When it comes to headphones, one tends to associate Bose with the "business traveler" demographic. But Sennheiser's making a pitch to that segment of the market with its new PXC 550 Wireless, a "premium" over-ear Bluetooth headphone that also features active noise-cancellation. It's a direct competitor to Bose's QuietComfort 35 and costs $399, £329 or AU$630.
Sennheiser is not only touting the PXC 550's sound quality, but its customizable sound modes (via the company's CapTune app for iOS and Android), touch controls, long battery life (30 hours) and strong headset performance for making phone calls.
Like the Bose, this is a very comfortable headphone, relatively lightweight at 8 ounces or 227 grams. Its ear cup design is different than the Bose QC35's and it doesn't have as wide an opening as the Bose, partially because its ear pads are puffier (those with big ears may find the pads sitting more on their ears than around them). I give Bose the comfort edge over longer listening sessions, but the Sennheiser isn't far behind.
The headphone folds up for storage into an included carrying case and seems well built, though it doesn't have the premium design touches of Sennheiser's Momentum II Wireless, which has comes down in price online since its release in 2015.
What differentiates the PXC 550 from the Bose is that it has those aforementioned touch controls on the right ear cup and automatically turns on when you put the headphone on your ears. It then shuts down when you fold the headphone flat. Bluetooth pairing worked flawlessly for me, and I encountered only minimal Bluetooth streaming hiccups.
The CapTune companion app for iOS and Android allows you to tune the sound to your liking, tailoring it to the music you listen to. But to customize the sound, you either have to play files stored on your device or use the Tidal Music service. The app doesn't support Spotify or other music streaming services at this time. However, a small button on the right ear cup allows you to toggle through a few different effect modes, including club, movie, speech or no effect. That works with anything you're listening to.
I found the sound quality and adaptive noise canceling very good. Bose is generally considered the gold standard when it comes to noise cancellation, and I've yet to find a headphone that offers superior performance in that regard. This Sennheiser comes close, offering essentially hiss-free listening, even with the highest level of noise canceling engaged (you can adjust the amount of active noise canceling).
I used the headphone in an open office environment, the streets of New York, and in the New York subway system, and the headphone did an impressive job muffling ambient noise (warning: you will ears will steam if you're using the headphone in warm environments).
It's also an excellent headset for making calls, with multiple microphones, noise reduction technology that tamps down ambient noise so callers can hear you better, and a side-tone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the headphones to prevent you from talking too loudly. It doesn't necessarily outperform the Bose QC35 as a headset, but it's right there with it.
Like the Bose, the PXC 550 falls a little short of the Momentum II Wireless, which delivers slightly richer, more refined sound. It also offers active noise cancellation but a lighter version of it.
I played some tracks from my Spotify library, then switched over to Tidal and played several tracks at the highest quality. I went with a flat setting on the Sennheiser initially, then played around with some of the preset EQs and made a custom EQ using the app.
Even with all the tweaking, I found the Bose QC35 offers slightly better clarity, tighter bass, and a little bit more open sound. It's the smoother sounding headphone overall. The Sennheiser is no slouch, however. It's got more bass energy than the Bose and is pleasant to listen to, but it's missing a little sparkle and definition.
Of course, audio is a subjective experience, and some people may like the sound of the Sennheiser better. Sound quality can also vary from track to track. Editor Ty Pendlebury and I had a healthy debate about the headphones. At first he liked the Sennheiser better after listening to some tracks by Mitski (he liked how her voice sounded better). But when I put on Chairlift's "Show U Off," he leaned toward the Bose, citing its more open sound and smoother, more restrained bass.
It's worth noting that it's a challenge to make a headphone sound natural (accurate) and transparent when you introduce a lot of digital processing (Bluetooth plus active noise canceling). The PXC 550 sounds very good for a Bluetooth headphone, but if sound quality is what you're after, the Momentum II Wireless is the better choice. On the flip side, the PXC 550 is more comfortable and offers better noise cancellation.
You do gain something by moving to wired mode -- a cable with an integrated one-button inline remote and microphone is included -- and audio purists can turn the noise canceling off. That said, there are better options that cost less if all you want is an over-ear wired headphone (Sony's MDR-1A, for example).
In the end I'm not sure I'd recommend the PXC 550 over the Bose QC35, which costs $50 less, but it certainly is recommendable. It's comfortable, feature packed, and performs quite well.