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Headphones Shootout #2 - Noise-reduction headphones: AKG, Bose, Beats, Sennheiser

Our second headphone shootout using the Crutchfield Listening bar focused on noise-cancelling headphones. The noisy call center (where the listening bar is located) was an especially apt setting for this type of headphone. As with the first Headphone Shootout, each reviewer listened to every track through each set of headphones and jotted down his impressions.

The panel included Dave Bar, audiophile and headphone expert; Marshall Chase, whose specialty for Crutchfield on the web and in the catalog is receivers and audio components; and Ralph Graves, blog editor and former writer for Crutchfield's headphone category.

Each panelist listened to the five tracks listed below on each set of headphones, taking notes as they did so.

The tracks:

We limited our listening to five tracks, to keep the shootout manageable.. The tracks were chosen collectively by the three panelists to cover as wide a variety of musical genres and instrumental/vocal combinations as possible. The lineup:

  • Finzi: Eclogue for Piano and Strings - English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor

    This classical work starts with solo piano, and then has the orchestra gradually come in. It's important that the piano have a very natural sound, and that the ensemble can be heard with as much detail as possible to get the full effect of Gerald Finzi's understated and subtle orchestration.

  • Dixie Bee-Liners: Lord, Lay Down My Ball and Chain

    This bluegrass band uses all acoustic instruments, which can be challenging to reproduce in a life-like manner. The song starts with stand-up bass, which must be both low and clean in order to be effective.

  • Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin'

    This classic track recorded in 1958 has a number of challenges for a set of headphones. Blakey was one of the pioneers of bebop, and in this recording, the silences are almost as important as the notes.

  • Little Feat: Fat Man in the Bathtub

    This is from the great live performance album, "Waiting for Columbus." It's a track all of the panelists were familiar with, so it was easy to hear what the headphones reproduced, and what they missed.

  • Black Eyed Peas: BEP Empire

    What could be a better test for bass than a track with plenty of it? In addition to the lows, this song also has a fairly complex mix, requiring the headphones to reproduce the sound accurately from top to bottom.

The Results:

Criteria AKG K 495 NC Beats Studio™ Bose® QuietComfort® 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones Sennheiser PXC 250-II Sennheiser PXC 450
Headphones
Price

Sennheiser PXC 250-II

$169.99 After $30.00 Sale IN STOCK

Sennheiser PXC 450

$319.99 After $30.00 Sale IN STOCK
Overall
Rating
         

Sound Quality

Dave

Surprising bass impact for small portables. Slightly rolled off high end. Best suited for classical and jazz listening, although they also sounded very nice on our bluegrass track

Clear and detailed sound with strong, well-behaved bass. Thumbs up for lovers of any musical genre.

Clear and well-balanced sound.  Perhaps just the tiniest bit light on the bass. I’d feel comfortable recommending these for virtually any genre of music.

Very midrange-forward sound. Fairly lightweight on the bass. Best suited for lighter instrumental music and vocals, but I also liked them on our Jazz track.

Smooth sounding and fairly detailed, but a bit light on the bass and a touch rolled-off at the top. Well suited for classical, bluegrass, and jazz.

Marshall

Good bass response without overpowering. Real loss on vocal and percussion highs. I found these had the least dimensionality of all five.

Solid bass without going over the top, bit of a drop at high end of vocals. Good all-round.

Excellent all-round except a bit weaker on bass. Great, open quality and highly detailed on all tracks. I don’t think these are limited to any genre.

Warm mid-tones with a slight drop in dimension on highs. Wide berth on most, with a good amount of detail. I liked these for all-round listening.

Nice detail, showed attack well with piano and instruments. A bit rough on hip-hop. Good on other tracks.

Ralph

Music had real presence, especially Little Feat and the Black Eyed Peas. The bluegrass and classical tracks seemed to have a little bit of edge to them.

Delivered a lot of detail on all tracks. A little bass-heavy, though. That was an advantage for the rock & hip-hop tunes.

The extreme highs and lows seemed rounded off. Great for classical, though, although all the tracks sounded very good, if a little soft.

Very warm, but a little light on bass. Worked well with all genres, but slightly better with our classical, jazz, and bluegrass tracks.

Good sound with nice detail across genres. Acoustic and classical tracks seemed a little bright, though.

Noise-reduction

Dave

Moderately effective

Moderately effective

Like standing in an anechoic chamber! Very effective.

Moderately effective

Moderately effective

Marshall

Moderately effective

Moderately effective

Moderately effective

Moderately effective

Moderately effective

Ralph

Flattened out ambient noise, without totally removing it. Still, very effective for on-ear headphones.

Very good. Steady-state ambient sounds were removed, and other noises muted effectively.

It seemed as if all the background noise had virtually disappeared.

Despite being more on-ear rather than over-ear, they did a good job muting steady hums and ambient background noise.

Good with steady-state sound. Whole frequencies seemed be removed from the background, but not the music.

Comfort

Dave

Lightweight feeling. Soft earpads formed a decent seal on my ears, but overall they felt a little too small to fit in total comfort.

The earcups formed a tight, yet comfortable seal. Fairly heavy, but the weight is well distributed to avoid putting a dent in your head.

Like wearing a cloud. Substantial feel, but very low impact. Earcups  fit completely around my ears to form a complete and comfortable seal.

Very lightweight, but earcups too small to get a good seal on my ears. Your results may vary.

Big earcups formed a good seal and a comfortable fit. A bit bulky and heavy overall.

Marshall

Lightweight, like how they fold compact for travel. Headband comfortable. Decent fit.

A bit weighty, but surprisingly comfortable throughout. Good seal over the ears and good with glasses.

Most comfortable of the bunch. Felt well isolated, great over the ears without the dreaded crush of the glasses into the side of your head effect.

Light on the head. The earpads felt tight, but not uncomfortably. Good padding on the headband. Dual side wiring surprisingly  unobstrusive. Liked the in-line volume control.

Least favorite for comfort. Seemed bulky, though the seal over the ears was isolating.

Ralph

Very light and very comfortable.

Very substantial headphones. The padding was more than adequate -- an important consideration for long trips.

Very comfortable. Easy to wear for a long plane trip.

Very light on the ears. On a long flight I might forget I was wearing them.

Nice and light. I did notice my ears getting a little warm, though, towards the end of the session.

Personal Favorite

Dave

Tough choice between the Bose® QuietComfort® 15s and the Beats. I’d give the nod to the Beats for overall sound quality, but the Bose® are unquestionably the most comfortable with the best noise cancellation by far.

Marshall

This one is between the Bose® QuietComfort® 15 and Sennheiser PXC 250II. I thought that both headphones were very comfortable and did a great job of noise cancelling. Both sets had great sound quality and dimensionality, but the Bose won out for overall response. The slightly lighter attack of the Bose on bass turns out to be a plus for me as far as long-term wearability. I could see wearing the Bose on a long flight without fatigue, either internal or external to the ear.

Ralph

For me, the Bose® QuietComfort® 15 headphones were a clear choice. Although they were one of the better (but not the best) in terms of sound quality, they did the best job at minimizing external noise, and were extremely comfortable to boot.

Of course, our panelists had lots more to say. Read all of their comments about these four headphones at Headphone Shootout #2 — The Details.

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