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Sennheiser PXC550 Bluetooth

Over the past few weeks I have tried out quite a few over-ear bluetooth headphones in a mad search for the ‘ultimate’ bluetooth headphone.

I have tried the Bose QC35’s, V-Moda Crossfade Wireless and now the Sennheiser PXC550’s (I wanted to also try the new Sony MDR1000x models but they appear to be sold out with a two month waiting list - and I’m the impatient type.

My usual wired headphones consist of the following (all of which are used regularly):

Ultimate Ears Triple Fi 10 - iem
1More Hybrid Triple Driver - iem
Sony XBA H1 - iem
Apple Earpods
Audio Technica ATH50X - Full Size Over-Ears

Playback electronics include:

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (an excellent audio player - especially with the inclusion of Neutron).
Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5
AgpTEK H01 - Micro SD based lossless player with a very powerful amplifier on-board.

My music tastes are beginning to vary in my old age - Rush, Pink Floyd, Queen, Bach, Fleetwood Mac, Vivaldi, William Orbit, Hanz Zimmer - you get the idea. Most of my music is well-encoded MP3’s (either 320K rips - some of the older stuff ripped using EAC/LAME (with some cool psycho-acoustical filtering applied) and some downloaded FLAC files. In other words, perhaps not the best in the world but certainly a significant step up from entry-level.

My criteria in order of importance is:

Sound Quality and Volume
Ability to pair with two phones
Reliable Bluetooth connection
Battery Life
Facility to use wired connection
Comfort

I can tolerate some discomfort as I am frequently having to remove my headphones when working but they’ve gotta sound good and loud.  I normally like a sound signature that’s neutral (with perhaps just a hint of deep bass) normally. I don’t tend to mind a slight dip in treble as I’m quite sensitive to shrieking  (that’s what happens when you’re married).

Externals and Extras

The 550’s (as they will be referred for the rest of this review) are surprisingly lightweight for their size (and technology) and are mostly plastic with some metal parts where it matters. The supplied headphone cable uses a 2.5mm rather than 3.5mm plug, doesn’t appear to be anything overly special and has a single button remote which works fine on Android. I didn’t even bother unwrapping the USB to Micro USB charger cable as I have hundreds of the bloody things.  The case is a nice touch but it’s a little tricky putting the headphones back in - it’s a two handed job. The case is slightly softer and squishier than the case supplied with the V-Moda’s for instance.

The external part of the earcups has a soft touch feel to them. Not your typical shiny plastic anyway. The pads are nice and soft but are fairly small and only just cover my ears - in fact they do press against my earlobes but your results may differ - I am half Vulcan. In all fairness even with them resting slightly on my lobes they are still comfortable and create an effective seal.

Features and User Interface/Experience

The 550’s switch on and off by rotating the earcups. You can clearly hear the micro-switches working when you twist them. It’s an innovative feature but does take a little getting used to. The standby time on these beasts is pretty awesome so you don’t have to obsess about shutting them down if you’re nipping to the loo (as it you’d do that without continuing to wear your fantastic new toys) and the set connects very quickly to your phone (in about the time it takes to actually put the headphones on your head).

The 550’s make use of the APT-x bluetooth protocol so they pair well with Android devices. The bluetooth range is excellent - easily allowing me to use the upstairs toilet and leave my phone downstairs (told yer - everyone does it). I also went for a stroll with them on and can report that I didn’t experience one drop-out (with the phone in my pocket).  Noise cancellation is pretty good - removing most of the lower frequencies - not quite as effective as the QC35’s but also doesn’t produce that ‘pressure’ effect that you can experience with the Bose noise cancelling. The fact that it’s variable is a bonus - plus the fact that it can be switched off altogether. I honestly can’t say I noticed any difference in actual sound quality with the noise cancelling on/off. The 550’s also feature a sound shaping button when applies pre-set DSP effects - this actually works surprisingly well.

I briefly tried the cable connection - interestingly the touch volume control still works in wired mode. This does mean however that the amplifier in the headphone must still be active in this mode - I have no idea if the touch controls would work with a completely flat battery but I suspect the tiny amount of voltage needed for this control to work is so low you would probably never find out. I didn’t notice any significant change in sound quality when using the wired connection.  I also briefly tried the USB to computer connection - this is a neat feature as it effectively becomes an external sound card when connected to a computer - so you can listen to your tunes on your computer whilst charging the headphones. Again, I honestly didn’t notice any significant change in sound quality when used in this way - and yes, the touch volume control still worked in this mode. One really groovy feature is double-tapping on the right earcup give you Clark Kent hearing - it disables the noise cancelling, pauses the music and activates the microphones - whilst it’s not so sensitive that you can hear dead people, it’s certainly effective when the wife wants to moan at you - actually quicker than taking them off.

The touch control interface is in my opinion a bit of a gimmick - whilst it works fine it is a little sensitive and a couple of times I have changed tracks when I means to make small adjustments to the volume. Probably fine when you’re at home but not quite so useful when you’re walking about. I can’t help thinking that the money spent on this could have bought them a more powerful amp - but there you go.

Sound Quality and Volume

Unfortunately this is where the 550’s really didn’t shine. Sound quality is pretty damned good - but the volume was sadly lacking. So much so that it’s a deal-breaker for me. Even with the volume set to max on my phone and max on the headphones it was easily tolerable for me. Whilst I wouldn’t particularly want to listen at much higher levels it would be nice to have the option plus the additional dynamics better amplification allows. I resorted to using Vyper for Android’s Global Gain control to increase the volume to the absolute max - even then it was lacking though.

Bass

They can go deep - even deeper when using the ‘Club’ EQ setting. Bass isn’t super deep - nor could it be described as overly punchy. It’s definitely there but quite ‘neutral’ in character.

Mids

Nicely balanced and detailed. No complaints. Decent soundstage and nice resolution.

Treble

Bright but not ear-piercing - nicely detailed. Perhaps slightly too much for my tastes but I think most people would be happy with it.

Overall Tonal Balance

These are tonally sloped upwards from the bass rather than pure flat. In other words, they don’t sound overly like a ‘closed back’ headphone - rather like the Sennheiser’s of yesteryear. Remember the ones with the bright yellow foam pads - a little like that. Definitely not dark.

Inside the cups, behind the mesh covering the drivers, there a hard knobbly texture which forms part of the headphone’s sound shaping system. I cannot really comment beyond this - I have no idea if it improves things or not but it’s not something I have seen on any other headphones.

Voice calls were interesting. My Father In Law (don’t use the wife for this - she gets pi**ed off with me) reported that my voice was extremely clear - and he sounded very three dimensional - like he was stood in the same room talking (rather than directly into my ears). It’s a strange effect but I liked it.

The EQ effects were quite effective and you can add one of your own custom settings which are available no matter what music application you’re using - nice touch.

Hopefully this review offers some insight into the pro’s and cons of these remarkable headphones. If you’re not into loud music, want a lean neutral (but still processed) sound, want excellent telephone calling capabilities and all the bells and whistles these offer, then get them. If, however, you’re an old codger like me that still likes to rock out occasionally, perhaps you need to look elsewhere. I was impressed with the overall sound quality of the Bose QC35’s and I feel that the 550’s do offer a more detailed, flatter sound but they definitely don’t go as loud.

Noise cancelling was pretty effective on the 550’s but I have come to the conclusion that it’s not really something that I need and the additional processing that needs to take place in order for it to work has a detrimental effect on the sound to a larger extent (with regard to the QC35’s) and a lesser extent with the 550’s.

Conclusion

They’re a good headphone but they’re not for me. I liked the build quality and the bluetooth connection is absolutely first class but I found that the overly lean sound signature isn’t to my liking, they’re not as comfortable as I would have liked (definitely not as comfortable as the QC35’s) and the volume was just not up to standard - a deal breaker for me personally. The touch control and power on/off mechanism are novel but I can’t help thinking that it would be a more expensive repair/replace than simple buttons and switches and these ‘features’ could have been spent on improvements to the sound quality.

Let’s not forget that these headphones have a non-user replaceable battery - no matter which way you look at it your fancy new headphones have a limited life to them. With this in mind it would be nice to have headphones that are designed to be easy to get into - either by the end user or the manufacturer so that basic maintenance such as battery replacement, cable changes or earpad replacements can be done fairly easily and/or inexpensively. I can’t help thinking that this would prove to me more expensive with the Sennheiser’s than it would for the V-Moda’s.