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Lifewire / Jason Schneider
Refreshingly unique design
Amazing sound quality
Modern, adaptive noise canceling
The fit is a mixed bag
Slow charging time
Limited, finicky controls
The PXC 550 are great Bluetooth headphones from an audiophile brand, offering great sound quality and solid features.
The Sennheiser PXC 550 is a surprising option in the over-ear Bluetooth headphones space. Most people go for options from Bose and Sony, which isn’t surprising considering just how good the sound quality is with those offerings. But Sennheiser is a brand known for brandishing pro-level, musician-friendly sound across their entire range of headphones. With the PXC 550, you might just have the best of both worlds—a premium set of Bluetooth headphones that will travel well, stay comfortable, and deliver impeccable sound quality. We spent about a week with our pair of PXC 550 to understand how they compare to the top dogs in Bluetooth headphones.
Many headphones lean on circular designs for the earcups. The Microsoft Surface Headphones are perfectly round, for example, while the Sony WH-1000 series are a little more tilted and oval. The PXC 550 appear more like oblong ovals with their tops flattened. It looks funny when pulling them out of the box—perhaps because we’ve been primed to look for rounder, more symmetrical shapes. But upon further reflection, this shape actually makes a lot of sense because it mimics the shape of the human ear, adding to both the comfort but also the look. Plus, at just over four inches tall with a really slim profile, these earcups are actually some of the most slender we’ve tested.
If you can get over the pointy bottoms of each earcup, these are actually unique headphones and will definitely turn heads in the looks department.
The rest of the design is pretty expected. Most of the construction is outfitted with leather pads, a leather band, and a soft rubberized exterior to the cups. There are a couple of nice, subtle silver accents, and one rectangle on each side above the earcups that houses the Sennheiser logo. There’s also a silver ring on the outside of each cup that houses the noise canceling microphone grille.
The build quality is also impeccable, with sturdy, rigid metal rings going through the headband and outer edges to the earcups. If you can get over the pointy bottoms of each earcup, the PXC 550 are actually unique headphones that will definitely turn heads in the looks department.
We’re on the fence about the comfort of these headphones. On the one hand, the ear-like shape offered by the cups provides a really form-fitting experience. For many people, this will be nice because they will feel like they fit your ear like a glove. For other people with wide-set ears or just bigger ears, you might find these a little constricting.
In our testing, this was a mixed bag. During office work, it was fine, but when we were moving out and about, it got a little hot. The leather-like material that covers both the earcups, and the headband feels really nice to the touch, and it was refreshing to see that Sennheiser has covered virtually the entire headband with this material, instead of just the top portion like many other headphone manufacturers.
We also found that the light, memory-foam like material inside the earcups were more generously dispersed in the PXC 550 than in even the most premium options from Sony or Bose. But one slight hitch is the fact that you can feel the seam on the inside of the leather earcups just a bit. It was easy to get used to, but might bother some users.
Finally, at just over 8 ounces, these are easily some of the lightest premium headphones we’ve tested. For perspective, the Bose QC 35s are over 10 ounces, and even the considerably lighter Sony WH-1000XM3s are over 9 ounces. It’s impressive considering how much tech Sennheiser has put into the PXC 550.
It wasn’t that surprising that the Sennheiser PXC 550 were some of the best headphones for audio response alone. Sennheiser lists the frequency response at 17Hz–23kHz, which is well beyond what even humans can theoretically hear. This means that not only will you get every bit of coverage from the lowest lows to the highest highs, but you’ll also have extra data bolstering that above and below. Plus with 100dB of sensitivity and harmonic distortion less than 0.5 percent, you’ll get plenty of power and great accuracy out these. It’s pleasant to see stats advertised on the Sennheiser site, because many premium brands opt to leave sound specs off, in favor of branding jargon. Sennheiser gives you more to work with.
With 100dB of sensitivity and harmonic distortion less than 0.5%, you’ll get plenty of power and great accuracy out these.
Two other important notes on the sound quality front come from the Bluetooth codecs employed and the isolation of the earcups themselves. First, Sennheiser has opted to include the Qualcomm aptX codec in here, which is superior to the Apple-friendly AAC codec, and the more lossy SBC version found on most budget Bluetooth headphones. When your device sends audio wirelessly, it has to compress it to offer seamless playback, and aptX is the best-in-class version of this compression, leaving more of your source file intact than with SBC.
Finally, the snug fit of the headphones we mentioned earlier—though uncomfortable for those with larger heads and ears—serves to give you a full, rich response, even without factoring in the active noise canceling. Combine that all in with a built-in limiter that ensures you won’t get piercing, jutting audio from surprise sources (Sennheiser uses a sudden plane announcement as the example), and you’ve got a full-featured pair of cans.
In our tests, the Sony WH-1000 series has the best-in-class noise canceling available, though the Microsoft Surface Headphones offer nice customization and the Bose QuietComfort series can also give them a run for their money. That makes it even more surprising that the Sennheiser PXC550s snuck in and stole the show. Sennheiser calls their noise-canceling tech NoiseGard, and we found it to be one of the most modern, high-tech options out there. It provides a nice, base-layer of noise canceling that you can set to three levels, ranging from the ultimate quiet to just a bit of noise suppression.
Sennheiser calls their noise-canceling tech NoiseGard, and we found it to be one of the most modern, high-tech options out there.
What’s great about it is that it adapts to your surroundings in real-time in a way we haven’t really seen on any other headphone. Most noise-canceling headphones read your surroundings and adapt, but once their NC tech is manually set, they don’t adjust automatically. The Sennheisers didn’t require us to set the noise canceling amount manually at the beginning and still worked remarkably well when surprise noise floors were jumping into the picture. While we think cans like Sony’s WH-1000XM3 offer better noise-canceling when you’re just sitting in a stable environment, our tests showed amazing results with the PXC 550 when taking them out on walks in the city.
One of the hardest things to test on headphones is battery life. In order to get a read on how good the battery life is for a pair of headphones, you need to run them all the way down, and then charge them back up again. Sennheiser’s advertising clocks the battery life of these headphones at 30 hours of continuous playback on a single charge—most likely in ideal circumstances. If you’re using a lot of noise-canceling, you might get less.
What was surprising is just how close to this total our test brought us. We used the PXC 550 relentlessly for a week, playing loud music, grappling with noisy subway platforms, and even disconnecting and reconnecting between laptops and phones. We got about 28 hours of battery life, give or take, with heavy use. This was surprising considering only the top-of-line Sony’s tend to reach these levels. What’s all the more impressive about this is just how light Sennheiser managed to keep these headphones considering how good the battery life is.
That said, it does take three hours to charge to full using micro USB. We would have liked to have seen USB-C here or perhaps even some quick-charging options. But all in all, battery life is a huge plus for a pair of premium Bluetooth headphones.
If you plan to pull the PXC 550 out of the box, connect them to your phone, and move on with your life, they will not let you down. In our tests, we had basically no dropouts or Bluetooth distortion. We even had surprisingly solid call quality, a feature that’s often secondary on Bluetooth headphones like these. You’ll get most of the standard headset protocol, like A2DP, HSP, HFP, and more, and because there’s Bluetooth 4.2 you’ll have a stable, 30-foot range to work with.
Where we ran into some hiccups was in switching between a lot of devices. The headphones handle two devices okay, but any time we needed to pair something new, it was finicky to hold down the Bluetooth button to get into pairing mode. It’s not a huge deal, as most people aren’t looking at ease-of-pairing first and foremost, but it’s important to note.
The only other point here is that there isn’t technically a dedicated app for these headphones like you’ll find with Bose or Sony. As such, you won’t get the useful noise-floor customization or the soundstage adjustments you’ll get with those brands. You can download a Sennheiser-designed media player called CapTune to customize the playback on your playback device, and we found this to be fairly helpful. But because most people often look for customization across a bunch of different apps, this seems like a miss on Sennheiser’s part.
Like most of Sennheiser’s products, if you go for the list price from their site, you’ll be paying by far the highest premium. At $349 from Sennheiser, we can’t really recommend these headphones, when $348 will get you the slightly better Sony WH line. But at the time of this writing, the PXC 550 were running just over $229 on Amazon, making them an absolute steal for all the features. If you’re looking at the premium level of Bluetooth, over-ear headphones, but can’t stomach spending more than $300, then the Sennheiser PXC 550 tread a nice line between feature set, sound quality, and just-right pricing.
Sony WH-1000XM3: The Sony WH-1000 line has become the gold standard for high-end headphones. With better build, comfort, and comparable sound quality and noise canceling, they might justify the steeper price tag.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II: If you value brand and don’t care as much about specific sound specs, you’ll probably be willing to shell out the extra dough for the Bose QC 35 II headphones. They do have comfort going for them, but the PXC 550 are just a better value.
Microsoft Surface Headphones: If you want the added customization of adjusting the noise canceling level with the twist of a dial, the Surface headphones are for you. Otherwise, the Sennheiser PXC 550 gives you much more bang for your buck.
Unique design and audiophile sound.
The PXC 500 are great high-end Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones. With an adaptive limiter right on-board, beautiful, rich Sennheiser sound response, surprisingly good noise-canceling tech, and a truly unique look, the PXC 550 surprised even us. They might not garner as much of the market as flashier consumer marquis brands, but they really deserve a look for their amazing value.
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