Sound of Silence

I remember my Dad getting a pair of Panasonic wireless headphones probably about 10 years ago now. They were big, cumbersome things with a car aerial and a big docking station. Wire free, that’s the future. Well it would be, if they worked. Getting a signal from those suckers was akin to getting blood from a stone. On the rare occasion you did manage to extract a noise from them, the feed from the base-station was horrifically filled with interference, white noise, drop-outs and poor sound quality. I decided there and then to avoid wireless headphones forever more.

I’ve had a long and chequered history with headphones. I love music and I love listening to music with headphones on. It’s my own personal space. I don’t have to worry about transmitting bass through to next door or have Mrs demanding I change the track or turn it down. I put those two little things over my ears and I am alone with my thoughts, and with my music.

When I think back through my headphone career I realise a startling fact; I have almost always, bar one or two moments of weakness, been loyal to the German powerhouse Sennheiser GmbH. It started more than 16 years ago with a purchase of the bass heavy, chalky white closed-back HD-200, plugged in to my newly acquired Apple iPod with click wheel (B&W screen!). I used these every day through University and for a good year afterwards, before upgrading to the HD-555’s. Somewhat bass-light compared to the 200’s, these were the first open back headphones I owned and I think I was underwhelmed by them quite a lot. I kept using the 200’s for a while after before giving them to my brother for his iPod.

Next I went for the PX-80 on-ear jobs and loved the overall open soundstage but with that big bass kick. These lasted a good year or so until I opted for a number of in-ears, such as the CX 300 and rested my headphone changing there for a while. Hi-Fi was never a real interest for me but many years ago I decided it was time to try it and got myself armed with a set of Monitor Audio BR-5’s floorstanders plugged in to a Cambridge Audio Azur 340A SE amp. Eyes and ears suddenly opened up to a new level of clarity and definition; I was feeling the music now as well. This lead quickly on to Audiophile headphones and in particular the class leading stalwart of the Sennheiser smorgasbord; the HD600 Reference headphone.

These things need properly driven; any old source won’t cut it. At the time I had a small shuttle PC and a new Audiophile targeted ASUS Xonar Essence ST sound card had fell on to my…radar. With the HD600’s properly driven through this incredible little card, I was exposed to a level of musical quality I had never experienced before. Every whisper, chair creak or valve squeak was now audible. Thundering deep bass and shimmering trebles were now present, refined and unobtrusive. Not overpowering but enough oomph behind them to really make you sit up and take notice. Open backed and a soundstage so wide and so detailed; I was in a new audio environment.

Despite veering off the Sennheiser trail a few times, mostly for my in-ear wants (Soundmagic E10’s are for the money brilliant little things), I still come back to over-ear headphones and the HD 600’s are always there waiting for me. They’ve been my reference point now for over 5 years and what must now account for thousands of hours of musical appreciation. There’s a reason it’s been around for so long and remained one of the very best reference headphones ever made. They’re looking a bit tired now though and I have toyed with the idea of replacing them with a new set of HD600’s, but I know what the best headphones sound like and I can recognise when it doesn’t quite match up. I still lust after these beautiful wooden masterpiece loudspeaker setups, gorgeous valve amps and dedicated listening rooms; but that’s la-la land. I can at least attempt to afford to experience audio this way, and I do my level best.

Which is why, when I fancied a new general lounging about / travelling headphone, I immediately went to Sennheiser to see what the lay of the land was, after so many years away. I knew of the Momentum range already; Dad had purchased a set of the Ivory coloured Momentum On-ear versions and I really liked them. After prolonged listening my ears were sore from the pincer on-ear fitting – I am an exclusive over-ear man. I teased myself looking at different brands like Master & Dynamic and their rather beautiful MH40. But the reviews on the geek forums didn’t paint them in such a good light. They look amazing and feel great they said, but the sound quality leaves a little bit to be desired. A few have compared the MH40’s directly with the Momentum wired over-ears and the Sennheiser’s always come out on top; unequivocally as well. Nothing beats the Momentum for sound quality. Ok, the Momentum over-ear it is then. For £160 it’s a lot of money but definitely worth it for those times I don’t want to sit at the computer and listen through the HD600’s.

That’s when the hand wringing started, because not only did Sennheiser offer the striking Momentum 2.0 in a wired version; they also offer it in a wireless bluetooth version. Now with the history and opinion I’ve had for wireless headphones still strong in my mind, it took a while to really approach them with any seriousness. As soon as I did though, I found that they weren’t the buzzy interference laden nonsense things that Dad had previously “enjoyed”. The many reviews and forum posts I trawled painted these little things as fantastic sounding, generously noise-cancelling beauties with very little peerage, besides the Bose QuietComfort Q35II. Even then the Bose fails in sound quality compared to the M2’s.

By some stroke of chance I was surprised by a £300 inheritance from my late Nana (thank you dear Nana). I felt it necessary to not use it for childcare or you know…eating. This was a fortuitous turn of events, I thought, and I must seize this opportunity, after of course the green light from Mrs; which was another surprise too. The planets aligned and I excitedly placed an order for a pair of the wireless M2 noise-cancelling headphones. Off we go to the races.

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The real USP I found in the M2’s is the flexibility over a standard headphone, or even the comparable Bose or Master & Dynamic offerings. The M2’s are Bluetooth and noise-cancelling, but they also function as a wired headphone and more than that, they’re able to be wired AND use the noise-cancelling function. One more option is to use the USB cable, attach that to your computer and listen to music with the noise-cancelling feature, and charge them up at the same time. There are many ways to use these headphones and having that flexibility would mean that, should I be travelling and find the battery running out on me, I can just plug them in and continue listening as I would any other headphone.

So they arrived and I oo’d and ah’d with the nice packaging, then plonked them on my head and pushed the on-switch, apprehensively waiting for this thing called noise-cancelling to kick in. I’ve never heard a noise-cancelling headphone before this point. Wow. It’s not so much an acoustically dead environment that you are plunged into, such as the Bose QC35’s seem to do from reading all the reviews. Instead it’s a severe dampening of all external environmental sounds, almost like wearing earplugs. It reduces everything around you to a whisper, but you can still hear the murmur of people talking or the faint clicking of keyboards. It’s very much reduced to inconsequential background twiddle, which leaves a clean and almost silent stage for which to present the best (non-HD600) sounding headphones I’ve worn in a long time.

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I’m struck by the clarity of sound. I’m taken aback by the deep yet precise bass. The openness of the sound is counter to the close-back design. That’s not to say it’s as airy and wonderfully full as the HD600’s are; no it’s very much the more compressed sound that is transmitted through the M2’s, probably as a result of this noise-reduced base environment created. I’ve tried them with all the various functions and arrangements, wired and wireless. Every method produces an incredibly detailed and vast sound.

The most surprising thing I found though, is the freedom from wires. I wear my headphones around the house, sometimes when I’m hoovering or washing dishes, and I find the cable always snags on something or rustles against my clothes, which is irritating to say the least. With no cables sticking out from the M2 I am at last free to walk around without the transmission of cable vs clothing, or a headphone being unceremoniously ripped off my head from a cable snagging on the cupboard door handle. It’s an absolute joy. I can lie in bed and not be choked by a cable wrapping around my neck. Simple things.

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Of course the M2’s come with a number of other cool features, that I feel are overlooked by a lot of reviewers. The first is being able to take calls through them. The M2’s are hooked up to my phone (Samsung S8) and when a call comes in I push the volume button in and just like that I am talking. The M2’s have 6(!) microphones built in to them, hidden behind subtle perforated grilles – for what Sennheiser call NoiseGuard and VoiceMax. 4 of these are for the NoiseGuard noise-cancelling purposes; listening to the sounds outside the headphones and countering those sound-waves by pumping the opposite waves in to the cups. Incredibly cool technology. The other 2 are for the VoiceMax microphones; one for voice pickup and the other for cancelling out background noise. Both working together for hands-free, fuss free, clear chatting. It’s absolutely brilliant.

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Another feature which is really nice is the ability to change tracks, pause or play with the slider switch on the right ear-cup. I think you can do a whole lot more, such as call holding etc using various morse code like taps. I’m not up to speed with those yet. Having Near Field Communication (NFC) built in to the M2’s is perhaps a gimmicky thing as ultimately it’s not much hassle to pair via bluetooth, but for coolness factors it’s really special. I activate NFC on my phone, lay the phone against the right cup and voilà, we have effortless paired devices. Seamless, effective, simple.

The design of the M2 is really special. A variety of lovely tactile materials and textures makes handling and wearing them an event. You feel good just by wearing them, which is a big part of the experience. The cups are trimmed with shiny and matte textured plastics. The ear-pads are memory foam wrapped within ultra-soft brown leather; the driver is hidden behind gold/mustard acoustic fabric. The headband is a duo of harder wearing brown leather on the outer surface and more of that ultra-soft leather on the inside, gently padded for comfort. The frame is stainless steel, the outer shell of the cups a pearlescent ivory plastic. It’s a really exciting and enticing package. The aforementioned microphone grilles are subtle and seamless.

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The controls are well built and solid. There’s little functional design touches. The right steel band has 3 raised dots to guide you to what side is the right, only by touch alone. The power button has 2 very small raised lips at either side to prevent accidental activation. The earpads are asymmetrical in profile to sit the headphones forward, allowing the sound to travel more easily down your lug holes. The headphones fold in on themselves for better storage, but the hinge design is not forgotten about; 4 torx screws keep things attached with a flat ribbon cable joining the two ear cups emerging from the headband and terminating in each cup with purpose and minimum fuss. Overall it’s just a really beautifully designed, thought out and executed piece of design and one that doesn’t detract at all from the sole purpose of this object; to deliver exceptional sound transparently.

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My fear of wireless headphones is gone. The technology to deliver amazing audio wirelessly is here, and I have embraced it fully. Sennheiser really know how to deliver and the Momentum M2 AEBT is an exceptional headphone. Music is lifeblood and I can now roam wire free whilst injecting myself with very much required escapism.

Sennheiser Momentum Wireless (M2 AEBT)