Sennheiser threw down the gauntlet to Bose with their recently released PXC 550 Wireless Headphones. The Bose QC35 are often cited as the industry leading noise cancelling wireless headphones. We put the PXC 550 through its paces to tell you if Sennheiser have knocked Bose off the perch. They are both excellent headphones, so which you prefer will probably come down to your personal preferences in design and audio response. In fact, we liked these so much, they have been included in our mega compilation as the best headphones for travelling
Traveller’s delight: The Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless
So who is the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless for? First up, at $399 USD ($629.95 AUD, £329.95) they aren’t for the light of wallet. With flawless wireless operation and noise cancellation, they are marketed at travellers who want to escape from the noise and stress of flights or commuting. That’s one element they got right. With noise cancellation engaged the PXC 550 Wireless has a way of lulling you into a serene state of relaxation. They’re also good for home use for the same reason. Furthermore, the cancellation can help you focus on the task you’re working on — they are comfortable enough for long sessions.
Customisable noise cancellation settings on offer
There’s three noise cancellation settings: Full, Adaptive and off. You can customise the level of cancellation for the Adaptive mode using the CapTune app. This is one area where the PXC 550 is ahead of the QC35, as the latter’s noise cancellation is simply either on or off. The multiple cancellation settings are useful for when you need to be more aware of your surroundings. You can also double tap the touchpad on the right ear to temporarily remove the cancellation for a quick conversation. I would still be pretty careful using the PXC 550 Wireless for activities that require you to walk through traffic, as even without the cancellation active, the passive isolation is still pretty strong.
The active noise cancellation blocks out almost all low frequency noise. Sitting in a car the engine becomes near inaudible when it’s running smoothly, and you feel it more as a vibration on your body rather than a sound. Loud mid and high frequency noise can be heard through the cancellation, but it is cut down to perhaps 1/3rd of its original volume.
Noise cancelling headphones are known for producing a hissing sound while active, but this isn’t really a problem here. Even in a quiet environment I couldn’t really hear any cancellation artefacts occurring. The listening experience with cancellation active is nothing short of blissful. In anything other than a plane trip or standing on a street corner you’ll be in an environment of almost total silence. It makes focusing while working or studying very easy.
Sennheiser CapTune app provides EQ and playlist functionality
The Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless has an accompanying app called CapTune. It allows you to apply EQ, create profiles and playlists for different listening experiences (ie gym, home, travel) and listen to music from different sources (your phone’s library or streaming services). There’s a six band EQ with the option of bass boost, treble boost and eight additional presets. The presets weren’t very useful but the custom six-band EQ was effective. For example, the PXC 550 have a noticeable boost to the bass frequencies. If you listen to music where this is detrimental to the listening experience, you can carve a chunk out of the bass frequencies using the EQ.
The CapTune playlist function and media player work well once you get accustomed to the interface. I still prefer using my iTunes player on my phone due to the ability to skip to different artists via the alphabet, but apart from that the experience was pretty similar. iTunes isn’t perfect either so some users may prefer the CapTune interface. Note that you can’t apply the EQ to songs played in other programs, so if you want to customise the sound you will have to play the songs through the CapTune media player. One downside to CapTune is that it refused to play some of the items in my library due to DRM protection. I haven’t experienced the same issue on any of my other media players or devices. Depending on the source of your music, this may or may not be a problem for you.
No shortage in the comfort department
The Sennheisers are ridiculously comfortable. For a daily wear I’m normally more of a fan of earphones for the comfort factor. The PXC is definitely changing my mind. I’ve worn a lot of cans in my time but I can’t think of any that are more comfortable than the PXC. The soft faux-leather pads didn’t heat up during normal use, but they wouldn’t really be suitable for a workout. But hey, who in their right mind would want to use $400 closed-back, over-ear headphones for a workout anyway? The headphones weigh in at 227g, which is light enough to be very usable for long listening sessions. I’m easily annoyed by weighty headphones but I didn’t have any problems with the weight of the PXC 550s.
Excellent, bass-focused audio response
So, how do the bloody things sound? In a word, great. If you’ve never had premium headphones before these will blow your mind. If you’re a headphone aficionado you’ll still likely be pretty damn impressed. The PXC 550 has a broad response of 17 – 23,000 Hz. Sennheiser have not tried to create a dead-flat audiophile-friendly response here. They are a consumer focused model with a boosted bass profile. Don’t expect Monster Beats-style massive bass (which is a good thing). The bass is thick and prominent but not overwhelming. The highs are also brought forward, although not quite to the same degree as the bass. The mids are less emphasised, but it’s not really detrimental to the listening experience.
Bose go for balance, Sennheiser go for bass
If you want to compare the PXC 550 vs QC35, the Bose cans have somewhat of a more balanced profile, with less emphasis on bass. To my ears the PXC 550 Wireless are designed for styles like hip hop, R&B, pop and electronic music. Rock and heavier styles also sound enjoyable. If that doesn’t take your fancy, check out then checkout the newer Bose Quietcomfort 35 II review.
The bass might be a little too much for some more delicate or retro styles. With the CapTune app, the Sennheisers are of course customisable so you could bring them to a more balanced sound if you wished. Another way of achieving this is via wireless operation. The bass is more in your face while using the headphones with the included cable, but wireless mode dials it back a little. Most headphones sound worse when used wirelessly but for the above reason, I prefer the way the Sennheisers sound without the cable. The overall response doesn’t have quite the same definition in wireless operation but they still sound very, very good while running cable free. Additionally, you can play the PXC 550 Wireless at ear-busting levels without audible distortion. The cable jack, while being robust, is also skinny so it’s phone-case friendly.
User-friendly hybrid control scheme
The Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless has a hybrid control scheme that mixes touch controls and buttons. The volume, call, track controls and a number of other functions are controlled by a touchpad on the right earpiece. Once you get accustomed to the touchpad, it’s an effective and easy-to-use control scheme.
The noise cancellation levels and effect modes are controlled via physical buttons on the right earpad. The latter features different EQ settings like movie, speech and club (ie music). You can also create a custom EQ setting with additional effects (reverb, boost, etc.) via CapTune. It was a smart idea to combine touch controls and buttons, as it prevents the touch controls from becoming too complicated or spreading over to the left earpiece. Swivelling the earcups flat automatically turns the headphones off, which is a smart battery saving feature.
20 hours of wireless battery life for Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless
The headphones offer a generous 30 hours of wired battery use with cancellation active. Wireless use with cancellation active will get you 20 hours of use. The charging cycle takes three hours. The battery life is more than enough to get you through the day or a plane trip.
The cans are charged via the included USB cable. You can track the charging progress by looking at the the five-level battery indicator. It’s a simple set-up and it all works as advertised. Thankfully the headphones work in wired mode even when the battery has run too low to operate them wirelessly. Another benefit is the replaceable battery. You can get it changed by Sennheiser to keep your two-year (US) warranty intact. After the warranty period there’s no reason why you can’t get it replaced elsewhere.
Three microphone system for high call quality
Sennheiser have included three microphones for maximum voice quality and reduction of external noise during calls. The result is clear calls for both you and the person on the other end of the line. The isolation provided by the headphones also make it easy to focus on the call. Personally it took a bit of getting used to using headphones as a headset (I usually use earphones) but the comfort level is good enough that it’s not an issue.
Downsides for the PXC 550 Wireless
So what are the downsides? The main one for me was the “recharge headset” reminder which occurs when the headphones are close to dying. It keeps on coming every few minutes and there’s no way to make it stop while on wireless operation, short of recharging them. A single reminder would have been entirely sufficient. Switching over to cable when the battery is getting low is one way of avoiding this issue.
A couple of things that are worth mentioning: The impedance is significantly different for powered and unpowered modes, so changing the modes while wearing them and playing music can result in an instant large jump in volume. Also, make sure you turn down the volume of the voice prompts, which you can do by reducing the volume on the touchpad when music is not playing. At standard volume the voice prompts can be rather startling.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless vs Bose QC35
How do the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless stand up to the Bose QC35? Well, the Sennheisers are pricier at $399, which is $50 more than Bose’s offering. They’re both very comfortable, although the PXC 550 has slightly smaller earcups than those on the QC35. The PXC cups aren’t tiny or anything though – I found them perfect for my ears, which are easily irritated by tight-fitting headphones as I have piercings. The battery life of both models is 20 hours for wireless, cancellation active use.
The Bose cans have arguably stronger noise cancellation, but they lack the multiple cancellation modes and customisability of the Sennheisers. Both models have excellent audio quality for wireless headphones, with Bose going for more of a balanced profile and Sennheiser emphasising the bass response. The response of the Sennheiser can be altered via the CapTune app, although you’ll have to use the CapTune media player if you want to get this feature.
Are the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless worth picking up? They certainly aren’t cheap but you get what you pay for with an excellent sounding, comfortable and well-built pair of cans. The ability to customise the noise cancellation and EQ are both very welcome features. The prospect of a long flight will seem a lot less daunting with the knowledge you can slip into blissful silence with the PXC 550s. Sennheiser are onto a winner here, even in the crowded high-end wireless headphone market. Check out the Momentum 2.0 wireless review, the newer more trendy headphones from Sennheiser that have a different design and noise-cancelling features too.