Review: OVC takes aim at Bose with budget H15 earphones
The H15 ANC earphones from audio startup OVC rock a dual driver design to counter long haul discomfort suffered by many users of active noise-canceling head gear, and a massive 60-hour battery life. They were pitched to us as a better and cheaper alternative to the very capable, but quite pricey, Bose QC20 earphones. Intrigued, we agreed to take them for a test drive.
Hong Kong-based OVC Audio says that its H15 earphones employ a dual driver system to counter sound pressure caused by active noise cancellation headphones/earphones, where users report an odd ear sensation after extended use that results in mild discomfort (similar to ears that need to be popped as an aircraft descends) or headaches. The effects can fade with repeated use of ANC gear, but not for everyone.
"While playing music, usual ANC earphones need to increase sound pressure in order to achieve an ANC effect, which directly causes discomfort in our ears," explained OVC. "H15's dual driver system allows the 13.6 mm driver to work for ANC or bass boost and the 6 mm driver to work for music playing, so when both ANC and music playing are on, no noticeable sound pressure would occur, no real ear pain would be caused."
We've been using the H15s for a few weeks now, enjoying quite a few marathon music sessions in the process, and didn't suffer any long-haul discomfort at all. The earphones proved very comfortable in fact, though we did have some teething problems.
The silicone buds have a similar winged tip design to the Bose secure-fit StayHear tips, though the OVC wing is T-shaped rather than claw-shaped. Either way, they're meant to hook under the upper antihelix of the ear and push the tip against the canal opening, creating a seal that cuts down on ambient noise without needing to push them into the ear canal – like you would with, say, the mighty RHA T20s. And here was where we encountered our problem.
Despite generally sitting in the medium tip camp for the vast majority of the many earphones I've tried over the ears, I couldn't get an effective ear canal seal from any of the tips supplied by OVC, essentially rendering the ANC pretty pointless due to background noise seeping through unchallenged. A fresh set were sent out – which have now become standard issue – and the large tips did the trick.
Though not as effective at passive isolation as earphone tips that are pushed into the canal, the new, large, OVC tips did at least allow the ANC to work its magic, slicing away tire rumble, reducing engine sounds to a fraction of their former presence and even managing to cut down on some of the background chatter of fellow commuters. Plus, there was no embarrassing ear wax to clean off the tips when removed from the ears.
So does the ANC beat Bose into submission? Well, no. Not quite. Bose is a market leader for a very good reason, but the H15s do a pretty good job at low frequency noise blocking and taking the difference in price into consideration, we'd say they're a good choice for the budget-conscious traveler.
As mentioned earlier, the H15s feature two drivers in each ear capsule – a 6 mm dynamic driver for playing audio, and a 13.6 mm dynamic driver for the noise canceling unit and bass boost. Though the audio drivers are quite small, the dual driver design does mean that the 6 mm units only have one job to do, and not double duty as audio throwers and ANC counter attack.
As such, the audio output proved surprisingly good - not iSine or Shure good, but clean and clear, with a fairly neutral signature and no discernible distortion at comfortable listening levels. Air holes in the housing have been included to reduce the "stuffy feelings within our ears."
The ANC did cut back on volume though, meaning we had to nudge the output level on our source devices by a couple or three notches. And the sound profile with the ANC off closely matched that of the active system, which is a tick in the positives column.
Usefully, the ANC unit – which is reported to offer 25 dB noise reduction (125 Hz to 8 kHz) – is located at the jack end of the nylon-braided cable and can be pushed against the back of the music source device in the pocket so its weight doesn't drag down the cable while bounding along on foot and cause the seal at the canal to weaken.
There's a bass boost button on the inline remote located just below the Y joint of the cable. Obviously designed for modern listeners, we found the enhancement to muddy the music waters considerably when in passive mode, which wasn't particularly pleasant even for bass-heavy R&B or hip-hop. Oddly, when the ANC was activated, much of the soupy low end disappeared and the resulting subtle bass-enhanced sounds proved better than with ANC on and bass boost off.
This bass cut when in ANC mode is by design. The 13.8 mm drivers have been created primarily for use in the ANC system, but OVC decided to give them an additional role as bass boosters. When the ANC is switched on, it's given priority and the bass takes a supporting role resulting in a less noticeable low end enhancement. OVC recommends using the functions separately, but we'd say give simultaneous use a try.
Saving the best for last, OVC claims that the ANC system will keep noise down for 60 hours before needing a top up, compared to around 16 hours per charge with the QC20s. Our music-on-the-move tests confirmed that OVC's battery life claim to be about right – making the battery good for more than 20 lengthy commutes (around 3 hours per trip) before needing to be recharged over USB. That marathon up time is reported to be the result of more than a year of research and development by OVC's engineers, who managed to get power consumption of the ANC unit down to 2.8 mAh.
The OVC H15 ANC earphones come with three sizes of tips, a USB charging cable and a fabric travel pouch. They're available now for a suggested retail price of US$79.99, but can currently be had on Amazon for $43.99.
While we don't imagine Bose will feel at all threatened by their release, the H15s offer solid ANC performance for many, many hours (providing the wearer manages to get a good ear canal seal) and pretty good sound quality for the price.
Source: OVC Audio