More than one fellow reviewer has suggested that I find some noise-cancelling headphones to to use on my travels. Goodness knows who’s previously used the ones supplied on long-haul aircraft and, as far as European travel is concerned, passengers are left to their own devices.
That in mind, I was very excited to read the Ear’s announcement of Sennheiser’s Momentum 4 wireless ‘phones at a modest price (compared to much of the competition, anyway) of £300. One of the key features which took my fancy was the claimed 60 hours of playback from a single battery charge. Yes, 60 hours, a figure that makes the limitations of iPhone batteries appear even more meagre than they are in reality.
Looking at what, frankly, is an exorbitant price for Apple’s mass-produced, made-in-China Air Pods Max, these new Sennheisers undercut them by a significant sum although, admittedly, provide a different approach to the challenges of music on the move. Sennheiser is clearly being price conscious with its latest launch with a product which is also made in the PRC although designed in Germany.
We have here over-the-head wireless headphones from a highly-respected brand and one whose products I’ve been using with satisfaction since the ‘80s. At the BBC we were given HD414s for studio use and then the brand’s HD25s for outdoor work. I then migrated to the HMD 280 headset, with boom mic, for various reports and commentaries. All are made to a very high standard and have given me years of faultless service.
In the Momentum 4 we have new adaptive noise cancellation, an optional Android/Apple app to increase functionality, and the ability to make and receive calls from a suitably-connected device. The design features the latest high-quality aptX HD adaptive codec (backwards compatible with earlier aptX), SBC and AAC. We also have the benefit of Bluetooth 5.2 so simultaneous connection to several devices is possible, and switching between them a doddle.
At close to 300g these are no lightweights but well-made sturdy ‘phones featuring two large earcups which fit snugly around the ear and provide a high level of insulation from ambient sounds. They house the 42mm drive units, amplifiers, batteries and associated electronics. The solid headband is of sufficient width with sufficient padding to successfully distribute the weight without causing pain or discomfort even for extended periods of use.
A small annoyance was the need to use the supplied plastic and fabric case for transportation since the earcups swivel to lay flat rather than fold up into the headband such that the whole will fit into a coat pocket.
Those who like an app for everything won’t be disappointed because we have the Sennheiser Smart Control (Android and Apple). More than a mere gimmick it permits EQ adjustments, active noise cancelling (ANC) settings and even a ‘Sound Check’ feature to select a desired EQ profile. All-in-all, though, we are an audiophile outlet and don’t do tone controls. In any event, I dispensed with the app early on since it wasn’t available for either my MacBook or iMac anyway, and these were my two main sources when not out-and-about.
All the functionality that’s needed is available via the touch controls on the outside of the right-ear cup: tap once for play/pause; swipe left/right for track change; up/down for volume adjustment; and pinch to alter ANC levels. On the cup’s rim is a button for on/off that also provides ‘pairing’ with a longer press, here are LEDs to show charging status and battery level, as well as charging and audio input sockets for hardwired use.
Having up to 60 hours of battery life is such a boon, added to which the design incorporates an automatic power-saving function which powers down the headphones when they’ve been inactive for 15 minutes. A simple touch of the side panel wakes them up again. Magic. Should the battery go flat, there remains the option of a wired connection which needs no onboard power – either via a 2.5mm jack or mini-USB socket. This is also the way to use the supplied aircraft connection adaptor.
From the start it was clear that Sennheiser have put a lot of effort into creating a natural and well-balanced sound. Yes, there is an element of entertainment and excitement but, clearly, not at the expense of creating a natural presentation based very much on the input signal. Those who wish to add their own element of (unnatural) creativity have the app, leaving the rest of us to wallow in the delights of a more realistic presentation.
Headphone listening is not, of course, the same as sitting in front of loudspeakers. I say ‘of course’ although it may be a new experience for some. Rather than the soundstage laid out in front of the listener, and replicating (by and large) the experience of a live performance, headphones give a much more intimate and personal experience with the performers virtually inside one’s head. This may seem slightly disconcerting at first but the brain quickly adapts.
The Momentum 4s have a fine midrange, vocals are clear and precise while one hears the performers’ breathing and even guttural noises which are generally lost with loudspeakers. My penchant for audiobooks and podcasts came into its own via the Sennheisers and I felt a real connection with the narrator. The same applied with news and current affairs as well as drama, where I became part of the action.
Upper-midrange and lower treble registers were also of a superb quality, crisp and well-balanced. It would be so easy to up the levels here so as to increase the sense of ‘excitement’, but Sennheiser has resisted the temptation – perhaps leaving it to the app user to tweak as they desire?
Although the quoted frequency response is 6Hz to 22kHz I have to confess that, although the basslines were commensurately well executed without becoming unduly muddled, I can’t say I detected much below about 45Hz but that could also be down to the type of material I was listening to. During one podcast I was aware of what became an annoying hum (circa 55Hz) and a tweak of the EQ here did help, otherwise I listened ‘flat’ and relied on the expertise of the recording engineers.
It was mid BBC Proms season during the review period and I was pleased not to miss Bach’s B-Minor Mass performed by Baroque specialist John Butt and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who are so well equipped to bring it to life. The full emotion of the work entered my ears via the Momentum 4s in a way that’s just not possible with speakers. Counter-tenor Lestyn Davies and soprano Mary Bevan sounded so very close in such an involving, almost eerie way. While these headphones are not analytical, it was too lively and enjoyable for that, the sound was so unadulterated as to make the realism sufficient to bring the performers and the overall performance right to my ears.
Rather than being one-dimensional, the sound was close to three-dimensional with much more air and space than I was expecting, but then then these are no budget headphones. They performed to and beyond their price-point as far as I was concerned with a sprightly reproduction of the Albert Hall’s sound.
Not everything was handled with aplomb though as I struggled to enjoy a Decca recording of András Schiff playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata 11 in A Major, K331 which sounded rather as though my head was under the piano lid, more so than I’ve been aware of when using my usual headphones at least. The track lost some of its usual beauty, with an odd resonance and unusual timbre. This can be a tricky instrument to reproduce, and so it turned out to be. Switching to my Hegel amp and Harbeth speakers, the true piano-like sound of this maestro at the keyboard was rekindled. But this was a mere blip in the Momentum 4’s abilities.
Disconnecting from the MacBook and venturing outside with iPhone in my pocket, the noise-cancelling works extremely well indeed. Being adjustable is such a bonus and one can allow louder noises to be heard so as not to be run down by a bus or heavy lorry, or to put the ANC on ‘max’ and obliterate virtually all extraneous sounds, never mind the safety aspect. I opted for something of a mid-way point and found that the system automatically applied the technology according to the ambient noise level, which was so much easier than having to fiddle about selecting presets. On an aeroplane I should think this a huge boon and I can’t wait to take them to the air.
With other genre, too, the Momentum 4s showed just what they were capable of. Track after track from my ‘favourites’ had my feet tapping, none more so than Tony Christie’s The Ultimate Collection where the ‘phones proved their timing capabilities while creating a full-bodied and expansive sound with immense detail.
Wearing the Momentum 4s it was actually a pleasure to take calls on the connected iPhone. Usually I hate mobile phones with a passion, for their dreadful (well, unnatural) audio quality and the lack of sidetone, that is a proportion of one’s own voice coming back down the earpiece as is the case with landline handsets.
Sennheiser have included a variable sidetone feature into the headphones which make them a joy to use, the music muting automatically when a call comes in. Such was my success with this that I found myself using the ‘4s for online meetings as well and they were a real boon for hearing everyone properly during Zoom calls and Teams meetings. I’d say they are worth the investment for this quality alone. Reports were that my audio had ‘improved dramatically’ over my iMac’s inbuilt mic and this may be down to the pair of capsules per side in the Momentum headphones which boast ‘beamforming’ for noise reduction.
An evolution of the old Momentum 3 design, the 4s offer a real plus in the 60 hour battery life and give something for other manufacturers to aim at. The on-ear controls are a delight to use and, there’s always that app if you feel so inclined.
Overall, Sennheiser have created a superb product which performs better than I was expecting for the price. The noise-cancellation feature is well engineered while the sound quality is much more natural and realistic than I had thought possible with a wireless design, the level of detail far greater than my expectations. I may never go back to corded headphones again.