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Able Planet Clear Harmony headphones deliver top quality sound at a premium price (Updated)

One of the more widely-used accessories for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Mac is a set of headphones. Whether you're using that little headset that came with your iPhone or iPod touch, or you have moved up to another type of headphone, you know how important it is to be able to listen to your music or movies clearly. I recently had an opportunity to test a pair of Clear Harmony NC1100B noise canceling headphones (US$299.99), but be sure to look for the NC1100BA option that includes an 8 GB iPod touch at no extra cost) from Able Planet and found that they're outstanding for enjoying sound from any of your Apple devices.

Updated: the Able Planet website no longer shows the free 8 GB iPod touch option.

Updated: the free 8 GB iPod touch is back!

Design

As you might expect from the name, Able Planet builds audio products for people with all levels of hearing. According to the Able Planet website, their patented Linx Audio technology "creates high frequency harmonics that enhance sound quality and speech clarity of difficult to hear words or notes, and increase the perception of loudness without increasing volume." In layman's terms, you don't necessarily have to "turn the knob to 11" to be able to hear music or speech the way you want to. The company has won a bunch of awards at CES over the past five years for this technology, and it should be interesting to see if they continue that string of wins this week.

When you open the box that these headphones come in, the first thing you see is a nice cloth-covered and zippered carrying case. Opening that case, you see the headphones, the cable, and adapters. The NC1100B comes with both 1/4" and 1/8" plugs for use with a variety of devices, and the plugs are all gold-plated. There's also a dual 1/4" adapter that works with most airline sound systems.

The NC1100B headphones use an over-the-ear design that totally covers your ears. I'm partial to this type of headphone design, since earbuds have a tendency to fall out with movement and I can't stand the feel of in-the-ear designs. The padded headphones are quite comfortable, perfect for those long flights where you might want to watch a few movies and listen to some tunes.

Noise canceling headphones require power, so the cap on the right ear "cup" slides off easily to accept two AAA batteries. The headphones weigh about 8.2 ounces with the batteries inserted, which is surprisingly less than the pair of custom V-Moda Crossfade headphones I usually use (9.6 ounces).

Functionality

I'll be the first to admit that I am usually a skeptic when it comes to claims of sound quality with high-end headphones. That's why I'm totally surprised with just how good these headphones sound. I listened to a wide cross-section of music in my iTunes library, from classic rock to classical, and for each selection I listened not only on the NC1100B 'phones, but also the V-Moda Crossfades.

The NC1100B headphones also did a surprising job in getting rid of hiss and background noise in a number of older recordings that are in my collection (a lot of my tunes are older recordings -- hey, I'm an older person!). When I listened to music with the V-Moda Crossfades after listening to the same tune with the Able Planet headphones, the music just sounded muddy with a surprising amount of hiss. The NC1100B headphones made everything sound much cleaner, crisper and more "real" than any other headphones I've ever used.

The noise cancellation capabilities are also impressive. In my office, I have a DroboPro that is constantly adding a level of white noise to the ambient sound. Turning the headphones on and off while sitting at my desk really showed me just how loud that noise is. As with other noise canceling headphones, the NC1100Bs don't totally eliminate background noise, but they do temper it to a tolerable level. My test here was to listen to music from my iPhone while standing next to a running washing machine and dryer, turning noise cancellation on and off. Again, I could still hear the background noise a bit with noise cancellation turned on, but the noise was largely filtered out.

Since many TUAW readers may use headphones to listen to movies, I also watched several movies on my iPad while listening to the soundtrack with the NC1100B headphones. Once again, the sound quality was outstanding, especially in situations where there was a mixture of dialogue with background noises or music.

One final note: years of listening to music has caused me to have a moderate level of tinnitus in my left ear which seems to be getting worse as I get older. With most headphones, I have to turn down the volume in order to listen without discomfort. The NC1100Bs are so distortion-free that I can listen to tunes at a lower volume while still picking up all the nuances of the music.

Conclusion

Considering the number of headphones I've tested over the years, I was totally surprised -- in a good way -- with the Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1100B headphones. As with all of the items that we review here at TUAW, these headphones will be given away to a reader at one of our meetups, but this is one situation where I'm going to personally spend my own money to pick up a pair. The sound quality is that good.

While Able Planet certainly doesn't have the name recognition of Bose, V-Moda, Beats by Dr. Dre, or Skull Candy, the company should. The Able Planet Clear Harmony NC1100B headphones are my new gold standard for comparison to any other headphones on the market.

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