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Review: Sennheiser CX985 Earbuds

October 6, 2013
Sennheiser CX-985s, complete with "leather" case

Sennheiser CX-985s, complete with “leather” case

Recently, I entered the market for a new set of earbuds – I had just got a new phone (an iPhone 5S), and my prior set, while electrically sound, had suffered an unfortunate incident which had bent the connector. I had obviously received some of the magical apple earpods with my phone, but I’m afraid I was skeptical. Previous Apple earbuds leaked so much sound that I had started to suspect it was a covert marketing technique to promote iTunes (although obviously that would require the listener to pick something other than, e.g., Enrique Iglesias), but these were a pretty big departure.

I quickly ruled using them out (although the sound quality is better, less like a mosquito in a jar) because they feel like what I can only assume is akin to a spaceship trying to dock with your outer ear. It also doesn’t help that the USS Earbud D is made entirely of a futuristic frictionless plastic previously unknown to man, allowing it to successfully juxtapose a high risk of falling out and the intimate sensation of a speculum being rammed into your head.

Clearly, I needed to look elsewhere.

The Model

My previous two earbuds have both been Sennheiser CX-300 IIs. In fact, all my headphones are Sennheiser ones, being readily available and significantly better than the ones built by peripheral companies. Initially, I thought I might just go down to JB Hi-Fi and buy another set, but then I realized that: a) it was 2 AM and I needed instant gratification, and b) you can buy pretty much anything on the internet. The first shock was to discover that my precious earbuds which I normally pay a reasonable amount for are apparently half the price (or less) in other parts of the world. This is pretty typical for bastard technology companies – Australia pays between 20 and 100% more for everything, including digital goods. It’s been so bad that the government got involved recently, and Apple, Microsoft and Adobe, when pressured, spewed out a range of wafer thin reasons – Adobe supposedly doubles its prices to provide a customized experience whereas Apple tried to blame freight (of digital goods), license holders (e.g., themselves, I assume), and a whole range of other issues. Props to Microsoft though, they just did the equivalent of twirling their moustache – admitting that they screw us for fun and profit, but have no plans to change (interestingly, they then released the Surface 2 at a reasonable price here, so YMMV). It’s not just the big companies – most computer wholesale prices are the same, but as soon as it hits the retail market, things go downhill fast.

Given my suddenly widened budget from buying abroad, I decided to try a slightly more exciting set, and settled on the CX985, a relatively recent addition to the range. I used my standard technique for selecting computer parts, find the most expensive one (the eye-wateringly priced IE-80), and then go down by two or three price notches. Since I’ve owned a bunch of the CX-300 II (“precision”) sets, this will mostly be a comparitive review.

This box really does promise an avant garde experience.

This box really does promise an avant garde experience.

Physicals and Accoutrements

I’ll start by talking about the box, which was a delicious entree in the meal of this experience. The box was lovely. Beyond lovely, in fact – although slightly blemished by the promise that the headphones within were “avant garde.” Also it was surprisingly difficult to open, made all the more embarrassing by the fact that it was a rather cleverly designed book-like setup that was very simple in retrospect. After navigating the vanguard of packaging design (some 5 minutes later), I took heed of the contents:

  • The earbuds (obviously);
  • A leatheresque folding case for carrying it;
  • An adaptor for aeroplanes, which is a great thing as the ones offered to you on planes are worse even than Apple’s offerings;*
  • Four replacement diaphragm foam cores and a tool for replacing them;
  • Seven (!!) replaceable options for the actual rubbery bit you shove in your ear;
  • Some kind of shitty plastic cable organizer thing that I don’t feel any inclination to use.

First, I need to discuss the main headphone assembly. For something so much more expensive than their base range, it’s actually a little disappointing. The earbuds themselves have a sort of metal bracket on them which sets on your earlobe. This part of it is fine – it’s light, they’re slightly more obtrusive than the smaller offerings, but they don’t feel noticeable, which is pretty much all you can hope for with such a thing. I don’t actually know what the metal part is for, although it does ensure that you get the left and right ears correct without having to scrutinize the tiny text on the actual earbud – they angle backwards and feel distinctly odd if you get it wrong. Those of you with the CX-300 IIs will probably wonder why I mention this – unlike the CX-300s, the cable is symmetric (which is why you can get left and right confused), and it also requires that it runs down the middle of your chest. This symmetry is due, at least in part, to their weakest component – a cable-integrated volume control that is comically large and weirdly tacky, although it functions decently well. The actual wire is a little light for my liking, has a tendency to crease, and has quite a lot of memory, which also makes it impossible to place on a flat surface without it trying to unravel itself and wander off.

But we can’t stop here. There is one… special part of the main assembly. The headphone jack is hinged. It can be an awkward straight jack, in the way that nobody likes, or it can be a slightly larger than expected right angle jack. The whole connector is, due to the massively overengineered hinge, about 30% larger than it would be sans gimmick. I think it’s a stupid addition, but it’s actually implemented quite nicely – stiff enough to stick in the correct configuration (a right angle), but flexible enough for you to switch to a straight connector and slum it for a few minutes, before realizing why you’d never want to keep it like that.

*: Here’s something that will anger those of us who have only flown in cattle class – they not only get better seats and meals on the other side of the dividing curtain, but they even get comfortable headphones. Jerks.

Customized for your Pleasure

Tips for every occasion!

Tips for every occasion!

The headphones come with seven different ear-mating options. Two sets of normal adaptors, in three sizes (small, normal, and freakish mutant) – one set of which has a white core (the “standard” ones), and one set has a purple core (for “enhanced bass”). Both sets are comfortable (if you pick the size for your ear, naturally) – as they actually slot in via a very soft, thin rubbery outer mushroomoid that is identical to the standard setup in other Sennheiser earbuds. The white cored tips are extremely comfortable; much more so than the CX-300 IIs, and they don’t ever cause over/underpressure when inserting or removing them (something that I hate). They do, however, pay for this by having worse isolation (still good!) and a slightly worse soundstage (I put this word in to sound like I know what I’m talking about) – the lower frequencies in particular suffer. The purple-cored tips are very similar to the tips on a CX-300 II, more isolating, more bass, less comfort. It’s a reasonable tradeoff, and while I like the sound on the purple tips, I can wear the white-cored ones indefinitely without feeling like my brain has started leaking out of my ears.

You’ll notice I have only mentioned six of the tips. The seventh set, or comedy option (to give it the technical name), is a sort of elongated rubber dildo filled with memory foam, which does nothing for comfort or sound quality, but must have afforded those crazy Germans at Sennheiser a good laugh.

Also included is a set of foam diaphragms – unlike the CX-300 IIs, which have a metal grille between the driver and your ear secretions, these have wad of foam protecting the driver. They provide a tool for replacing these when they get clogged up with… well, I suppose it depends how you use them. Anyway, I can’t say this was ever something I felt I had to do; but it’s nice of them to provide the means. Finally, the case. It’s quite large, deceptively slim, and has a pleasant finish with an elasticized strap to hold it closed. If you’re considering keeping each of the ear attachments available just in case (and what a night that would be!), I have bad news. With the volume selector and the huge hinged connector, you can barely fit anything else in there beyond the plane adaptor and the headset itself.

The amazing hinged connector.

The amazing hinged connector.

Sound Quality

I’m going to start this section by saying that I am not an audiophile. I think that the community that self identifies as that is a great source of hilarity, from wooden volume knobs (these improve the warmth of the sound) to audio tuning sticks (“plug it in to an unused power point and hear the difference”), and a host other overpriced traps for the gullible. I also don’t have a ream of experimental sounds to push these headphones to the limit. I play the music I happen to be listening to currently, and I play games. That said, here is my qualitative assessment:

These are no better than the CX-300 IIs. The tip selection makes by far a bigger difference. With the purple tips I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, with the white tips they sound a fraction worse (although the higher frequencies are easier to discern over the bass), but they are easier to wear. This is not a bad thing, of course, the CX-300 IIs have excellent sound quality, and if you’ve been using Logitech, Apple or Skullcandy (ew) sound delivery devices, you’ll probably be floored by the sound. The problem is, when you get right down to it, you can’t expect the world from a tiny driver shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. They do a good job, but at the end of the day they’re operating off only a few milliwatts and have mere millimetres of travel. Comparing them to my “at home” headphones (Sennheiser HD555), the poor CX985s don’t compare very favourably; although I think they may actually be comparable in comfort, something I couldn’t say about the CX-300s. Of course, perhaps the problem is that I am using these afresh, and my speaker cables haven’t had time to burn in yet – something that can cause “coldness” and – oh no, wait, that’s just bullshit with no basis in reality. My mistake!

Technically, at least according to the Sennheiser website, the CX985 has a better frequency response than the CX300 or even the IE80, although these frequency response numbers are pretty misleading – just because a driver can produce those frequencies, it’s not guaranteed to do it distortion free (or at the right volume). If I was pressed, I could perhaps believe the higher upper bound, but I wouldn’t put money on it. The impedance is quite high for portable headphones, so you’ll have to crank the volume on your iDevice, but the physical volume control is nice for dropping it down when someone wants to talk to you – and because you don’t have to pull out your phone nobody can see that you’re listening to One Direction or whatever it is you kids do these days.

Conclusion

The CX985 is a good set of earbuds. It is significantly pricier than the CX300 IIs, and not equivalently better; but if you have problems with using earbuds for a long time, they are very comfortable and nice to wear. If you just want sound quality, buy some decent headphones instead. As for me, I’ll be happily avant garde for some time to come, but next time I am in the market for a new pair, I’m not going to buy these again. Nor would I buy the CX-300s, I’ll cast my net further afield.

Sound
Excellent for a tiny in-ear driver, but no better than other models in the Sennheiser range 7/10
Comfort
An improvement over the CX-300s, but at a cost. 7/10
Peripherals
Lots of tips, which is nice. None of them were made of wood though, which naturally made my listening experience rather cold. The case is pretty sweet though. 7/10
Value
Unfortunately it’s just not as good a value proposition as its cheaper cousins 5/10
VERDICT:
62%

Good, but not great. The design was trying to be too clever and has some rough points as a consequence, and it’s just not better enough for the increased price over the CX-300 IIs.

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