My first portable CD player was manufactured by Panasonic, so it was with a bit of a soft spot in my heart that I approached this review of the company’s RP-HC200 Noise Canceling Headphones. This over-the-ear model retails for $79.99, but is currently available at a significantly — way significantly — reduced price online, making it one of the most budget-friendly noise-canceling cans on the market.
The RP-HC200 headphones are lightweight and constructed with soft, comfortable padding. I generally prefer cans over earbuds, but even some of the best-sounding over-the-ear headphones start to hurt my noggin after extended use. I didn’t experience any fatigue after long periods of use with the HC200s making them equally useful during a long day at the office as on a long commute.
I also appreciated the noise canceling function of these headphones (powered by a single AAA battery and controlled by a switch on the left can). Panasonic claims a 14 dB or 81 percent noise reduction, and although I didn’t have a chance to test these on a plane (the HC200s ship with an air plug adapter and carrying bag for easy traveling), I did listen to some tunes while running a vacuum around the house. I can’t vouch for a 14 dB decrease, but the noisy vacuum was definitely drowned out while the music remained audible even at less than full volume.
I may have been pleasantly surprised by the noise canceling on a pair of headphones at this price point, but the overall audio quality leaves a lot to be desired. For the first test, I called up a song that’s been on perpetual repeat since my initial listen: Jerry Douglas’ cover of “The Boxer” (featuring Mumford & Sons and Paul Simon). Jerry’s Dobro and Marcus Mumford’s vocals combine to make the track every bit as good, if not better, than the original (a blasphemous statement to some, I’m sure, but just give it a chance and you’ll understand). Unfortunately, the headphones don’t adequately convey the power of the song. Mumford’s vocals dominate the mix at the expense of the other instruments and considerable volume is necessary at the beginning of the song in order to even appreciate Douglas’ Dobro. But keep a finger close to the dial for the “Lie-le-lie” chorus — the voices come across way too strong and drown out everything else in the mix. These adjustments make for a frustrating listening experience of a superb song that deserves so much better.
Another song I’ve been listening to often is “Visions of Johanna” from the mono version of Blonde On Blonde. That song served only to emphasize the trouble these headphones have with the high end. With the volume turned up, the harmonica and organ parts sound harsh at times. Dylan’s vocals sound fine, but are overshadowed by Joe South’s bassline. South’s bass in “Johanna” is fantastic, but it shouldn’t be the only highlight in this classic Dylan masterpiece. How these headphones handle bass is actually an overarching problem: the low end is often far too forward in the mix. It’s difficult not to love this song — one of Dylan’s finest — but the headphones don’t do it any favors.
Too much bass is also a problem on the title track from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By The Way. Flea burns up the strings on the track, and the headphones certainly highlight the low end. But once again, the bass is forced to the front of a song that ends up sounding one-dimensional. I do believe John Fruscinate and Chad Smith played their hearts out on the track too, but that energy just doesn’t come through with these cans. And on other Peppers songs, when the bass does take a back seat to the guitar parts (toward the end of “Dosed,” for example), the feeling is sometimes harsh enough that a reduction in volume is necessary.
The HC200s also have trouble handling percussion. I’ve always been fond of Russ Kunkel’s crisp, shuffling drum line on “I’ve Been to Memphis” from Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth. Playing through these headphones, Kunkel’s contribution is relegated to the background. Leland Sklar’s bass comes on far too strong as do Lyle’s vocals. And just for laughs, I called up the granddaddy of all shuffling drum lines: Bonzo’s “Fool in the Rain” from Led Lep’s In Through the Out Door. As I suspected, these headphones just can’t provide Bonham’s drums the weight they deserve.
I could cite other examples of favorite songs that just don’t sound great through these headphones, but I’d rather not rub it in. The RP-HC200 Noise Canceling Headphones might be worth a look from parents aiming to give their children a step up from run-of-the-mill earbuds. The current online price is quite attractive, actually. These cans are super comfortable and do offer nice noise canceling at this level. But I can’t give Panasonic a pass here, even though my heart says think about how much you loved that portable CD player. The issues with too-strong bass and too-weak percussion can’t be overlooked and I just don’t know that any serious music enthusiast would be happy listening to their favorite songs through these headphones.Panasonic RPHC200Y Noise Canceling Headphones Yellow