Sennheiser PXC 550 Noise-Cancelling Headphones: Australian Review

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If you travel or if you commute, you need noise cancelling headphones. They'll change your life. They block out so much ambient noise, letting you listen to your music or podcasts or audiobooks at a much reduced volume and preserving your precious hearing. But that noise cancelling isn't worth much if those headphones don't sound good, right? Sennheiser -- a company with some serious audio chops -- has what it says is the solution with the professional traveller's new best friend, the PXC 550.

What Is It?

The $629.95 PXC 550 is Sennheiser's latest set of travel-friendly, noise-cancelling, Bluetooth-toting wireless headphones. Designed by one the most well-known and best regarded audio and headphone manufacturers the world over, with more than 70 years' experience, the PXC 550 follows on from the now-very-outdated PXC 450 from 2007 and improves upon it significantly. Although you can still buy the PXC 450, the 550 is an entirely different beast -- for one, it's an entirely wireless headset if you want it to be, with an internal battery that charges over microUSB and integrated Bluetooth 4.2.

Specifications
  • Bluetooth: Yes, Bluetooth v4.2
  • Noise Cancelling: Yes
  • Battery Life: (up to) 30 hours
  • Wireless Range: (up to) 100m
  • Weight: 227g

Sennheiser says the PXC 550 will get around 30 hours of battery life when corded and with noise cancellation enabled; throw Bluetooth into the mix and you're more likely to get to 20 hours. Like Sennheiser's main competition -- the $499 QuietComfort 35 from Bose and the $599 Parrot Zik 3 -- the PXC 550 has an internal battery, which in our opinion is a massive step up from previous sets' quickly-depleted and annoying to replace AA or AAA alkaline cells.

As an audio company, Sennheiser is judged on its sound quality first, and the PXC 550 has some pretty big shoes to fill in that regard. This is the company that built the HD 800s and the Orpheus HE90s. But in 2016, the quality of a headset's integrated microphones is equally important -- and the PXC 550 uses an array of mics built into the two plastic-moulded earcups both for ambient noise cancellation and voice calls.

What's It Good At?

It's a big challenge to make noise cancelling headphones sound normal. I've heard plenty that are claustrophobic and uncomfortable, making the wearer feel weird after a while. Sennheiser's PXC 550 aren't like that at all -- they're surprisingly open and airy-sounding headphones, with good treble detail and bass that sounds strong without being artificially short and punchy. They're one of the best-sounding noise cancelling headphones that I've listened to, and stand up to Sennheiser's lofty reputation of sound quality over everything else. The quality of voice calls -- on both ends -- is the best that I've heard from any wireless headset, and battery life is up to Sennheiser's 30-hour claims.

Sennheiser has knocked the noise cancelling out of the park with the PXC 550. I've been wearing the Bose QuietComfort 35 since they launched, and the Parrot Zik 3 and previous QuietComfort 25 before that, and the PXC 550 easily equals the gold standard QC35s for the power of the noise cancelling, but doesn't have any of the barely audible active noise cancellation hiss that creeps in with the Bose after an extended session of silence. Although it's adjustable, I didn't feel the need -- you can get excellent results straight of the box whether you're working in an office, sitting in a plane, or whether you're walking out in the street in the real world.

Like the Parrot Zik 3, the Sennheiser PXC 550 has touch controls on the earcups that let you swipe and tap away to flick through tracks, change volume and answer a call. It's a setup that takes some learning to get used to initially, but that works very well once you're familiar with it. The same is true of Sennheiser's complementary CapTune app that works over Bluetooth, which less useful a media playback than it is an audio tuning system, letting you inject a little extra bass or a little extra oomph in the noise cancellation for an especially noisy flight. It's a great added extra and almost mandatory for a set of wireless noise-cancelling cans in 2016.

What's It Not Good At?

The matte, grey rubberised plastic finish of the PXC 550 picks up fingerprints like nobody's business. If you invest in these headphones, also invest in a bunch of those little moist towelette alcohol wipes, and regularly clean off the earcups and leatherette headband of the Sennheiser PXC 550 -- you'll need to. And, while the headphones do fold flat and one earcup folds up into a G shape that makes them more compact, the headphones' semi-hardened carrying case itself is quite large, making a relatively large imposition upon the precious space of your daily work bag or carry-on plane luggage.

The PXC 550 is quite expensive, even when compared to Parrot's super-luxurious and superbly-leathered Zik 3. It's hard to justify that extra $130 on top of a $499 Bose QuietComfort 35 -- before any discounts, which are common on these kind of travel-shopping items -- when you're getting a pair of headphones that only really stands out in terms of the quality of the internal microphones for voice calls. You get plenty of accessories in the box and the build quality is top-notch, but the same is true of Sennheiser's competitors, so you have to be willing to pay that little bit extra for the brand name.

Now, this final negative point is a purely subjective one, and I want you to take it with a massive grain of salt. But I just don't think the PXC 550 looks very cool. The black-on-black-on-black Bose I can get behind. The Parrot Zik 3 are weird and haute couture. Sennheiser's latest wireless travel headphones are certainly extremely well constructed -- probably a bit better so than their two main competitors, I'd say -- but I just think the overall styling, and the over-use of that matte rubberised plastic, is a bit bland. They're not blingy -- that's a positive point -- and that should mean that the PXC 550 won't look out of date quickly, but that also means they're not especially fashion-forward.

Should You Buy It?

Sennheiser PXC 550
85

Price: $629.95

Like
  • Great noise cancelling.
  • Excellent audio for NC cans.
  • Great voice calls.
Don't Like
  • More expensive than Bose competition.
  • Large carry case.
  • Somewhat bland design.

Sennheiser's new $629.95 PXC 550 sounds great, and sounds great despite integrating some excellent and impressively powerful noise cancelling at the same time. The addition of wireless doesn't noticeably hurt sound quality, which is another tick in Sennheiser's favour; I think we've finally gotten to a point where you can wear wireless headphones if you like music and you like your music sounding good.

The addition of control through an app is an excellent extra, and Sennheiser's CapTune is one of the better ones we've seen. It'll work as a music player for the media already saved on your device, but there are better apps out there for that -- what it does very well is adjust the sound quality and noise cancellation of your headphones, with different profiles available for different tracks.

Build quality, too, means you'll be buying some headphones that last a long time. The PXC 550 might not be the sexiest pair of cans around -- although you might think otherwise -- but you can't fault its sound quality. Or the quality of the voice calls you can make. Or the noise cancelling. If these features matter more to you than how you look when you're sitting on the train or on the plane, then go invest in these shiny new Sennheisers.


Comments

    thanks... I've been toying with getting these or the Bose QC35, still have to decide if the extra $130 is worth it

    Have you tried Plantronics Back Beat Pro?

    I have been listening to these for some time and think they are a worthy competitor at a much better price albeit not very good looking.

    I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on a comparison.

      I felt when testing out the Backbeats that they were fairly heavy after some sustained use? I ended going with the Parrot Zik 2s and have been fairly happy so far. The size and weight differences sold me.

      I have them and love them over anything else I've tried.
      The fact that they're so much less expensive than the Ziks and Bose really makes them awesome too.
      Although yes, they can get a bit heavy.

      Ive had these for a year now. I use them almost every day (listen to music and audio books while I work on roofs). While I haven't used headphones that cost 600 and up, I still have a good ear for sound, and for the price you pay for these, they have excellent sound. Noise cancelling - once again I don't have anything to compare it to, but sounds ok. I honestly expected more, but it still definitely helps out. Battery life is awesome. Controls are easy and intuitive. I would have absolutely no reason to upgrade them unless they broke.

        Isn't it dangerous to be working on a roof and blocking your hearing?

          Why?

          Edit: 'In what way do you think it is dangerous?'

          Last edited 31/08/16 5:15 pm

            Well, being on a roof introduces an element of risk that is not necessarily really there when one is not on a roof. I would imagine that blocking out or at least limiting one of your main senses, that being your hearing would magnify that risk.

              OK, well no I haven't felt unsafe at all while using headphones. Please understand also - I'm not a young guy who puts music etc on at a deafening volume. If someone calls out to me I can still hear them. any noise in fact - I can still hear, its just a bit quieter.

              There are ways in which you could call it safer, one is that I can instantly answer a phone call with a button on the side, instead of having to fiddle around and get my phone out of my pocket (on certain roofs this is a big help). And then there is the fatigue factor - I am not bored if I'm listening to an audio-book, so I don't get fatigued and complacent.

              I can understand your concern, and to be honest, If I was working on a construction site where the risk would be magnified, instead of residential repairs, then I wouldn't use them anyway.

    I'm interested in comfort. My QC15s create a fair amount of pressure around the caps. Probably vital for sealing the ear but it gets uncomfortable after an hour I've found. I'm on a long haul in two weeks and reckon they'll become too much for sustained use. Any feedback on other brands/models?

    I have the QC35 they are excellent
    Compared then to the Zik 3 in Brisbane, noise cancellation on the Bose better, sound on the Zik better, but fractions either way both good
    Bose felt like silk on the head, Ziks had extra pressure on head that felt uncomfortable.
    Both better than the wife's QC25s
    Just my feelings

    Campbell,
    Can you please tell me what is the level of noise cancelling in decibels? The QC35 go to -20dB
    What's the level for the PXC 550?

    Also the QC35 have an issue with high level bass; they don't play it well to the point it sounds broken. Does the PXC 550 have the same issue?
    Thanks

      Sennheiser quotes -30dB, but you have to take all those numbers with a grain of salt, just like a headphone's quoted frequency response range. Anecdotally, I'd say the two are very similar. I prefer the bass from the QC35 myself -- it doesn't extend especially low, but it doesn't feel cut off, and mine don't sound broken with loud hits. I'd suggest maybe swapping yours out for a new pair!

        Thank you Campbell. I currently do not own a pair but I have the Zik 1's. I read a review where they tested about 10 noise cancelling headphones with a microphone put in each headphones while on the users head to accurately measure the noise cancellation and the qc35 scored a -20dB rating. Zik 2 or 3 where around the -10dB. Hence why I wanted to upgrade. It's great for blocking out the sounds of yelling children playing too loud lol

    If you want small & portable, consider noise ISOLATING earbuds. Mine are from Etymotic, and act as earplugs. There are versions for use with iphones and Android phones, if that's what you need. They sound quite good, and the noise isolation is significant.

    One issue is: some people can't stand having earbuds in their ear canals. Another problem is: having to remove one when having a conversation. If you're on a plane and need to talk with the flight attendants [about whatever] you don't want to be digging earbuds out of personal places.

    My experiences on long haul flights mean the Etymotics will [eventually] be replaced.

    I've had my PXC450s for several years and they're still going strong. I'd expect the 550s to have the same build quality and great sound, but i hope genuine replacement ear pads aren't as prohibitively expensive as they are for the 450s.

    I got these for a recent holiday (and 15hr flight). I was looking at the options, buds are not for me and big cups have always been an issue with comfort for me even after 30 minutes. As I went through the specs of the competitors I found the Sennheisers would also be better for my PS4 connectivity and other services also beyond what the Bose and others offer - even considering the audio style differences and reportedly better noise cancellation on the Bose.
    The result - Could not be happier. Even my wife said that they are worth every cent after having put them on for two minutes. So after a full movie I then slept with them on using noise cancelling on for the long flight home with no comfort issues - even left them on for breakfast and a few in-flight tv show eps rather than take them off and hear air-noise and chatting passengers.
    My only negative comments are that they came out of the box un-charged. At this time they are only available in Australia from the Tech2Go stores in Airports (I am told by Sennheiser until the end of 2016) so to pick them up before the flight and find them uncharged was a little let down but I then used my travel charger during the first flight to run them up. Also the touch-pad is easily touched/bumped when adjusting the headsets on the ear.
    Positives - Aside from the obvious quality, audio and noise cancelling which are superb - extra features include: Double-tap the touch-pad to pause (mute) the audio and switch to through-the-mic audio so you can hear conversations without removing them - Accessory cables and plane adapters are gold coated pins (fancy) and the travel bag has a nice pocket to keep these in - and finally - unlike the Bose (as I understand) this headset works as a headset with microphone for calls to your phone. Best I could find is that the Bose 35's and like units are often just headphones for playing audio (correct me if I am wrong here), the PXC-550's have multiple microphones to pic up audio (also used for the noise cancelling) and for talking into them very well including a mic-pass-though so you are hearing yourself and not yelling into them at the bus stop while on a call.

      Brilliant review Warren. Can you explain what PS4 connectivity in more detail please and your thoughts on the bass from the 550's?

        The 550 includes a latter bluetooth version (4.2) than most and also the aptX codec however, in reality not many headset devices will connect to a PS4 via BT so using it with a USB cable to the unit or the audio cable to the controller is still needed. It does maintain multiple host connections though so now my PC, iPad and iPhone all work/connect easily by just activating them.
        The bass is... enough and good to my ear. Ok, it's not huge or awesome in that regard but also it's not overpowering to the rest of the mid/high scale tones - I like the Sennheiser 'sound'. You can use an app to adjust these EQ settings further but I have found (so far) this does not greatly vary the sound that much but it does have a mild effect. This is of course my opinion and having watched some movies and a bit of music and played a few games so far. I would say that the sound range/balance is similar to the much cheaper PX200 I replaced but would add that although Bose has huge bass it tends to lack in other mid-range tones - that Bode 'sound'.

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