Headphone Showdown: Audio-Technica MSR7NC vs Audio-Technica WS1100iS
It’s Tuesday, and it’s time for the headphone showdown!
Audio-Technica’s $249 MSR7 is an exceptional value in the hi-res audio space. It has the style of the MDR-1A, matched with a sound signature that bests AT’s own M50X, and a price that’s lower than most comparable audio gear…oh, and it’s a little creak prone.
Earlier this year, Audio-Technica released a noise-cancelling version of it for $299. It’s quite good.
And then, also this year, they took that same basic design, re-styled it with some new touches, new drivers, and a new clunky name: The Ws1100iS Solid Bass headphone was born. And at $229, it’s even cheaper than the original MSR7 retail price.
But this is the internet…so which of these spin-offs of the MSR7 is better?
Both of these headphones share the basic design DNA of the MSR7. They have essentially the same basic form-factor. A thin, plushly-padded headband with metal adjustment arms attached to the ear cups. The ear cups on the WS1100 are larger and more obviously aluminum.
The MSR7NC is the more subtle of the two, with no giant ports on its ear cup and a basic printed logo on a matte background. It’s the better option if you’re worried about looking silly in public…although I think the WS1100 is no slouch. Both have ear cups that fold flat but do not collapse. Both have plush ear pads. Both have a 3.5mm jack that’s only slightly recessed, which means that finding replacement cables shouldn’t be tough.
Honestly, these both have almost the same design. It’s a look very much inspired by both other Audio-Technica models, and the legacy of Sony’s audio hardware as well. The WS1100 is a little larger, a little lighter, and it’s more obvious on the head. I personally prefer it ever so slightly…but the MSR7NC has a classy look.
Both have a solid build. The MSR7NC has some creaking to its hinges…a problem it inherits from the MSR7. The WS1100iS feels a little bit cheaper…though only because I have the benefit of holding both in my hands. Both are extremely solidly-built headphones, and with some care should last many years. This is in line with every other Audio-Technica product I’ve ever used, honestly. The creaking might bother you if you’re irritated by that sort of thing. For what it’s worth, the MSR7NC makes no noise once it’s on my head.
The MSR7NC sounds better. It’s not even a contest, for me. Using the same 45mm driver from the MSR7, it replicates 99 percent of that headphone’s sound signature. It has rich, accurate bass. It has some of the most amazing, flat, expressive mids I’ve ever heard. And it has highs that are as sharp as they can be without killing your ears. But only just. On first listen, I was startled at how much detail, energy, and presence the upper- mids had. Once I adjusted, I was really impressed.
The WS1100iS’s 53mm driver is no slouch, however. Imagine taking the upper- mids bump from the MSR7NC, and moving it over into the bass region. Even though it’s part of AT’s “Solid Bass” lineup, it’s not overly aggressive on the low end. Mids are punchy, accurate, and warm, without any overt thumpiness or booming. The WS1100iS has a more pleasant, wide-sounding, articulate sound than any other bass-focused headphone I’ve ever heard.
If you prefer low-end…actually neither of these are ideal. They’re not basshead cans. They’re both for detail-hounds.
The WS1100iS uses an interesting ear pad design. The hole for your ear is huge, and the foam is a dual-layer design with one thick, rigid layer and one softer one. This all works together to minimize the overall contact surface area with your head, while still providing a nice seal. It really works. I like it.
In contrast, the MSR7NC uses a more traditional design, with a head-hugging headband and memory foam ear cushions that are similar to other headphones in the price range. The memory foam takes a little time to settle on your head.
Both have fairly wide adjustment range, though neither is as huge as the iconic Audio-Technica M50X. I have a larger head. I have to use both of these models almost fully extended, whereas I can get away with far less length adjustment on the M50's.
Both are quite comfy. Both have a higher-than-average clamping force, so you’ll want to break them in. I have no complaints about the fit on either…amazing really, since headphone comfort is so often overlooked.
This is probably an unfair category. The MSR7NC is an active noise-cancelling headphone. The WS1100iS is a ported, almost semi-open headphone. The MSR7NC isolates better, even with the power turned off. If isolation/noise leak are chief concerns, don’t pick up the WS1100iS. It’s not the worst offender, but nearby people will hear faint echoes of your music even at moderate volumes. Even a regular MSR7 will isolate a little better than the slightly above-average performance of the WS1100iS.
The MSR7NC comes with two cables: one with a one-button remote, and one standard cable. Both are 4 feet long. The WS1100iS comes with one 4 foot cable, and it has a one-button remote. Both come with a leatherette pouch…though the MSR7NC’s pouch feels a little nicer to the touch.
Of course, that’s where the WS1100iS runs out of features. The MSR7NC includes AT’s new “360 degree” Active Noise Cancellation system, and it works well. Not as well as the market leaders in terms of raw noise reduction, but well. Also, it has some advantages over Bose headphones. It works equally well on sound coming from all directions, and it doesn’t produce the sometimes-unsettling sensation of ear pressure.
The battery in the MSR7NC lasts for over 30 hours, and charges quickly. Also, the MSR7NC is the only ANC headphone I’ve ever used that sounds identical whether powered or unpowered. They’ve figured out a way to use the noise-cancelling mic holes as ports, negating the need for the ports featured on the regular MSR7. The resistance load when the headphone is powered on does increase to 150 ohms, but it’s still easily drivable from portable devices.
If you add it all up, the winner here is the MSR7NC. But it’s kind of unfair. The MSR7NC is a more fully-featured version of a fantastic earlier headphone. It’s also $70 bucks more than the WS1100iS, and Audio-Technica always prices their stuff fairly. What’s most impressive is how close the WS1100 comes to the MSR7 experience, but for less money. You get some cool ear pads. You get a nice, relaxed bass sound. You get more stylish (in my opinion) ear cups.
Either way, you can’t go wrong here. I’ve really enjoyed my time with Audio-Technica’s hi-res line. They’re the first hi-res headphones that have completely sold me on the whole “detail head” philosophy, and have me reconsidering my stance on hi-res tracks. Soon I’ll have to check out the SR5, just to complete the series!
EDIT: I picked up the SR5 thanks to online sales over the holiday weekend. They’re exceptional as well.