By Amos Kwon
on 4.8.13
Photo by Amos Kwon

The term “noise canceling headphones” almost always summons images of big puffy over-the-ear numbers. As wonderful as those can be, they’re bulky to pack if you’re traveling light, and during workouts, they suck — providing a feeling akin to sweating with scones strapped to your head. Austrian headphone maker AKG’s K391 NC headphones ($200) offer up noise canceling features in a compact package. We tried out a pair at home and on the road to see how these stealthy, unobtrusive earbud-style headphones would fare in lieu of more traditional versions.

OTHER GREAT HEADPHONES: Seven Best On-Ear Headphones | Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro | Meze Classics

AKG K391 NCs utilize a well-made pair of brushed metal earbud-style canalphones. Their housings are adorned with a beautiful and simple AKG logo on small concentric circles that provide both texture and visual appeal. Also noticeable is the 1 x 2-inch brushed metal noise canceling module, which matches the earbuds and the tiny remote/microphone (it’s attached to one of the earbud wires). Recharging the NC module via USB for up to 40 hours of listening pleasure is remarkable for a headset this small. Even when the juice runs out, the headphones can still be used with decent sound.

When the NC power switch on the module was flicked to green, though, the enhanced sound quality made our ears perk up. The AKG NC’s audio capabilities, while not the best we’ve tried, are pretty darn good. On a recent trip, most ambient noise was adequately drowned out, except for the droning of public transportation, which still hummed in the background. Overall sound is crisp, and bass is impressive when the NC feature is activated. Through classical, rock, alternative and movie audio, the AKG K391 NCs performed well — and the elegant, comfortable housings didn’t make our ears get hot and uncomfortable like so many over-the-ear versions do. Even during a workout, they held up well and never fell out (though we weren’t exactly doing a Tough Mudder).

With NC off, though, the sound was a bit flat, and the base just about disappeared. With 40 hours of listening time between charges, we don’t see ourselves defaulting to this mode much, thankfully. On phone calls, sound was clear on both ends, and even though there’s only one button on the remote, it can handle calls, pause tracks, change tracks, and bring Siri to life on your iPhone all with various presses. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but we got used to the feature fast enough.

At nearly $200, the K391 NCs seem on the high side of the price spectrum, but keep in mind that they perform triple duty as noise canceling headphones with solid sound, decent workout earbuds due to their slim design, and a high-quality phone headset. If you can spring for the price tag, you just might find yourself leaving larger headphones at home — at least then you can look like you’re paying a small bit of attention to what’s going on around you.

How We Tested: Over the past two weeks and for 40+ hours, we used the AKG K391 NCs on trains, buses, two domestic U.S. flights, on the running trail, in a Range Rover Supercharged at 85 MPH and in a house with a screaming baby.

ADVENTURE IS ONE CLICK AWAY

Subscribe to GP for a daily dose of the best in gear, adventure, design, tech and culture. 5pm sharp.