I wear headphones a lot. Over-ear, open ear, in-ear – just about everything but on-ear. I’ve worn headphones that cost nearly $1000, and headphones that cost less than $50. It’s pretty rare, though, that even bad headphones make me regret wearing them. Enter the Mpow H5 Active Noise Cancelling over-ear headphones, a set of headphones that are cheap in both senses of the word and suffer for it around every corner. The $50 price tag is tempting, but read on to get a picture of why I don’t want to put these headphones back on.
Style and Build
Did you know that “white label” headphones are a thing? Now that I realize it, it makes sense, but it’s not something I would’ve ever guessed. If you haven’t run into this term before, a white-label product is a product produced by a manufacturer that other companies can then put their logo and other branding on. When I cracked into the Mpow H5s, they immediately looked familiar. At another site, I reviewed the Wicket HUM 1000 ANC headphones. “Wicked Hum” seems like an adjective you wouldn’t want someone applying to your headphones, but there you have it.
Anyway, I bring that up because the Mpow H5 and Wicked HUM 1000 have the same… well, almost everything. The same band and earcup material, the same soft-touch plastic, the same buttons in the same spots, and even the same earcup shape. The only real difference between the two is that the Mpow H5s have a chrome accents on the ears and headband, while the Wicked go for a more subtle look on the ears and some big, reflective branding on the headband.
That means they have the same crappy, mushy, frustrating on/off and volume/track buttons, and the same separate ANC on/off switch, which you can leave on independently of the headphones, meaning that if you forget to flip the switch off, they’ll still be cancelling the sounds of your backpack.
Truth be told, they’re not bad looking headphones. But they’re not great, either. They’re not gaudy, but they’re not particularly memorable.The headband expands with a notched metal band on either side that is tough to adjust, but holds its setting pretty well.
One of the weirder features also common to both headphones is that while the yokes rotate 90°, they rotate upward, rather than downward. That means that when they rest on your shoulders, they’re firing sound upward rather than down into your clavicle. I don’t understand this decision at all.
There’s really only one feature offered by the H5s, and that’s active noise cancelling. But whlie many more expensive headphones use software or even a button to activate noise cancelling, the H5s have a hard, physical switch. As mentioned before, the switch stays on even when the headphones are off, which can be a battery drain for the headphones.
The noise cancelling is actually better than I’d expect for $50, but it’s still not good enough to make it worth the price of entry. Similarly priced closed-back headphones will provide a good seal with much better audio – more on that below – without paying for crappy noise cancelling.
Something like Sony’s 1000xm3 headphones or Bose’ QC35 headphones are more expensive, but the noise cancelling is significantly better and doesn’t affect that audio. Noise canceling is a case of you-get-what-you-pay-for, and if you don’t pay for much, you don’t get much. As a general rule, I avoid cheap noise cancelling. The H5s haven’t changed my mind.
I usually wear the headphones I’m reviewing as I write my review. I always have – it’s easy to close my eyes for a few seconds, listen to music, and then make a note. I’m not wearing the H5s, though, because listening to music on them gives me a pounding headache.
It’s possible that this is due to head pressure, though I don’t think so. It could be the bargain-bin noise cancelling too.
But overall, the H5s are just hard to listen to. The headphones highlight the high end of just about every song I throw in, whether it’s John Coltrane’s “Countdown” or Chuck Ragan’s gritty voice on “Landsick,” I found myself blinking and cringing back from the sound. I can listen to better headphones at a similar volume without experiencing that. The bass is there, but it’s muddy and muted compared to better headphones.
As with all less-expensive noise-cancelling headphones, turning the noise cancelling muffles outside sound but in the process pinches the music, making it sound noticeably thinner.
If you need a pair of headphones for $50 or less, you can do better than these, whether from a reputable audio maker like Polk or Jabra, or even the 8323 model from Monoprice. The only thing the H5s have going for them is that they’re half the price of the Wicked HUM 1000 headphones despite being apparently identical.
Disclaimer: We received a review unit from the manufacturer and wore them until we got a headache twice before writing this review.
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