Sennheiser PXC-550 Wireless Headphones Review
Is this the upgrade your ears have been looking for?
What is the Sennheiser PXC-550?The Sennheiser PXC-550 is the latest headphone to join the ranks of models that combine active noise cancelling with Bluetooth for wireless operation. As a pairing this set of abilities does make a huge amount of sense as it allows a traveller to have headphones that crack on with the serious business of noise reduction and reduce the quotient of trailing wires about your person while you do so. Bose has updated their Quiet Comfort offering to the QC35 to take advantage of this and other models are hitting the market too.
Sennheiser has not become one of the biggest names in headphones by ignoring market trends and the PXC-550 seems well placed to keep them in the game. Look a bit closer though and it becomes a little clearer that the PXC-550 is not a 'me too' type of product. It carries a premium price tag, eclipsing the already fairly pricey Bose, and Sennheiser is keen to stress that they've thrown some fairly clever technology at the design and they certainly look quite smart. Does the Sennheiser do enough to be £60 more than the Bose and become the traveller's headphone to aspire to?
SpecificationsThe PXC-550 is a dynamic driver over-ear headphone that sits happily in the 'hybrid' category in terms of size. A single driver per enclosure is used and for reasons best known to themselves, Sennheiser won't be drawn on what that driver happens to be – Bose's secrecy seems to be rubbing off on other people – but given the size of the enclosures, it seems fair to hazard a guess that the drivers are in the 40mm range. As you might expect from a headphone that will be used mainly on the move, the enclosures are sealed to keep noise leakage to a minimum.
In keeping with most rivals in this category, if you want to forgo the cleverness of wireless operation, you can simply connect a 2.5mm jack to 3.5mm jack cable to the PXC-550 and use it like a conventional headphone. Quite encouragingly, Sennheiser has not simply worked on the principle that this will be an option of last resort for people and ensured that the cable they supply for this purpose has an Android and iOS compatible in-line remote control. It is still probably a little on the short side for home use but ideal for reaching to a device in a pocket.
Of course, a major selling point of the PXC-550 is the fitment of Bluetooth and here the news is very good. Unlike the rival Bose, the Sennheiser is bang up-to-date in this regard with Bluetooth 4.2 being fitted and the Sennheiser additionally supports Apt-X transmission. This means that if you use Tidal as your streaming service of choice, the Sennheiser can make full use of those lossless files. NFC touch to pair is also fitted although like almost everything else I've ever tried with this feature, the results are arguably less consistent than just pairing the Sennheiser the old fashioned way.
Battery life is quoted by Sennheiser at 30 hours although no clarification on volume or the like is given.
The third major part of the PXC-550's specification is the 'NoiseGard' active noise cancelling system. This is a fairly sophisticated arrangement that has three settings; off, on and adaptive. The first two are fairly self explanatory but the third is more interesting. When selected, the PXC-550 continuously monitors the incoming noise levels and dynamically adjusts the amount of noise cancelling it applies. This is an appealing idea as it means that when little is actually happening around you, there isn't the slightly congested effect you can get with the system running at full tilt.
As a spin off of this adaptive technology being fitted, the Sennheiser is also supposed to be optimised for making and receiving phone calls. Three microphones use the same process as they do with the adaptive noise cancelling to monitor noise levels during a call and filter out unwanted noise both incoming to you and outgoing to the other caller. While on a personal level, I'm vehemently opposed to anything that makes it easier for people to have phone conversations in public, it does seem very clever.
DesignFor the most part, Sennheiser's industrial design process could be described as 'sober.' Every now again something gets slipped in their elevenses and they go a bit mad – selecting cream and chocolate as a colour scheme or designing the Momentum which still ranks as one of the nicest pieces of industrial design I've ever used – but for the most part their equipment is quite straight laced. So it is here with the PXC-550. The appearance of the headphones is pretty sober with plenty of black with a little bit more black for good measure.
Look closer though and there are some nice touches. The stainless steel Sennheiser splashes on the headband look and feel excellent and the earpads are soft and have a nicely judged level of padding on them. The build quality is excellent and everything feels very well thought out.
The nicest aspect of the design is the control interface. This takes the form of a capacitive pad on the right hand enclosure. Control is achieved either by sliding a finger up and down the pad – which controls volume – or tapping it which starts, stops and skips tracks. This takes a bit of getting used to and the pad is very sensitive so if you scratch your head and go near it, you can inadvertently pause playback but you get used to it quickly and it soon becomes second nature to use.
Having done this, Sennheiser undoes some of the good work by making the noise cancelling switch really tiny and putting it near the EQ effect button (more of which later) but it redeems itself with a really, really good idea for the power switch. The PXC-550 is turned on and off by rotating the right hand driver enclosure to the flat position. This is simple but means that you can never put the PXC-550 away switched on which it very clever indeed. There are some other nice touches too. The Sennheiser uses voice confirmation in the earpieces but unlike most rivals, the voice is a pleasantly well spoken lady and not an angry Dalek.
All of this functionality is backed up with an app and the good news is that it seems as diligently designed as the rest of the package. Where Sennheiser has really worked to make the software worthwhile is that it has the ability to mirror the playback controls in the app itself so you don't have to exit it to actually select what you want to listen to. Additionally, you get feedback on battery status and noise cancelling at a glance. A final area is the ability to tweak the EQ curve of the headphones to your preferences via a surprisingly extensive set of EQ options.
As final bonus, the PXC-550 is comfortable and easy to wear for long periods of time. The pressure applied on the head is well distributed and allows them to stay in place when moving around without digging in. The build quality is generally excellent and the carry case, while visually unexciting, has enough space for the headphones and their supporting accessories without having to cram them in.
The build quality is excellent and everything feels very well thought out
How was the PXC-550 tested?The bulk of the testing for the Sennheiser has been done with the Pioneer XDP100R audio player as this is well equipped for both wired and wireless testing. Additional testing has been carried out with a Motorola Moto X 2014 and an iPad Air. Material used has included lossless FLAC and ALAC as well as Tidal, YouTube, iPlayer and Spotify.
Performance as a wired headphoneIf you handed the Sennheiser to a reasonably switched on headphone user with the cable attached and didn't tell them it was capable of Bluetooth operation, the chances are that they'd still find the Sennheiser a pretty capable piece of kit judged purely on passive operation. Most importantly for a headphone of this nature is that it never feels like it is running in backup or 'get you home mode.' The sound is tonally even, detailed and has none of the slightly congested and closed in sensation that can affect headphones of this nature when running in passive mode.
This means that listening to Wild Beasts' Boy King is a genuinely enjoyable experience. Hayden Thorpe's vocals are punchy and powerful and the swaggering electronica is well captured. The frequency response seems even and well integrated and Sennheiser has fought the urge to give the PXC-550 that curiously bolstered bass response that I've come to call 'travel bass' where the manufacturer decides that the best way for you to enjoy sound on the move is to give the low end a bit of a goose in order to better function in noisy environments. While it sort of works, it sounds grim in quieter listening spaces.
This means that listening to the 24/96kHz FLAC of Craig Armstrong's Crash, the PXC-550 does a genuinely good job of capturing the effortless space and scale of the music and sounding utterly free of harshness or aggression. Compared to a dedicated home headphone, the Sennheiser lacks some absolute bass and being a closed design can never truly equal a decent open back rival but this is a very capable sounding headphone indeed. As a final bonus, if you really have to take calls with it, the Sennheiser is really, very good indeed when it comes to call quality.
Performance with noise cancellingThe 'NoiseGard' functionality on the PXC-550 makes a very interesting point of comparison to the Bose QC35. In terms of their design ethos, the two systems seem to have been designed with a view to reaching different outcomes. The Bose system is ultimately more effective at blocking noise. With the two units in passive mode, the QC35 blocks more noise across a wider frequency spectrum. If you want to go to sleep with the dull roar of a jet engine blocked out, the Bose is the best choice.
If you want to keep enjoying music or a TV show with the outside world kept at bay, 'NoiseGard' is the superior system, it is only after you listen to the Sennheiser for a while with it running that you realise that the tonality of the performance is utterly unaffected despite extra external noise being blanked out. This means that effectively every comment I've described with the headphones running in passive mode, still applies with the 'NoiseGard' engaged and it goes some way to explaining why Sennheiser hasn't messed about with the bass response.
The adaptive system is also largely effective although given how subtle the software is even when running at 100%, you don't immediately notice how quickly it manages to adapt to the sounds around it. Nonetheless, if you watch Stranger Things with them on and someone turns a hoover on all of a sudden, they'll do an incredible job of handling the sudden burst in external noise and keep the program audible.
If you want to enjoy music or a TV show with the outside world kept at bay, 'NoiseGard' is the superior system
Performance with BluetoothLike the Bose QC35, the Sennheiser is staggeringly quiet compared to older Bluetooth headphones when sat at idle connected to a suitable device. There is no audible hiss and hum whatsoever so once again, the strong overall tonality that the PXC-550 demonstrates is exceptionally good and largely unaffected by the switch to wireless. The Sennheiser has also proved to be completely stable connected to the various devices available here and the range is also perfectly sufficient to wander off from the connected unit for several meters without incident. The thirty hour life also seems perfectly believable too.
Is it perfect? Not quite. Having nearly achieved a knockout the PXC-550 is slightly let down by a lack of volume used in this way. With most modern recordings, you should have enough headroom to be completely happy but listening to a vinyl rip of Wells Fargo's Watch out recorded at slightly lower levels means that the Sennheiser runs out of go before you really hit the volume that you need. I have also experienced very slight latency issues when using iPlayer and Netflix but pausing and restarting generally seems to clear them and restore everything.
- Clear, accurate and detailed sound
- Excellent Bluetooth implementation
- Comfortable and well built
- Some volume limits
- Noise cancelling less effective used on its own
- Quite Pricey
Sennheiser PXC-550 Wireless Headphones ReviewHaving so recently felt that the Bose QC35 represents the best option for the long distance traveller, the Sennheiser throws a mild spanner in those works. The PXC-550 does the same things as the Bose and if you intend to board that long haul flight and listen to things once you do so, this is the headphone for you. The Sennheiser is the best device I've yet tested at keeping the musical message intact.
Ease of Use8
Design and usability9
Value For Money8
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