Sennheiser PXC 550 Noise Canceling Bluetooth Headphones

Shots fired!

Sennheiser's new PXC 550 ($399) Bluetooth noise canceling headphone is a direct shot across the bow of Bose's battleship Quiet Comfort 35 ($349) dominance of noise canceling headphones, which I reviewed very positively. Not only do Bose own a big chunk of that market, they consistently, in my opinion, have the best isolation and sound quality performance. Let's see if Sennheiser can put a dent in that armored hull.

The PXC 550 is an extremely feature rich headphone, rivaled only by the Parrot Zik 3 in that regard. Sennheiser has done an extraordinarily good job of integrating all these features into a product that's not only intuitive to control, but comfortable and pleasing to the eye and ear. This high-performance head-set will be very appealing to many.

This is an all metal and synthetic material build, as expected at this price. But, like all Sennheiser product, the plastics are of very high quality, and the look and feel are superb. It reeks of quality German engineering.

Protein leather covers padding over the entire headband to the metal end caps. The headband adjustment/hinge/swivel mechanism at each end of the headband is a rather complex, but apparently a very well designed piece of hardware. Headband size adjustment sliders recede into headband ends; the adjustment is finely detented, easy to adjust, and secure when set.

Hinges allow ear-cups to be folded in toward the headband making them more compact for storage and transport. Yolk pivots at the end of the hinge mechanism to allow the ear-cups to rotate flat. All these mechanisms work flawlessly and there's no creakiness at all.

You can hear a couple of clicks as you rotate the ear-cups flat, these are switches that turn the headphones off. Yes, the on-off switch for the PXC 550 is the act of rotating the headphone ear-cups into their flat position. Which leads me to a minor niggle with the use of these cans: When folded flat for storage and transport you must rotate the ear-cups so the headphone turn off.


The ear-cups of the PXC 550 must be rotated before folding inward for the headphones to turn off (shown at right above). If not rotated before folding they will remain on and the battery will discharge. It's a small point, but I think people's natural tendency will be to just fold them without rotating the ear-cups. Heck, even the model in the video on the PXC 550 product page does it improperly at about 30 seconds in.

I had occasion recently to drive to RMAF, some 700 miles from Bozeman, in my stepvan—picture a FedEx truck—which is loud at 65mph. I took both the PXC 550 and Bose QC35 to protect my ears on the road. Much of that experience was used in developing an opinion about these two headphones. After four days and some 25 hours of driving I can say both headphones were roughly equivalent in terms of comfort, but the Bose may just edge out the PXC 550 in that it seemed a little lighter and less confining around the ear and on the head. The PXC 550 seemed somewhat more secure on my head and less likely to jostle around as I bumped my way over bridge seams and potholes.

My ears are slightly smaller than an average male, so I rarely have too much problem getting tucked into a pair of headphones. The openings to the PXC 550 ear pad are sort of triangular in shape, and narrower across but longer top-to-bottom than the QC35. Both cans have room within the earcup to tuck the pinna of your ear into the earcup behing the rear of the earpad. Both feel cozy, but the Bose does seem a bit more roomy than the PXC 550.

Included with the PXC550 is a firm-sided clam-shell carry case; 48" cable with one-button mic/remote; USB cable; 3.5mm to 1/4" adapter; and airline plug adapter.

Controls and Operation
As I mentioned earlier, the headphones are turned on and off by rotating the earcups. The left earpiece includes the NFC pairing antenna. All user controls are on the right earpiece and include:

  • Bluetooth on/off switch.
  • Three-position NoiseGard Noise canceling control switch: off, adaptive, on. In adaptive mode the amount of noise canceling is adjusted automatically depending on the amount of outside noise.
  • An Effect Mode Control. When music or other media are playing this momentary push switch will toggle you sequentially through four modes: Club, Movie, Speech, and Off. If pushed during a phone call, it will toggle between enhanced speech mode and normal.
  • The outside surface of the right earpiece is a touch sensitive panel upon which many finger gestures can be made to control the headphones.

The right earpiece also includes: USB connector; 2.5mm jack for cabled use; battery charge indicator; and a three-microphone array for phone communications. Both earpieces have two microphones for noise canceling—one on the outside for feed-forward noise canceling, and one inside the earcup for feed-back noise canceling.

Virtually all control of the headphones occurs by performing gestures by fingertip on the outside of the right ear-capsule. There are numerous gestures, and gesture meaning can change depending on whether you're listening to music or engaged in a phone call. Once relatively familiar with the gestures I found them intuitive and the control panel very responsive—maybe too responsive at times as the merest touch will effect a change—sometimes it seemed even clothing or a pillow would do it.

Gestures for music include: slide up and down for volume control; swipe forward to advance to next track; tap once to pause; tap twice to pause music and listen to the outside world; and slide forward and hold for fast-forwarding music. Gesture for phone include: tap to answer phone; tap and hold to reject call; swipe backward to mute; tap twice to put current call on hold and answer incoming call. For a full listing of all gestures see the manual starting on page 32.

The PXC 550 conforms to the Bluetooth 4.2 standard and supports: Hands Free Profile (HFP), Headset Profile (HSP), Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP), Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP), and Device ID profile (DIP). It also includes NFC pairing.

When on an airplane, plugging in the cable will disable the Bluetooth transmission, putting the headphones into airplane safe mode but will still allow music listening.

CapTune App

I've rarely seen a headphone companion app that I've found worth the price of admission...and they're usually free. The Sennheiser CapTune app seems to do way better than most having a number of interesting features.

There are two areas within the app for controlling the character of the sound heard: an equalizer and a set of effects. The equalizer can be displayed as a 7 band graphic EQ or as a pseudo-parametric EQ where you adjust the shape of the response curve with four moveable handles, two on the ends of the curve and two moveable within the curve. The problem with this EQ is that it only seems to work on sound being played from the app; music from other payer apps seems unaffected by EQ adjustments. I assume this means the EQ is being adjusted on the smartphone and not at the headphone.

There are four separate "fx" settings. Boost has settings of: off; thumb, that appears to increase upper-bass/low-midrange response (I think they misspelled "thump" in the app); rumble, that increases low-bass response; and voice, that makes the headphones strongly mid-centric. The spatial effect has selections of: off; near; medium; and far. This control seems to modify upper-midrange and treble response. Reverb, which adds off, low, medium, and high levels of reverberation. And lastly DLC, which I've not found any documentation on, but may be a Dynamic Loudness Control as there does seem to be a bass increase at low volumes when turned on and off. But it might also be Dynamic Level Control adjusting a compressor/limiter.

It appears these "fx" controls are implemented in the headphones themselves and are related to the effect mode button on the headphones. Only the "Director" setting can be adjusted in the app. What I don't understand is, if the headphones have a DSP that can do bass boost and reverb, why on earth did Sennheiser not put the equalizer in the headphones as well. Seems odd.

The CapTune app can play music stored on your phone by browsing the files, playing playlists, or looking through favorites. It also can play music from your Tidal account. (I have a Tidal subscription and love it.)

Phew! Lots of features, let's check out the sound quality.

Sennheiser USA
1 Enterprise Dr.
Old Lyme, CT 06371
(860) 434-9190

jgoldber's picture

Hi Tyll,
Great blog... which has lead me to buy rather too many headphones over the years.

Does the CapTune app, if you play music through it (I'm a Tidal junkie too, so I would probably use Captune anyhow) allow you to EQ out the hot response in the treble? If so any thoughts about what settings to use.

Also, did you try connecting the PXC550 to USB directly, and see if there was any difference in sound?

I'm so glad you tested the phone headset capabilities as for me these are critical for me for Bluetooth headphones, and this is the 1st time I've seen someone test them. Good job! One thing you left out is that you can "Mute" the mic with the PXC550 but not with the QC35, which is pretty critical for conference calls. Can you also compare the PXC550 to the QC35, on outside sound suppression for the microphone as an input device? I assume from what you said that it is significantly better.

On a final note, I would love to see your thoughts on the Etymotic ER4SR and ER4XR at some point?