While Bose continues to be the market leader in noise-cancelling headphones, it has been up against stiff competition from AKG, Apple, Bower & Wilkins, Sony, and others. Toss in Sennheiser's $349.95 PXC-550-II headphones, which boast an exquisite appearance, built-in Amazon Alexa compatibility, outstanding audio performance, and some of the best ANC (active noise cancellation) on the market. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are still a better set overall, so Bose shouldn't be too concerned. However, its once-dramatic advantage over other competitors is eroding, and there are reasons you might prefer the Sennheiser PXC 550-II.

Sennheiser PXC 550-II noise-canceling headphones


The PXC 550-II headphones have a matte finish with leatherette details on the headband and circumaural (over-the-ear) earcups and are available in black. The exterior panels of the earcups include touch-sensitive controls, although you wouldn't know it by looking at them because they're blank. The earcups are ear-shaped, allowing for a snug, secure fit that passively shuts out a considerable amount of ambient room noise.

The earcups are fairly pleasant, albeit they may be a little snug around the ear at times, and despite modifications, I could feel extra pressure from the headband. This isn't to say the fit is uncomfortable—the cushioning is ample—but it's easy to wear the headphones in a way that puts more pressure on them than is ideal, and finding the proper fit took a bit more work than I usually require.

A three-way switch for ANC is located on the right earcup (On, User Mode, and Off)—more on that in the following section. A Bluetoth pairing button, which also serves as the voice assistant button, is located next to this switch on the side panel. Status LEDs, a micro USB connector for the provided charging cable, and a tiny jack for the associated audio cord are all located near these.

The on-ear controls are simple to use and respond quickly. A single tap in the centre of the right ear's outer panel plays or pauses music, while swipes forward or backward skip songs and swipes up and down control volume. It's also the gesture you'll use to accept incoming calls, reject them by holding your press for a second, and put them on hold by tapping twice. A forward/backward swipe mutes or unmutes the microphone when on a call. A single double touch turns off ANC, mutes the music, and activates Transparent hearing mode, in which the ambient mics pick up your speech and surroundings invisibly for smoother communication.

The headphones perform a number of functions on their own. When you open them from their folded state, they instantly switch on and enter pairing mode. Removing them from your head once they've been paired turns them off. If that seems inconvenient, remember that the delay isn't long. However, we did have some strange happenings from time to time—in one case, the headphones were off my head and sitting next to me, and they proceeded to play music on their own. I didn't touch them (or my phone) when this happened because I thought they'd been turned off.

Sennheiser's Smart App is functional but not particularly exciting. You may choose between Adaptive and Anti-Wind ANCs here; these are the two options for ANC mode, and there are no additional options than flipping between them. There's an EQ option with presets like Movie, Club, and Speech, as well as a Director setting that may be customised. Instead of enabling you to modify five bands of EQ as is customary, Sennheiser allows you to pick from a list of pre-selected micro settings, which you can then mix and combine. So, you may choose from options like Thump, Rumble, or Voice, and mix and match them with other spatial effects, most of which sound dreadful, and added reverb, which also sounds bad. We recommend turning off all EQ (in Neutral mode), with the exception of adding the Thump or Rumble options if you want more bass depth.

The Alexa speech assistant from Amazon is integrated in, although it is not hands-free. A button push is required, as well as setup in the Alexa app, but registering in and adding the Sennheiser PXC 550-II as a device is a simple process. All of our orders were easily caught up by the microphones, and the reaction time for various activities was swift. Alexa isn't an afterthought, but it isn't as well integrated as it is on the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

Bluetooth 5.0 is used, and the headphones support the AptX, AptX Low Latency, and AAC Bluetooth codecs. They come with an aircraft jack adaptor and a zip-up protective bag that they fold down flat inside, in addition to the aforementioned wires. Sennheiser predicts a battery life of 20 hours with ANC and wireless on, or 30 hours with ANC and audio cable on, although your mileage may vary depending on your volume settings and feature combination.


The ANC switch has three settings: maximum, user setting, and off. The user configuration essentially boils down to a choice between conventional ANC and anti-wind ANC. Even when using the ANC in a silent area, the headphones are fairly effective at maximum mode—no there's apparent extra hiss. Aside from that, the circuitry drastically reduces a wide variety of frequencies. We'd have to rank them towards the top of the category in terms of pure efficacy, after the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 but ahead of most others we test. The circuitry performs admirably with low-frequency rumbling, such as that heard on trains and planes, but also with human speech and normal office sounds such as keyboard tapping. In addition, the ANC appears to have little or no influence on the sound characteristics, which isn't often the case.

If you're using the headphones outside on a windy day, the anti-wind option comes in handy, although we found the primary maximum ANC level to be the most beneficial. Adaptive mode utilises less ANC in calm areas and more in loud environments, whereas Maximum always employs full-level ANC. In a moderately quiet area, the difference between Max ANC and Adaptive mode is noticeable—Max ANC dampens things down more than Adaptive mode.

The MEMS microphone array provides excellent intelligibility. We were able to comprehend every phrase we recorded using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 8. Although there was some Bluetooth noise around the edges, the signal was robust and clear, far better than the average for the Bluetooth headset mics we've tested.

Each earcup is equipped with dynamic 32mm speakers that produce a frequency range of 17Hz to 23kHz. The PXC 550-II's audio performance is remarkable for the fact that the headphones do not go particularly loud. This isn't a problem—the speakers provide plenty power—but the audio wasn't quite as loud at maximum volume on an iPhone 8 as it is on other headphones we've tested. However, most other headphones are far too loud.

The headphones produce tremendous low-frequency response in Neutral mode on tracks with high sub-bass content, such as The Knife's "Silent Shout." There is no distortion at maximum volume, and at lower settings, the bass remains powerful while the highs remain clean and brilliant.


The aforementioned leader, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, as well as pairs like the $300 AKG N700NC M2 Wireless and the $400 Bowers & Wilkins PX7, all compete with Sennheiser's PXC 550-II headphones. For those who desire noise cancelling from an in-ear design, the new truly wireless $250 Apple AirPods Pro also give a great ANC experience for a lower price.

The sonic characteristic of the PXC 550-II is fantastic. If there's a shortcoming in the audio, it's that the highs are a little too sculpted, but there are worse sins, and these headphones sound great overall. Many consumers, in fact, will prefer its sound characteristic to the Bose model. The Sennheiser PXC 550-II might be the right pair for you if you value audio performance above all else (and still want top-notch ANC). The Alexa compatibility is less compelling here than it is with the Bose, which has hands-free access, but if you value audio performance above all else (and still want top-notch ANC), the Sennheiser PXC 550-II might be the right pair for you.