Latest Philips Bluetooth wireless noise-cancelling headphones get a lot of things right, but are hampered by a few niggles
Philips’s latest noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones attempt to pack in premium features into a lightweight set of cans without breaking the bank.
The mid-range Philips SHB9850NCs are a relatively subtle set of over-ear headphones that are more akin to classic headphones than the oversized and brightly-coloured generation kickstarted by Apple’s Beats.
The compact design cups the ear but not much else, attached to a slim but comfortable top band and well cushioned ear cups, which also keep your ears warm in the winter months.
Each cup has a glossy plastic exterior, which will likely show marks relatively easily, noticeably picking up scratches in the short time I’ve been testing them.
They fold up into a relatively small package, which is easy to throw into a bag and unlikely to get caught in other bits and pieces.
The right-hand ear cup has touch controls, similar to those found on the Parrot Zik line of headphones. A single tap plays or pauses the music, swiping up or down adjusts the volume, while swiping left or right skips tracks. Skipping tracks works well, as does adjusting the volume even if it is a bit slow, but taping or touching to pause the music is unreliable, meaning you frequently end up repeatedly hitting yourself on the ear in public – not a good look.
Other buttons include the on-off button, and one to either activate noise cancelling or switch on a mode that pipes the background noise into the earphones to listen out for announcements or talk to people. There’s also a button to turn Bluetooth on or off and a standard headphones port for wired listening.
Pairing them is easy using NFC with one-tap on the left ear cup with pretty much any Android smartphone. Others will have to manually pair by holding down the Bluetooth button.
The Bluetooth connection to a phone in the pocket was stable without any interference from other devices, such as a smartwatch or fitness band. The headphones can connect to two devices at once, which is handy if you have a tablet and a smartphone, and support aptX and AAC for higher-quality connections with compatible devices.
One strange thing I noticed is that they would occasionally pause the music in the middle of a song for no apparent reason. It would only happen once every five albums or so, but I couldn’t isolate what the problem was.
Sound and isolation
The headphones sound decent, with a good balance without overly dominant bass. Those looking for thundering thumps will have to look elsewhere. They picked out individual instruments well, but occasionally sounded a bit muddy in the middle ranges. Voices on podcasts weren’t as clear as I’d like. The quality changed a little with noise cancelling off, making the music sound a little more energetic.
The noise cancelling was effective at blocking out background hums and drones. But it wasn’t particularly good at blocking out other sounds such as voices, and without music playing they were accentuated.
The most annoying bit was a constant electrical whine in the background, which wasn’t overly audible with music playing, but was when the music was paused or during quiet sections. It seemed to be most prevalent with a Bluetooth source connected and sounded similar to the noise created when a mobile phone signal interferes with a speaker.
Fit and finish
The headphones fit well, feel light but secure on your head and are comfortable for extended listening, unless your ears stick out a little. They have a hard plastic square within the fabric covering the speaker in each ear cup. My ears rested against them and became uncomfortable after a while. Others who tried them on did not suffer the same problem, so it depends how much your earlobes stick out. I wasn’t aware mine stuck out very far, but obviously more than some others.
Battery life was excellent, lasting around 15 hours between charges. Easily enough to survive a week’s worth of commuting with the noise cancelling on. Charging took just over an hour using the microUSB port hidden on the top of the headphones under the headband arm.
The Philips SHB9850NCs are a good example of decent wireless noise-cancelling headphones coming down in price. A couple of years ago a set with equivalent performance would have cost practically double.
The noise cancelling is good, the fit and weight are excellent and the battery life is solid. There are just a couple of niggles that really let the headphones down, namely the very irritating electrical whine, finickity controls and strange hard lumps in the ear cups, which may or may not be an issue for you.
Pros: light, compact, good background hum cancellation, solid Bluetooth connection and battery life
Cons: annoying electrical whine, hard lumps in the earphones, passive sound isolation could be better, controls not as responsive as they should be
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