(Pocket-lint) - In the world of noise-cancelling headphones, there's a lot of buzz and attention around brands like Sony, Beats and Bose, but sometimes you need to take a step back and have a look at a more traditional brand.

In a lot of ways, the original PXC 550 felt a lot like Sennheiser's answer to the Bose QC35, and the second generation is an upgraded version of that. There aren't major upgrades, but it brings a few modern day smart features, upgraded noise-cancelling and better battery life.

Design

  • Measures: 63 x 136 x 174mm / Weighs: 227g
  • Leather-like coated padding

If Sennheiser's Momentum Wireless headphones are about premium style and sophistication, the PXC 550 series is about practicality and portability. It seems everything about the way this pair of headphones is designed has been chosen to make it easy to wear and easy to carry around.

The exterior of the earcups is made from a lightweight plastic and finished with a subtle, minimalist matte black. There's no unnecessary embellishment anywhere. It's one clean and simple paint job - and we like that a lot. You won't standout unnecessarily while wearing them, but at the same time they have that understated look that's hard not to enjoy.

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This focus on attempting to create a seamless look also means there's not much in the way of buttons or ports on the PXC 550. It's not like the more affordable HD 450BT that has far too many buttons clustered up one earcup. That's both a good and a bad thing.

No physical buttons for playing and pausing your music means using a touch-sensitive panel on the outside of the right earcup. In deliberate use, it's intuitive and works well: tapping once plays or pauses the track; swiping from front-to-back skips back, swiping back-to-front skips forwards; swiping up or down adjusts the volume. However, it is far too easy to accidentally pause the music when you don't intend to.

Buttons-wise, there's a switch for adjusting the level of noise-cancelling you want, and there's a button for launching your Alexa voice assistant. There's also - sadly - a Micro-USB port. For some reason, Sennheiser stuck with the older connector type for these headphones, so no USB-C here,  which means carrying around an additional cable for charging if you have an up-to-date phone. 

Some of the design and finish choices just scream old-school. The leather-like outer covering on the earcup pads and around the headband is lovely and soft, which makes the headphones easy to wear for long periods without creating any of those sensitive pressure points on the top of the scalp. The band fits close to the head as well, so these cans feel slimline and don't add lots of extra bulk, nor protrude too far from the head.

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What we've loved about the previous generation, and this pair, is the movement of all the parts that make them fit really well, but also ensure easy folding for portability's sake. The earcups rotate completely flat, a gesture which also conveniently switches the headphones off (there is no power button). As well as that, the hinges holding the earcups fold inward so you can tuck them into the space under the headband, keeping them nice and compact for popping into the included fabric carry case.

Smarts and noise-cancelling

  • Adaptive noise-cancelling
  • Built in Alexa voice assistant
  • AptX and AptX low latency/Bluetooth 5.0
  • Up to 20 hours playback with ANC/wireless

These cans might look like your average pair of over-ear headphones from the outside but, inside, Sennheiser has equipped the PXC 550-ii with the latest in active noise-cancelling technology (ANC) and Alexa's smart voice assistant too. 

ANC in this instance stands for Adaptive noise-cancelling, not merely Active noise-cancelling. That means - similar to Beats' and Sony's efforts - it's constantly scanning and detecting noise from your environment and adjusting the noise-cancelling filter to match, to more effectively cancel out the humdrum around you. 

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With lockdown in full effect at the time of testing, and traffic noise being at an all-time low, it wasn't possible to test this in real-life situations. Instead we were able to test against some ambient noise tracks of coffee shops and airplane cabins - yes, streamed online, those things exist on YouTube - and you can definitely tell when it's activated. The Sennhesier does a good job of killing a lot of external noises, especially consistent, droning noise.

Flicking the switch to enable ambient noise to passthrough is equally effective, allowing you to hear what's going on around you without taking off the headphones or stopping the music. 

Add that to the fact that the headphones have a lag-free Bluetooth connection, and you have really solid performing cans. And then there's battery life, which is great.

Sennheiser's claims of getting 20 hours of music playback with both Bluetooth and ANC activated is fair. Depending on what music you're playing, how loud it is, we think you'll get around 18-19 hours. If you use it without ANC and use the included cable for a wired connection, that battery will last even longer. 

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As for the smart features, those can easily be lived without - but some people might find them useful. Alexa, for one, is useful if you're in the Amazon Echo ecosystem and have become accustomed to giving Alexa requests using your voice, whether that be setting timers or asking for a weather forecast. It's not vital, but it works well once setup. 

Then there's auto-pause, which is completely optional, but works reliably. When you remove the headphones you can have them auto-pause the music that's playing, but to enable it you need to toggle on the option within Sennheiser's Smart Control app.

Sound

  • 17Hz - 23kHz frequency response
  • 32mm dynamic drivers
  • Adjustable soundstage

Sennheiser knows how to make earphones and headphones that sound great, so it's no surprise that the most recent PXC 550 continues on with that trend. Sound is delivered by a pair of 32mm dynamic drivers - which you see through the cloth if you point the insides of the headphones at a source of light.

The result is sound that's immensely enjoyable. These cans are capable of producing plenty of bass, without ruining the clarity of the vocals or higher frequency tones. Listening to old 90s hip-hop was just as enjoyable as playing some modern acoustic singer-songwriter music. 

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Listening to Human Love by Newtown Faulkner, for example, and the low bass sounds great alongside the clarity of the fingerpicking acoustic guitar.

Similarly, listening to tracks backed by orchestras was a pleasant experience, the headphones enabling you to hear the layers of the music. Send in the Clowns by Frank Sinatra has a harp in the background steadily plucking away, while the woodwind, brass and strings swell and play off each other. The whole time there are some low, bowed strings acting as the bass which is always there, adding presence and a foundation to the entire track. 

Switching completely to something more modern: Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa has a fantastic synthesised bass, with some high impact drums, plenty of funk, and it all sounds brilliant through these Sennhesiers.

We did find that in order to get sound we really wanted, we had to open the Smart Control app and adjust the sound properties. Unlike some manufacturers, there's no equaliser (EQ) setting as such, just some general Acoustical Settings options. You can swipe through the presets which include Speech (which is far too flat and vocal focused for music enjoyment), Movie (which brings added rumbling bass), Club and Neutral.

The key is swiping all the way across to Director Mode and hitting the Adjustments tab. Here you can choose a Boost which adjusts which part of the sound is given more prominence. It's a bit vague, but choosing Thump or Rumble tends to give a bit more impact to the bass, although the properties are slightly different.

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Then there's the spacial setting, which lets you adjust whether the sound is near, medium or far away. We were surprised how much difference this made to the experience. Far gives a great feeling to songs, and ensures the music doesn't feel like it's being played directly into your ears. It helps vocals feel more natural. 

If you want, you can enable DLC, which keeps songs at a similar loudness, so you don't have to constantly adjust volume, while the Reverb setting adds reverb (we definitely left that one off). 

Sennheiser might make you work a bit to get a full, dynamic sound to your choosing, but once it's selected we think the PXC 550-ii genuinely sounds great. Sure, we'd rather have a more granular EQ setting, but that's not something Sennheiser really does on its consumer headphones. 

Verdict

If you want a pair of great-sounding headphones that you can take with you anywhere and wear all day, unassumingly, then look no further.

The sound quality is good, battery life is solid, and the ability to use a physical cable to extend the battery life a bit more means the second-gen PXC 550-ii is very versatile. The noise-cancelling is adaptive and effective, plus there's built-in Alexa voice control to give you smart assistant capability. 

The design may be a bit plain and plasticky looking, and you might have to work a little to get the sound that you really want from the adjustments in the app, but the PXC 550-ii more than makes up for all that by being super convenient to carry around and very comfortable to wear. 

Also consider

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Master & Dynamic MW65

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Master & Dynamic has that old-school premium look down to an art with the MW65 - which is finished with metal and leather. Add great sound, a slim profile, easy portability, and you have a more classy alternative.

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Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700

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Bose has long been the champion of noise cancelling headphones in our eyes. The latest 700 series is a huge refinement on the ageing QC35. If you want fantastic sound, class-leading ANC, and a svelte look, there aren't many out there like these.  

Writing by Cam Bunton. Editing by Mike Lowe.