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Setting my iPod to its 'acoustic' EQ setting (which boosts volume and emphasizes acoustic drums and piano), I played all manner of music to test the 450s. Big band, Beatles, jazz duo (Bruford and Borstlap's In Two Minds), ancient King Crimson (In the Court of), Pat Metheny Trio (Day Trip) and even some classical and electronic tomfoolery (Science for Girls, Portishead's Third).

Through the trusty iPod, the 450s sounded simply great. That trademark Sennheiser sound of crystalline highs, flat midrange and slightly bulbous bass was in full presence. The slightly pushed treble frequencies are both the 450's glory and weak spot. Though they provided superb clarity, with poorer recordings the 450's treble presentation could sound overly tweaked and artificial (with noise cancelling engaged). But better that the phones provide overall exceptional clarity and fast responses than slow, flabby sonics. The sound was uniformly smooth top to bottom, and the 450s wrap-around head rush comfort seal provided fantastic, depth-charge-worthy bass response (though I would not call bass imaging rock solid or carved in deep space, rather decently pleasant and comfortably analog like). Most of all, the 450s provided noise cancelling of the highest order, locking my senses into their own insulated world whether I was traveling by train, snarling at tourists in Washington Square Park or simply lounging in my pajamas at Chez Micallef.

Comparison shopping
Audio Technica
Which brings us to the comparison phase of our test. First up, the 450s vs. the infinitely less expensive and easier to operate Audio Technica ATH-ANC7s (list: $199.95). The ATs fit is closer to ear muff snug than the Sennheiser's wrap-around luxury. While the ATs are nowhere near as smooth in all frequency extremes than the 450s, their soundstage is somehow larger, more surrounding your head like a halo than glued into your head as with the 450s. The AT's greater inherent distortion was obvious compared to the 450s - you get what you pay for when it comes to drivers, circuitry and the like. Thankfully, the ATs required less juice than the 450s so no need to pump up the volume. But then again, I didn't want to pump them as loudly, overall they just didn't sound quite as good though bass response was warmer overall and as previously stated, soundstage was more wide angle than not. The bass was as wet and deep as a summer swimming pool on Donald Fagen's H Gang, though midrange was a tad recessed. Still, a very enjoyable presentation highlighted by warm-headed bass response and solid noise cancelling.

Switching to the infinitely warmer, more focused and luscious sounding Goldring DR150s (list $150) just didn't seem fair. The Goldrings don't have noise cancelling technology, thus the money is spent entirely on free-for-all listening. And it shows. Vocals were supremely upfront and clean, bass response was chunky and articulate, brass figures and electric piano (on H Gang) were like being in the studio. Creamy is a good way to describe these open-backed h'phones of joy.

Returning to the 450s from the Goldrings, the sound (with noise canceling engaged) was instantly smaller, more closed in and more forced in the treble. Switching off the noise cancelling (changing the hidden switch from bypass to normal, depressing the lower half of the circular outer control) helped the phones immeasurably. Bass response was now simply titanic! Stupendous! Vocals still sounded a little recessed, ditto for instruments, but overall the soundstage broadened and transients became snappier without any hint of glare. For bass-loving freaks. the 450s are at the top of the heap, helping the 450s to achieve ultimate warmth and deep-bowelled satisfaction. The sound was smoooooooooooth with a capital S.

Finally, I swapped the 450s out for my Beyerdynamic DT770s (list: around $250). Again, with noise canceling turned off so as to better compare, I put the 450s through their paces. One discovery in this whole process? Noise cancelling sucks. Better to carry a pair of well-insulated phones into a noisy environment that depend on this tacky technology to save the day. Anyway, the Beyerdynamics are less efficient than even the Sennheisers. These aren't designed for the subway, pally. But the sound was closer to the Sennheisers than any of the other phones I compared. Like the 450s, the Beyerdynamic's treble was supremely focused, though much silkier and detailed. Bass was less amorphous and swamp-heavy than the 450s as well and if you are a bass freak, that may not be a good thing. The DT770s sound was well controlled top to bottom, everything was very well focused and clean. Polite? Perhaps. Clear and flat? For sure. Which did I prefer? Very hard to say. I love the deep bass and wrap-around luxury the 450s provide but the Beyerdyamics are more accurate throughout the frequency ranges. Would I bring the Beyerdyamics or the Goldrings along for a train ride to Princeton or the Jersey shore? Nada.

Think again
Sennheiser's PXC 450s headphones are curious beasts. They provide ultimate seclusion from noisy environments with their noise cancelling function engaged. When traveling by train, you are less likely to notice things like midrange warmth and instrumental accuracy (or the lack thereof). You are more likely just in the mood to hear your tunes free of distraction and the riff raff's interference. The 450s almost worked better as home listening phones. With the noise cancelling shut down (hooray), the bass walloped my ears and overall warmth and boogie factor made for an extremely good time. But then again, this level of bass extension made other areas pay the price. The 450's cosmetic architecture insured a comfortable fit and splendid isolation -- the best I have experienced -- but their sonics were a bit unbalanced and considering the price, not the best deal in town.

If you desire the ultimate in noise canceling headphones, the 450s are a no-brainer purchase. And though when comparing them to regular phones they fell short, the 450s are easily one of the best-sounding noise canceling phones on the market. But alas, the high price may send you searching elsewhere.

Quality of packing: Heavy cardboard with plastic separators protecting the phones and case.
Reusability of packing: Yes.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Painless.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Includes batteries, cord, manual and adapters.
Quality of owner's manual: Decent, in numerous languages.
Website comments: All the necessary info is there.
Pricing: High.
Usage conditions: High ohm rating requires mega juice from iPod source.
Human interactions: Prompt e-mail responses.
Sennheiser website