Yesterday I described the good sides of Creative HN-900. After a year of owning these 100€ noise cancelling headphones I know they’re not just good first impressions. Unfortunately, I’m even more aware of what corners had to be cut to meet to make the hardware a couple times cheaper than the competition.

Part 3: the ugly.

Measured frequency response, by Soundvision

Measured frequency response, by Soundvision Tech^2. They wrote a good review of HN-900.

I’ll start by describing what you hear in the active mode. Overall the sound is well balanced, with slightly recessed mids. That seems a good thing, but… The whole year I felt that somehow what I hear is not right. It’s not only the low detail, hard to tell instruments apart, but in general feeling. It does not show with some kinds of music, e.g. hip-hop is perfectly OK. But e.g. in rock something is usually missing and the vocals sound weird. Recently I’ve hit the review from which I took the plot above. As you can see, the frequency response is incredibly ragged. Everything where bass isn’t dominating will sound a little bit weird.

It’s not that they’re useless. It’s just that if you’re in for the sound quality, you’re better off with other cans for the fraction of the price. Traditionally, I’d recommend open designs like the Koss Porta Pro. But even the 20€ closed circumaural Sennheiser HD201 sound better. On the other hand I prefer the Creative’s cans over 50€ in-ear Denon’s I own (sorry, forgot the model name).

As I wrote yesterday, the headphones still work when the active circuitry is off. But how they “work” is somewhat astonishing. They have a pretty high impedance, so you need to crank the volume up to levels you’d never use with other cans. Even then, they sound very muddy. Lower mids and all the highs are basically gone. Vocals really feel like using a very old telephone. Definitely not something that you want to listen to.

But the real reason why anyone buys the Creative HN-900 is the active noise cancelling. I can confirm: it works. If you’re distracted by some pretty low humming noise, like in a plane or next to an air conditioner, it may be enough to help. But it really works only for those very low frequencies. No difference altogether for anything above a few hundred Hertz. Furthermore, according to people who had the chance to compare to the more expensive offerings, even where HN-900 does cancel noise, it’s less effective than Sennheiser (which is less effective than Bose).

Overall, there are times when I’m pretty happy to own the Creatives. But if those times were more often, I’d consider spending the 350€ to get Bose Quiet Comfort. And whenever it’s reasonably quiet (most of the time for me) I prefer using other headphones. Plus, if you’re considering buying, tomorrow I may dis courage you with the third part of my review…