CES 2015: Sennheiser Merges Sound and Style with Momentum 2.0

Sennheiser may be one of the oldest names in sound, but that doesn’t mean the seasoned vet of the audiophile arena can’t throw down with Beats by Dre and create something stylish. In fact, I’d bet that if you put a pair of wireless Momentum 2.0 in front of your average Beats-wearing millennial, you’d be unlikely to get them back.

The Momentum is a mid-range Sennheiser product, yet the sound quality advantage it holds over many popular consumer brands is in most cases night-and-day. Interestingly, the Momentum line itself has existed since 2012, and it’s only with the latest 2.0 edition that some particularly sought-after features have been added. All without compromising on either sound or good looks.

The first and most impressive new feature is that both the Momentum and Momentum On-Ear (a smaller, cheaper, and more portable edition) now come in both wired and wireless versions. What does this mean exactly? Well, it means that you’re no longer directly tethered to an audio player, PC, or desk — you can move freely and let the sound come to you. As somebody who loves coming up with embarrassing home-office dance routines, this is especially fantastic news.

The Urbanite XL are wireless and look great in the wild.

I’ll admit I was skeptical about a wireless version of Momentum, and as such I went into my demo expecting something that maybe sorta-kinda resembled a real Momentum, but was noticeably hampered by the limitations of Bluetooth audio. After all, audiophiles are well aware that transmitting sound via Bluetooth has never been perfect. Limited bandwidth means compression, and compression means severe loss of sonic fidelity. Given that most portable players that support Bluetooth are loaded with compressed, already-lossy files to begin with, the end result is not just compression, but double compression, nearly defeating the purpose of hi-fi wireless headphones to begin with.

Luckily, Momentum (as well as the just-debuted Sennheiser Urbanite XL) takes advantage of something called apt-X. The technical explanation behind it is a long one, but essentially what apt-X aims to do is maintain CD-quality audio while streaming via Bluetooth, presumably using a proprietary form of ultra-efficient compression. I had the chance to try apt-X streaming to a wireless Momentum via my Android phone, and I was genuinely impressed by the crispness of the signal being delivered. The bad news is that Apple devices don’t currently support apt-X — a potentially huge deal-breaker for audiophiles with iPhones or an iPod Touch.

Related: 50 Cent Launches Killer Star Wars Headphones at CES 2015

I tried streaming from my iPod Touch to a wireless Momentum 2.0, and though the signal was noticeably degraded vs. apt-X and crackled and strained under the intensity of Secret Chefs 3’s “Tistrya,” the overall quality of the exchange was still better than I expected. It’s possible that both the headphones and the iPod Touch were able to easily decode the MP3 files on my device, rendering standard subpar Bluetooth compression unnecessary. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to confirm this.

The second item in the Momentum 2.0 bag of tricks is Active Noise Cancelling, a feature coming only to wireless models. Though the implementation here didn’t quite reach Bose levels of artificial isolation in my tests, the trade-off was well worth it for the improvements in detail, imaging, and overall sound quality — not to mention far superior style. I’ll have to try the Momentum 2.0 on a plane one day before reaching a final verdict on its noise cancelling skills under the loudest of conditions, but you can rest easy knowing it will tune out the hustle and bustle of crowds, peers, or a nearby television just fine.

I haven’t put these devils to the test just yet, but I will.

And finally, a pure-sound shootout between some of the models Sennheiser showed. The overall winner in sound quality remains the standard, wired Momentum (followed closely by the wireless edition using apt-X). The phones demonstrated the greatest detail, the fullest and most controlled bass, and crisp yet not-too-sibilant highs with the test tracks I used. The Momentum On-Ear didn’t fare quite as well, but was still impressive; its punchier bass and hotter high-end may even be preferable for certain listeners, but to me the slightly lessened detail and lushness wasn’t quite worth the trade-off.

Also See: Sony’s Smart B-Trainer Combines Fitness Tech and Portable Headphones

Meanwhile, the wireless Urbanite XL isn’t quite as classy in the looks department, but offers a nice middle ground between the two Momentums, at least in theory. Despite this, I somehow preferred the sound of both the Momentum and Momentum On-Ear over that of the Urbanite XL. Its gesture controls are clever (you can control volume and skip tracks by swiping the ear cups), but for me the sound lacked the strengths of each Momentum version, despite possessing fewer weaknesses than the On-Ear.

Sennheiser’s lineup is looking slick on the whole, and it’s Momentum’s pitch-perfect blend of form and functionality that draws me to it. There’s also a Momentum In-Ear model I didn’t have a chance to try, but you can bet I’ll be pitting it against my Zero Audio Carbo Tenores as soon as there’s an opportunity. In the meantime, I suggest you ogle the absurdly high-res Momentum images in the gallery below, and stay tuned for an in-ear audio smackdown in the very near future.