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05/27/2011

Sennheiser PXC 360 BT impress the harshest critics

What would you expect from a $500 pair of headphones? They would have to deliver phenomenal sound, of course, but would that be enough? Your cellphone likely cost you no more than $200 and think about everything that does.PXC

Sennheiser’s PXC 360 BT headphones aim to satisfy the lofty expectations customers naturally have of headphones costing as much as an entry-level laptop by adding both noise-cancelling technology and  the option to go wireless with built-in Bluetooth. We’ll get into those extras in a minute but first let’s deal with how these things sound.



Sound quality
Trying to describe the way a pair of headphones sounds is a tricky business. The feelings we get when we hear a piece of music are subjective and people tend to use very strange and vague terms, like “warm,” or “thin” to try to communicate what they hear. Ultimately, these people tend to sound a bit ridiculous so we won’t be trying to do anything like that here. Instead, let us present a story which we hope will give you an accurate impression of how great these headphone sound.

A musician friend was visiting recently and asked if he could try out the headphones. I dutifully handed them over, complete with an iPod filled with music of questionable taste. The musician listened for a few seconds, staring straight ahead, his eyes growing ever wider before he turned to us and with both hands pointing at his head he shouted, “These things sound amazing!”

To get a better handle on just how amazing, he plugged in his own music. Literally, his own music. Stuff he’d preformed, recorded, and spent weeks mixing and dozens, if not hundreds of hours listening to already. He sat quietly for a few minutes before jumping out of his chair, exclaiming, “These are seriously the best headphones I’ve ever heard!”

So there you have it, the PXC 360 BT’s are good. The best you’ve ever heard? Maybe, maybe not, as we said before, we all hear music a little differently. Not to mention, certain headphones suit certain types of music better than others, so what you’ll be listening to matters. But what we can say is there’s a good change you won’t be disappointed.

We wish we could say the same for the Sennheiser’s simulated surround sound technology. Hitting the dedicated SRS button on the right earpiece is supposed to transform the listening experience into an “immersive virtual surround soundscape” but we found it could only really simulate the act of draping a wet towel over a cheap boom box.

Noise cancellation and Bluetooth
Sennheiser describes the PXC 360 BT’s a having been designed for “sophisticated frequent fliers,” and personal sophistication levels aside, we can report these customers will be well served.

These are beautifully constructed headphones. The closed-design earpieces are padded with soft leather and bridged with a metal-reinforced headband, making the whole assembly feel solid and durable, while remaining light and comfortable to wear for hours at a time. The whole assembly folds and fits into an included travel case that’s not much bigger than most hotel room Bibles. But the real party piece for travellers is unquestionably the noise cancellation technology, or what Sennheiser calls NoiseGard (yes, that really is how they spell it).

If you’ve ever tried a pair of noise cancelling headphones, you already have a good idea of what Sennheiser is doing here. An integrated microphone picks up all the noise happening outside of the headphones and analyzes that sound into a waveform; a mirror image of that waveform is then pumped through the headphones along with the music you’re listening to, effectively cancelling out any sound but the music.

We found that the PXC 360 BT’s were able to take the dull roar of a jet’s engines and minimize it to a barely-audible hiss in the background of whatever we were listening to. Again, if you’ve used a pair of noise cancelling headphones in the past, there’s nothing really groundbreaking here, but it does make a long trip just a little bit less fatiguing. NoiseGard also includes a feature called TalkThrough which mutes your music and lets sound pass through the microphone allowing you to have a conversation without taking the headphones off your ears. It’s a clever use of the technology and it’s easy to access with a quick tap of the NoiseGard button.

Sennheiser suggests the noise cancellation will also appeal to bus and train travellers. And sure enough, we found that the technology works well at suppressing background noise on both, but that NoiseGard does less well when confronted by a sudden new sound, like the rush of a train entering a subway station.

Bluetooth works exactly as expected, allowing you to pair your headphones with another Bluetooth device such as your phone. The PXC 360 BT’s won’t allow you to answer phone calls, but buttons integrated into the right earpiece allow you to adjust volume, skip tracks and pause music without touching your device (the left earpiece houses a rechargeable lithium polymer battery). If you prefer to listen to music from a device that doesn’t have Bluetooth, Sennheiser will be happy to sell you an attachment which adds that functionality, and you can always choose not to go wireless and connect the headphones with a detachable cable with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

Wrap up
So should you buy the PXC 360 BT’s? Well, there’s no escaping the price. In the course of this review we sampled a number of competitive headphones which offered similar sound quality, often for hundreds of dollars less. But what we couldn’t find was a pair that hit so many of the high points frequent travellers are looking for. Marrying high quality sound and solid construction in a compact, lightweight design while packing Bluetooth and noise cancellation into one set of headphones is more than most people will need, but if you find yourself removing your shoes before passing through a metal detector more than once a month, $500 may seem like a small price to pay for a little serenity between takeoff and landing.

 - By John-Paul Hogan, MSN Tech & Gadgets

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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