I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the most important piece of consumer technology you’ll ever buy isn’t your laptop or your phone, it’s a decent pair of headphones.
You’ll spend far longer listening to music than you will scrolling on your iPhone, and you’ll push them to the limits far more often than you will a laptop, which most of us never come close to fully utilising (using a £2,000 Macbook for the free word processing software is a bit like like playing Pong on a dedicated gaming rig).
So picking the right pair in an increasingly crowded and feature-laden market is an important choice. In the sub-£300 over-ear headphones segment, Sennheiser’s PXC 550- ii are my go-to recommendation, a perfect combination of sound quality, construction and comfort.
So can the company’s CX Plus W1 offer the same all-round package in the ear-buds market?
The first thing you’ll see when you open the box is a familiar AirPodsesque charging dock. It’s a bit flimsy, although that’s not a huge deal given it’s destined to spend its life rattling around in the bottom of your bag or sitting on a bedside table.
The earbuds themselves are relatively large, with a shiny touch-sensitive surface and sensors to detect when they’re in your ears. They’re not pretty but neither are they offensive.
I found they took a little getting used to compared to other earbuds. It’s not that the shape is uncomfortable, rather that they need to be oriented in your ear in a very specific way in order to form a seal. This is exacerbated by the bulky design and lack of a ‘fin’ to help them sit neatly, and for the first couple of days I had a few moments when I had to catch them before they fell out of my head. The trick is to get the outer part to rest against the base of what I think is called your concha; once I mastered this I even managed to go for a run without them disappearing onto the pavement.
In terms of controls, they function like most other mid-range earbuds, with one, two, three and “long” presses against the flat surface giving you a surprising amount of control. The left and right buds control different functions, with the right responsible for play, skip and voice assist, and the left turning on “transparent hearing” – allowing you to hear what’s going on around you – rewind and toggling the active noise cancellation.
It sounds complicated but soon becomes second nature. Also worth noting is the slight input lag, which meant I occasionally ended speaking to Siri instead of skipping a Spotify track; my brain soon learned to compensate for this.
They also sound great, with decent bass that doesn’t overpower the softer mid tones, although there’s a slight spaciness to sparse tracks like the opening to Nirvana’s Something in the Way.
Still, for this price they perform well above what would be acceptable. This is all helped by ANC – active noise cancellation – which, while not the most proficient at blocking out extraneous noise, doesn’t alter the sound of your music.
For commuter earbuds, half-decent ANC is near the top of my shopping list and these absolutely pass that test. In terms of battery life, they’re advertised to last up to eight hours, but if you have ANC switched on, which you will, I wouldn’t rely on them lasting more than six hours. The charging dock offers another 16 hours of power, and you can eke out an hour of sound after just 10 minutes in the dock, which can save your commute in a pinch.
The Sennheiser CX Plus W1 earbuds don’t exactly set the world on fire, but retailing around £120, you wouldn’t expect them to. What they do is perform well on just about every metric, making that price tag feel like quite a bargain.