Review: Phiaton PS 202 NC earphones with active noise cancellation

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The Phiaton PS 202 NC combines what we love from cabled earphones with the power of active noise cancellation(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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Wireless audio may be convenient, but can lack a certain ease and purity that comes from listening to music through a cable. Plus, you never have to worry about battery life or carrying additional accessories when a simple 3.5 mm plug does the job. Phiaton, which has made a name for itself by successfully combining features, style, and great audio quality at competitive price points, has recently made available the PS 202 NC wired earphones. We get some ears-in to see how the company’s latest delivers, especially with the added hush of active noise cancellation.

Design & Connectivity

The Phiaton PS 202 NC are a little bigger than many cabled earphone buds, partly due to having 14.3 mm drivers, which are almost 50 percent larger than your typical 8 mm drivers. But considering that these also feature active noise-cancelling (ANC) as well as exterior microphones for each ear, the size seems pretty good. Brushed metal accents the satin-finish plastic give the PS 202 NC more of a classy, premium appearance.

For the price point, these earphones feel well built. The cables leading to each earbud are reinforced for durability, and an L-shaped 3.5 mm plug helps to maintain a low profile against devices. The PS 202 NC features a rather sizeable in-line remote, which sits about a third of the way up from the audio plug. The embedded controls on the remote consist of a button for play/pause, monitor/mute, and a switch for the noise cancellation. There is a microphone port for hands-free talking and also an LED that glows green while the ANC is on. A micro USB port, discreetly hidden on one end, lifts for charging the internal battery that powers the ANC and microphone features.

The audio cable is long enough that you can tuck your smartphone in a front pants pocket and have enough slack to turn and move your head around without pulling at the buds. Like some of Phiaton’s other audio products, the PS 202 NC sports an oval-shaped, tangle-resistant cable. This soft and pliable cable is a little kinky right out of the box, due to the material having a fair memory for shape. While it will eventually straighten out, it still tends to remember how it was last wrapped. However, it's certainly one of the more tangle-resistant cables you can get. It doesn't really twist around itself and all it takes is a few shakes to help it separate.

One excellent aspect of this audio cable is how it limits the amount of noise added from physical contact. The in-line remote prevents transmission from below, so only the cables connecting the remote to the buds generate any significant amount of noise. When these cables bounce or rub against skin or clothing, you’ll hear only a dull, non-echoing thud. It can carry through quieter-playing music, otherwise light or occasional disruptions end up easily dismissed. If you’ve ever had to suffer in stillness in order to silence noisy audio cables, you’ll certainly appreciate the Phiaton PS 202 NC.

It takes under two hours to fully-charge the PS 202 NC’s internal battery, which does indeed provide almost eight hours of music with the ANC activated and close to 10 for ANC without music, for when you simply want a bit of quiet time. Since the PS 202 NC can play music like any standard, cabled audio device, the battery is pretty much for the ANC and external microphones.

While ANC is on, pressing the monitor/mute button silences the music while activating the microphones. With the microphones on, you can hear your surrounding environment without having to remove the buds, which is convenient for quick conversations – or listening in without anyone knowing. The audio that comes through these exterior microphones sounds natural and is without an electronic tinge that can be common to this type of feature.

Phiaton provides a full complement of accessories to go with the PS 202 NC: three additional sizes of color-coded silicone tips, one set of Comply foam tips, a USB cable, a cable clip, and a soft carrying case.

Comfort

Despite the PS 202 NC’s appearance of bulk, the buds are well-balanced and rest comfortably for most average-sized ears. The silicone tips themselves are soft and flexible, and with a proper-fitting size you can get a good seal with a decently-firm grip. The barrels are not the longest for in-ear buds, but they’re angled nicely with respect to the body. They can sit without any unnecessary rubbing or pushing up against the canal and you can rotate the buds a bit and adjust the angle of entry to find that sweet spot. And no matter how you manage to wear the PS 202 NC (assuming proper tip and fit), the earbuds stay in well, even through casual movement.

The only downside, which is partially remedied by the included cable clip, is the in-line remote. It makes the earphones hang a little heavy, requiring the occasional re-adjusting of the buds. So if you’re considering a pair of earphones for working out, you’ll likely want to pass on these (the Phiaton BT 100 NC makes for a better choice). This downward pull also increases the rate of fatigue, since it applies positive pressure on the ear canal. But even with this going on, you can wear the Phiaton PS 202 NC for a few hours before needing a short break.

Audio Performance

The Phiaton PS 202 NC can gets sufficiently loud through the volume of a connected device. Most people should be able to enjoy safe listening levels up to about 65 percent, which leaves room to move for outdoor/noisy environments. What’s great about these earphones is that there is minimal (if any) distortion at the loudest tolerable level of sound. The highs, mids, and (least affected) lows develop some grain and bit of brittle/bleached edges, but that's about it. There no blurring, haloing, sharp highs, or bloated lows detectable, at least with moderate listening levels. It’s quite impressive.

Noise isolation and leaking are about as expected. Just wearing the PS 202 NC alone puts a damper on ambient noise. With music playing, you’ll need a reasonably loud or sharp incident in order to take some notice. And, of course, foam tips best silicone and ANC takes isolation to the next level. Music leaking from the Phiaton PS 202 NC is also about average. With comfortably-high listening levels, someone inside a few feet can hear and identify the tune that’s playing. So if you’re planning on using these earphones in quieter places, where people might be close by, you might want to keep the volume dialed down some.

Despite the larger audio drivers, the PS 202 NC doesn’t have the most open/airy headspace for the soundstage. It’s like getting an auditorium when you’re expecting an amphitheater. The size of the soundstage is about average; it’s certainly not small, but it’s not really expansive either. There is more perceived width than depth, and audio tends to overlap in a way that softens crisp edges. However, the overall layers of sound are distinct, and individual elements are easy to pick out within the stage. And as a whole it all still sounds good, which makes the soundstage more cozy and intimate rather than cramped.

There is strong left, right, and center imaging positioning for sound, but not a whole lot in between those areas. The movement is more active and lively than articulate. The soundstage’s width reaches right to the middle of each ear, which is pretty standard. The PS 202 NC has a neutral presentation, making it neither forward nor relaxed. The balance and quality of sound from these earphones favors the highs and lows over the mids.

The clarity and dynamic range of the PS 202 NC is decent. Music can tend to sound thinly-veiled, which leads to a sense of soft distance. These earphones also seem to favor and focus on louder elements. It’s not uncommon to miss out on subtle details of music you know very well, especially when it comes to the outer envelope of vocals and natural/visceral instrumental tone. So, for example, each shake of a maraca or tambourine comes across as identical instead of uniquely distinct. Nudging the volume up only helps a bit with bringing out the quieter parts, but what happens more often than not is that the loud stuff just gets louder.

You can expect to enjoy excellent pitch and delivery of vocals in the highs. Instrumental tone sounds proper, especially when it concerns strings and piano (percussive). The PS 202 NC’s level of detail is a tick above average, delivering a rich and vibrant atmosphere to most songs. It pairs really well with the energetic pop of Bruno Mars or laid-back atmosphere of Jack Johnson. Cymbal and hi-hat crashes are on the tinny side (as expected), but they blend in (mostly) unnoticed within the overall performance of music. Some crashes linger a little, yet are presented as clean and smooth instead of jarring or distracting.

The consistent quality of audio ends as you traverse from the highs to the mids, where the PS 202 NC exhibits weakness. Energy and tone are decent, but nothing spectacular versus other quality earphones in the same price range. It just doesn't deliver the same level of clarity as with the upper registers. Midrange vocals can can sound dull, thick, or distant. This effect is more common with background or harmony vocals than the lead. Instruments can also sound distant, especially when there is a lot going on. While elements in the mids and low-mids sound average at best, they’re inclined to turn worse when song complexity increases.

Guitars, in particular, can come across as coarse and sometimes muddy, especially the closer to the lows that they're being played. This effect drags down tracks that feature strong strings, such as with Elle King, Mr. Moonshine, or System of a Down. However, the PS 202 NC breezes through acoustic, light rock, and folk music easily. It sounds fantastic with lighter stuff, which is fine unless you happen to also appreciate hard rock or heavy metal. Turisas? Terrible. Dethklok? Forget it.

While it may not completely make up for the mids, the lows aim to please with clean and punchy beats. Upper- and mid-bass reproduction is tight and full of musical character, with excellent tonal separation between instruments and vocals. The decay of notes is pretty quick, which helps to keep the overall sound clean. It’s quite impressive how the lows are well-controlled. Bass lines deliver that characteristic "thrumm" when plucked and you can hear some really good drum thumps, which lean more towards quality than depth or force, even through some seriously commanding EDM or hip-hop. The only quibble, which relates more to the shape of the soundstage, is that the lows sound more wide than deep.

Active Noise Cancellation

The Phiaton PS 202 NC packs in fantastic ANC hardware, especially considering the price point. You hear a soft "click" upon flipping the switch, followed by a nigh-imperceptible white hiss that rides well below music when it plays. It’s not uncommon to encounter such circuitry that comes across as overly harsh or aggressive. With the PS 202 NC, the noise-cancelling is pleasingly clean, doesn’t change how your music sounds, and only really noticeable if you’re actively listening for it.

As with most headphones/earphones featuring ANC, the PS 202 NC is more effective at blocking out the lower frequencies. You can play tug-of-war with your dog and not hear a single guttural growl. But that puny, yip-yapping mutt one street over? You’re likely to hear the high-pitched parts of its racket-making. While the PS 202 NC’s ANC has an effective limit for frequency and decibels, it handily nullifies the most common sources of low droning or muffled roars, such as air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, street traffic, and even a busy airport terminal.

The Verdict

Although wireless audio offers convenience, sometimes it’s nice to keep things simple and reliable. The cabled Phiaton PS 202 NC lets you plug in and listen to music without having to worry about battery life or pairing. Along with the selection of silicone (and foam) tips, the ear buds are nicely-balanced and comfortable to wear. Although the in-line remote hangs a little heavy, the included cable clip makes it a fair trade for having ANC as a primary feature.

When it comes to audio, the PS 202 NC strongly favors acoustic, pop, EDM, or almost anything that doesn't rely too much on the midrange. The highs and lows maintain appreciable quality, clarity, and richness of sound. While the overall audio by itself is about average, activating the ANC helps the PS 202 NC rise above its peers. Being able to block out ambient noise makes a significant difference in terms of being able to immerse in and enjoy music. And for the price, it’s a pretty darn good deal. The Phiaton PS 202 NC is available now for US$89.00.

Product page: Phiaton PS 202 NC

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