I have been looking at a lot of wireless headsets lately. They offer a lot of convenience for a nominal compromise in sound quality (and a huge burning hole in wallet). And since I’ve already gotten my hands on a pair of Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC (what a mouthful), I might as well write a review.
Note: that this is one of those reviews where I don’t follow any formal structure. There won’t be lab tests conducted in controlled conditions. If you’re looking for graphs labelled with phrases like “frequency response” and “interference” you should probably visit one of the professional review sites.
While you’re at it, you should also reflect upon why you aren’t invited at parties. (Because you’re a spoilsport nerd!)
On a serious note, this review is written from an average user’s perspective – me. It has the details about daily usage, comfort, etc.
The headset is packaged in a surprisingly simple cardboard coloured box. It lives up to its claim of frustration free environment friendly packaging. Inside the box is the headset itself, a charging cable, an aux cable with 3.5mm TRS pin on both the ends, and a carrying case.
The headset has typical Sennheiser build quality. The headband and arms have Sennheiser logo printed in silver. The right cup has a bunch of buttons and ports around its rim. Main microphone is located on this rim as well. Outer cover of the right cup has a small grill that hosts the NFC chip) used for active noise cancellation. Like most other models from Sennheiser, the three elevated dots mark the left earcup.
The headset itself folds into a small package. The hinges have nice satisfying clicks. Headband has a soft rubber finish on the inside. The earpads have a soft squishy feel.
Besides regular Bluetooth features, HD 4.50 has a few extra bells and whistles viz. aptX, NFC, Active Noise Cancelling. All these features seem to deliver on the promise for the most part.
Fast pairing on Bluetooth 4.1 works as expected. This is more important than it seems at first glance. Refer to the handy flowchart in my previous post to know why.
The aptX CODEC
The makers of aptX CODEC claim that it can provide “CD like” audio quality over Bluetooth. While this may not be strictly true (at least to my ears) aptX does improve things significantly. In my tests with a bunch of lossless files, aptX made a noticeable difference in quality. As an aside, most of the Macs released in last few years automatically use aptX when supported.
The right earcup has a nice volume rocker with a convenient bump on the volume up button. Press and hold for both the buttons serves as toggle for Active Noise Cancellation. While pressing both the buttons feels awkward at first, it is pretty easy once you get used to it.
The playback controls are handled by a single click and slide switch. Pressing the switch does play/pause (or receive/end call) while sliding the switch triggers previous/next. Surprisingly, this button press does not have a click to it. There’s also a perceptible lag between button press and play/pause operation. The lack of distinct click and the lag leave me wondering if I have successfully pressed the button or it needs a harder push. This is confusing. Some sort of feedback on button press (like feeling of a click) would be really helpful.
Lastly, there’s a power button. Press and hold triggers power on/off. Thankfully, this button has a click feedback. Holding the button pressed after turning the headset turns on triggers the pairing mode. The LED indicator starts blinking in red-blue to indicate this. The red-blue LED blinky mode can also be used if you wish to very subtly pretend to be the police. I advise strictly against this.
The audio capture is simply awesome. Plenty of wireless headsets (cough TAGG cough) suffer from faraway voice. This is especially common since the mic tends to be located near the ear, and hence, away from the mouth. Sennheiser seems to have managed to get around this and provide a decent audio capture.
Sennheiser briefly hints that there are multiple microphones to capture user audio. That probably helps too.
Active Noise Cancellation
Sennheiser claims that it uses in-house active noise cancellation technology dubbed NoiseGardTM. While it is not clear how the implementation differs from others like Bose, it works satisfactorily.
The technology cancels constant ambient noises like fans, aeroplanes, street traffic, etc. very successfully. It is not very good at cancelling out irregular noises – like ambient conversations, your housekeeper testing exactly how ‘unbreakable’ your fancy kitchenware is or that annoying co-worker you’re trying to avoid. I can rest assured that I will hear it when my mom yells at me.
Yup, you read that right. There’s a spy mode. Hear me out and follow the master:
- Turn on the noise cancellation.
- Put the headset in call mode. This mode is triggered whenever mic is needed. You may trigger this by visiting the ‘input’ tab in audio preferences. Works on Windows as well as OS X. On phone, you’ll need to disable ‘media audio’ and only keep ‘phone audio’ enabled. This can be done from Bluetooth settings for your headset.
After doing this, I was able to hear the conversations louder and clearer than otherwise. What happens (I think) is that noise cancellation silences all the background noise but captures conversational audio and plays it right inside your earcups. This has many benefits.
- You can hear clearer since there’s no ambient noise.
- Audio is amplified and played right near the ears increasing comprehensibility.
- People think you can’t hear them and talk about stuff they don’t want you to know.
So, next time your uncle starts
plotting planning your wedding behind your back, you can start doing other arrangements – like picking songs and guests.
It is enormous. Battery lasts about three days of regular use. Charging time is decent. You could potentially use the headset using aux cable while it is charging, but I would suggest against it unless you like the thrill of bunch of pressure packed chemicals getting hot near your head.
As a person gifted with elephant’s ears and an eyesight of a deep-water cavefish, comfort is a huge factor for me while selecting headphones.
Sennheiser BTNC HD 4.50 is a closed back circumaural model and covers the ears completely. Earpads are soft and do not hurt the ears. I experienced very little discomfort despite having protruding ears and spectacles. This is rare and not to be taken lightly.
The earpads form a nice seal around ears to isolate noise. As a side effect, ears tend to get warm after a while. While this is a common problem with all the circumaural models, the pleather used for earpads stays comfortable. I did not have an urge to yank the headphones out and sink my ears in icy water despite long hours of use in a relatively warm climate.
The headband has just the right amount of grip. It provides sufficient sealing pressure without making my head feel like it is being crushed by a neutron star. The headband does, however, significantly alter the hairstyle. I recommend a look in the mirror before heading out.
The headset manages an excellent sound despite being wireless. Bass and treble are well balanced. There’s no specific thump or boom to bass. There isn’t anything very distinct about treble either. So, if you prefer bass heavy music, you might want to consider other options.
Sennheiser recommends their app – CapTunes – to tune equalizers according to preferences. However, this only applies for the audio played through that device. So, if you use multiple devices including desktops, laptops, tablets and phones, you’re out of luck.
The drivers and somewhat quieter than I expected. I constantly find myself keeping volume on the higher side. While that is not a major issue and drivers do produce loud enough sound, it is something worth keeping in mind if you prefer extremely loud audio. In my experience, raising volume a bit does the trick just fine. Sennheiser may have done this in response to earlier complaints of loud defaults. This makes me wonder if this is something done at firmware level and can be patched away.
There is no cracking or rattling even at extremely loud volume levels.
Soundstage and Speech
Having full sized drivers is a big advantage when it comes to soundstage. The sound feels natural and wide as opposed to cramped. This also makes speech crisp clear. The combination of large enough soundstage and active noise cancelling makes this headset a perfect tool for listening to articles and audio books.
Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC is a great all-rounder. It has great sound quality, battery life, and decent noise cancelling. Audio controls are easy to locate and intuitive to use. At ₹14,990 it strikes a good balance between cost and performance.
I have always held a view that ditching wires is a lifestyle change. And if you’re ready to embrace it, Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC (really, what a mouthful) is a great companion.