well thought of and the unit was protected by an internal box.
The unit comes in a mostly black-and-white semi-matte nested cardboard box. The model is clearly shown on the front, with the noise cancelling feature being ticked on the rear along with the serial number.
Opening the box, we are greeted by a thank-you note with some odd English. The product and its accessories are housed inside the provided transport case – a good way of minimising wasteful disposable packaging and a nice bonus which many other headphones don’t always come with.
The case is a black soft-touch plastic feeling semi-rigid zip-case with the Cowin logo printed in white. The case has a hang-strap which is convenient and shows thought in the design.
Unlike some other cases, it’s not just a plain flat case, but instead it bulges around the earcups. This rather customised design makes it a good fit for the headphones and ensures it doesn’t take up excess bag space when you’re transporting it around. It’s nice to see this kind of consideration in product design.
Opening the case reveals the supplied manual and cables packed inside, along with the headphones themselves.
The manual is a relatively brief fold-out leaflet without too many technical details. A piece of foam is also packed in, which I suspect is to protect the earcups from clashing in shipment. A VIP card is provided for rewards for those who have purchased the product directly from Cowin. A 3.5mm stereo to 3.5mm stereo cable is supplied to use the headphones with equipment that doesn’t support Bluetooth and a charging-only USB cable is also included for recharging the headphones. The cables are nicely finished with the Cowin logo in the moulding.
The headset packs flat in the travel case thanks to the swivel joint design. The earcups themselves are backed by a metallic finish with a concentric ribbed design. On the right earcup (shown to the left on the image), the cut-out sector provides three buttons (+, – and the central portion where the indicator LED is). On the opposing earcup, for symmetry, the same sector design is employed although without any button functionality.
The sides of the earcups are finished in glossy black plastic, making up the bulk of the unit. The button sector is slightly raised, as it moves to push the buttons internally. The right earcup is home to the external 3.5mm stereo input, the voice microphone for calling and the power switch (Off, Bluetooth/External without Noise Cancelling and Bluetooth/External with Noise-Cancelling mode).
The opposing cup has the microUSB-B socket for recharging and the charge indicator LED.
The regular foam and pleather earpiece cushions are slightly asymmetric with a wider area on the front edge which seems a little unusual. The headphone orientation is marked on the inside of the plastic ends on the headband.
The headband is extendable with a sufficient range of adjustment, with a metal outside band and plastic inner piece. The hinges appear to be plastic, allowing the earcup to swivel and pivot for comfort.
The earcups themselves are noticeably chunky in appearance and sizeable, which detracts somewhat from the otherwise stylish design.
The top of each earcup has a slotted vent which probably is used to increase bass response and allow for active noise cancellation to work.
User Experience and Testing
This section will concern itself with the user experience, subjective opinions and test results. As it’s already known that people perceive sound differently depending on their preferences and experiences, I won’t be involved in arguments as to my opinion. However, as a guide, I tend to be relatively partial to a more “sterile”, analytical sound signature, such as that offered by the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x which I use everyday on my main computer, although I do have a fairly extensive headphone resumé.
The unit was easy to pack and unpack, the included case being a good fit although the netted portion with the cables often did not keep the cables in position after some travelling. That’s easily solved with the supplied twist-ties. Unfortunately, no adapters are provided for airline use or with 6.25mm jacks which are commonly included with noise cancelling headsets. This is probably as the unit is mainly intended for use with Bluetooth devices.
I found that the unit adjusted well to fit my (rather large) head with adequate range. The hinges allowed for a rather comfortable fit with a moderate to low clamping force. The clamping force did mean that there were occasions where the unit moved slightly on my head. The large cushions with regular foam did mean that my ears felt somewhat warmer than with other headphones, but not uncomfortably so.
As the earpads are not clearly marked as to the direction, getting the orientation of the headphones right takes slightly more work to look at the moulded plastic indicators. The main controls and cable input is on the right, which is the opposite of other units I’ve used in the past, taking a little getting used to. The same is the case for the buttons where the + (next/volume increase) is the bottom button whereas the – (previous/volume decrease) button is the top one. The edges of the button “sector” also feels a little sharp, with the button sector being rather “loose” feeling.
One of the bigger annoyances was the smell of the pleather, which smelt strongly of plastic and took a few weeks to dissipate. Another is the chunky size of the earcups which look somewhat strange aesthetically. Being mostly of plastic construction, its durability is yet to be proven – only time can tell. But these are still only minor and not deal-breakers in any way.
There was no problems initially pairing the headphones with my Xiaomi Mi Max, Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 or my two Windows 10 PCs, without the need for a PIN code. Unfortunately, as I don’t have an NFC-capable device, I can’t confirm whether the unit has an NFC pairing facility. In my testing, I did not receive any voice prompts either – instead, the unit had very much similar tones to the other CSR-based headphones I’ve used in the past. I suspect the specifications on the Lululook website might be a bit off, as the official specifications from Cowin make no mention of it. Even then, Cowin’s specifications are pretty scant. On the Xiaomi phone, it was possible to see the approximate battery status of the headphones, which seems to be reasonably accurate.
The unit uses the standard Bluetooth SBC codec which is the “baseline” for Bluetooth A2DP audio, not supporting the higher-quality aptX codec which my phone is also capable of. I wasn’t able to test whether other codecs are supported, which I suspect it is not. The remote control buttons on the right earcup functioned as expected – short presses for next/previous/accept call and long presses for volume up/down/re-pair.
Unfortunately, it seems the device does have a slight bug when attempting to re-pair with a different device. If the previously paired device is on and within-range, holding down the central button to re-pair will result in the Cowin E7 Pro disconnecting from the device, going into pairing mode for only a few seconds before reconnecting to the previously paired device and exiting pairing mode. As a result, you should turn off Bluetooth on the formerly paired device when attempting to pair with a new device, otherwise you may encounter difficulties.
During testing with my phone, the range was surprisingly good, as I was able to roam all around the house and even into the garden without losing the connection and only with the slightest occasional interruption. I would estimate a range over 25m if paired with a good Class 1 device without significant obstructions.
It is also possible to use external audio input through the 3.5mm stereo cable plugged into the headphones. The cable itself is 1.2m, which I find just the right length to reach my pocket, but could be on the short side for some others. This worked just fine in my experience, with the plugging in of the 3.5mm cable causing the Bluetooth audio to cut out. The headphones must be switched to the BT or NC position to operate, thus it seems that the Bluetooth circuitry is always powered in some way. While the external input is available, if the unit has run out of charge, it won’t be possible to use it. As usual with these units, the microphone is not available via the cable.
Sound Quality and Microphone Tests
The headphone sounds quite similar to some other CSR-based units I have used in the past. On the whole, I find the sound to be adequate but the SBC encoding seems to make the highs somewhat harsh and during perfectly silent sections, the chipset background noise can occasionally be discerned. The volume of the Cowin E7 Pro has quite a range, reaching levels which are high enough to be uncomfortable and drowning out commute noise with ease. Sound leakage was not significant, which is good news for your fellow commuters.
For the majority of the time, I had the active noise-cancelling engaged. With it switched on, the character of the Cowin E7 Pro is quite appealing to me, similar to the Audio-Technica headphones I use regularly. The character is somewhat on the bright analytical side with surprisingly sharp treble definition and decent mid-range. The bass suffers slightly, feeling slightly shallow but sufficient for a very enjoyable listening experience. It’s not quite at the same level as the Audio-Technica’s for definition, but it’s not that far off especially compared with the other Bluetooth headsets I’ve tried. The soundstage seems to contract somewhat as a result of the noise-cancelling, sometimes feeling like you have a cold and clogged sinuses. However, this is a rather common side-effect with many active noise-cancelling systems. In return, the active noise-cancelling system reduces the background noise, especially in the low-end rumble, allowing for more comfortable listening at lower volumes.
While the audio is quite good with noise-cancelling switched on, it’s not without some disadvantages. With noise-cancelling switched on, the battery life is reduced and a small amount of hiss is introduced. The hiss is a little louder than that on my ANC9, but not loud enough to be intrusive. The noise-cancelling does work, but it also seems to be more limited in the frequency range where cancellation is effective, so it doesn’t seem as effective as the ANC9 by comparison. Unfortunately, the big problem with noise-cancelling with the Cowin E7 Pro is the tendency for the noise cancelling to saturate with loud external noises, big pressure changes or movement of earcups. This results in a plopping noise followed by a short burst of hiss every time a train door closes, you reposition your ear-cup or every time you take a heavy step while jogging down the road. This isn’t such a big issue with my ANC9 unless it’s a very windy day. This can be quite distracting and fatiguing, which is why the unit allows you to turn off the noise cancelling.
When noise cancelling is turned off, the character of the headphone changes quite significantly. The headphone has a much more boomy character, showing some resonance in the bass overpowering the treble, making the presentation somewhat dark as if you’re in a carpeted room. I find this sound signature much less appealing, although it does get over the plopping and offers deeper bass response. In many regards, the sound quality with noise cancelling turned off is extremely average but does have some detail. This is quite similar to what I experienced with my first active-noise cancelling headset, the ANC7 – it seems the feedback from the noise cancelling circuitry allows the unit to “self-correct” for its own acoustic deficiencies to make it sound better. As a result, I recommend leaving it switched on whenever possible.
A sample of the microphone quality was made by recording my voice using my Windows 10 computer with the unit paired to a machine running a CSR-based Bluetooth stack and a Broadcom-based Bluetooth stack. The voice quality was also tested on a voice call. While the audio was intelligible, it seemed to be somewhat biased towards the bass-end with a bit of uneven frequency response. During recording on the Windows machines, there were noticeable glitches and the amplitude was also slightly low. As a result, it’s probably not an ideal unit to be using if you’re going to be on calls all the time, but it’s good enough in case you need to handle an occasional call.
Battery Life and Charging
During intermittent listening, I determined the battery life to be about 27 hours with active noise cancelling switched on before the low-battery indication beep came on. The headphones continued to operate for a further 15 minutes before shutting down. This is slightly short of the claimed 30 hour runtime, but not significantly so. It will definitely last long enough for most travel needs and can be charged while playing using the standard USB micro-B connector, so running out of power is not a big concern. During testing of battery charging, the initial current was about 360mA, with the bulk of the charging completed at around 300-340mA. Charge time was just shy of 3.5 hours from empty to full without using the headphones, with the bulk of the charging occurring within 2 hours (~73%). The total delivered charge was 856mAh although some of this may have been lost to the charging LED, so it seems perfectly in agreement with the claimed 800mAh battery capacity.
The exciting part of the review, as always, is the teardown. Opening this unit is quite a challenge owing to its multi-chamber construction. I do not recommend taking the unit apart as it can be destructive. I started from the earcup side, first removing the ear cushions which are clipped in at the edges and self-adhered with double-sided tape.
The design of the cup is rather interesting, with a grille that provides clearance around the driver, a recess for the noise-cancelling microphone offset to the side and a channel around the outside which doesn’t extend all the way around the driver. A shaped foam insert is inserted into this channel, covering the driver and the microphone holes.
The drivers themselves are unmarked and are mounted into the front plastic plate which is held in place by screws. The plate has an odd-shaped foam-sealed surround which forms the cavity behind the driver with five port-holes covered by some fabric tape.
The enamel coated wires go through the rear plastic assembly, which has a vent hole connected to the external port as well to allow for some outside noise to come in (for the noise cancelling and possibly for bass extension).
A PCB is mounted in this cup which is responsible for charging the battery and marshalling connections for power and noise-cancelling microphone through the cable over-the-head into the other earcup.
Repeating the same for the other side, the cable is very taught and thus the top plastic plate could not be removed. As a result, I undid the Torx screw to view the rear chamber on this side.
The rear cup has the main PCB, a bit of separating foam and the exterior button assembly. The large size of each earcup is explained as only part of the volume is used for the driver and most of it is reserved for the PCB or battery.
This PCB is marked with 100-00000-643R E7 ANC MAIN V2.6, dated 25th December 2017. I wonder who was busy working on the design on Christmas Day? The unit uses a printed trace as the antenna, connected to a CSR8635 BlueCore Stereo Bluetooth v4.0 chipset with a Puya P24C128 I2C EEPROM providing the configuration data. The noise cancelling module with two adjustment trimpots occupies most of the upper part of the PCB, with U7 being a Shanghai Belling BL1554 quad-SPDT analog switch seemingly being used to switch the audio path.
The underside has a few smaller unidentified SMD chips and capacitors, with two 3Peak TP1542-SR dual 1.3Mhz Rail-to-Rail Op-Amps which may be responsible for driving the speakers. A flexible flat cable is used to connect the control PCB on this side.
This PCB contains the mode switch, microphone for voice calls and external 3.5mm stereo input.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to open up the rear of the other earcup, where the battery presumably resides. Regardless, I was still able to ascertain the capacity was in-line with expectations.
The Cowin E7 Pro Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones are a rather interesting proposition – namely active-noise cancelling and Bluetooth wireless connectivity at a reasonable price of AU$121.97. It definitely sounds great with active noise-cancelling switched on – it’s relatively sharp, bright and analytical. The unit has good Bluetooth wireless range, a decent 27-hour tested internal rechargeable battery life, an honest battery capacity, acceptable charging speed and reasonable comfort. It even comes with a travel case and worked well with all my devices.
On the downside, the active noise-cancelling tends to saturate with any big pressure changes resulting in plopping and hiss. With the noise-cancelling turned off, the sound quality is rather ordinary. The microphone output was a little low in amplitude and the earcups are rather large, chunky and plasticky in its construction. The button arrangement is a little unusual and the edges were a little sharp.
But when you consider the price and what is being offered, the downsides are quite acceptable, as you are getting much better audio quality, better isolation and more comfortable listening at lower volumes at a price-point where some regular headsets are being sold. Cowin may not be a well-known brand, but as far as I know, most of the branded alternatives offering a similar complement of features charge over twice as much.
In fact, I do like it enough that I take it with me on my commutes now instead of my ATH-ANC9 – even though it’s not quite as good, it’s close enough and the convenience of being free of disposable AAA batteries and cables is great. It’s also quite a lot cheaper …
Thanks to Lululook for providing the unit for review – if you’re interested in picking one up for yourself, Lululook is running a 10% off promotion just by using the code “10lululook”.
For more information, you can also learn more at Cowin’s official website.
UPDATE (02/2019): Unfortunately, the review unit has failed due to a defect in the earcup hinge – see full teardown here. As a result, I no longer recommend this unit.