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Taking the fight to recessed headphone sockets

panasonic rp-hc500As many previous iPhone owners discovered, recessed headphone sockets are a pain.  It’s difficult to find headphones with a plug slim enough to fit into a recessed socket and a market sprang up for ungainly adapters. I’ve experienced this pain first hand with my excellent Panasonic RP-HC500 noise canceling headphones.  The RP-HC500 is one of the best sets of noise canceling cans ever made, crushing comparable Bose QCs on build and sound quality in my opinion.  But while I love detachable cords since they preserve the lifespan of good headphones, the RP-HC500 has a recessed socket.

recessed headphone socket

Ugh, recessed headphone sockets

One day I came home to find that my cats had ripped through the RP-HC500’s cable, leaving me with a dilemma.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find any cheap off-the-shelf replacement cables that will fit a recessed socket.  So I could either pony up the ridiculous $20+tax+shipping for Panasonic’s official replacement cord or tell my cats to fix it before their next feed.  Since I reckoned my cats’ cord cutting abilities were superior to their repair skills, it looked like I’d have to hand over the cash.

recessed headphone socket RP-HC500

A typical 3.5mm stereo male to stereo male cord is too fat to fit into a recessed socket

That was when the DIY bug bit me.  I had some 3.5mm stereo male to stereo male cords lying around,and I wondered if I could trim them down to size.  Out of the box they were too big to fit, but I hoped that between a Stanley knife and some delicate carving I could fashion a $2 replacement.

cutting the cord

Cutting the cord - don't try this at home!!

It actually turned out to be a five minute job and my RP-HC500s are now singing again, ready to make plane journeys a pleasure once more.  See, we’re not such a throwaway generation after all!

recessed headphone cord RP-HC500

The cut down plug now fits the recessed socket

Here’s the warning: I don’t recommend doing this at home because it’s easy to wreck your cord, plug and fingers.  But if you’re a risk taker and choose to ignore my warnings, be careful not to cut all the way through the plug’s casing.  Also, the RP-HC500’s cord plug was rubber, which made it possible to carve the plug; I don’t think I would have seen a successful outcome if the plug had been made of hard plastic or metal!

Neil Berman

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Jan 17, 2011 Posted by | Audio, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Mobile | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sennheiser MM550 review

Sennheiser MM550 14We scored a hands-on, or perhaps that’s an ‘ears-on’, with the Sennheiser MM550 stereo Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones last month.   That quick listen got our eardrums all excited, and Sennheiser was kind enough to loan us an MM550 so that we could get better acquainted. For the specs and general info, check out our earlier hands-on with the MM550.  In this review we’ll dive into more detail on the physical, technical and sonic aspects of the MM550.

First impressions of the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 is marketed and priced as an ultra-premium headset, so we were expecting something special when opening the brown FedEx box that arrived at theONbutton HQ. We were greeted by a smart looking store-friendly retail package, which was easy to open without a knife (yay!). Hiding inside was the MM550 itself and a soft pouch containing Sennheiser MM550 5a USB cable, headphone cable and charger with several international adaptors; Sennheiser really is expecting some serious jetsetters to buy this headset. Given the pricing of the MM550 and it’s billing as a do-everything set of cans, it’s good to see that Sennheiser included a good range of travel accessories.

The MM550 feels good to hold; for a closed back set of headphones the MM550 is light but evidently well made. The fitting mechanism on the headband is smooth and the headband itself has a decent amount of flex, giving the impression that it will be easy to get the MM550 to sit comfortably on the head. The ear arms fold inwards to make the MM550 more portable. The ear pads have a very soft cushion that closes around the ear helping to reduce ambient noise and making the MM550 handy in the cold, windy New York winter climate. The closed back design of course also allows for larger drivers to be placed within the ear pads.

The right ear pad houses all of the MM550’s controls; power/play/pause, track skip, volume, noise canceling, Bluetooth and the SRS WOW HD enhancer are all controlled from here. On the left ear pad a Sennheiser logo takes pride of place, presumably enclosing the MM550’s rechargeable battery. The micro-USB charging port is also on this ear pad.

Using the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 paired without issue with the Samsung Epic 4G and BlackBerry Bold 9700.  Both of these smartphones support A2DP (stereo audio streaming over Bluetooth) and AVRCP (remote playback control over Bluetooth), so they were ideal candidates for testing the MM550.  In both cases, the MM550 technically functioned perfectly.  Playback and volume controls worked as expected, and I never needed to re-pair the MM550 during the testing period.

Sennheiser MM550 9Call quality on the MM550 was excellent, and the headset distinguished itself by being the only stereo Bluetooth headset I’ve used outdoors where callers say they can hear me clearly.  Due to the microphone’s placement all the way back at the ear, most stereo headsets have difficulty picking up spoken words.  The one issue I encountered outdoors however was that the microphone did pick up some street noises too prominently; callers still said they could hear me but that the street noises were also very audible in these cases.  Indoor call quality with the MM550 was excellent.  As you would expect, the MM550 interrupts music playback when an incoming call arrives and takes you back to the music when the call is over.

The noise-canceling features of the MM550 has been well thought through by Sennheiser’s engineers.  The MM550’s noise-canceling technology, called ‘NoiseGard 2.0’, does its business without introducing noticeable sound effects into the music.  That’s a bigger complement than it may appear, as many noise-canceling systems introduce hiss or significant coloration but this is not a problem with the MM550.  The MM550s however do not completely block out external sound, but they did a good job of significantly reducing ambient noise on the New York subway and made listening to quiet content such as podcasts much more pleasurable during a typically noisy journey.  The noise-canceling also allows you to hear content better without needing to cranking the music up to 11.

Sennheiser MM550 16One interesting feature of the MM550 is that when the noise-canceling button is pressed, the microphone activates and passes external sound through the headset instead of music playback.  Sennheiser calls this ‘TalkThrough’.  So if you’re listening to music in a store for example and then get to the register, by pressing this button you can have a normal conversation without needing to take off the headset.  The Plantronics BackBeat 903 has a similar feature, and it’s nice to see it being implemented on other headsets.

So how does the MM550 sound with music?  Listening to consumer headphones is often a subjective experience; increasingly people prefer a more bass heavy delivery and consumer headphones have been moving in that direction in recent years.  The MM550 is designed to give a balanced delivery of the music, with the SRS WOW HD enhancer

available to provide some extra sparkle if you want more excitement from your content.  I’m not a fan of adding enhancers to headphones or amplifiers, because from my experience good headphones and amps are able to give a good sound delivery without needing enhancement.  But consumers generally expect some kind of enhancer or bass boost, so these things exist as a result.

With the SRS WOW HD enhancer off, the MM550 does deliver a reasonably balanced sound with a slight accentuation of the upper vocal frequencies at the expense of some of the lower midrange.  The bass is punchy and there are plenty of highs, so this slight lack of lower midrange produces a very open sound that doesn’t suffer from any muddiness.  It also means that some vocals can tend towards thinness, even sounding a little harsh sometimes.  Pop, dance and Jazz Sennheiser MM550 12sounded great in my listening time with the MM550.  The bass in Mylo’s Drop the Pressure drove the track with energy and Uniting Nations’ Ai No Corrida bounced along with real verve.  It was with Country music that the MM550 tended to produce occasionally harsh female vocals and guitars.

Turning on the SRS WOW HD enhancer, the bass became really solid on the MM550.  Dance music powered through the ear pads in a superb way and without sounding muddy.  The enhancer adds significant amounts of midrange boost however, which can sound harsh on some music genres after extended listening.  So while the SRS WOW HD enhancer gives an instant “wow”, as I experienced during my initial hands-on, I tended to enjoy the MM550 for longer periods with it switched off.

The MM550 can also work as a regular set of cabled noise-canceling headphones.  In this mode the MM550 sound almost identical to when they’re connected over Bluetooth.  The sound is perhaps slightly clearly, but the difference is almost imperceptible.  The MM550 ship with a regular stereo cable rather than a three ring hands-free cable, so they can only be used as a hands-free cellphone headset when connected over Bluetooth.

The MM550 has one noise-canceling quirk, whereby the noise-canceling circuit momentarily disengages when switching from one music track when you’re listening to a playlist.  It’s not a big issue, but is just a little odd because the silence breaks for a split second while you’re in a break between tracks.

Sennheiser MM550 15Sennheiser quotes 8 hours of stereo Bluetooth music playback with noise-canceling for the MM550.  Although I did not track my exact listening time with the MM550, I only needed to charge the headset once during my testing and I listened to it extensively.  It felt like Sennheiser’s battery claim is ballpark accurate.  Various factors will impact battery life with wireless products, so it’s difficult to really assess claims.  For example a headset will have to work harder to maintain a connection if the device it’s talking to is at the limit of its reception range.  Also, switching a headset on and off uses proportionately more battery life because the headset has to expend significant energy searching for a connection.  When a stable connection is secured, the power usage reduces.

Can the Sennheiser MM550 justify its premium price?

Overall the Sennheiser MM550 is an excellent headset.  That does need to be put into the perspective of its extremely high MSRP of $649, which currently translates to around $499 on various online retailers.  If you can live with the MM550 as your only headset for noise-canceling, stereo Bluetooth streaming and cabled duties then you might be able to justify its premium over other closed back designs.  It does pretty much everything very well, but whether it does it hundreds of dollars better than the competition is a difficult call.

Neil Berman


Dec 12, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Hands-on with Sennheiser’s MM550 stereo Bluetooth headphones

Around this time last year we went hands-on with the Sennheiser MM450 stereo Bluetooth heaphones.  They sounded great but were expensive, around twice the price of Nokia’s BH-905 and even more still than Sony’s excellent (but not noise cancelling) DR-BT50.  Sennheiser has updated the MM450 with the MM550 which, unlike the on-ear MM450, sports a closed back design. Just like the MM450, the MM550 is able to stream music over Bluetooth (A2DP), handle calls and offers playback remote controls (AVRCP).  I scored a listening session with the MM550 this week and here are my impressions.

Update: We’ve now written a full review of the Sennheiser MM550, or you can continue on this page and read our initial hands-on impressions.

Features of the Sennheiser MM550

  • NoiseGard™ 2.0 noise cancelling technology, available when using the MM550 either wirelessly or wired
  • Stereo Bluetooth A2DP, AVRCP and hands-free calling
  • TalkThrough – one press of a button turns on the external microphone so you can hear outside sounds without removing the headset
  • Neodymium magnets and patented Duofol diaphragms
  • SRS WOW HD™ sound enhancer
  • Large closed back ear cups
  • Direct cable option
  • Integrated track and volume controls
  • Collapsible and a carry case is included

Listening to the Sennheiser MM550

In the demo the MM550 was paired to a Motorola Droid and the pairing process was straightforward.  I was in a fairly noisy environment and the noise cancelling was turned on when I put on the MM550.  Outside noise was significantly attenuated although by no means silenced.  As with most noise-cancelling headphones I was able to hear people speaking around me but there was a notable difference between when the noise-cancelling was engaged vs disengaged.

When I pressed play on the MM550 it was immediately clear that this is a rocking set of cans.  The SRS WOW HD enhancer was switched on and, while I’m not a fan of that feature on Motorola’s S9-HD, on the MM550 it produces a superb  sound.  Basslines are solidly resolved, there’s an airy top end that creates a perception of openness and the soundstage is wide without sounding artificially stretched.  What’s great of course is that with the noise cancelling turned on, you can enjoy all of this at lower volume levels.  This is the kind of reproduction though that makes you want to crank it up to 11; a truly engaging, driving and yet non-fatiguing sound.

Interestingly all of that good stuff went away when I disengaged the SRS WOW HD.  I often find that headsets that have enhancers sound great in one state but not both.  Typically I prefer the natural balance of the headphones with the enhancer switched off, as long as the engineers have done a good job.  With the MM550 however the sound became empty and tinny with the SRS WOW HD disengaged.  Now admittedly I only spent a limited time listening to the MM550 but I honestly don’t think this was a perception issue as I switched between the on and off positions of the enhancer.

Other funky features of the MM550 include TalkThrough, which mutes the music and activates the external mic so you can hear outside sounds.  This worked well and is a very useful feature.  The MM550 is also collapsible for portability.  It’s not quite as compact when folded as the Sony DR-BT50, but the collapsing is a handy feature.  The MM550 also comes with a detachable cable for use as regular wired headphones, which makes them good travelling companions for travelers who want to make use of in-seat entertainment and other wired sound sources.

The Sennheiser MM550 is rated to give 20 hours of talk time, or 8h/10h of wireless music playback with/without noise-canceling engaged.  Although I would love to listen to the MM550 for that amount of time, I didn’t have the opportunity to test these claims.  I also didn’t try making any calls with the MM550.  I did however try all the playback and volume controls, which worked fine when paired with the Motorola Droid.

If you’re reaching for your wallet, I’ll warn you that the MM550 will retail at $499 so it’s unlikely to fit within all budgets.  If money’s no object though, for music lovers they’re definitely the best sounding stereo Bluetooth headphones I’ve heard.

Neil Berman

Nov 10, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

This gadget life

Reflecting on the past year, I’ve done some wacky things to accommodate my gadget obsessed lifestyle.

Take my old BlackBerry Bold 9000 for example. A great smartphone in almost all respects except that it has a weak Bluetooth transmitter. I mean weak to the extent that I would get music streaming dropouts when walking in open areas where the Bluetooth signal had nothing to bounce against. I always carry my phone in my trouser pocket and it seemed that the only way to fix this was to reduce the distance between the phone and my heaadphones. I couldn’t relocate my headphones so proceeded to buy an army of T-shirts with top pockets. Problem solved. Incidentally the Bold 9700 has a superb Bluetooth transmitter so I’m back to wearing whatevs again.

Kindle 3 web browser screen sunlight

The Kindle's E Ink screen is great for use in sunlight

Speaking of headphones, regular readers will know that I’m a serious fan of stereo Bluetooth. While there are plenty of headsets that are great for the summer, only a few offer genuine wind protection which is a must-have for New York winters. I sought out the Sony DR-BT50 specifically because they have snug-fitting earpads that do double duty as fair-weather ear muffs. So long wind chill.

Now that we’re onto the weather it’s no secret that I like using my gadgets outdoors. This has led me to convert Apple’s iPad case into a sunshade, choose the BlackBerry Bold 9700 over other smartphones due to its sunlight readable screen,and more recently buy the Kindle 3 just for outdoor web browsing. Am I the only person out there to buy the Kindle just so I can read online content for hours outdoors in places like Battery Park’s WiFi hotspot? Weird eh, but I’m lovin’ this gadget life.

Neil Berman

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Sep 4, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Rants | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skullcandy creates one-offs for NBA All-Stars

Skullcandy has come out with some tricked out cans in commemoration of Sunday’s NBA All Star game.  The personalized headgear, which feature one-touch muting, left or right side cabling and a closed back design was handed to each player.  So if you’re reading this wondering where to get a pair, you’re probably not in the game line-up.  No word yet on whether these will go on general sale, but it sure would be cool to see them on the shelves of my local electronics emporium.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Feb 13, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, News | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Logitech FreePulse Review

Wireless headphones. A great idea often unstuck by uncomfortable cans, poor sound quality and bulky base stations. Now lightweight bluetooth stereo headphones are streaming into stores, but there are still questions about whether they can change this perception. Let’s get Logitech’s FreePulse 2 into the interrogation room.

The FreePulse is a ultra-lightweight bluetooth headphone set with a cool neckband look and graphite coloring. The right ear unit houses the controls with volume, power, muting and track selection, although only some devices will be compatible with all of these functions. Flexible rubber over ear hooks keep them from falling off your ears. These hooks can be repositioned for custom fitting. Also in the box are adaptors for various iPods and a small bluetooth transmitter for standard 3.5mm headphone sockets. This allows the FreePulse to get audio from anything with a headphone output. Nice. Putting them on for the first time is slightly confusing, as the neckband sits at the bottom of the ear units rather than the top. Once figured out though, fitting is easy and the FreePulse feels secure, comfortable and, most importantly, lightweight when sitting correctly. The key is to play with the ear hooks to get the right fit.

The FreePulse paired to my HTC TyTN straight away and the phone recognized them as wireless stereo phones. Within seconds stereo music was streaming to the cans…and the sound quality was surprisingly decent.

Both bass and treble came through well enough, with an emphasis on the lows. There were pronounced peaks around the 1-3 KHz midrange, which is where snare drums and vocals live. This combination makes the FreePulse real rocker’s cans, and when I cranked up the volume I found myself dancing around the room in no time. The slightly overdone bass can smother some clarity at times, which can be remediated if you have an equalizer on your music player. There is a bass boost on the headset, but I didn’t find it particularly sweet sounding. At the other end of the spectrum I plugged the headphone dongle into my Teac Reference system, which receives a SPDIF audio feed from my Media Center. After some quick cutting of the offending bass and midrange frequencies on the computer’s output EQ, the sound quality of the FreePulse was extremely impressive.

Transmission quality was strong throughout my (admittedly small) apartment. The FreePulse had no problem holding a connection at around ten meters through a wall, although as the distance increased from the source, momentary dropouts started to occur every thirty seconds or so. The dropouts also occurred outside with the phone in my pocket and as the battery weakened after around five hours. However the dropouts only became annoying when watching movies as lip sync issues emerged. I can only imagine that this is a buffering issue when some data packets don’t make the full journey and need to be resent, which is a problem in any data streaming situation. I found that momentarily pausing the film sorted this out.

I found the FreePulse worked well both in and outdoors. I could jog without them falling off, and when fitted well they only became tiring after a couple of hours. They always had plenty of volume range as long as they were receiving good level from the source. Best of all, they just have a subtle power light, as opposed to a huge geeky flashing indicator which afflicts so many bluetooth headsets. So I could happily wear them without feeling self conscious. At a MSRP of $99.99, the Logitech FreePulse is good value given the packaged headphone adaptor, solid sound quality and comfortable wearability at home, in the gym or in the street. I recently saw them advertised at one large electronics store for $49.99. I bought them straight away.

Neil Berman

www.neilberman.com

Feb 10, 2008 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

When good hearing runs in the family: Grado vs Sennheiser headphones

Gone are the days when consumer audio meant tinny tunes and bashful bass. Today’s quality home and portable devices have decent outputs, high signal to noise ratios and good frequency balance. Even off-the-shelf cellphones can sound great. So how do we embrace the potential of these devices? Typically by embracing the generally poor ‘phones which come in their packaging. Time for an upgrade methinks…

Meet the families, Grado & Sennheiser

Grado is one of the most exclusive names in the audiophile community. Their headphones promote function over form with what I’d describe as a stunningly retro look, but not resulting from a modern marketing design. Grados have always looked this cool. We’re going to try out the SR80s and SR225s at $95 and $200 respectively.

Sennheiser meanwhile are more of a household name, with a multitude of cans across the price range. We’ll throw up the $200 HD595s against the SR225s and the $100 HD555s against the SR80s.

Who’s the Daddy – Grado SR225 vs Sennheieser HD595

The first thing you notice when picking up the SR225s is that they’re light. Every component reeks of quality construction but feels like it should be in the featherweight class. This bodes well for prolonged usage and true to first impressions the Grados always felt comfortable in use. The foam pads sit nicely around the ear but only partially block out ambient noise.

What you do hear is exceptionally focused stereo imaging, tight bass and great clarity across the frequency range. Compared to my similarly priced Beyer DT250s, they gave the impression of better separation, more solid presentation and warmth with only minor coloration.

Pick up the HD595s and initial impressions could not be more different. The Sennheisers are a large and modern design, which block out ambient sound effectively through snug fitting pads. Although they feel larger and heavier than the Grados, they still manage to sit comfortably on the head.

Switch on the sounds and excitement is the name of the game. The 595s sound BIG. With more midrange and wider bass than the Grados, the Sennheisers have an upfront sound which gets tiring. Frequencies which come out clearly on the Grados seem lost in the mix on these, but for listening to your favorite thumping track these will give you a smile.

Like father like son – Grado SR80 vs Sennheiser HD555

Experiment: Close your eyes, hold the SR80s in one hand and the SR225s in the other and guess which is which. The SR80s look and feel pretty much identical to their senior relation and that’s a good sign. Grado suggests that they’re functionally similar too, the main downgrades from the 225s being slightly less closely matched drivers, a different diaphragm and less sophisticated rear screen introducing coloration.

In real terms the SR80s are so good that the changes are barely noticeable. They exhibit the same solidity and warmth as the SR225s with minor degradation of stereo imaging and size of soundstage. In a quiet room this would be noticeable but with ambient noise present the perceived results from both models are pretty close.

Like the Grado family, the HD555s look and feel almost identical to their more expensive relative. The similarities end there however, with disappointing delivery and a less focused presentation. Compared to the 595s the soundstage is smaller with deficiencies in stereo imaging and a clear 100 dollars-worth of difference.

Sounds like teen spirit

The Grados really shone in this test and although the SR225s are amazing, for me the more junior member of the family is the wiser. At over 100 bucks less, the quality of the 225s is almost completely preserved in the 80s. Like father like son.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Nov 13, 2007 Posted by | Audio, Reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

   

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