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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Financial Interests: click here
Digital Source: Raysonic CD-168, Ayon CD 1 [in for review]
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103 cartridge, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan]
Shindo Allegro
Amp: Shindo Haut Brion
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Nines
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Shindo interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup
Review component retail price: $449.95

Nothing makes me laugh harder than standing on a noisy subway platform and seeing some bedhead with earbuds inserted, rocking out to his favorite iPod tunes. Ear-shattering New York City subways are well known to cause hearing loss - and that's before you even enter the train car! High decibel levels are eardrum killers and even though I don't carry my iPod into the hellish hole that is the subway, I can appreciate the need for diversion. Personally, I prefer earplugs. But your average bedhead -- an styled 20-something with three day stubble, ill fitting clothes and that glazed look caused by listening to hipster indie rock -- cares not for his hearing, only his music. And with that, I can concur.

When it's late at night and the spouse is asleep or if personal listening space demands headphone accompaniment, there are a few ways to travel. Our bedhead friend seems to love the ubiquitous earbud; DJ types prefer bulky Technics or Sony models; the business man eschews style altogether for Bose insularity. But is that all there is? We of the music-loving, critical listening bent typically seek out certain brands to help us achieve audio nirvana: Stax, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Grado, Etymotic, AKG and Shure are a few of the brands that seek to soothe the audiophile beast. I currently own h'phones from Grado, Beyerdynamic, Goldring, Etymotic and Audio Technica (and a tiny headphone amp from They all work wonderfully in their purpose designed environments. And they cost somewhere between $50 and $250. But I've always wondered, what would it be like to step up to the big boys? And as I often spend my weekends in Princeton -- an hour long train ride from Manhattan -- the need for high quality noise cancelling phones has become essential for peace of mind and peace of listening.

Bose or Sennheiser?
On one such train ride along the northeast corridor, I wore my older pair of noise cancelling phones, the Sennheiser PXC 250s. Lightweight, with noise cancellation of outer sources up to 85%, the 250s work pretty well though their bass response (or lack thereof) has always been a minor quibble. Anyway, on said journey, across the aisle was a gentleman wearing a pair of compact Bose phones. I looked at him. He looked at me. We traded information on our headsets, then traded/tried them on for size. He kept the Sennheisers on long after I was ready to remove the Bose. My quibbles here? The Bose, while well insulated from the low end rumble of the train tracks, were as muddy as the Hudson and totally lacking in soundstage representation. And if you think headphones aren't supposed to soundstage well, think again. The Sennheiser 250s stage like nobody's business, even though their treble is a wee bit thin and their bass rather smallish. The sound of the 250s is arranged seemingly well outside my head, not stuck deep within my ears. So enough of that Bose happy noise. I only wondered how a pair of the larger Sennheisers would fare, as along with their decent sound quality, the 250s build quality is rather lightweight (though many love their portability). Enter the Sennheiser PXC 450s.

'Enjoy the Silence'
The Sennheiser PXC 450s feature "adaptive baffle damping and patented Duoful diaphragm technology". The circumaural closed design fits over your head like a snug hoodie, the thick'n'cushy leather padded phones (pads replaceable) providing an excellent seal against outside noise with or without noise canceling capabilities engaged. One thing about Sennheiser's "baffle damping": the inner driver of the left phone rubbed against my ear no matter how I adjusted them. This was very annoying (and unlike any other phones I have worn) though I eventually got used to it.

NoiseGard 2.0 active noise cancelling works by sliding a hidden switch (on top of the right ear piece, above the hidden battery slot) to its 'normal' setting (as opposed to 'bypass' which disables the volume control), then depressing the on/off panel on the lower portion of the right ear piece. The phone's controls are laid out in a circular pattern: to the left of on/off is volume -, to the right volume + (actual volume span is very small). When pressing on/off, a small red light above the controls signals that the phones are powered up. Pressing the small 'S' in the center of the circle turns the light from red to green, activating Sennheiser's 'talk-through' function, which mutes the music allowing you to carry on a conversation if needed (seems counterintuitive: shouldn't a green light let the music flow and red cancel the music?). I found that this worked very well in theory, though I didn't bother to actually try it out during my travels. I am more interested in music than yapping - hello!

Sennheiser claims 90% reduction of outside noise for the 450s and indeed, they did a better job than my Audio Technicas, which claim 85% noise reduction. Yes, you could hear that small of a difference. Nominal impedance is 150/750 ohms, meaning the 450s require a lot of juice and a high volume setting on my iPod to satisfy my needs. (A good reason for an external headphone amp). The 450s come with a tight-fitting cloth carrying case, into which they fold compactly for a tight fit. Accessories include two audio adapters, a detachable six foot cord and batteries. Two year warranty is standard.

The 450s are probably the largest headphones you will ever wear out and about; they are certainly larger than my Audio Technica, Goldring or Beyerdynamic phones. Wrapping them round my rather large head was like fitting a helmet but once in place, the cushy leather pads and near total acoustic seal made up for the clumsy cosmetics. As for train listening, the 450s did an
excellent job sublimating the low level roar of the tracks. Conversations from those seated ahead or behind me could still be heard, especially squealing children and cell phone abusers, but it was all decidedly in the background. As a rule, I don't listen to headphones at high volume but I imagine increased volume would have completely masked outside noise - the 450s work that well.