When you travel as much as I do, the ability to shut off the outside world and immerse yourself in music or a movie is not just important, it is a necessity. And when hear about a small, lightweight product which claims up to 60 hours of battery life, active noise cancelling, and all in an affordable package, you have to investigate. Today I am doing just that with the OVC Noise Cancelling Earphones. How well does the real-world performance stack up against the claims? Read on to find out…
OVC packs a lot of stuff in the box. You get a small carry pouch, two sets of earbuds (one white, one black with small, medium and large sizes in each color), a charging cable (micro USB but no wall plug so plan on using your computer to charge these), an increasingly unnecessary dual airplane plug, and a cord manager. Pretty complete setup for such a low price point. You can see what you get in the picture below.
So how do they stack up in the real world? I started this journey just listening to music on my phone while at my home office desk. The H15’s sport a bass boost mode that is activated via a switch on the volume/microphone inline control. When turned off, the H15’s sound like the cheapest earbuds you can buy – tinny, muddied and the volume (even at maximum) feels low. Turn on the bass boost, however, and the sound is great. You get the bass (not Beats-level, chest-thumping style but enough to let you feel the music) plus the music clears up – you can hear the highs, vocals are clear and crisp, and the volume is much louder.
I also used the H15’s for business meetings via Skype and my computer, and once or twice to make phone calls. The microphone works well – in both Skype and the phone others could hear me clearly and I could hear them – but, again, only with the bass boost activated. Without it, while callers could hear me I could hardly hear or understand them. Pretty clear that the only way you want to use these is with the bass boost on at all times, which does reduce the battery life. More on that in a minute.
The H15’s also have active noise cancelling. Pretty unusual to find this in a sub-$50 earbud. On the outward facing side of each ear bud, you can see a series of small holes on an O shape – these are the microphones used to generate the anti-sound waves that active noise cancelling produces. The feature is activated via a button on a control close to the end of the cable that plugs into your device. Press to turn it on or off. Noise cancelling seems to work OK, but I have a specific problem that prevents me from getting the full benefit. Each size of the rubber earbuds comes with a “stabilizer” that you can see in the picture below. I have unusually large ear holes (hmmm…) but small ears. The stabilizers push the earbud slightly out of my ear canal and breaks the seal. If I hold the earbuds in place, the intact seal gives me the full effect of both the bass boost and the noise cancelling. I cut off the stabilizer on the large size black buds and problem solved, although I feel I am not alone in this problem and OVC should include standard earbuds in the box.
With the stabilizers out of the way, I could begin the real test of the noise cancelling feature – 4 cross-country airline flights in 8 days. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment. That said, the noise cancelling feature is a partial success. With a good seal in my ears and the feature activated I could drown out the engine noise from the plane. Weirdly, though, I could still hear snippets of conversation around me – not a constant thing, mind you, but the occasional word or phrase would come through reasonably clearly, most likely the result of the noise cancelling feature choosing to continue the suppression of the engine noise over a higher-pitched sound like human conversation. On phone calls and in Skype while in office surroundings, the noise cancelling feature works as advertised.
One thing missing, however, is sidetone. This is the ability to monitor your speech while listening to an active conversation. The H15’s seemingly don’t support this, so if you use the noise cancelling while on a phone call your voice sounds like it is coming from two rooms away. Getting this to work properly is not an easy task, and even headphones like the Logitech H800 – which are made specifically for Skype-type communications – can’t get this to work. So just be aware that if your use case is primarily communications, these may not be the earphones you want.
Finally the quirks. There is the standard inline volume and call accept/end control at the place where the earphones split into the separate channels. The bass boost switch is on the side of this control. If you look at the picture, though, you will see the noise cancelling box (and, I assume, the larger battery this headphone supports). The plug for your device is about 4 inches away from this control. That means if you put this in your pocket along with your phone and are involved in pretty much any sort of activity you are constantly going to press the on-off button for noise cancelling. Plus, given where my headphone jack on both my laptop and tablet lives this control just sort of dangles there – too close to the plug to lay on the table or desk. Thankfully the control is not heavy or this could present problems. A better design choice would be to have incorporated both the inline and noise cancelling controls into one and placed that higher up where the inline control lives.
Also bass boost and noise cancelling are not mutually compatible. If noise cancelling is on, the bass boost switch does not appear to do anything. You do get what I would consider 90% of the bass boost in noise cancelling mode, but the bass didn’t feel as deep as without noise cancelling, most likely because of the dampening sounds the earphones produce.
As far as battery life goes, I was never able to get to 60 hours active use no matter which configuration I used (noise cancelling on/off, bass boost on/off). I was able, however, to get a very respectable 14 hours use with noise cancelling on. That’s on par with my Bose QC-35’s so good job there.
For what they are – a sub-$50 active noise cancelling earphone – the OVC H15 delivers on most of the promises. The places where it fails are either easily overcome or a personal choice. These won’t replace my more expensive noise cancelling headphones, but if I were looking for earbuds for a child or were on a budget, these would be near the top of the consideration list.