Sennheiser usually pays little mind to gimmicks and marketing ploys, and instead puts all of its efforts toward functionality and sound quality. The company takes that same approach to the Sennheiser PXC 550-II noise cancelling headphones, a long-awaited upgrade to the first-generation model. Noise cancelling performance keeps up with best-in-class alternatives from Sony and Bose, but for the reasonable price of $199. Sure, they aren’t the sexiest set of headphones, and don’t have cool software tricks, but that’s the charm of the PXC 550-II: simplicity and performance come first.
Editor’s note: this Sennheiser PXC 550-II review was updated on September 3, 2020, to address an FAQ about micro USB charging.
Who should get the Sennheiser PXC 550-II?
- Commuters and air travelers will appreciate the compact nature of the Sennheiser PXC 550-II and the excellent noise cancelling performance.
- Remote workers should consider these high-value headphones, again, for their ANC performance that blocks out noisy neighbors. The battery life can get you through multiple workdays before requiring a recharge.
Using the Sennheiser PXC 550-II
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II are easy to use, and place performance and functionality above design. All-plastic ear cups don’t appear premium, nor do the tenuous yokes but it all serves a purpose: to minimize the headset’s weight, which is imperative for day-long listening. If you’re concerned about durability, just reach for the included case. It’s not quite a hardshell design, but the reinforced exterior will protect your headphones from minor bumps in a bag.
The headband strikes a good balance of thin and comfortable, making the second-generation Sennheiser PXC 550 great for anyone with glasses. Though, I did experience some discomfort at the crown of my head after two hours of wear. A metal reinforcement protects headband from snapping, and I never felt the headband would break when placing the headphones on, or when removing them. Synthetic leather covers the headband and is the same material used to wrap the memory foam ear pads. You may remove the ear pads for easy cleaning and replacement, but the triangular shape means you have to buy a replacement from Sennheiser, rather than picking a cheaper third-party option.
There are a lot of gesture controls to remember
Sennheiser uses a combination of button and touchpad controls with the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, all of which are located on the right ear cup. To pair the Bluetooth headset, press and hold the voice assistant button, until a voice prompts you that it’s ready to connect.
Here’s a cheat sheet for gesture controls during media playback:
- Rotate the right ear cup to turn the headset on and off.
- Press and hold the voice assistant button for four seconds to initiate pairing mode.
- Tap the touchpad once to play/pause media.
- Swipe horizontally and hold to fast forward and rewind playback.
- Swipe horizontally to skip or go to the previous track.
- Swipe vertically to increase and decrease the volume.
- Slide the ANC slider up one or two clicks to adjust noise cancelling intensity.
Here are a list of gesture controls for calls:
- Tap once to accept or end a call.
- Tap and hold to reject an incoming call.
- Double-tap to place a call on hold.
- Swipe horizontally to mute or unmute the microphone.
- Swipe vertically to adjust the volume.
Should you get the Sennheiser app?
If you want access to firmware updates, the Sennheiser Smart Control app is worth downloading, so long as you’re comfortable allowing the app access to your location. Yes, that’s correct, you cannot use the app unless you grant location permissions, at least when the app is in use. Aside from firmware updates, the app also allows you to choose adaptive ANC or adaptive, anti-wind ANC for the first noise cancelling level.
You may also select from four EQ presets (Neutral, Club, Movie, Speech), or create your own EQ setting. The EQ adjustments are very limited though: you only get three choices for each adjustment under vague options like Boost, Spatial, Reverb, and DLC. The app doesn’t specify, but DLC stands for Dynamic Loudness Control. It controls for erratic volume increases and decreases to level the net output of your audio.
In the settings option, you may toggle effects like smart pause and call enhancement. The former automatically pauses and resumes playback when the headset is removed and worn. To me, the most important feature in the app was disabling Alexa for my preferred assistant: Google. The app requires Android 7.0 and later, or iOS 11.0 and later.
How is the noise cancelling?
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II are some of the best noise cancelling headphones under $200. Low frequency sounds are easily combated when noise cancelling is on the highest setting, rendering them roughly half as loud as they would without the feature. Sure, I could still hear construction as my apartment doors were installed, but the handyman’s drill was hushed by the ANC which allowed me to concentrate on typing this review.
Upper-midrange frequencies are effectively attenuated by the headset’s excellent passive isolation, and will hush noises by roughly 75-80% as loud as they’d sound without anything covering your ears. This is part of the reason why these headphones are revered by commuters: passive isolation deadens all sounds, and not just droning noises. The better your headset isolates, the less work an ANC unit will need to do.
In order to achieve optimal noise cancelling reflected in the graph above, you must achieve a proper fit with the headphones. This means the ear cups need to fully encircle your ears without any gaps behind the ears where the lobes meet the jawbone. Passive isolation is the foundation of any great noise cancelling headset, and Sennheiser understands this—hence the spacious, ergonomically shaped ear cups.
What Bluetooth firmware and codecs do the Sennheiser PXC-550-II support?
Bluetooth 5.0 is available with the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, and the greatest benefits of this firmware are efficient power consumption, and greater transmission speeds. Bluetooth 5.0 boasts speeds of 2Mbps, which is double that of Bluetooth 4.2. Connection strength is reliable, and the Sennheiser PXC 550-II retain Bluetooth multipoint support. This means you may connect to two devices at once; the headset will recall up to eight device connections for easy re-connecting.
The only connection issues I experienced occurred when the headphones were connected to my Microsoft Surface Book and Samsung Galaxy S10e simultaneously: when listening to music from my laptop, an incoming notification from my phone would send playback into a brief tizzy before stabilizing. This didn’t happen with every notification, but it happened multiple times.
The PXC 550-II supports more high-quality Bluetooth codecs than it’s predecessor, now featuring SBC, aptX, aptX Low Latency, and AAC. AAC support is new to this headset line and benefits iPhone users because it cuts down on audio-visual lag when streaming video. AptX Low Latency is great for Android users who play plenty of mobile games and want to hear sound in real time; it also benefits video streamers.
If you don’t want to deal with a ladle of Bluetooth codec alphabet soup, you can always resort to wired listening. Sennheiser provides a 2.5mm cable that terminates in a standard headphone jack for lossless audio playback. While the 2.5mm input may seem an odd choice, it saves space internally allowing more room for advanced ANC components and multiple microphones.
How long does the battery last?
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II are rated to last 20 hours on a single charge with ANC on while streaming over Bluetooth. We subjected the headset to a constant 75dB(SPL) output with noise cancelling on the highest setting, and recorded 21 hours, 58 minutes of playtime. This is very impressive, and makes it easy to forgive the lack of fast charging capabilities. If you listen with the ANC on in wired mode, you’re afforded 30 hours of listening. It takes three hours to recharge the headset from 0-100 % via microUSB.
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II relay your music as it’s meant to be heard
Each ear cup protects an angled, 32mm dynamic driver, which may seem small but these drivers are powerful. Audio is accurately reproduced along the low and midrange frequencies, which is hard for dynamic drivers to achieve, and something we don’t often see from such reasonably priced headphones. This follows the line of platonic ideal all the way up until the high-midrange frequencies, meaning kick drums, vocals, and salient instruments like guitars are all reproduced with great accuracy and little to no auditory masking.
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Listeners who are accustomed to headsets from Beats or Jabra may find the bass response extremely underwhelming, and that makes sense: we’re conditioned to perceive egregious low-end amplification as normal. However, the truth is those consumer brands unnaturally amplify bass notes in the name of a workout-friendly sound signature or more engaging sound. If you want to hear your music as the audio engineers intended, get the Sennheiser PXC 550-II.
Lows, mids, and highs
The song Marceline by WILLOW sounds excellent through the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, because vocals come through clearly even when percussive elements ring out. The song opens with individual plucks on a bass guitar, before WILLOW’s vocals enter alongside a percussive beat. Plucks from the bass guitar remain present throughout the song’s entirety and remain audible, even as cymbal hits accent the occasional kick drum.
WILLOW vocalizes a series of “Ohs” that are overlaid atop the latter third of the song. These utterances are hard to hear headsets that amplify bass notes, but are clear with the PXC 550-II without being exaggerated. Listeners who want accurate audio will certainly be pleased by the neutral sound signature’s versatility. If you temporarily want to alter the sound signature, just open the Sennheiser app and choose from any of the presets.
Is the microphone good?
The PXC 550-II microphone system is pretty decent. Sennheiser opted for a triple-microphone array in tandem with noise cancelling technology to reduce background noise while transmitting clear audio. I recorded the first half of the demo below with a tower fan off, and when I powered it on halfway through the recording; there’s almost no difference. You can, however, hear me clicking buttons to turn the fan on—unsurprising, given that ANC tends to work best on droning noises and not quick sharp bursts.
Sennheiser PXC 550-II microphone demo:
Sennheiser PXC 550 vs Sennheiser PXC 550-II
The Sennheiser PXC 550 and Sennheiser PXC 550-II are virtually identical, save for minor aesthetic changes like the black metal trim around each ear cup on the second-generation model. The Sennheiser PXC 550-II is a dedicated voice assistant button, something the original lacked. It used to require a handful of steps to access your virtual assistant, but the dedicated button on the second-generation PXC 550 makes checking the weather and setting timers easy.
Otherwise, the most notable changes are found under the hood like Bluetooth 5.0 support, and the lack of NFC pairing with the second-generation headset. The Sennheiser PXC 550 supports NFC pairing but uses Bluetooth 4.2 firmware. This is fine, but isn’t quite as efficient as Bluetooth 5.0.
What’s more, the Sennheiser PXC 550-II supports almost every Bluetooth codec available, whereas the original PXC 550 only supported SBC and aptX. The latter is great for Android devices, but iOS products require AAC for latency reduction and high-quality audio streaming. Sennheiser included AAC, aptX, aptX Low Latency, and the default SBC codec with its newest PXC 550 noise cancelling headset. The PXC 550-II also happens to be cheaper than the old model, so there’s every reason to get it.
Should you buy the Sennheiser PXC 550-II?
Editor’s note: this Sennheiser PXC 550-II review was written when using firmware version 1.5.21. It is also the first headset scored with the new ANC criteria, making its scores incompatible with older headsets until new tests are performed.
Yes, you should get the Sennheiser PXC 550-II noise cancelling headphones because they’re a great value. Many of us are stuck at home, and constantly subject to noisy neighbors and roommates, and these headphones make it easy to block it all out. The low-frequency noise cancelling performance is very impressive, and the sound signature makes any genre of music sound good—or at least how it was intended to sound.
The headset has its drawbacks too: the most glaring oversight being the micro USB input and lack of fast charging. However, it’s a small price to pay for one of the best headsets under $200, though. Listeners who prefer a more high-falutin look should turn their attention to the handsome Sennheiser Momentum 3, or the more modern Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
Frequently Asked Questions
It's not bad, per se, it just doesn't charge nearly as fast as USB-C does.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 are some of the best noise cancelling headphones you can buy. Sony improved the noise cancelling performance from its third-generation flagship, and low-frequency sounds are heavily attenuated. Microphone quality is okay, and comparable to the one found on the Sennheiser PXC 550-II. Sony takes the cake when it comes to software features though, because its application is full of settings that a user may adjust for a truly custom experience. What's more, if you subscribe to Tidal or Deezer, you can take advantage of Sony 360 Reality audio through the music service and headset.