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5 'commuter headphones' that put the bass in your face

Mark Sullivan | Jan. 23, 2014
We like our music loud and loaded with bass. At least that's what the recording industry seems to think: Popular releases from artists such as Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West reliably push the VU meters way into the red. Many consumer-level headphones are designed to reproduce that very sound.

Both the Momentum and the Beat Studio are loud, but the Beat headphones create a more in-your-face sound that I found irritating at times. They seem to be tuned to play recordings that are loud and one-dimensional — so they may be just right for the kind of stuff the music industry is pumping out these days.

The problem is, you don't get a choice with these headphones. The Studio gives all recordings — even classics from 1960s and 1970s — that same loud, in-your-face sound.

Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear ($230)
The Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear set is surprisingly good. As lightweight, sub-$300 headphones go, this model is now the one to beat. The first things you notice about the Momentum are the stainless-steel headband and the ear pads made of a cushiony material called Alcantara. The cable (which you cannot detach) has a metal-and-plastic volume control with the now-obligatory toggle button and remote microphone for taking phone calls.

The Momentum's cans are fairly compact, but they make big sound. I tested them (and all of the headphones in this roundup) using the music player in the iPhone 4s, and with the Momentum I immediately noticed the high output level. Given the limitations of the small amplifier in an iPhone, the sound from the Momentum set seemed disproportionately large. I detected no distortion as I approached top volume level.

Next I noticed the nice definition and separation of the instruments in the midrange and mid-high range of the recording. I also heard a lot of punch at those frequencies.

Given what I was hearing in those ranges, I was half-cringing for fear that the extreme highs would deliver the same kind of punch and end up sounding shrill. That didn't happen: These headphones have a nice way of rolling off the treble in the extreme high part of the frequency range, creating a smoothness at the high end without underplaying those sounds.

The Momentum headphones don't give you the outsized bass you hear on many of today's competitors. In my tests the representation of the bass sounded tight and well contained, and in correct proportion to the rest of the music. 

Part of the reason the Momentum On-Ear headphones sound so good is that they isolate a sizable air space between your ear and the driver. To seal off that space, the cans need to press tightly against your head. Sennheiser outfitted the Momentum with some nice, soft cushions to help ease that tightness, but after I wore the headphones for 45 minutes or so, fatigue began setting in.

Bowers & Wilkins P7 ($399)
Originally I was hesitant to include the Bowers & Wilkins P7 in this review because of its large size. But the Beats Studio headphones are even bigger, and I'm seeing people wear them around town, and even at the gym. Big, bulky headphones are in.


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