Every year, as we head into the pre-holiday shopping/gift-buying season, we pay extra attention to some of the products that we feel would make for great gift ideas. Today, we’re revisiting Sennheiser line of noise-cancelling headsets with the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, which has been out a while but is still a top choice loaded with both functionality and performance.
If there’s one thing I always like about Sennheiser it’s probably their consistency. Not only is sound quality always a priority in their headsets, you’ll also rarely see them stuff experimental or gimmicky features into their headsets or come up with a radically different visual design. It’s an approach that allows them to stick with existing product lines for a long time as well, since the previous headset in this particular line that I tested was the PXC 450. While they’re not the sexiest of names, it’s recognizable, and you know you’re getting quality.
As with most headphones that feature active noise cancelling, the PXC 550-II can be folded up to allow for users to travel with it. It ships with a handy case that sits somewhere in between a soft and hard shell to offer protection without becoming bulky in the process, and an outline of the headphones on the inside of the case ensure a good fit and optimal protection.
Designed for long-distance travel, this is a lightweight headset – which translates to a hard plastic exterior for the earcups, although black aluminum finishes certainly add a more premium feel to the PXC 550-II. The headband is extremely comfortable and is reinforced with metal for durability with a synthetic leather exterior – which is also found on the ear pads. The pads can be removed for easy cleaning or a replacement, which is more good news in the long term. They offer a relatively narrow fit for the ears, but no one reported this as being uncomfortable.
Compared to the PXC 450, the 550-II look extremely sleek, and you’d never suspect the immense wealth of options and functions that hide beneath that exterior. On the bottom of the right earcup you’ll find a small switch for three different ANC settings as well as a button to enable a voice assistant, but other that you won’t find anything besides a jack for wired operation and a USB port for charging. One point of note about the jack is that it’s of the less-than-standard 2.5mm variety, so you might not have a spare if you ever lose the included cable (which connects to devices with a 3.5mm jack on the other end).
Ease of use
The headset turns on and off automatically when you rotate the earcups, eliminating the need for an on/off switch. Although handy, this does make it harder to let someone else have a quick listen to a track you’re listening to without having them put on the headset.
The PXC 550-II isn’t short on functionality despite its lack of buttons to press and switches to flip though, as it hides a wide range of options under the touchpad of the right earcup. So much so, in fact, that this is the first headset I’ve ever tried where I felt like I had to overcome a learning curve just to be able to use all of its functions.
You can (un)pause music by tapping the touchpad (if it’s connected to a smartphone), but that same tap will also let you answer and end calls they come in. Double-tap during a call, and you can go back to something else as you put the caller on hold, but swipe horizontally during the call and you might mute the microphone on accident. During music, that motion sends you to the next or previous track, but holding the touchpad at the end allows you to rewind or fast-forward instead. It’s a lot to take in at first, but within a day it’s all pretty intuitive and I haven’t touched the manual since.
We’ve already mentioned the new voice assistance button, which lets you use Alexa, Google or Siri when paired to a phone. It’s a useful feature if you have something you want to quickly check without having to grab your phone, but can also serve as a workaround if you don’t want to deal with some of the controls.
You can unlock additional features if you connect the headset to the Sennheiser app, which requires a somewhat modern smartphone that supports at least Android 7.0 or iOS 11.0. The app lets you update the headset’s firmware, and also gives you greater control over how the noise cancelling works – a function like anti-wind works great if you ride a bike with your headset on. Other options in the app include smart pause (which detects when you take the headset off and pauses playback for you) and the ability to select from a range of different voice assistants.
While these are things you’ll likely only use once in a blue moon, the app also houses your equalizer settings, with four presets and the ability to create your own. Your options to do so are fairly limited though, so it’s a good thing that these Sennheisers sound great out of the box – I never really touched any of the presets beyond a little experimentation.
I still remember having to switch out batteries on the PXC 450’s, so the built-in rechargeable batteries in the of the PXC 550-II are a blessing. They’re great too, because on a full charge they lasted me for over 30 hours while connected in wired mode – and that’s with ANC turned on! Turning the ANC off boosts that to even longer, but using bluetooth as your connection method (a large variety of bluetooth variants are supported) bumps the charge down to a still impressive 20 hours or listening with ANC turned on. The battery is also quick to charge, needing only three hours to fully charge after being depleted.
Although the PXC 550-II is a very versatile headset you can easily wear around the house or while working, noise cancelling’s an important feature for those who want to use it on the move. The narrow fit of the earpads ensure excellent passive noise cancelling, so even without the ANC turned on the PXC 550-II already blocks out a good amount of sound.
It’s not going to be enough to get rid of the low frequency drone of a plane engine or the constant low whine of a bus or train, but that’s where the ANC kicks in. It’s not completely gone, which you can tell when you pause your music, but it’s extremely effective at making your in-flight music or movie enjoyable again. The fact that you can easily switch this on or off without taking the headset off is useful if you make frequent short trips as well.
No matter how good a pair of headphones looks, ultimately it’s always about how it sounds, and in that sense the PXC 550-II is a true Sennheiser – with a neutral-sounding soundscape that doesn’t over-emphasize bass sounds like so many other headsets do. That’s especially true for gaming headsets, but you’ll find the same if you pick up a pair of Beats.
As is the norm for travel headphones, the earcups feature slightly smaller drivers – 32mm in size as opposed to the 40mm or even 50mm driver you’ll find in ‘home’ models. The PXC 550-II, as many headsets in this price range, features dynamic drivers, and performs especially well in the midrange to lower end of the frequency spectrum – offering an authentic sounding (rather than over-emphasized) bass.
Having a neutral soundscape, like most Sennheisers do, is great for making sure vocals come across nice and clear – and PXC 550-II is no exception, with an authentic sound that worked great with whatever I threw at it. Although my taste is music is quite diverse it’s also relatively mainstream, so your results might vary if you have specific audio needs – if you’re looking for punchy bass or heavily emphasized trebles then other models might suit you better because they are engineered to provide a less neutral soundscape.
The combination of noise cancelling and a three-way microphone setup also works great when using the PXC 550-II for calls – filtering out background noise makes every call sound crystal clear, even when inside a relatively busy terminal.
Although it’s meant to be a pair of travel headphones, in a year in which we don’t travel as much it’s good to realize that the PXC 550-II is actually a really good multi-purpose headset as well. Its wired option is great for gaming in a noisy living room environment and when everyone’s staying home it’s also a great way to block out the noise of people not going into work or even doing a bit of home improvement.
It has a sleek and modern, if understated look, and features Sennheiser’s signature high quality audio – still a superior choice if you’re not looking for an over-emphasized experience. If you do then you can tweak the experience a bit with the EQ presets, but you’re also got other headsets to consider in that case. For a neutral sounding headset in this price range, you won’t do much better than the Sennheiser PXC 550-II.