As headphone makers have sought to unseat Bose’s still-popular QuietComfort 2 (iLounge rating: A-) as the king of the airplane-ready noise-canceling headphone market, most of the development activity we’ve seen recently has focused — wisely — on producing Bose- or sub-Bose-like alternatives at considerably lower prices. Only Bose has dared to try and up the ante in price with QuietComfort 3 (iLounge rating: B-), a design we didn’t really like, and found too expensive at $349 for the sound quality and noise cancellation it delivered; most of its competitors have instead focused on producing “nearly as good” solutions at the $150 price point, and succeeded.
Sennheiser has gone in the opposite direction with its PXC450 Headphones ($450), which are billed as audiophile-grade noise-canceling headphones—a step beyond the QuietComfort 2, rather than below it. To justify the steep asking price, which is more than enough to buy a pair of our top-rated and truly wonderful AKG K701 Reference Earphones, Sennheiser includes a feature called NoiseGard 2.0, an “active noise compensation” technology that promises to reduce ambient noise by up to 90%. It also includes a “talk through” button that you can press to hear outside noise while wearing the headphones—similar to the Push-to-Hear accessories sold by Shure—as well as a hidden switch to activate or deactivate the NoiseGard system. This switch lets the PXC450 continue to work, without NoiseGard, if you run out of battery power.
In some noise-canceling headphones, battery power can be a serious issue: if the battery in the QuietComfort 2 or QuietComfort 3 runs out, for example, the headphones can’t be used at all. Sennheiser’s passive mode switch eliminates that issue, and its decision to include two AAA batteries for PXC450, even though it requires only one to work properly for 16 hours, means that you won’t be without a spare in the middle of a flight. By contrast, Bose’s QuietComfort 3 requires proprietary $50 batteries, and only includes one in its package. Score a couple of practicality points for Sennheiser here.
The key questions most iPod users ask about noise-canceling headphones are five in number: comfort, size, isolation, sound quality, and overall value for the dollar.
We’ll answer them one at a time, in that order.
In our experience, it’s not hard for most companies to produce a comfortable pair of earphones at or below the PXC450’s $450 price point, so it’s not a huge surprise that we found PXC450 to be physically easy on our ears. Using considerably larger ear cups than the QuietComfort 2s, Sennheiser’s over-the-ear design proved to be even more comfortable during two five-hour international flights, requiring only tiny adjustments each hour or two of use to remain pleasant. Sennheiser has used a combination of very soft padding and clean-looking plastics and metals to create a firm, yet not-too-tight or -heavy pair of earphones. We consider the PXC450’s overall look and feel to be at least a couple of steps up over lower-cost alternatives, such as Logitech’s and JBL’s recently reviewed offerings, but at this price, they should be.
The other interesting thing about PXC450’s design is that they fold up to consume roughly the same footprint as the QuietComfort 2, which means that despite their larger size on your ears, they require roughly the same amount of space in your bag. Sennheiser includes a soft carrying case, as well as airline and 1/8” headphone plug adapters, and allows you to detach the audio cable for easier storage. We found travel with the PXC450 to be as easy as with the QuietComfort 2. The newer QuietComfort 3 is markedly smaller, but as noted in our earlier review, that comes at a cost: we didn’t like how it felt or isolated anywhere near as much.
Sennheiser’s active noise cancellation system NoiseGard 2.0 is, in a phrase, fine. The company claims that it’s using optimized noise filters, processors, and microphones (plural) to sample and cancel outside noise, and unlike the QuietComforts, Sennheiser builds in volume controls that let you adjust the audio levels to your preference from PXC450’s side.
In our testing, the net effect of all of the company’s electronics was roughly equivalent to the QuietComfort 2 in isolation, properly filtering out common low rumbling noises and enough mid-range noise to effectively quiet most of what’s going on around you in a plane or train. We had the questionable fortune of testing PXC450 at one point a row in front of a child who had connected the airline’s speaker-like free earphones to his headphone port and turned them all the way up; between our own audio and NoiseGard 2.0, PXC450 enabled us to ignore, though not completely mute all of it.
We call that “fine” only because we didn’t notice any dramatic improvement over previous noise-cancellation systems or really good pairs of in-canal passive isolating earbuds we’ve tested. While PXC450’s ability to isolate is decidedly superior to the aforementioned AKG K701s, and other headphones that use less pressure or other passive shielding to keep your ears from hearing outside noise, we didn’t find it to be a step forward over the QuietComfort 2s, as we might have expected for the price.
That was also the case with the PXC450’s sound quality. On sound alone, we have never thought that the QuietComfort 2s were a phenomenal value relative to other premium-priced head- and earphones we’ve tested, but there’s no doubt that other companies have struggled to create noise-canceling headphones that match Bose’s out-of-box sound at a lower price, and none have surpassed it. Though we were generally pleased with the way the PXC450s sounded in high-end and mid-range detail, and fine with their low-end performance, we weren’t initially blown away in the way we’d hope to be for the $450 asking price. Direct comparisons against the second-edition QuietComfort 2—the silver ones that have been sold for the past couple of years, with superior sound quality to their predecessors—revealed the companies’ approaches to be markedly different despite similar on-paper performance.
Most of the time, Sennheiser’s sound avoids the bigger, “in your head” sound of the QuietComforts, with a flatter presentation that lets you more easily make out some midrange details that are obscured by Bose’s warm, bassy sound signature. But while we were initially tempted to describe the PXC450 sound as more detailed, especially in the highs, it was the QuietComfort 2s that actually delivered extra nuance here, enabling us to hear quieter high-pitched elements in songs that the PXC450s presented less conspicuously. Though we’re not huge bassheads, we actually preferred the QuietComfort 2’s warmer sound, and decidedly more capable overall low-end performance, to the PXC450’s more clinical renditions.