Review: Sennheiser PXC 310BT Bluetooth Noise Cancelling Headphones

pxc310btThey're wireless. They actively cancel out background noise. What's not to love about the Sennheiser PXC 310BT? Actually, there a few small things, although truth be told, I don't think the blame can actually be placed at Sennheiser's feet here.

The PXC310BT are Sennheiser's first pair of Bluetooth headphones on the Australian market. They use the A2DP Bluetooth profile to deliver stereo music wirelessly from your Bluetooth device to the headphones. For long-time gadget aficionados, this is nothing new. Similarly, active noise cancellation in a pair of headphones is nothing new either. But Sennheiser have combined the two technologies into one pair of headphones, and like the best fusion restaurants, have created something incredibly new and exciting.

The Design These headphones from Sennheiser look a lot like every other pair of Sennheiser on the ear noise-cancelling headphones, except without the inline noise cancellation unit. Instead, there's a small battery unit in the left earphone — it looks replaceable, but I couldn't get it out. The battery charges via an included USB cable, either plugged into your PC or a power socket. On the right earphone are the controls: up and down buttons for volume, left and right buttons for track control and a centre button to do almost everything else. On the underside of the right headphone are two more buttons: one that controls Bluetooth and one that controls the noise cancellation.

Like previous Sennheiser cans, the PXC310BT are black with silver trims, and fold up for storage. There's soft padding on the earphones themselves, plus two convenient locations on the top to make wearing them comfortable. And they are comfortable — I happily wore them for most of the day without any real discomfort.

The Controls Learning the controls for these headphones takes a bit of getting used to. The central button on the side, for example, not only starts and stops your music, but also turns the unit on or off and puts them in Bluetooth search mode as well, depending how long you hold the button. Similarly the NoiseGard button on the bottom will switch noise cancelling on or off if you hold it for a couple of seconds, or activate a speak through function so you can hear what people are saying to you when you have the music cranking if you just press it once. Despite the relatively steep learning curve though, once you've mastered the controls, all the buttons are located conveniently enough to make the entire process of controlling your music simple...

Unless you happen to own an iPhone, that is. I personally rejoiced when Apple updated their firmware to include A2DP Bluetooth, but it turns out they didn't include the profile required to let you skip and rewind tracks using the Sennheiser (and other) Bluetooth headphones. As such, while you can control volume and play and pause the music, you can't rewind or fast forward. Hardly Sennheiser's fault there — they've got the profile support. But worth mentioning seeing as how I was testing on an iPhone, as I'm sure many potential buyers would be as well.

The Sound Quality As a general rule, I've always loved Sennheiser's sound quality. That's why I was a little disappointed when I first started listening to music from my iPhone over A2DP Bluetooth. It sounded like my music—which is encoded at 256kbps MP3—was ripped at something like 64kbps. It was distorted and tinny.

Then suddenly it changed, and sound quality was fine. It was good, even, with a nice range and performance on the bass end as well. Then it started cutting out every second or so, and I had to end the connection with my phone and reconnect, at which point it was all good again. I don't know if this had something to do with other wireless signals messing up the Bluetooth connection, but it was erratic, to say the least.

Fortunately, Sennheiser did something very smart with these headphones and included a headphone cable jack (3.5mm to 2.5mm). When you plug in the cable, Bluetooth streaming is automatically switched off, although you can still use it to control your music. And with the cable plugged in, the sound quality was great. Which tells me that the problems regarding sound quality I was having were purely based around the limitations of A2DP Bluetooth technology, rather than the headphones themselves.

The Battery Life These headphones have a tiny little battery in the left ear, which powers not only the Bluetooth mechanism but the noise cancellation as well. So I was impressed when I got a few days of moderate use out of a battery charge. Sure, if you listen to your music all day every day over Bluetooth, you'll probably need to recharge every night, but if you only use it on the train to and from work, plus a little bit through the day, you'll happily get 3-4 days. If that's not enough for you, you should probably just stick with wired headphones and stop your bitching.

Other Things Worth Mentioning Despite being able to pair with your phone, these headphones don't do handsfree voice calling — you'll still need to pull your phone out of your pocket and talk like a normal person. Sennheiser do have a pair coming with that functionality though (called the MM450 TRAVEL), although they'll have a slight premium on the price.

Speaking of price, these puppies will set you back a cool $599. I know, that sounds expensive, but you're paying for the convenience of wireless and the awesomeness of noise cancellation, so it's not that bad a deal. Would I buy these? Probably not, but not because of performance — I think the convenience ultimately overcomes any quality issues with A2DP, and the inability to skip tracks on my iPhone is a limitation I can deal with. No, I wouldn't buy these mostly because I'd prefer a pair that doubled (or should that be tripled) as a handsfree for my mobile phone, like the upcoming MM450 TRAVEL 'phones from Sennheiser.

Still, these are the best pair of Bluetooth headphones I've tested yet, so if playing your music over Bluetooth is important to you, I'd definitely check them out.

[Sennheiser]