My rule of thumb for adapting new technologies is that the technology must provide a net gain to my quality of life. I haven’t jumped onto the Internet of Things bandwagon in part because the added headaches outweigh the benefits. Being able to change the color my lights output would be mildly useful to me, but having to worry about the security issues involved with an Internet connected device, the possibility of not being able to configure my lights if the Internet goes down, etc. greatly outweigh the benefit.
This brings me to Bluetooth headphones. Ever since Apple had the “courage” to remove the standard headphone jack from the iPhone, Bluetooth headphones started seeing a rapid increase in adoption (at least as far as I can tell). I stuck with wired headphones because my use case made Bluetooth headphones a bigger headache than the benefits warranted. Apple’s “courage” did benefit me in one major way though, Bluetooth headphones improved rapidly and have finally reached a point where they offer more benefits to me than headaches.
I settled on buying a pair of Sennheiser HD 450BT for reasons I’ll get into in a bit. This review isn’t going to delve too deeply into the usual considerations for Bluetooth headphones such as sound quality, noise cancelling effectiveness, etc. More qualified individuals have already expounded on those features in great detail. Instead this review is going to be based heavily on my use case, which has a few oddball specifics. So before I begin, I’m going to explain my use case.
My Use Case
During the day I primarily use two computers. The first is my ThinkPad P52s running Fedora Linux, the second is my iPhone SE (2020). I do most of my work on the ThinkPad and listen to music and podcasts on my iPhone. Even though most of my audio output comes from my iPhone, I periodically needs to hear the audio on my ThinkPad. This need to jump between two devices is what has kept me using wired headphones. It’s easy to unplug a headphone jack from my iPhone (which relies on a Lightning to headphone jack adapter because of Apple’s “courage”) and plug it into my ThinkPad and vice versa. Disconnecting a pair of Bluetooth headphones from my iPhone and connecting them to my ThinkPad is a much bigger pain in the ass that involves going a couple of layers deep into Bluetooth settings on both devices.
So my use case requires the ability to easily switch between two devices and compatibility with both Linux and iOS.
Not My Use Case
It’s also worth noting what my use case isn’t. Many Bluetooth headphones offer some kind of active noise cancellation. I don’t like active noise cancellation because I prefer to maintain some audio awareness of my environment so I always turn it off if it’s present. I also don’t commute on public transit, don’t wear headphones when out and about (due to my preference for maintaining audio awareness), and work primarily from a desk. When I do travel, I always take my laptop bag, which is big and already packed with gear. A pair headphones isn’t much extra to carry when considered along with all of the other gear I carry. If portability is one of your primary criterion, I’m the worst person to ask.
I have several preferences when it comes to headphones in general. Closed studio style over-ear headphones are my favorite. In-ear ear buds are also acceptable to me so long as they don’t rely on a component that rests around my neck. Wired ear buds with equal length wires (I really hate the style where the wires going to the ear buds are different lengths) and so-called true wireless are both good in my book. I dislike on-ear headphones because I get a headache from wearing them for too long and open studio style never appealed to me because, even though I want to maintain audio awareness, I like having some amount of isolation as well.
I also have several preferences when it comes to Bluetooth headphones specifically. One of my favorite things about wired headphones is that they don’t rely on an internal battery that needs to be recharged periodically. For Bluetooth headphones I’d prefer having a battery life measured in days rather than in hours. Knowing that Bluetooth headphones do need to be recharged, I’d prefer a USB-C charging port (but will consider all standardized connectors other than micro-USB) since that is becoming the powering standard for a wide range of devices.
While I avoid video conferences and talking on the phone as much as possible, built-in microphones for those occasions when I can’t avoid either is a definite plus. So long as the microphones are good enough that the person(s) with whom I’m conversing can understand me, they’re acceptable to me.
Audio playback controls are a must. I hate having to turn on my phone screen to pause music or skip a song. This preference is so strong that my favorite pair of headphones, my Sennheiser HD 280 PROs, see very little actual use anymore. They sound great and they’re very comfortable, but they lack audio playback controls. Instead I usually use my ear buds, which do have built-in audio playback controls.
Because of the number of shoddy products on the market, I gravitate towards products made by companies with which I have had positive experiences. The downside to this strategy is that a lot of great options released by new companies fall off of the radar. The upside is that I get burned far less often by shoddy products. For similar reasons I tend to shy away from newly released products even when they’re manufactured by companies I trust. When I was young, I was willing to be the guinea pig for new products. Now that I’m older and have less free time, I prefer to let other people be the guinea pigs.
Since Bluetooth headphones, unlike traditional headphones, are necessarily a disposable product due to both their built-in battery (which wears out and usually isn’t replaceable) and continuously aging technology (for example, you usually can’t add new Bluetooth features to old headphones), I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a pair. I capped my budget at $150.
Based on my preferences I narrowed down my options to a handful of products. My three favorite options were the Sony WH-CH710N, Sony WH-XB900N, and Sennheiser HD 450BT. I eliminated the Sony WH-XB900N because of its focus on bass, which isn’t my thing, and opted for the Sennheiser HD 450BT over the Sony WH-CH710N because the former supports more high quality Bluetooth codecs.
That was a lot of preamble for a review, but I believe a review is far more useful if you understand both the use case of the reviewer and their preferences.
As I noted above, I’m not going to delve too deeply into the usual consideration for headphone reviews like sound quality and the effectiveness of the active noise cancellation. Far more qualified individuals have already written extensively on those topics. Suffice to say these headphones sound good to my ears. I haven’t tested the active noise cancellation to any extent so I won’t say anything about its effectiveness.
The three most appealing features of Bluetooth headphones for me are that Bluetooth is built into most modern laptops and smartphones (I had dongles), there are no wires to get tangled, and you’re not tethered the the audio source. My office is in the basement of my house. If I go upstairs, I can get to the furthest edge of my kitchen, a distance of approximately 60 feet with several walls and a floor in between, before the HD 450BT loses its connect to my laptop. I will also note that I live in the country so there is very little electromagnetic interference in my house on the wavelengths used by Bluetooth other than my Wi-Fi network and one or two other Bluetooth devices I use such as my Apple Watch. I’m not sure whether the range I’m experiencing is considered good for a pair of Bluetooth 5.0 headphones, but I’m more than happy with it.
My biggest gripe with Bluetooth headphones was solved by the introduction of multipoint connectivity, which allows a single pair of Bluetooth headphones to simultaneously connect to two or more source devices. Unfortunately, multipoint support is a bit of a mess. I’m happy to report that the HD 450BT multipoint support when simultaneously connected to my laptop and phone has fulfilled my needs. As I noted above in my use case, I periodically need to switch my audio source between those two devices. What I don’t need to do is get audio output from both devices at the same time. When connected to my laptop and phone, the multipoint support provides output from one of the two devices at a time. If I’m playing music on my phone, I don’t get audio from my laptop and vice versa. To switch between the two devices I only need to pause the audio on one device, wait a second or two, and start playing audio on the other device.
I have experienced a couple of multipoint hiccups. The first is that sometimes when a notification is created on the device not currently playing audio, it’ll cause the playing audio to pause for a second or two (the notification sound may or may not play through the headphones). The second is that after pausing the audio on one device and attempting to restart it using the built-in audio playback controls, the command sometimes goes to the other device (so if I pause the music on my phone and press the headphone’s play button to restart it, that play command may go to my laptop instead). These hiccups manifest infrequently enough that it hasn’t motivated me to return to hard wired headphones.
Another quirk that I’ve experienced is that when somebody calls my phone, before answering the call the microphones activate and route the the sounds to the speakers. If somebody calls when I’m typing, I can suddenly hear my mechanical keyboard very clearly. I’d prefer the microphones not activate unless I answer the call and maybe this is a but that will be fixed in a future firmware update.
Speaking of firmware updates, one gripe I do have with these headphones is that firmware upgrades can only be applied using the Sennheiser Smart Control app. This gripe applies to most Bluetooth headphones so it shouldn’t be seen as a criticism specific to the HD 450BT, but a criticism of Bluetooth headphones in general. I want to apply firmware updates using fwupd on Linux. But if Sennheiser is going to relegate me to using its app to apply firmware updates, it would be nice if the app wasn’t so bloody slow. The firmware update I recently applied took at least half an hour, which seems like a ridiculous amount of time to apply a firmware update to a pair of headphones. This is easily my least favorite thing about these headphones and the only saving grace is that firmware updates seem far and few between.
Sennheiser advertises 30 hours of battery life for the HD 450BT. That advertised battery life is with active noise cancellation enabled. As I stated above, I don’t like active noise cancellation and always turn it off. When active noise cancellation is disabled, the battery life increases significantly. I last charged my headphones on Friday afternoon and have used them heavily since then including through two working days. While I do turn them off a night, I’d estimate they’ve been running between 30 and 40 hours (not always playing audio, I do pause my music when I have to concentrate on something). As I write this Tuesday afternoon, the Sennheiser app on my iPhone shows the battery charge is still at 90%. When I press the volume up and down buttons simultaneously, the headphones report more than 12 hours of playtime remains (which I believe is the maximum the headphones will report). Needless to say, I’m very happy with the battery life of these.
Pressing the volume up and down buttons simultaneously to get the battery life probably seems a bit intuitive and one of the more common criticisms I’ve read about these headphones is the unintuitive layout of the built-in controls. All of the controls are located on the bottom of the right speaker. From front to back there is the power button that doubles as the active noise cancellation activation and deactivation button, the volume down and up buttons, a three position audio playback control switch, and a button for activating a phone’s voice assistant (such as Siri on the iPhone). I actually like the button layout and for the most part really like the audio playback switch. Pressing down on the switch will play or pause your audio, pressing the switch forward goes back a song, and pressing the switch backwards goes to the next song. The only annoyance for me is that pressing down to pause or play music can be finicky. If the switch isn’t perfectly centered when you press down, the control doesn’t activate. Since the switch is easily moved slightly forward or backward when pressing down on it, it’s pretty easy to press the button without your audio playing or pausing.
The last thing I want cover is comfort. A common criticism of these headphones is that they’re uncomfortable when worn for a long time. Most reviews attribute this to the small holes in the ear cups. My Sennheiser HD 280 PRO headphones have large holes in the ear cups so my ears have plenty of room. The HD 450BT has narrow holes in the ear cups. The holes are slightly wider than my thumbs, which is just barely large enough room for my ears. If I don’t position the headphones with some care, the ear cups will press down on parts of my ears. I did find some aftermarket ear cups that are supposed to be more comfortable and may invest in a pair at some point, but the stock ones are decently comfortable although not nearly as comfortable as ear cups on the HD 280 PRO. Compared to the HD 280 PRO, which has a wide headband with a replaceable thick pad wrapped around the top, the headband on the HD 450BT isn’t nearly as comfortable. It’s narrow and the only padding is a thin integrated strip of rubber on the inside that has no discernible padding. I do like the clamping force of these headphones. It’s strong, but not too strong. To me the clamping force feels lower than on the HD 280 PRO, but it’s not so low that I’m worried about them falling off of my head. Overall, I find the HD 450BT to be adequately comfortable when worn for hours, but a couple of steps below the HD 280 PRO.
I paid $99 for them and at that price I’m happy with my purchase. The multipoint feature fits my use case, the battery life is great (with the caveat that I disable the active noise cancellation), there are built-in audio playback controls, and the headphones are adequately comfortable. I’m not impressed with the Smart Control app, especially with the speed at which is updates firmware, but that’s an unhappiness I would likely have with any pair of Bluetooth headphones. If you’re looking for a pair of Bluetooth headphones in the $100 ballpark, I recommend considering them.