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Sennheiser CX Series Earphones Review

In the box:

  • Ear-canal phones;
  • Three pair, classic ear cushions of various sizes;
  • Carrying pouch.

In addition to that, the C 400-II and CX 500 models feature the following:

  • Three pair, tiered ear cushions of various sizes;
  • Cable winder;
  • Cable clip.

They say, a true audiophile should do three things in their life: buy a cryogen-treated headphones cable from TWAG, drink a goblet of full audio spectrum wine from highland Italy (which is known to enhance the psychoacoustic capabilities of the brain and to allow one to hear audio frequencies of up to 25 kHz), and put down the Sennheiser CX 300 earphones at least in a single message on any music forum.

I can't say anything for granted about the first two, but the third thing appears to be done regularly. And the reason for that is not the horrible quality of the particular earphones but rather Sennheiser's wide distribution network, which makes the CX a popular first buy among young people.

Our story begins in the distant 2005 when there was a serious shortage of interesting portable solutions on the audio market. It is only now that ear-canal phones have become something trivial and can be seen anywhere up to mobile headsets in the lousiest phones, but at that time, all one could probably find was the lonely Koss The Plug. And the latter could not be bought in every shop or every city. Out of stock, they used to say. Isn't that funny? Especially if you take into account the fact that nowadays such earphones are considered to be one of the most dubious attainments of the portable world.

In the same 2005, during the Eurovision music contest held in Kiev, Sennheiser provided the singers with their latest product the IE 4 on-stage in-ear phones. Just like the Sharp HP-MD33-S, Edifier H260 or Creative EP 630, the model was an OEM product of another, less known company called Foster (index 382326), which is rumored to be working only B2B and with serious volumes from tens of thousands of units.

After the event, many of those earphones appeared in the retail throughout Ukraine and particularly in Kiev. It doesn't matter how that happened, the company may have been studying the demand in such a way. And, one should admit, the latter was high, the users were craving for some decent solutions in the segment. Even now, on some forums, one can find the first impressions of the IE 4 purchase; it is amazing to observe how much joy was caused by those ear buds, simplistic from the contemporary audiophile point of view.

The demand was so high that in 2006 Sennheiser decided to release an "average Joe" version of the IE 4 dubbed the CX 300. Although both models look the same, the latter gets accused by the users of an inferior build quality and poorer sound. On the upside, that, together with larger production volumes, allows for a lower price. Not surprisingly, since the first model has been produced in limited lots for on-stage work, whereas the second one is positioned as a popular music listening solution. In terms of sound, the IE 4 is on par with the CX 500 model.

Today, we are going to discuss three main models in the CX series i.e. the 300, 400, and 500. We will compare them to each other and reveal all their pros and cons to create an ultimate beginner's guide to the most popular ear-canal phones by Sennheiser.

Here I need to admit that the Germans do not disdain to use fraudulent marketing and are in habit of releasing their older models with a slightly updated design and new index. There exist plenty of variations, such as the special "Street" and "Sport" modifications, plus second editions of select headphones (the index "II" after the number implies exactly that). Yet various modifications of these three series (i.e. the 3**, 4**, and 5**) are identical in terms of sound. Only the contents of the box, appearance and some minor details can be different.

For example, the "Sport" modification, as one can judge by the name, is aimed at active people. The earpieces and cable have bright colors, the bundled pouch is a silicone, not leather one. And accordingly, the price is higher. The "Style" modification boasts of a more interesting design and yes, has a heftier price tag, too.

It is quite possible that the gentlemen from Germany will release the "Glamour" or "Night Club" modifications in the nearest future, but in my humble opinion, such features are not really worth much yet will always cost you another 10-15 bucks.

Therefore, we have chosen three classic, most popular models for the test. I was able to get my hands on the second edition of the CX 300 and CX 400 ("Precision") and the first, already discontinued, edition of the of the top 500 series.

Box Content and Packaging

All earphones come in sealed plastic boxes. That is unfortunate as many would like to test the buds before buying even if they have previously owned the same model. However, any decent audio shop should have some CX for display and it is only with giant media chain stores that there may be a problem, since the latter care about the market on the whole, not about individual customers.

Traditionally, the content of the box gets richer with the price of the model. The CX-300 II comes with three pairs of replacement ear cushions and a leather pouch. The CX-400 II and CX-500 are bundled with three pairs of classic and three pairs of tiered cushions, same pouch, cable clip and winder.

Made of silicone, the ear cushions are very soft. There are seams on the edges, but one won't feel them or complain about. That is very important as the seams can be irritating for the ear canal sometimes, which would kill all the joy of listening to the music.

The pouch is none other than a leather piece in the form of a pocket with two flexible plastic crossbars. Such construction does not require any zip locks to keep the stuff inside. The leather is suede and there is also a Sennheiser logo embossed in the center of the pouch.

The cable winder is made of rubber and has a "nice" chemical smell. As far as the earphones protection is concerned, it is an optimal way to keep them safe. It is even better than the pouch, which is damn stylish but doesn't have a solid framework and is absolutely flexible.

Build and Design

The C is a budget series, nothing to write home about. I would call the design restrained, classic.

Depending on the series and edition, the earphones can be gray, white, black or any combination of those. It is completely different with the modifications that have their own styles, including raving bright colors. Except for the CX-500, all buds are matte. The 500 series is lacquered, which should imply their top position in the lineup.

The plastic is casual, not bad, but without any allusion to exclusivity. It won't crack or deform in any other way if you press the shell a little bit, which is good.

The cable is obviously the weakest part of any low-end headphones. The series has a thin one, which neither appears nor feels reliable. Although that is an excusable neglect for the cheaper CX 300, such thin cable won't do for the expensive CX 500. Getting ahead of myself, I can say that the first impression can be deceptive and the CX 500 is quite appropriate for the bitter Polar frost and ruthless Russian whereabouts.

I liked the audio jack, which is angled and made from a single piece of thick rubber. It looks reliable enough not to care much about. The only concern is that the cable may pop out of the plug after a while as it is not fixed in any way and can slightly move back and forth.

The senior models also feature a volume slider, a tiny yet handy one. It won't allow you to mute the sound completely or max out the volume, but it can still compensate for volume discrepancies across various tracks or lower the level if you need to talk to someone.

Since the earphones don't have a screen, direct sunlight is not a problem. Amen.

Usability

Cable care is one thing that any owner of budget headphones should always keep in mind. Most products in that segment of the audio market have thin, delicate cables that can easily become defective if handled without care. It is up to you, whether your purchase will last for a month, six months or a year. The following two pieces of advice can make the cables last longer:

  • Try to keep your earphones in the pouch or use the cable winder. You can also use camera or minidisc cases, which are spacious, handy and have a semi-rigid framework;
  • Try to limit the headphones usage in winter. Bitter frost is a sure way to kill the cable as it can stiffen up and break easily.

The owners of the CX series are more or less on the safe side. The reports on the CX 300 and CX 400 are quite disperse, some having the cable wear out very fast, some having it last for a long time. It is more of an issue of the human factor than design flaw. As the call, so the echo. As regards the CX 500, there is nothing to complain about. The cable is silicone with a rubber coating, albeit it looks similar to the other two models at the first sight. It is also much better in practice i.e. it doesn't become stiff in the cold, is not afraid of kinks, and can last for more than a year if handled with care. That is, it is a pleasure not only for the eye and the heart but also for the budget.

If you are a Jack of all trades or have access to an official Sennheiser distributor, the cable can be replaced. In the former case, you will need some other inexpensive headphones as a donor since the difference won't be significant, and in the latter, you will need to pay around 10-15 bucks, which is much better than spending another 50 some to replace the headphones altogether.

Another interesting problem often discussed on the forums is the membrane inflection. It can happen when either inserting the piece into the ear canal or increasing the volume, yet the result is always the same i.e. playback anomalies. The author of this article didn't experience any problems although he tried various ways to insert the earphones. Apparently, the problem stems from those users who, neglecting personal hygiene and common sense, max out the volume, which together with the design peculiarities results in the inflection.

Speaking of hygiene, I can't but mention the issue of cleaning the audio filters. The thin metal grilles, which protect the innards, will get dirty after a while anyway. There is no special cleaning kit or replacement filters in the bundle, hence one will have to be creative. The owners recommend a good old method, which requires some hydrogen peroxide (3%), Sennheiser earphones, and a sharp eye. Let me quote one of them:

INUTERO (Player.ru forum member):

This is how I clean the grille:

  • pour some peroxide on the cap of a plastic bottle;
  • sink both earpieces with their grilles facing downwards and fix the whole construction to the table using the duct tape (likely to turn over otherwise).

Leave it all for 15 minutes. I use that time to construct an air suction device by attaching an empty ink chamber from a ballpoint pen to a vacuum cleaner hose (again, with the duct tape). It is very important that the diameter of the chamber is two times smaller than that of the grille (otherwise, you will suck it out), and make sure that the grilles are not facing upwards when using the suction device. You may want to repeat the cleaning procedure several times.

If your headphones or mobile phone get wet, the best you can do is leave them in some dried rice for three days. It is a very good absorbent. If you use heat drying, the moisture won't go away completely but condense inside.

The "vacuum cleaner suction device" is a real thriller indeed. Hence I would like to add that if the filters are not neglected (that is, cleaned every six months or, even better, every three months), one can easily do without the aforementioned infernal machine.

Due to their small size, the earphones are quite comfortable. Personally I was using the medium sized cushions. There is no sense in trying to insert the pieces deep into the ear canal as, being soft, they will simply collapse and cover the buds rendering your efforts useless. It is good that you can also have the tiered cushions in addition to the classic ones as part of the bundle. The former are a little bit harder and smoother. They provide you with the necessary degree of freedom, and all that is left is some patience on your side.

It is important to find your personal size to ensure decent ear canal pressurization. Both the sound isolation and quality depend on that.

Sound

We tested the headphones with Cowon D2+, which is also quite popular among rookie music fans. Music samples were converted from lossless in mp3 of 320 kb/s and it is enough for the tested headphones.

Sennheiser C 300-II Precision

  • Average price: $45
  • Type: closed
  • Principle of operation: dynamic
  • Frequency range: 19 - 21000 Hz
  • Resistance: 16 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 113 dB
  • Sound Pressure Level (SPL): 113 dB
  • Weight: 8 g.
  • Plug: corner, mini-jack of 3.5 mm
  • Harmonic distortion:   0.2 %
  • Cable: asymmetric 1.2 m

Despite its price the model has ordinary sound of budget headphones. There is nothing special on high and medium frequencies here and this device can even be compared with soft in-ear headphones from M range or even standard ones for iPod players.

C 300 has advantage over standard headphones only due to the accent on the bass and low medium frequencies. Low frequencies (hereinafter LF) are not deep and a bit superficial, but this is compensated by their quantity, which is more than enough. As Forrest Gump said once: "That's all I have to say about Vietnam".

On high and medium frequencies (hereinafter HF and MF) the headphones produce squeaking sounds, while on LF they work as a subwoofer in your head. If you need the basses this model is the right choice, but if you can live without prominent LF look for and listen to cheaper models. Alternatively the standard headphones will suffice as well.

Sennheiser CX 400-II Precision

  • Average price: $58
  • Type: closed
  • Principle of operation: dynamic
  • Frequency range: 17 – 22 000 Hz
  • Resistance: 16 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 114 dB
  • Sound Pressure Level (SPL): 114 dB
  • Weight: 8 g.
  • Plug: corner, mini-jack of 3.5 mm
  • Harmonic distortion:   0.2 %
  • Cable: Y type, 1.5 m

The step forward from the previous model is quite distinct.

The basses are not so strong and are more detailed. Now they don't just batter down as an old boombox, but try to tell us how the drums work or what the DJ sample is about. Freddie Mercury, a long time favorite of many, doesn't choke in LF or feel high and dry, but sounds rather comfortable.

The main drawback of the lower specs model - weak MF and HF - are close to the listeners' ears here and offer richer sound. The vocal doesn't come as if through a pillow, but moves nearer. The violins of majestic Vanessa Mae and Escala change the tonal quality and at times you can differentiate particular instruments and separate the parts. The details are a little bit more profound, but anyway we should be thankful even for this improvement.

In general, this is a slightly upgraded version of the lower specs model, which retained the major share of its drawbacks, and they still outweigh the strong points.

You cannot compare this device with standard headphones though. It clearly sounds better. The only positive exception is Sony MDR-EX85 and MDR-EX300, which come in the box with Sony players (s638, s706f, a728, s738, a808, a818, a828, x1060 for the first headphones, and s630, s730, a845 for the second). As far as I remember, MDR-EX85 easily overtakes C 300 and can compete with C 400. Theoretically, MDR-EX300 must be even more stylish.

Sennheiser CX 500

  • Average price: $72
  • Type: closed
  • Principle of operation: dynamic
  • Frequency range: 17 – 21 000 Hz
  • Resistance: 16 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 113 dB
  • Sound Pressure Level (SPL): 113 dB
  • Weight: 8 g.
  • Plug: corner, mini-jack of 3.5 mm
  • Harmonic distortion:   0.2 %
  • Cable: Y type, 1.1 m

The last model in our review, but not the worst in terms of sound, is C-500. When listening I felt that if -300 started from the level of this model, all disputes in the world (or at least on music forums) would come to an end.

CX 500 sounds in a mature and interesting way. Everything is professional. The quality sound is created not only by the drilling basses, but due to proper MF and HF.

LF are similar to CX 400 and I did not hear any improvement or change. Low MF feature even more acute peak, which is typical of many dynamic in-ear headphones. I don't have monopoly on the truth, but I am not impressed by this sound feature. Those who like heavy music may enjoy it. It makes this kind of stuff more fleshy and rich, but the detailed MF are sacrificed for the effect.

The bottom LF are still nonexistent. An inquisitive listener may hear some traces of such frequencies, but it may be caused by audio memory rather than the true state of affairs.

MF are decent. Voices of several singers or voice over recording (for example, the chorus performed by the singer with back vocals recorded by the same person) can be easily heard. One feels the tone quality changes in the chorus. I have a feeling of the earplugs taken out and replaced by something else probably by decent headphones ;)

All instruments and sounds on MF become close to the listener and more natural than before. Guitar and vocals still have some metal aftertaste with plastic flavor, which is unfortunately bland. Fans of live performances will be disappointed, while those who prefer listening to electronic music will triumph.

HF are not bad, but in sophisticated pieces you can observe some squeaking. As to the rest HF are better and more impressive than in cheaper models.

High quantity of mid basses and lower MF with good encapsulation create a feeling of presence and space, but it is just an illusion. Nevertheless, you can still enjoy music a lot despite this deception.

Final impressions from sound

Judging by the tests, the whole range of headphones was designed with commercial sound in mind, which highlights LF. Such an approach is popular with young people, who listen to simple styles and enjoy the drumming sound. If master models offer some MF/HF 300 cannot impress its owners. The price difference roughly corresponds to the sound quality variation.

I have to remind that low frequencies here are mid basses and a bit of lower middle part. The mid part in general is failed as it is the case with many cheap dynamic headphones. If 300 hides it by just offering some sounds of this frequency and 400 only tries to improve the mistakes of the lower-specs model, CX 500, taking into account its mature sound and price merely fails in this respect. LF are better than in its brothers in arms, but not much.

HF do not impress with anything special. They are not bad and you can hear them. That's something at least. We should be thankful for the absence of sibilant sounds in this product range, which is a considerable advantage as many in-ear headphones (for example, from Koss) can be blamed for this.

I would recommend the headphones in question to use with simple styles. Modern pop music, hip hop, unsophisticated aggressive (house, techno, DnB) and calm (ambient, chillout) electronic music will sound nice. Courtesy of prominent LF and lower MF some heavy styles (let's say danz-metal Rammstein) will benefit as well.

Unfortunately,"live" music and serious electronic music will be played in a simplistic and flat way. The main details will be lost and you can get only the overall impression. If you take deep tracks, the basses overpower the mid range and the sound becomes heavy and blurred. Classical music, rock and jazz lose their soul with these headphones due to the lack of HF.

The final result depends on the experience of the listener anyway. For the undemanding they will deliver on their modest promise. If you don't like the hammering basses instead of this series you can opt for cheaper analogues without accentuated LF but try them before the purchase in any case.

Finally, I would like to mention one interesting fact officially CX 400-II is a replacement of the discontinued 500. The tests showed that the new 400-II cannot compete in sound quality with CX 500, though the company tries to prove otherwise.

Be aware of marketing tricks and stay healthy.

The work of Chinese maestros

The examples of this work are omnipresent because of Sennheiser popularity in the world. Thanks to simple originals the copies offer high quality as well. What is more, you can buy them everywhere - ebay.com, private companies and several serious retailers.

We will need a separate article to describe all fake models, so I can only recommend not to be lured by low prices and promotions like "BUY TODAY ONLY!" or you run the risk to join the ranks of those who constantly complain on forums about the cable peeling off, cracked body or malfunctioning "ears", etc.

Comments and impressions

If you ignore the market tendencies these models can be happily recommended for purchase and we could finish here, but we live in a real world and while series was under review two small complaints to the product emerged:

  • Price. If in 2006-2007 it was justified, now the models are overpriced. Many Chinese OEM devices offer similar sound for less. Fischer Audio is a good example. They almost stopped producing their own headphones and buy everything in China (as mentioned before Sennheiser does the same).

On the other hand, similar to Sony or Apple we pay not only for the gadget itself, but also for the brand, expenses for the promotion and advertising of the product, which helps to keep afloat the large families of marketing specialists. Then come handy accessories from the box, which cost additional money, but we are not asked whether we need them or not.

When you buy the products from X series you also pay for the name and accessories. To buy or not to buy is a personal question.

  • Company policy. I would like to believe that one day instead of pure marketing and rerelease of old models under new names with nice looking accessories Sennheiser will pay attention to the sound quality in accordance with the price. Then $10-15 will look justified and understandable.

If you analyze the market in general this issue will pale into insignificance in comparison with achievements of other manufacturers. Abovementioned Fischer Audio busy from its Chinese partners devices which literally fall apart within weeks of use. The solution is simple - cheap fish makes a bad fish soup, which is not good for your stomach, and if you want something better you will have to pay more. Sadly, life is not fair.

As for the rest are decent entry level headphones. Those who do not ask for more, students hurrying to classes, would be gangster and busy housewives with babies will be satisfied. The series targets the general public and as there are no forthcoming tectonic changes in the market in terms of quality or price Sennheiser successfully enlightens the masses.

These headphones are typical workhorses. They offer medium quality, but do what expected. Good choice for the money. You know what I mean.

The author is grateful to the audio shop "Mega Galaxy" in Odessa for the testing samples.

Konstantin Ladanin
Translated by Olexandr Nikolaychuk (meiam@inbox.com)

Published - 27 July 2010

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