Audio performance improves with ANC on, but it's still somewhat congested and veiled, especially in noisy environments.
By Scott Wilkinson
At a Glance
Battery charges very quickly
Veiled, closed-in audio performance unless ANC is engaged
Bloated bass performance with ANC disabled
Confusing multifunction buttons
With ANC off, the sound quality is congested and veiled with boomy bass. Turning ANC on improves the sound, but not enough to recommend this Bluetooth headphone, even at its low price.
In this noisy world, finding a quiet haven in which you can get lost in your favorite music is a godsend. One way to achieve this elusive dream is by wearing headphones with active noise cancelling (ANC). Among the many such models available today is the TaoTronics TT-BH046 wireless headphone. It turns out to provide excellent isolation from your environment, but its sound quality leaves something to be desired.
The TaoTronics TT-BH046 is an over-ear headphone with soft “protein” earpads and headband. It’s relatively lightweight at less than eight ounces. Each earcup holds a 40mm driver that is said to reproduce a frequency range from 20Hz to 20kHz (no tolerance given). The press release touts “HD sound with intense bass;” we shall see.
Like most such headphones, the primary audio input is Bluetooth—in this case, version 4.2 with support for the A2DP, AVRCP, SBC, and AAC profiles. It does not support the aptX codec. If you want to listen to a non-Bluetooth source—or the battery is dead—you can use the supplied 3.5mm cable that plugs into the bottom of the right earcup.
As I mentioned earlier, the TT-BH046 provides active noise cancellation (ANC). In this process, ambient sound is sampled by one or more built-in microphones, phase inverted, and mixed with the unaltered ambient sound, reducing its perceived level thanks to phase cancellation. This is generally most effective in the low frequencies.
TaoTronics calls its version “hybrid” ANC, which combines feedforward and feedback techniques. Feedforward ANC orients the microphone to face away from the driver, and it can reduce the level of frequencies as high as 1kHz or so. It has no way to self-correct, however, because it does not detect the output of the headphone driver. Also, it covers a relatively narrow range of frequencies, so if it’s tuned to, say, 1kHz, it might not reduce the level of low frequencies.
By contrast, feedback ANC orients the mic to pick up sound from the headphone driver, which allows for self-correction—for example, if a user wears the headphone in an odd way that doesn’t completely cover their ears. Also, works in a wider range of frequencies than feedforward designs, but it can’t reduce the level of frequencies as high as the 1kHz range.
By combining both feedforward and feedback ANC with two microphones in each earcup, TaoTronics’ hybrid approach is designed to provide the best of both—reducing the level of a broad range of frequencies, correcting errors, and exhibiting less sensitivity to how a user wears the headphone. The company claims it can reduce ambient low-frequency sound by up to 96 percent.
Bluetooth and ANC both require power, of course, which the TT-BH046 provides with a 550mAh lithium-ion battery. Charging time is remarkably fast: 45 minutes to full charge, after which it will operate up to 30 hours with Bluetooth or 11 hours with Bluetooth and ANC. Even better, a quick five-minute charge will provide two hours of playing time with Bluetooth and ANC. This is undoubtedly thanks to a USB power capacity of 5V/2A rather than the more common 5V/1A capacity of many headphones. Of course, you need a 5V/2A USB power adaptor to get the fastest charge, which TaoTronics does not supply.
Another nearly universal feature of Bluetooth headphones is the ability to accept or reject phone calls while listening to music. The TT-BH046 also lets you redial the last number and mute the call. The microphone for phone calls is separate from the ANC mics.
All controls are found on the right earcup. On the back of the earcup, the power on/off button performs several functions. Naturally, it turns the power on and off by holding it for a couple of seconds. It also serves are the play/pause button by pressing it once, which also answers and hangs up phone calls. Hold the button for three seconds to reject a call, or press it twice to redial the last phone number. Finally, hold the button for five seconds to enter Bluetooth pairing mode.
Also on the back of the earcup, the volume up and down buttons form the ends of a rocker switch; they are slightly raised, making them easy to find by feel. Press one or the other to increase or decrease the volume, or hold one or the other to skip to the next or previous music track. Press both simultaneously to mute the music or phone call. All this multifunctionality can be confusing, but it is an efficient use of limited space.
The only other control is the ANC switch on the front of the right earcup, which slides down engage ANC. Interestingly, you can turn on ANC even if the headphone’s main power is off, which I assume would extend the battery life if you just wanted quiet without music.
The 3.5mm input for a wired connection to the source is located at the bottom of the right earcup, along with a tiny LED that indicates power and Bluetooth status. A Micro-USB port on the bottom of the left earcup lets you charge the TT-BH046’s battery with the included cable, and an LED next to it indicates the charging status.
The TaoTronics TT-BH046 paired to my iPad without a problem. When I first put the headphones on, I noticed that the opening in the earcups is larger than many over-ear models, making it seat easily on my head. Also, the swiveling earcup gimbals rotated to match the angle of my head near my ears.
Before playing any music, I turned ANC on and off in a quiet environment. As I’ve heard from other ANC headphones, the TT-BH046 produces a soft hiss when ANC is on. It is more pronounced than others I’ve heard, but I still think it’s insignificant when playing music—or with no music in a noisy environment.
I started my listening with “Europa” from the album Caminos by Latin-fusion group Alturas. The instrumentation includes acoustic guitar, electric bass, Latin percussion, synth strings, and pan flute. With ANC disabled, the overall sound was somewhat congested and veiled with boomy bass, though the guitar was nicely rendered. Turning ANC on cleared up the sound, and the bass was better balanced with the rest of the instruments, though the sound was still slightly veiled.
Next up was “Tropical Breeze” from Freedom at Midnight by pianist David Benoit. Aside from piano, the instrumentation includes electric bass and drums as well as soprano sax. Without ANC, the sound was quite rich but slightly closed in with bloated bass that obscured the drums. Engaging ANC cleaned up the bass and made the overall sound somewhat thinner but with better balance and clearer drums.
Turning to some country music, I listened to “Voice Inside My Head” from Taking the Long Way by the Dixie Chicks. This is a great mix that’s heavy on guitars with electric bass, drums, and pedal-steel guitar as well as solo and background vocals. With ANC off, the sound was thick and heavy with boomy bass, while turning ANC on produced much better, more balanced sound with cleaner bass and more upfront vocals. There was, however, still a slightly veiled quality to the sound.
Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” (in this case from Clapton Chronicles: The Best of Eric Clapton) is a beautiful tune that the TT-BH046 does not serve well with ANC off. As I’d come to expect by this point, the bass was quite bloated, more so than the other tunes I had listened to, with a congested sound that obscured Clapton’s vocal. With ANC engaged, the overall sound was still somewhat thick, but the bass was better balanced with the rest of the instruments, and the vocal was more present.
For a bit of world music, I played “Atlantic Bridge” from Out of the Air by Davy Spillane, a master of the Irish uilleann pipes. These pipes are related to the Scottish bagpipes, but they are supplied with air from a bellows under the arm rather than the player’s lungs. The track includes a rhythm section with electric guitar and bass. As before, without ANC, the sound was congested with bloated bass, whereas with ANC engaged, the sound really opened up with tighter bass and the pipes more upfront.
Moving on to classical music, I listened to “Selig sind die Totem” from Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 by Brahms as performed by the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. With ANC off, the overall sound was still a bit thick but better than it had been with the previous selections: the choir sounded rich, and the dynamic range was very good, though the low end was still a bit boomy. Turning ANC on, the sound had more air and the low end was better balanced.
Gardiner is one of my favorite conductors of Baroque music, so I listened to the Symphony (instrumental introduction) from The Messiah by Handel as performed by the English Baroque Soloists under his direction. With ANC off, the overall sound was somewhat thick, especially in the bass, but the dynamics were quite good. Turning ANC on, the sound became tighter and drier with better balance between and rendition of the instrumental sections.
Finally, I took the TT-BH046 on a drive around my neighborhood to test its ANC with more ambient noise than I have in my house. The ANC worked wonderfully well with no music on, reducing engine and road noise dramatically. However, when I played some music, the sound was veiled and closed in—less so than with ANC off, but still clearly noticeable. I also tried the Edifier W860NB that I recently reviewed for TechHive, and it definitely sounded more open with its ANC on.
Comparison with the PSB M4U 8
I recently reviewed the PSB Speakers M4U 8 headphones for TechHive, and I consider it my reference for Bluetooth headphones with ANC. So, I compared its sound with that of the TT-BH046 by listening to the same selections on both models.
In terms of comfort, the M4U 8 is quite a bit heavier than the TT-BH046—nearly 13 ounces versus less than eight ounces. Also, the opening in the PSB earpads is smaller than the TaoTronics, making them slightly more difficult to seat on the head. However, the PSB earpads have more room within the opening, so they are completely comfortable once they are seated properly.
The first thing I noticed about the sonic difference was that the M4U 8 is a lot louder at a given volume setting. Fortunately, the iPad remembers the volume setting for different Bluetooth devices, so I was able to set roughly equal volumes for the two headphones (60 percent for the TT-BH046, 50 percent for the M4U 8) as I switched between them.
Listening to various tunes, it was immediately apparent that the M4U 8 sounded much better with ANC off than the TT-BH046 in the same condition. The PSB’s sound was rich, full, and much better balanced without congestion or bass bloat. This was especially evident on the Dixie Chicks’ “Voice in My Head” and Clapton’s “Change the World,” but it was clear during all my listening.
Turning ANC on, the bass became a bit boomy, as I had observed in my review of the M4U 8. By contrast, the sound quality of the TT-BH046 improved when I engaged ANC, though it was still slightly closed in. I prefer the sound the M4U 8, even with ANC on, but the PSB costs four times as much as the TaoTronics, so it’s no surprise that it performs better.
During my road trip around the neighborhood, I also listened to the M4U 8 with ANC on to compare it with the TT-BH046. (Of course, I pulled over each time I switched headphones!) The PSB was much cleaner, clearer, and more open. It also sounded better than the Edifier W860NB, which sounded better than the TT-BH046.
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