I have reviewed many noise cancelling headphones over the years – the first way back in 1999. I find them endlessly fascinating. But I often find the more affordable ones quite disappointing in performance. Well, perhaps not disappointing, because by now I don’t really have any high expectations left to dash. Which is why I found the ag WHP01K wireless noise cancelling headphones to be so surprising. They demonstrate that it is possible to produce reasonably-priced noise cancelling headphones that are highly effective, and can sound quite decent.
- ag is a Japanese brand, with audio tuning by high-end brand Final Audio
- Over-ear, noise cancelling, Bluetooth headphones
- Bluetooth 5.0
- SBC, AAC, aptX and aptX LL codecs supported
- 20 to 20,000 hertz rated frequency response
- Two microphones (one interior, one exterior) microphones used for superior built-in Active Noise Cancellation
- 35 hours Bluetooth playback time with ANC off, 25 hours with ANC on
- Wired playback possible with or without ANC
- Charged via USB Type-C socket, 2.5 hours to charge
- Short USB type-C charge cable, 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable for passive use, and soft carry bag supplied
- Available in black, cream or grey
- Summary: Fairly good sound via Bluetooth, and markedly better sound fed passively by wire, combined with highly effective active noise cancellation and good practical design makes the ag WHP01K headphones an extraordinary bargain
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division here.
- Price: $149.99
See here for how active and passive noise cancellation works. The SBC codec is the standard for stereo music via Bluetooth, but AAC provides better quality for iPhone and iPad users, while aptX and aptX LL provide even better quality for some Android phone users. aptX LL is the “Low Latency” version of aptX. That means, the delay in the transmission of the sound is reduced. That’s most useful to people who play reflex-based games on their phones, but also to video watchers.
Listening with the ag WHP01K headphones
We’ll get onto the noise cancellation shortly but, first, how did they sound? Initially it seemed to me that these headphones had been carefully tuned for purpose: providing a somewhat V-shaped sound signature, with a bit more emphasis on the bass-end of the V, and the bottom point of the V in the upper midrange, providing for a mellow, easy-to-listen-to sound. This had the incidental subjective effect of pushing the sound further away, seeming to add space and air. Then I switched on the active noise cancellation and that changed things noticeably. Still V-shaped, the midrange was brought up into a closer balance. The headphones remained an easy listen, but with a touch more balance. This also, of course, helps the clarity of the signal when it does have to compete with noise.
Now, active headphones can do all kinds of things to the signal, especially if they have built-in ANC. Modern ANC-equipped headphones typically use a digital signal processor which can be readily employed to shape the tonal response. So, I switched everything off and plugged the headphones directly into a good quality headphone amplifier (Topping A30Pro) and played back the same music (from Blue Öyster Cult’s 1974 album Secret Treaties streaming from TIDAL).
If you’re sitting at home and there’s not much noise around, may I suggest that you switch off the headphone power, make sure ANC is switched off, and do your listening plugged in. The sound was seriously better. More accurate, more balanced and significantly more dynamic. The drumming from around 2:30 into “Subhuman” came to life when I was listening passively. With the headphones powered up – with either ANC on or off – the same drums were interesting because they were pushed further away, but also had they dynamism dampened somewhat. Is there more DSPing going on here than just some EQ?
The ANC works with the headphones notionally switched off, and its effect is instructive: in addition to reducing noise (how effectively? We’ll get to that) it boosted the midrange, especially the upper midrange, noticeably. The slightly clattery sheen it added definitely detracted from performance. That said, it would be a help in noisy environments, so if used then it’s a positive. Again, if circumstances allow, switch off and plug in.
I did listen to a bunch more stuff. For all its many virtues, Blue Öyster Cult’s oeuvre isn’t really the first stop for high fidelity test signals. But all the other stuff pretty much confirmed those impressions. I should note that the bass in Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was realised in a satisfactory manner with the headphones driven passively, lacking only the deepest underpinnings. I’d say they handle down to somewhere under 40 hertz in a very nicely balanced and controlled manner, falling away somewhat below that. With a Bluetooth connection, the bass is boosted somewhat. That has the effect of bringing up the deep stuff into audibility, but also overdoing the not quite so deep content.
My favourite active noise cancelling headphones are the Bose QC35 II headphones and the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones (I haven’t tried the newer XM4 models). They each cost multiples of the ag WHP01K wireless headphones. In my experience – and I have a lot of it over the years – inexpensive headphones suffer by comparison in the noise cancellation department. I’ve used several which purport to reduce noise, but you have to strain hard to hear the effect.
So, I kind of expected to be underwhelmed by performance of these headphones. But I wasn’t. They were actually highly effective. Not quite as effective as the headphones mentioned above, but not too far off them either. I’d be quite happy flying with these headphones.
How can I say that, given that only very special people seem to be flying anywhere these days? Well, I’ve got my fake flying experience right here in my office. I’ve taken several videos while flying on turboprop flights in recent years … 4K, looking out the window so I can pretend! Turboprop flights – especially down the back of the aircraft, which is my preferred sitting location – are way noisier than jet aircraft. So, I play this back on my desktop system with the output level set to average around 95dB (C-weighted, which is about as close as most meters go to no weighting at all). (And, no, I do not use little plastic desktop speakers.) That is very, very loud. Putting on the headphones without ANC reduces the level a little, but it is still too loud to enjoy anything. In this case, I put on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” so I could kind of hear it over the roar, but without any real detail or enjoyment. For any kind of clarity, I would have turned it up to uncomfortably high levels, which is hard on the hearing, especially after a few hours on a plane.
Then I switched on ANC, and the noise died away to a fairly quiet murmur. The Sony headphones bring it down even further, to just a whisper. But I’ll take a quiet murmur. Instantly I could clearly hear the song in a fairly full and enjoyable way. They work. They work well. When used in a quiet room, the ANC did produce a very low level of white noise. You won’t notice that when used in any circumstances which actually warrant the use of ANC.
It’s always an odd experience with highly effective noise cancelling headphones, because you’re sitting there with a hint of the sound in your ears, but the pummelling of the sound against your body is still full bore. It’s quite the mismatch.
As seems to be the norm for ANC Bluetooth headphones, the earcups of these ones are fairly modest in size for over-ear headphones. I guess that the volume has to be kept small, and the location of the ears within their space precise, for the ANC to work most effectively. I found them a little tight on my ears, and so somewhat fatiguing after a couple of hours. That’s by no means unique to these headphones. I much prefer the comfort of large earcups on high-end over-ear passive headphones.
There are three buttons on the right earcup – along with a socket for the standard 3.5mm cable for passive operation – while the left earcup has a button for the ANC and a USB Type-C for charging. Because the 3.5mm socket is standard, you can ignore the flimsy included cable and use a higher quality analogue cable, should you want. The buttons on the right earcup are labelled power, volume up and volume down. These are multi-function buttons. So the power works by holding it for a couple of seconds. A short press makes it works as play/pause. The volume buttons work with short presses. Hold one down for a couple of seconds and the track skips forwards or backwards.
I thought I preferred having more buttons with dedicated functions, but I found that this system actually improved control because it reduced the need to slowly examine each button by touch to determine which one I wanted to press.
The volume adjustment is independent of the volume adjustment on your phone (some Bluetooth devices control level by sending a command back to the phone telling it to change level). The best way to use this, usually, is to max out the volume on your phone and then control the level with the headphones. That way you get the best signal to noise over the Bluetooth connection, and have the convenience of full control to hand without retrieving your phone from pocket or bag.
The on/off and the ANC work independently of each other. In effect, the power button is for Bluetooth alone, so you can have ANC without Bluetooth, Bluetooth without ANC, neither or both. That gives you full control.
For travel, the earcups can fold in so that they consume less space, and they can be carried in the included cloth bag. But they don’t swivel sideways for slipping into a briefcase or some such. (My mistake, yes they do!)
The Bluetooth connection to my phone was extremely reliable. I again ventured into the food court of my local shopping mall, and this time there was not the slightest hint of dropout or otherwise dicky connection, despite me leaving my phone in my back pocket and despite what is normally a very crowded 2.4GHz chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The Ag WHP01K wireless noise cancelling headphones are truly a bargain. They offer effective noise cancellation not far short of the best in the business, they sound okay with a Bluetooth connection, or with ANC running. And better than okay when connected passively. Well done.