Pros: Best value-priced pick for iPod replacement headphones for the price, nice integrated volume control, fit, look and case.
Cons: No need to buy them until your iPod pack-ins die and can’t be replaced under warranty; very similar to Apple’s product.
Makers of premium consumer electronics face a difficult choice when they opt to sell lower-grade accessories: release unimpressive products and tarnish a good brand name, or release impressive products and risk cannibalizing sales of their expensive ones.
Before we say anything else about the three pairs of lower-end Sennheiser headphones we’ve tested, we have to give Sennheiser credit for choosing wisely. Regardless of price, each of these products is worthy of the Hanover, Germany-based company’s reputation for excellent audio quality.
We tested one pair of in-ear bud-style headphones, the MX500s, a behind-the-neck pair called the PMX60s, and a foldable mini-earcup headphone called the PX200s. Two of these three models deliver very good audio quality at consumer-friendly price points, and easily fall into our top recommendation category. And while we liked the third model, we thought that its price and performance tradeoffs make it more of a niche product for users with a particular set of needs.
Since the introduction of detached “ear bud”-style headphones years ago, we’ve tried many and found almost all of them to have the same problems: discomfort and mediocre sound. Ear shapes vary from person to person, but like the plastic seats in McDonalds restaurants, headphone manufacturers somehow manage to mold ear buds that make 75% of the population uncomfortable after about an hour of use. And not surprisingly, most earbuds under $20 don’t sound too impressive, even for the price level.
For many people, Apple’s lightweight packed-in iPod ear buds have proved an exception to this rule, and Sennheiser’s MX500s are, as well. These two pairs of headphones sound virtually identical to one another – balanced sound with less bass thump and more apparent treble than your typical pair of lower-end Sony headphones. Though the MX500s shade their sound with the smallest hint of additional treble over Apple’s pack-ins, most users won’t notice the difference or care. Listening ten or fifteen times to the same audio sample, a user may notice that the MX500s as a result have a tendency to both slightly punch up music and slightly accentuate static and high-end MP3 distortion. But again, we think that most users won’t be doing this.
Like Apple’s pack-ins, the MX500s can sit in your ears for extended periods of time without discomfort when padded with included foam covers. While Sony’s more expensive MDR-EX70s and EX71s fit more snugly in the ear and offer better passive sound isolation because they rest inside the edge of the ear canal, the MX500s fit like Apple’s iPod pack-ins and offer comparably acceptable, but not great isolation.
However, a few other features add to their allure over Apple’s pack-ins: Sennheiser has mounted an unobtrusive volume adjustment slider at just the right place on the MX500s’ cord, enabling users without iPod remote controls to easily adjust the loudness of their audio. They’ve also included a handy clear and black hard carrying case that both holds the ear buds and winds their cord, a major improvement on the mediocre miniature carrying device that accompanies Sony’s MDR-EX70s and EX71s. And at a $19.95 MSRP, the MX500s’ value is definitely better than either Apple or Sony’s offerings – they sound better for the dollar than either, considering that you’ll need to spend close to $40 for either of those competitors.
Their appearance has pluses and minuses. Certainly attractive by most measures, their black and dark blue plastic will blend better into dark clothing than many headphones, and certainly won’t get you mugged if you’re walking the streets of London with your iPod. But that cuts both ways: since they’re not iPod-specific designs, you may not like their average “blend-in” factor, and may be willing to shell out a little more to have another pair of official Apple white buds instead.
From our perspective, at $19.95, the MX500s are nearly a no-brainer recommendation for people looking to replace the iPod’s packed-in headphones. If their isolation was better, we’d recommend them hands-down to everyone but bass lovers over the bass-heavier Sonys, and if the iPod didn’t come with a pair so similar – yet visually distinctive – they’d have no contest at the lower-end of the headphone food chain. Sennheiser makes at least two cheaper pairs of headphones, but if you’re looking to make a smart low-end choice, and you favor balanced audio over bass response, these MX500s strike us as an excellent choice to replace Apple’s pack-ins.
Two of Sennheiser’s three offerings for portable players are definite winners: while the PMX60s were our favorite-sounding headphones of the bunch we’ve tested, and a good value for the dollar overall, the MX500s are the easiest replacement iPod headphones we can recommend if low price and iPod pack-in matching style are your key issues, and in-canal comfort and a more bass-heavy sound are not desired.
The PX200s will appeal to a different crowd: people who like ear cup-style headphones but don’t want to travel around with the bulk, and don’t mind spending a little extra cash for some isolation. They’re a good compromise product, though not the compromise we ourselves would pick.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPods