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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


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

theonbutton.com

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

Samsung WEP301 Bluetooth headset review

Samsung WEP301We recently reviewed the Aliph Jawbone ICON and BlueAnt Q1 Bluetooth headsets, which are both high end devices at the top of their game. While those headsets offer premium features they come with a premium tag. Some might say all they want from a headset is to sit in a room and talk hands-free without frills. Many others lose headsets so often they now limit their expenditure to the minimum (I wonder how many right now are under car seats?) At the more affordable end of the market Samsung has a range of Bluetooth headsets to meet these needs, and we’re going to look at their WEP301 model today.

First impressions of the Samsung WEP301

The first Samsung headset I ever used was the diminutive WEP200, which was a seven gram marvel of miniaturization way back in the day. The WEP301 feels just as light, although its construction feels less premium. From a distance the WEP301 doesn’t look cheap with an attractive silver color finish, but when you get up close it’s clear that the headset was made with a price point in mind.

I don’t have a problem with that, as long as you buy the WEP301 expecting a silver color plastic finish rather than a metal exterior.

Speaking of the exterior the WEP301 ships with a selection of patterned plates that can be affixed to the headset to create a personalized look, which is a fun addition by Samsung.

The other notable item in the box is the power adapter for charging the WEP301’s battery. Unfortunately the headset does not use the standard mini-USB charging port that the likes of Plantronics and Aliph have adopted along with so many cellphone manufacturers. So no brownie points to Samsung for this decision.

The WEP301 sports a multi-function button that acts as a on/off control, plus there are also dedicated volume controls. There is also a light that indicates connection status and reports when the headset is in pairing mode.

Using the Samsung WEP301

Pairing was straightforward with my BlackBerry Bold 9700 and I never found re-pairing to be necessary. Sound quality was very good indoors using the Samsung WEP301. I really didn’t feel like I was using a budget headset when making calls in a quiet controlled environment. Unfortunately there’s no fancy noise canceling technology that the more expensive Bluetooth headsets boast, so call quality on the WEP301 does suffer outdoors as with many other headsets.

There is a detachable earhook which I found to be a necessity as the WEP301 would not securely in my ear without using it. The earhook can be fitted for use on either ear and swiveled to fit different ear shapes. As with the construction of the headset itself, the earhook feels cheap. However it just about does its job; the headset never fell out of my ear but it didn’t feel super-secure either. The Plantronics 395 we reviewed recently does a better job of ensuring a secure fit, although it is slightly more expensive.

One excellent feature of the WEP301 is its long battery life. Samsung quotes 5 hours of talk time for the WEP301 and I did get close to that number in real life usage. I certainly found myself reaching for the charger less frequently than with many other headsets, but that doesn’t forgive the omission of the standard mini-USB charging port.

Does the Samsung WEP301 stand out from the crowd?

Overall the Samsung WEP301 is a good choice as a budget headset and the custom design plates are a fun touch. Those with a little more to spend should also consider the Plantronics 395, which is on a higher level in terms of both build quality and comfort.

Neil Berman

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theonbutton.com

Aug 31, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aliph Jawbone ICON review

Jawbone ICON 3The Jawbone ICON is Aliph’s latest Bluetooth headset and comes with quite a family pedigree behind it.  Aliph’s Jawbone range has long been a headline name in the  Bluetooth world, so when Aliph sent us a Jawbone ICON review unit we put it through its paces …continue reading

Mar 26, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews, Video Features | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sennheiser MM450 Stereo Bluetooth Headset Hands-on

Sennheiser MM450 profileAt yesterday’s CES 2010 preview in New York, I got some hands-on time with Sennheiser’s premium MM450 headset.  This pair of ultra-light foldable cans support music streaming, remote control over playback and call management, as long as your device supports A2DP and AVRCP (so iPhone users beware).  My initial impressions were positive, with solidly resolved basslines and clear highs.  The MM450 also offers active noise cancelling although there is a lesser model, the MM400, which skips this feature and drops the price.  Speaking of the damage to your wallet, you’re looking at $299 for the MM400 and $499 for the MM450.  That puts the MM450 in a price bracket beyond the noise-cancelling Nokia BH-905 and the MM400 beyond the Sony DR-BT50 (reviewed here recently), but Sennheiser thinks they’re worth it.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Nov 11, 2009 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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