Great sound quality goes hand in hand with portable design – the PXC 550 hold their own in 2018 despite the stiff competition
- Compact, portable design
- Sharp and detailed sound quality
- Midrange can be a touch harsh
- Touch control is finicky
For many of us, music is an entirely necessary distraction from the grind of daily life. But what happens when the hum and hubbub of living tries to drown out your chosen playlist? Sennheiser’s PXC 550 has the answer. With active noise cancellation, Bluetooth, and a host of handy features, these headphones promise to muzzle the roar of modern cities and put your music back at centre stage.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless: What you need to know
Sennheiser’s PXC 550 was released at the tail end of 2016, but while we didn’t manage to review them upon release, we’re doing so now. Why? Well, thanks to their enduring popularity we’ve decided to see what’s so special about them.
The best part of two years has passed, but the PXC 550 doesn’t look out of date. It supports AptX, SBC and AAC codecs, so will work with pretty much any Bluetooth-enabled device you can imagine, and with 20 hours of wireless listening – even with ANC enabled – their stamina is well up to par. The sound quality is great, too, and the only weak point is that the noise cancelling is a tad behind the best in class. But then, in all fairness, the same could be said of B&W’s recent PX headphones.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless: Price and competition
The market for wireless ANC headphones seems to get more and more crowded with every month that passes but the Sennheiser PXC 550 has one ace up its headband: the price has steadily dropped over the past 18 months or so. Once retailing at £330, you can now pick up a pair for around £250.
While there is no shortage of excellent rivals – the B&W PX (£329), Bose QuietComfort QC35 II (£330) and Sony WH-1000XM2 (£330) – the PXC 550 acquits itself well. Your decision will largely come down to whether you prize noise cancellation above all else – in which case, Bose retains the crown.
In terms of audio quality, it’s a far trickier choice, with both B&W’s PX and Sony’s WH-1000XM2 putting in absolutely sterling performances. They’re all great in their own right, but while some will love the smooth, refined sound of the B&W, others will prefer the sharper, more lively sounding PXC 550. Our advice? If you can’t swing a home demo of all three, then just pick whichever one is cheapest.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless: Features and design
If you’re on the lookout for headphones that look as flamboyant as they sound, then prepare to be underwhelmed: the PXC 550’s are as understated as they come. They’re still a fine looking pair of headphones with metallic accents flicking across teardrop-shaped earpieces, and subtle Sennheiser logos printed across silver strips on either end of the leather-covered headband but an ostentatious product this is not.
Build quality doesn’t feel as immediately solid and reassuring as some at this price but with the PXC 550 tipping the scales at only 227g, it’s hard to be too critical. If you’re looking for a light, compact pair of headphones, the PXC 550 undercut the current top dog, the Bose QC35 II by a few grammes and they’re a considerable 100g lighter than the B&W PX.
The built-in battery is quoted to give 20 hours of operation with ANC and Bluetooth enabled, but it’s possible to squeeze 30 hours out of the PXC 550 if you’re willing to resort to a wired 3.5mm analogue connection. The supplied 3.5mm cable connects to a 2.5mm socket under the right earpiece.
Those earpieces fold down flat to fit into the supplied carry case; swivel them around and the PXC 550 automatically fire into life. A three-position slider on the right earpiece toggles between two levels of ANC (one is set to maximum, the other controlled within Sennheiser’s CapTune app) and allows you to turn off ANC completely. The small button alongside it lets you switch between the three PXC 550’s three listening modes – Club, Movie, and Speech – while a long press pops you into Bluetooth pairing mode.
As is de rigeur with modern Bluetooth headphones, Sennheiser has included touch controls, too. Stroking the right earpiece up or down adjusts the volume while tapping it pauses and resumes playback, and stroking back or forward skips tracks. Granted, it’s not completely foolproof – I regularly paused the music by mistake – but it certainly works better than the tiny touch sensitive button on Audio Technica’s DSR9BT.
Those of you with particularly big hair – or a cranium of above-average proportions – may not get on quite so well with the PXC 550’s headband. Personally, I had to extend the headband to its largest setting and even then I found that it began to dig in a little after 15 minutes or so.
In my case, nudging the PXC 550 back and forth a touch, or just pushing the earpieces slightly upwards, was all that was required to rectify those comfort issues. The only slight issue? Those adjustments can have a knock-on effect on sound quality, so it’s best to be careful: I noticed quite a variation in treble and mid-range response while shuffling the earpieces into position.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless: Sound quality
Comfort qualms aside, the PXC 550’s sound very good indeed. There’s a lovely firm bass underpinning proceedings and the crisp, detailed mid-range and treble do a great job of unpicking even the densest, most cluttered of recordings. There’s a good sense of depth and width to the sound too, which is especially pleasing given the PXC 550’s closed-back design.
If there’s a chink in the PXC 550’s armour, it’s that there’s a noticeable spike in the upper midrange which can cause problems now and again. This frequency lift does actually help with a lot of albums, adding an extra snap to percussion and a touch more presence to vocals and certain instruments but it can also veer into harshness. On occasion, I found myself reaching for the volume control and very, very occasionally, for the fast-forward button.
You can probably guess what I’m going to say about the noise-cancellation: that’s right, it’s not as good as Bose’s QuietComfort QC35. Set to its maximum, it does do a decent job of quietening the rumble of public transport and white noise of everyday life, and it is more potent than the B&W PX’s ANC circuit but it’s not perfect. There isn’t the eerie near-silence of Bose’s ANC technology and voices still come through a little more clearly than we’d like.
One rather odd audible effect is that the Sennheiser’s noise-cancelling circuitry can be overwhelmed by the pressure changes of trains zipping into and out of tunnels, as well as certain deep, loud rumbles. This manifests itself as an ultra low frequency thumping which can occasionally be quite distracting once you notice it.
Turning on ANC does affect the overall sound quality in other ways but, thankfully, not in a negative manner. As ever, there’s a constant low hiss which, oddly, is louder in the left earpiece and this is partnered with an obvious bass boost and slight thickening of the lower mid-range frequencies. If anything, though, the result is a sound signature that’s more listenable than with ANC disabled. Basslines remain firm and taut, vocals float free of the instruments around them and there’s more than enough clarity to do justice to pretty much any musical genre you find on your playlist.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless: Verdict
They might not be the newest contender on the ANC block but the Sennheiser PXC 550 is still a very capable pair of ANC headphones. Music has a detailed, lively quality to it that couldn’t be more different to the laid back, smooth-sounding B&W PX and the combination of its light weight a compact foldable design and decent battery life ensure that the essentials are present and correct. If you can live with the occasional quirk, then you’ll not find the PXC 550 wanting.
For many, though, the most attractive aspect of the PXC 550 will be the price. The intervening months since its release have seen the PXC 550 receive some welcome discounts, so you can now find it on sale for around £250. With both Bose and B&W’s rivals costing nearer £320, you’ll need to think long and hard whether those alternatives are worth paying a premium for.