Some prices are too good to pass up. A week or so ago, I spotted the Digital Silence DS-101A active noise cancelling IEMs (in-ear monitors) being sold for £10 on MyMemory.co.uk, and I couldn’t resist grabbing them at that price- which is 75% off. They’ve gone up a bit in price since then, but at £11.99, it’s still a great deal. Question is though, what kind of active noise cancellation can you get for that price?
The DS-101A are active noise cancelling IEMs, which means that they use battery powered electronics to feed input from microphones in each IEM back into the audio stream, inverted, thus cancelling out background noise. When you add this technology to IEMs, you also bump up the bulk quite a bit. Not only do you need a microphone in each IEM, but you also need wires going back to sizable chunk of plastic on the cord. This means that about 2/3 way up the cord, there’s a plastic box with a call button, a microUSB charging port (a USB cable for charging is provided), LED indicator, on/off button, and a plastic clip.
Out from this box goes one cable to the device, and one cable for each IEM. On the right of these two cables, there’s a third microphone for voice calls. The IEMs themselves aren’t really much larger than most IEMs, but are designed so that they can only be inserted properly with the cable pointing down- something I’m not a big fan of, since I prefer wearing the cables around my ears and down.
The idea behind active noise cancellation is to use an inverted recording of background noise to cancel out that noise before it reaches your ears. In practice, that means that it doesn’t just provide noise reduction from blocking your ears, but also actively removes outside noise. It sounds like magic, but it’s not really, and it’s a technology that has been around for ages. I have a pair of Bose QuietComfort 3 noise cancelling headphones as well, and I’m very fond of the artificial silence that they provide me. Putting them on- without any audio playing through them- is like turning off every refrigerator hum, computer fan, traffic noise, and other background noises that we surround ourselves with on an everyday basis. It’s unnatural at first, because even when we’re somewhere we’d call silent, there’s always some sort of noise in the background. The QuietComfort 3s remove those noises, giving you a silence that doesn’t sound natural, but in my opinion is still wonderful. Obviously, playing audio through them also gives you the benefit of reduced background noise for listening to audio.
When it comes to the Digital Silence DS-101As, however, the noise cancellation technology is on a whole other level than in the Bose QuietComfort 3s- and not in a good way. Activating the noise cancellation feature produces a very noticeable, constant hissing sound, similar to what you get from low quality audio gear. It does reduce background noise, and noticeably so, but where the Bose QC3 removes it, the DS-101A replaces it with hissing. That being said, with a MSRP of £40 and a sales price of £10-12, it’s not really fair to compare them to £300 Bose headphones, but I’m doing it anyways.
While I obviously prefer silence to hissing, there are times when I’d prefer hissing to background noise. The noise reduction is quite noticeable, and I can see it being very useful in noisy environments where you just want to listen to some music without going deaf in the process. Still, the combined noise reduction from the fact that the DS-101As are IEMs (and as such block some outside noise by their very design) and the active noise cancellation doesn’t result in a higher actual noise reduction level than the on-ear Bose QC3. Again, these are headphones in completely and utterly different price classes, so I’m not saying the DS-101As are bad; all I’m saying is that this isn’t £300 worth of headphone in a £10 package.
I also tried a test call with these, and they performed quite well. I’m not sure if the noise reduction is applied to an outgoing microphone signal, but I can tell you that my voice was coming through loud and clear on the other end.
While this is a headset with voice call capabilities, it’s first and foremost a pair of IEM headphones. I frankly hate describing sound quality, as even though I have several pairs of headphones that outclass most of my gadgets in terms of price, I’m happy with them sounding better than others, and don’t find a need to make up adjectives for how they sound better. The absolute most noticeable thing for me though is the bass, which is surprisingly good at higher bass frequencies, but gives out like someone ran off with the instruments on deeper frequencies. It results in an absurd scenario where you can be enjoying the lead-up to a sequence with beautiful deep bass, and it essentially drops from perfectly acceptable audio quality to what sounds like the ground wire came off.
The bigger issue still will likely be the hissing that’s there when noise cancellation is on. Since the hissing is caused by the noise cancellation equipment, just using different source equipment will have no effect, unlike normal hiss from cheap low impedance IEMs. All in all though, I’d say you get sound quality way beyond the £12 price point, even if you ignore the noise cancellation feature.
Digital Silence is apparently a brand name from Wolfson, who is well known for producing audio chips for consumer electronics, so seeing a product from that company available to consumers directly is in itself interesting. £10-£12 for a pair of active noise cancellation headphones is even more interesting, since it gives you a very cheap way of dipping your toe in the active noise cancellation pool. I’m perhaps a bit biased against these since I’m used to noise cancellation in a completely different price class, but but even with the flaws of the DS-101A, you can’t beat this price. The 3 star rating is for the £40 MSRP, but once you factor in the current £12 price, considering this a 4 star buy.