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TIMO ZIMMERMANN

balancing software engineering & infosec

Finding a decent headset is harder than expected

posted on Monday 18th of May 2020 in ,

I am a big fan of Sennheiser. Their headsets in various price segments perform extremely well. They might not be the best of the best in every segment, but they are constantly great. Their customer service is one of the best I have ever dealt with and it shows that the company is and has been focused on what they do for decades – and yet I am wearing a Bose NCH700 on a daily basis.
Let me tell you a story of broken bluetooth stacks, hipster marketing and awesome customer support.

I spend a lot of time on calls and video conferences. While more recently I actually got more time to write code, five to ten hours a week are still spent talking to people. (Which is actually a big improvement over the previous 30 or so.) I actually prefer to wear a headset during calls, for some reason it is easier for me to understand multiple people on a call with headphones. Also having a slightly better microphone than what is built into the device I use to dial in helped a lot with the Cherry MX blue switches in the best keyboard ever. (There, I said it. Fight me IBM Model M fans 😉 )

Usually I use my iPad for calls. Video conferencing software on macOS hovers somewhere between ‘broken’ and ‘spyware or malware like behavior’. iOS and iPadOS do a slightly better job at keeping them in check. I also do not have to hear my fans spin up because Hangouts decided 100% usage on a core is required for a voice only call. But from time to time I share my screen with my IDE and terminal so instead of joining from two systems I only use my Mac. This gives us a short, but decent list of requirements for the headset:

I did not add „amazing sound“ to the list. This is not my primary use case, but it is a soft requirement, considering that I also travel on a regular basis and would prefer to not hate every single second of watching a movie with them. At the same time I do not expect them to compete with headphones on an amp created to sound amazing.

The gold standard for connectivity on Apple devices are clearly AirPods. Switching devices takes one click. ONE! It will not get better than that. I liked the original AirPods and I really like the AirPod Pros. Not for hours on conference calls, but for listening to podcasts or taking a call walking the dog or listening to music while running.

The first headset I bought was the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless. It is a comfortable headset, sound is good, the touch controls are as bad as you expect and it folds nicely. I noticed something strange though – from time to time the headset announced „call ended“ while I was very much still on a call. I had to turn the headset off and on to reconnect. Which means I usually missed 20-30 seconds if the device I used did not have speakers to fall back to. Some more testing revealed that this happened during longer calls, after roughly 30 to 40 minutes.

Well, that has to be broken, right? It took me three minutes on the phone with Sennheiser to arrange getting them replaced. (I would not be able to get past the stupid voice assistant that replaced IVRs in that time when calling other companies’ support hotlines.)

Sadly the problem persisted. Having the same issue with my MacBook Pro, iPad Pro and iPhone lead Sennheiser CSR and me to the conclusion that the headset somehow does not want to play nicely with Apple products. So they upgraded me to the Momentum Wireless for free. (Did I ever mention that I love Sennheisers customer support?)

The Momentum has a unique design which you either love or hate. But it is as comfortable and the sound without direct comparison might be a little bit better than the PXCs, but likely the is the same. It does not fold as nicely as the PXC, but still good enough to have it in a carry on. But again: Same issue.

Calling Sennheiser again they then dispatched me to one of their engineers. Some troubleshooting later they told me they will call back in a bit. A day later I was told they can reproduce the problem and think Apple broke the Bluetooth stack in their operating systems. I am not ruling this out as an option per se, but since I have not heard half of the Internet complain about it, it somehow seems unlikely. Maybe someone else messed Bluetooth up? Using a USB Bluetooth adapter was not really an option for me, so their only known work around would not do the trick. At that point I was actually looking for a new gaming headset, so we agreed to exchange the Momentum for an GSP 670 and call it a day. The GSP is okay, but might be less comfortable depending on your head shape and if you wear glasses. Also you look stupid wearing it. Just do not put a mirror above your gaming monitor and you should be fine.

Now that my goto vendor was not an option anymore I was a bit lost. I know about the other brands you would usually compare Sennheiser to, but do I really want to go down that route? The Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QuietComfort 35 II are two headphones you likely know or at least have heard of. They are everywhere and in every comparison. And people seem to be really happy with them. After talking to a friend who spends a lot of time reviewing hardware two unexpected options were added to my maybe list: Microsoft Surface Headphones and Beats Studio 3.

At this point my thought was „Instead of messing with Bluetooth I just get the Beats with Apples W1 chip. Allegedly now well sounding headphones that just work“. Oh boy. Oh boy, was I wrong. Most headsets I listed so far are very similar. One might have a specific software feature you might love. One might have a sound profile you prefer. But overall you can buy any of them and be happy. Except the Beats. They belong in a trash can.

The Studio 3 does not fold well. The ear cups made my ears sweat after 20 minutes of use (I wasn’t even aware that that is possible). Enough pressure on my head to make them slightly uncomfortable. And for some reason switching between devices like you would expect with a W1 chip did not work properly. I really tried to not be picky about the sound, but it was as bad as their reputation suggests. Zero out of ten, would not recommend. Back to Amazon.

Time was in my favor though: The Bose NCH700 were just released and a local shop nearby had them available. At first it felt like they put a bit much pressure on the top of my head. After wearing them in it was gone. They are comfortable. I like the sound. The software works. The microphone is doing a good job not picking up the barking dog and noise cancellation works well enough that I do not even know she is barking. They do not fold as nicely as the Sennheiser, but at this point I’m willing to live with that.

I have been using the Bose for roughly seven months now and they just work. Not a single problem since I got them. They are paired with my iPad and Mac Pro, announce both connections and automatically switch to the device playing back something or joining a call. The biggest challenge for me was leaving Sennheiser behind and accepting that Bose are indeed more than something you buy for your airline miles because you do not need anything else from the catalogue. If anything would happen to them I would buy them again without thinking about it twice.