- Buyer's Guide
Sennheiser PXC 550 Noise Cancelling Headphones: Review
Kris Schroeder is a musician – among other things – and founding member of long-standing Australian band The Basics (with Wally de Backer, commonly known as Gotye). He is currently living, working and making music in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. And so we thought he’d know a thing or two about good sound…
Sennheiser’s PXC 550 Wireless (AUS / USA) Headset promises to turn “every journey into a first-class experience”. Living and working in the often rough post-Soviet environment of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, this was likely to be a difficult promise to keep. Beginning with the 27-hour Trans-Mongolian train journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, then in-and-around my home and downtown office, I was given four weeks with the PXC 550 to see/hear exactly how it might shape up.
Who it suits
– Reserved types who dig function over fashion
-Audiophiles with an eclectic music collection and an ear for great sound
-Those people who believe there is too much bass in contemporary systems
-Travelers who like to pack light
Who it doesn’t
-Folks whose fashion is based on current trends – the aesthetic is a bit dated and minimalist
-Frequent flyers hell bent on smothering every sound possible, this isn’t the very top-tier of noise cancelling…
-Those struggling to meet their credit card repayments
I spend a lot of time monitoring mixes and performing edits in my “other” career (the music one), so dynamic range and detail is really important to me. I gave the PXC 550 the full musical treatment from Albinoni’s tragic “Adagio in G Minor” (you might know it from the Gallipoli soundtrack), through to Crowded House’s “Together Alone”, to some Kanye, some local Kamba music from the Katitu Boy’s Band, through to the criminally underrated “Modern Guilt” by Beck and “The Age of Entitlement” from The Basics. And I have to say – I’m impressed. Sennheiser is a company built on its recording gear, and it shows.
The tops are wispy but clean, the mids have just enough bite without too much drive, but it’s the bass I’m most impressed with. It’s too often that modern listening devices overdo the woofiness of the bass range, but the PXC 550 is delightfully understated, just sitting nicely underneath the mix. There’s fantastic detail within the mix, and I think the PXC 550 would be great reference headphones. So there’s that. There’s also a few different options on “effects” (eg. movie, speech) that change the EQ if you so desire.
Packed with a ton of features that will tickle any gearhead, Sennheiser’s patented NoiseGard Hybrid technology has three “noise cancelling” settings, depending on the level and intensity of ambient noise. An easy switch located at the back of the right earpiece, the amount of noise cancelled is significant across the settings. The PXC 550 NoiseGard was formidable against the noise of the rails during the 27-hour Trans-Mongolian train ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, where my alternating between music and lectures on Astronomy (that’s a story for another time) was clear and uninterrupted.
The 30-hour battery life was more than enough for the trip, meaning I never had to charge even once. Right now I’m finishing this review on a lunchbreak at work, and just over the divider is our young Mongolian accountant clicking away noisily on a piece of bubblegum. I’ve shot a greasy stare over a couple of times, but the message doesn’t appear to be getting through. Then “Eureka!” Inspiration strikes and on come the NoiseGard noise cancelling headphones and her temporary annoyance is now permanently eliminated.
The headphones double as a telecommunications device, where paired through Bluetooth with your Smartphone. In between music-listening sessions while walking around Chingeltei District, I took a few calls from Australia. It can be quite disorienting at first, as your own voice is heavily muted by the noise cancelling (even with it set to off), while the caller’s voice is loud-and-clear in your head. However, after a couple of calls I got used to it and the reception and call quality was excellent. This was one of my first experiences with Bluetooth calls (I know: n00b), and I was pleased at how seamless the experience was. I’m not sure how many times I’ll need to answer the phone while on a plane, but I suppose the airport lounge would work as well as wandering the streets of UB.
The typically Northern European black-and-chrome design of the carriage has some harkback to headphones of the 1970s, but without the bulk. The arms of the carriage easily extend to fit bigger heads (like mine), and though I do wonder how much usage will compromise this easy give, at the time of writing the balance of support and maneuverability is just right. They sit well on the head, and even when jumping up and down (as you do), they stayed firmly in place. The simple touchpad control built into the sides of the earpieces to change tracks and volume is clever and works well.
The Not So Good
The earpieces themselves are comfortable at first wear. The vinyl comfortably cups the area around the ear, producing the natural vacuum required for the noise cancelling to work. For the first few days – and this might be my personal sensitivity and/or the shape of my head – the headphones did produce some pressure-tension, that interestingly wasn’t as great when I flipped the headphones around and wore the right earpiece on left ear and vice-versa. However, after the first week the PXC 550 shaped more comfortably around my head and there have been no further complaints.
The PXC 550 will appeal broadly to its target market, who enjoy their privacy and a bump-free journey. Its in-built Limiter means that if you are paired to an in-flight system, any crew announcements – which most frequent travelers know are often blurted out without warning – are smoothed out to save your ears and your wits. The result appeared to be a little like the compression on American Commercial Radio. I didn’t get the chance to test out this feature for what it’s designed for, but as a producer/musician myself, I wonder if the technology might upset some others who value the peaks and troughs of recorded music.
The nice, neat folding of the earpieces “up” into the carriage will appeal to those who value extra space. And the carry case will please neat-freaks who like to have everything in its right place (not mentioning any names… “Wally De Backer”). But there’s an issue: the zip-up case lacks pockets for the many included adaptors, so this might actually go the other way and annoy people. Currently, all the adaptors are still in their plastic ziplocks which is likely where they’ll stay (and likely to fall out and disappear).
While trying to pack in a wide variety of intuitive features, intended to provide this seamless “first-class experience”, a couple of these I felt did exactly the opposite. Using my phone a lot to record Voice Memo demos of new songs, whenever I clicked “pause” (for instance, to transcribe lyrics or notes), the voice in the Headphones would say “Call Ended”, which was obviously not the case. It appears that the AI is more A than I in this instance, unable to tell the difference between ending a phone call and pausing a Voice Memo.
Also, whenever I turned the headphones on and paired with my iPhone, it would immediately activate the music. This might be fine for some, but for me it was an annoying step of “turn the music off before I could use them the way I wanted to” that I wish I didn’t have to take. These two features I would like to be able to turn off, but there doesn’t appear to be a way to do this.
Sennheiser’s PXC 550 is a formidable entry into an already busy market, with its NoiseGard noise cancelling and an excellent 30-hour battery life (I haven’t had to charge once yet) promising sweet relief to both men and women who travel frequently for business. At just over $USD399, the wallet will take a bit of a hit, but its durability and simple-but-powerful multifunction capability seems to justify the cost. For the on-the-move audio engineer I’d give them a big two-thumbs up for the dynamic range and detail. As they say “the highs are crisp and the lows are velvety”, and even while jumping over open manholes and dodging cars in the mean streets of Ulaanbaatar, the experience is at least business if not first-class.