Shoot-Out At The Noise-Cancelling Bluetooth Headphone Corral
Among the two most popular headphone types we always talk about with our Headphone.com customers are noise-cancelling and Bluetooth headphones.
A few years ago, both categories filled us a mild sense of dread as hardcore audiophiles.
Not only was the sound quality of old noise-cancelling (NC) headphones dreadfully crunchy and edgy but, in addition, wireless Bluetooth audio also left a lot of be desired in musical dynamics and resolution. Thankfully, those painful days are behind us.
Nowadays with the advent of 'lossless' Bluetooth audio technology like AptX and improved noise canceler headphone design, there are actually a few models we think will satisfy traveling music lovers who demand great sound quality, solid ambient noise isolation and wireless convenience on their journeys.
Sure, noise cancelling or Bluetooth cans are never going to sonically compete with four-figure reference flagship open-back headphones run through powerful headphone amps. Nor will they match the pristine acoustic detail and 'earplug-like' isolation of top audiophile in-ear headphones like the Shure SE846 or the Westone W80.
But for discerning listeners seeking over-ear headphones with the ability to minimize external noise and conveniently travel wire-free, this growing category is becoming a more valid choice as the audio performance gets stronger and more precise.
WHAT WE LOOK FOR
Inevitably, the noise-cancelling wireless headphone category is full of choices at all points of the price and performance ladder. Our Headphone.com review team has heard a lot of different noise canceler/NC/wireless headphones over the years. Many fell woefully short of our expectations in either sound quality performance, fit ergonomics, build quality or product durability - or all the above.
And after getting burned once or twice by supposedly highly reviewed Bluetooth headphones that in reality sounded like an AM radio receiving transmissions from the dark side of Uranus, we have carefully selected our Headphone.com Bluetooth roster with extreme prejudice.
We always look for durable, well-engineered Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones that take the job of both ambient noise attenuation and superb music quality seriously. Battery life has to be decently extended with useful feature sets that add real value to the listening experience. The fit has to be spot-on with proper ergonomics designed to be comfortably worn for long periods of time on a wide variety of head sizes and shapes.
And, yes, even in this difficult category, good sound quality is always number one on our list.
As we mentioned, there are certainly some sound quality trade-offs with NC wireless cans compared to top 'wired' audiophile headphones designed for pure music listening. But we think some great advancements have occurred in this field in just the last couple of years. Below are our favorite Headphone.com staff-approved candidates in this category submitted for your consideration.
OUR THREE FAVORITES - COMPARE and CONTRAST
The three best headphones in the wireless Bluetooth noise-cancelling category as of this writing are the Sennheiser PXC 550, the Bose QC35 and the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless headphones(now called HD-1 Wireless).
Let's stack 'em up side by side and offer our opinions on each. As always, we'll let the chips fall where they may.
In terms of just pure sound quality and musical performance, we think the Sennheiser HD-1 takes the cake. In fact, the signature of the Momentum is surprisingly well-detailed, cleanly presented and deeply punchy with a very good sense of space that's almost akin to the open-back wired Sennheiser HD600/HD650 audiophile models. It also has excellent dynamic range extension and a well-lit soundstage that sounds stable and dimensional.
On the downside, the Sennheiser HD-1 has the lowest noise-cancelling ability and its hip street-style looks may not be for everyone. But the Momentum Wireless NC over-ear fit is quite comfortable with upscale Pittards UK-tanned leather cushions and very robust build quality. Its distinct style flash comes thanks to the machined aluminum headband and cool oval earcups. Full foldability is also a nice plus for easy traveling.
THE POWER OF NOISE-CANCELLATION
In our listening tests, the Bose QC35 headphones remained the unabashed kings of noise-cancelling, reinforcing Bose's long-time dominance as the category leader in NC performance. With its adjustable noise-cancelling operating at 100% maximum, the Sennheiser PXC 550 actually gives the QC-35 a run for its NC money but comes up slightly short in overall ambient noise attenuation ability. It's certainly not a huge difference, but it is there. For listeners seeking maximum external noise-blocking, the Bose QC35 are your headphones.
The other area where our reviewers feel the Bose showed a small advantage is wearing comfort. Not that either of the Sennheisers are uncomfortable, but the lighter, slimmer-profile of the QC35 takes the ergonomics win by a hair. Frankly, the HD-1 Wireless with its Pittards artisan-tanned breathable leather cushions came in a virtual tie with Bose for comfort. The PXC 550 lagged behind in this regard due to its slightly less plush earcups and somewhat tighter headband fit style.
The Sennheiser PXC 550 does reign supreme in advanced modern features including touchpad control, user-adjustable noise cancelling, updated AptX lossless codec compatibility and EQ flexibility to adapt to the individual listening style of the owner. The innovative Sennheiser CapTune app for the PXC 550 is highly useful - unlike most other headphone manufacturer apps - and allows you to dial in preset, custom or 'active' EQ settings for the most personalized tone-shaping power available in this headphone category.
In the end, our Headphone.com review team found that each of three noise-cancelling Bluetooth wireless models we analyzed has its own relative strengths and minor weaknesses. However, all clearly share similarly high-quality, durable build constructions with superior Bluetooth sound versus other competitors in the category along with extremely well thought-out feature sets and comfortable fit ergonomics.
We think music-loving listeners wanting to invest in best-of-the-best wireless Bluetooth full size NC headphones now really have several absolutely fantastic, highly skilled, "can't go wrong" candidates to choose from... er, wow.... When's the last time we could actually say that in real life!?