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headphone manufacturers the world over, with more than 70 years' experience, the PXC 550 follows on from the now-very-outdated PXC 450 from 2007 and improves upon it significantly.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.
- 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?
- Great noise cancelling.
- Excellent audio for NC cans.
- Great voice calls.
- 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.