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Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless review: feature-packed, if not a sonic standout

A retro-inspired design packed with features

It’s been around four years since Sennheiser last updated its over-ear, noise-canceling Momentum Wireless headphones, and in that time a lot has changed. Voice assistants have become a staple feature in headphones, the industry has moved toward USB-C for charging, and we’ve had countless versions of Bluetooth in the meantime, each bringing more incremental improvements in connectivity and sound quality.

So the arrival of the third-generation Sennheiser Momentum Wireless headphones (which I’ll refer to as the Momentum 3 from here on) is kind of a big deal in headphone terms. The new headphones are still a premium set of cans at $400 (£349), but they’re full of new features and tech that wouldn’t have been possible four years ago. All these new additions combine to create a feature-packed pair of headphones that are also comfortable to wear, and which look every bit as stylish as Sennheiser’s previous models. The only downside, which I’ll get onto in a second, is that you can find headphones that sound better at this premium price point.

A lot has changed over the past four years of headphones, so let’s start by listing off some of the ways in which these third-generation headphones have had to catch up. There’s a new voice assistant activation button (Google Assistant and Alexa are both supported on Android, while Apple users are limited to Siri), a proximity sensor which automatically starts and stops your music depending on whether you’re wearing the headphones, and they also use a USB-C port for charging. Thankfully Sennheiser has stuck with a traditional three-button layout to control volume and playback rather than switching to gesture controls as many other headphone makers have done. The buttons were reliable and easy to use in my testing.

Where things get a little more interesting is with the integration of Tile support, which allows you to use the Tile app to find your headphones if you lose them around your house. It’s not an entirely new feature (we’ve already seen Bose add it to its SoundSport headphones, for example), but it’s still something that isn’t common on most wireless headphones. It works like any other Tile device, which is to say that it works well for locating your headphones should you misplace them.

Another less unique trick the Momentum 3 have is that they try to automate certain actions based on when you’re wearing the headphones or whether you’ve got them safely stowed away. They do have wear detection (similar to other headphones like the Bowers & Wilkins PX Wireless), and also turn off automatically when you fold them down. In fact, folding the headphones like this is the only way to actually turn them off, since they don’t have a traditional on / off button. Without a proper power button, there’s no way to wear them around your neck without having them in standby mode, which meant that I forgot they were turned on and connected to my phone on more than one occasion. A little annoying.

I should mention that you can turn off the “Smart Pause” setting in the app, which will stop the headphones from automatically playing music when they sense that you’re wearing them. You can also use this app to adjust the EQ of the headphones, as well as other settings. By using this app, you’re automatically opted in to sharing usage data, but you have the option of opting out in the privacy section of the app. There’s no mention of Sennheiser collecting your information for marketing purposes, as one lawsuit claimed that Bose was doing.

All the features in the world wouldn’t matter if the Momentum 3 don’t sound good when you listen to them. Thankfully, they sound good — really good — and they’re definitely in the same ballpark as Sony or Bowers & Wilkins’ latest headphones. But the problem is that these headphones cost $400, and if you’re prepared to spend that amount of money then I think you can technically get better sound quality elsewhere if that’s your number one priority.

That’s not to say Sennheiser’s latest headphones don’t have anything going for them. They support Qualcomm’s AptX standard, their bass has a nice punch and heft to it, there’s no harshness or sibilance to the trebles, and all across the audio spectrum their sound is clear and balanced. Listen to a track where there’s a lot going on, like “Leviathan” by Japanese jazz group Mouse on the Keys, and you’re not going to lose track of any elements of the song, even as its drums and two pianos combine to form a barely coherent melody.

However, the headphones never quite achieve the same refinement as the Bowers & Wilkins PX Wireless, which sound a touch more weighty and grounded to my ears. They’re just more precise in how they deliver their sound. The overall sound separation offered by Bowers & Wilkins’ noise-canceling headphones is also a hair’s breadth better, which contributes to a wider soundstage. Listen to “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse on the Sennheiser Momentums, and something about it doesn’t have that epic edge that you’d hope to get from the song.

That said, Sennheiser’s latest headphones are the much more comfortable pair to wear, with a nicely padded set of ear cups that meant that they put close to no pressure on my ears, even when I wore glasses while listening to them. This is something that Bowers & Wilkins’ headphones sometimes struggle with. Despite the big cushions, Sennheiser’s headphones didn’t end up feeling too bulky, and still folded down into a compact package.

I also think they’re a really great-looking pair of headphones, although for my money Sennheiser’s headphones always look best in cream, rather than the black models that the company is leading with for these headphones. Sennheiser says that its new headphones will be available in “sand white” from November.

The headphones’ noise cancellation also holds up really nicely. I used them extensively on my commute through the London’s rumbling and occasionally screeching Underground network, and they did a good job with both, even if they couldn’t cut out either sound entirely. When I tried them out on a flight they were able to cut out the low rumble of the plane’s engines completely, and significantly reduce the high-pitched sounds around me. This doesn’t mean I was able to enjoy complete silence on my flight, but it was definitely enough to let me listen to podcasts and music without having to turn the volume up any louder than usual. You might technically get slightly better noise-cancellation from Sony or Bose, but Sennheiser’s offering is more than good enough.

Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

This is a minor point, but it was also nice to discover that the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless are very listenable with their noise-cancellation turned off. Some headphones, like AKG’s N60 NC or Sennheiser’s own HD1, don’t let you turn off noise-cancellation at all, while the sound quality of others, like the Bowers & Wilkins PX Wireless, takes a nosedive whenever you do. If you’re anything like me, then you’re likely to do 90 percent of your listening with noise-cancellation turned on regardless, but it’s nice to have the option of turning it off when you’re walking along busy city streets.

The headphones also have an audio passthrough feature, which turns off your music and uses the headphones’ microphones to amplify background sounds, in case you want to quickly listen out for external sounds like travel announcements. The feature works well, but it’s a little harder to access than on Sony’s latest headphones. Sony’s headphones let you simply cup your hand to the headphones to turn on their passthrough feature, whereas Sennheiser’s rely on you flipping a small switch, which can be harder to do quickly when you want to catch a train announcement. I also found myself turning off the noise-cancellation when I just wanted to turn off the ambient passthrough mode.

Annoyingly, Sennheiser’s rated battery life for the third-generation Momentum Wireless has taken a bit of a dip compared to its last-generation headphones. The company claims you should get 16 hours of playback out of its latest headphones, compared to the 22 hours it quoted for prior models. However, I didn’t find this to be a huge problem during my time with the headphones. I found I had to charge them twice over the two weeks I used them, during which I used them for numerous commutes and while making other journeys. In comparison, Bowers & Wilkins advertises that you’ll get 22 hours from the PX Wireless, Sony says its WH-1000XM3 can do 30, and Bose quotes 20 hours for its QC 35 II.

Aside from the lack of a physical on / off button, the only other quibble I had with the headphones was that they use a 2.5mm connector when you want to plug in a physical cable. This might just be a personal thing, but I’ve always found 3.5mm cables to be more widely available in a pinch, like when you show up at the airport and you’ve forgotten the cable you need to plug your headphones into the in-flight entertainment system.

The Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3 are a great and much-needed update to Sennheiser’s high-end wireless headphones. I really like their retro-inspired design, and they’re comfortable to wear. It’s also nice to see Sennheiser experiment with some newer features, even if it doesn’t stick the landing on all of them. Tile support is a nice addition, for example, but I would have really liked to have seen a traditional on / off button in addition to being able to turn them off by collapsing them. If you’ve been holding off on buying the current Sennheiser Momentums because of their slightly dated specs, then the new headphones are a great update.

I’d stop short of recommending these headphones to absolutely everyone, however, particularly if you’re looking for the absolute best sound quality available. A $400 price point puts these headphones firmly into premium territory. For that money, if you’re looking for the absolute best sound quality then I’d sooner point you toward the Bowers & Wilkins PX Wireless, while anyone looking to maximize on noise-cancellation would do well to check out the latest from Sony or Bose.

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