Sennheiser has focused on sound quality in the latest update to the popular Momentum Wireless range, and it shows. But excellent sound comes at the expense of other features that have fallen behind the times, like controls, phone call clarity and noise-cancellation.
The Momentum Wireless range from Sennheiser has a reputation for top notch sound quality. The outstanding dynamics from the new Wireless 3 headphones give music a genuine sense of space in and around your head, with lows, mids and highs that feel evenly delivered regardless of the genre. Though they could be a little brighter and punchier, the Wireless 3s give each instrument and layer plenty of room to breathe in the mix.
But unfortunately, this refined design doesn't extend to features that are expected in a modern set of cans. While more modern aspects like calling capabilities, noise-cancellation and onboard controls work just fine, they feel a little dated.
The Wireless 3 headphones have some pretty impressive specs on paper. They offer:
- Bluetooth 5 (SBC and AAC for Apple users)
- aptX and aptX Low Latency which reduce Bluetooth compression
- Frequency range from 6Hz – 22000Hz
- USB-C connectivity
- Up to 17 hours of claimed battery life
- 3.5mm audio jack (for those that prefer wired connectivity)
- An accompanying smartphone app for adjusting settings
- Button controls on the right-hand can
- Support for Google Home, Alexa and Siri, via the app
The accompanying app
Sennheiser's headphone app, called Smart Control, has some useful features including:
- An equaliser (EQ)
- Three levels of noise cancellation
- Instruction manuals
- A few simple control adjustments and settings
The EQ is particularly nifty, as it does away with the frequency numbers and sliders that tend to only benefit audio experts. Instead you drag your finger across an X/Y axis to increase or decrease treble, mids and bass until it sounds right.
Sennheiser's Smart Control app.
The Sennheiser sound
Sennheiser sets itself apart from Bose and Sony with brilliant dynamics that create a true sense of space. For example:
- Lilting acoustic guitars sit towards the top of your head.
- Reverb resonates in the distance.
- Bass pulses with force and distinct direction in punchy songs, with a good amount of warmth and rumble when required.
- Treble is crisp and clear, while mids, particularly vocals, are nice and bright.
- Sound feels full with next to no distortion across the board.
There's an obvious presence across almost every genre, although wall of sound production and more abrasive music, such as extreme metal and hardcore punk, can be a bit of a wash.
Overall, the Wireless 3 headphones are best when they can showcase the intricacies of delicate music, like laid-back acoustic tracks and dreamy ambient tones. Though other genres don't really suffer, you tend to find yourself wanting that little bit more from songs designed to sound big. Things like pulsing dance tracks or rock and roll anthems. Sure, they sound great and hit hard, but the headphones don't quite reach that exciting peak that really gets your heart racing.
Sourcing your sounds
We assessed the Wireless 3 headphones by streaming content from Spotify (using the highest quality settings) to the headphones via Bluetooth, on a mobile device. This is because music streaming services are commonly used. However, we also tested sound quality with a few lossless (FLAC) files, with aptX enabled.
The headphones, box and travel case.
These comparisons showed that the headphones don't rely on lossless audio to sound good. The uptick in quality is there, but sounds sourced in lossy are still very impressive, and almost as dynamic as FLAC equivalents. Though lossless will always be better, all but the most stringent audiophiles will find the sound quality satisfying, regardless of the source.
Noise-cancellation? Not bad
These days, noise-cancellation is a huge selling point for headphones, thanks to our growing desire to drown out the background minutia of life. It's almost an essential feature after a certain price point for wireless headphones, but the Wireless 3 headphones are not exactly standout performers in this regard.
They do a decent job, but there's only three levels that let in varying degrees of noise, where similarly priced models from other brands offer around ten. You can roll through these levels in the app or with a button on the right can.
When activated, it seems to provide noise reduction rather than all-out cancellation. So while environmental sounds aren't distracting, they're certainly audible to varying degrees, particularly in the upper frequencies (such as train brakes). Things improve if you're listening to audio, but the Wireless 3s seem to rely on music doing just as much of the heavy lifting as their noise-cancelling tech, which isn't great.
That said, transparent hearing is a handy feature. It lets in ambient noise so you can focus on environmental sounds like train announcements or alerts for a brief period.
While most manufacturers are adding touch controls to their headphones, Sennheiser is sticking with good old-fashioned buttons. Now granted, physical versus touch controls is a question of personal preference, but the implementation feels dated.
Other brands let you tap any part of the right can or bud to pause a song, whereas with the Wireless 3 you need to find the play/pause button around the rim of the can. It can be hard to find, it feels restrictive and you'll invariably knock the noise-cancelling on/off switch in the process. In a world where you can absent-mindedly control audio with any part of the left or right can, feeling around for buttons is cumbersome.
Where's the power button?
Strangely, Sennheiser omitted the only button that should have been retained – the power button. Instead of an on/off switch, the Wireless 3s deactivate when you fold them up. Though novel, they continue to operate for an indeterminate amount of time if you store them around your neck, or forget to fold them into the off position.
Buttons can be difficult to use while you're wearing the headphones, and Sennheiser should have added a power switch.
Smart-pause ain't so smart
This feature automatically pauses audio when you take the headphones off. Unfortunately, it seems to be a bit sensitive which causes smart-pause to work a little too well.
It consistently, and unexpectedly, activated during our assessment:
- When our tester turned his head when an approaching train caught his attention.
- When he was completing day-to-day chores such as vacuuming or bending over to get clothes out of the washing machine.
- While he was out walking, unless the headphones were perfectly adjusted for his head.
You can turn smart-pause off in the app, but that means you need to grab your phone or find the play/pause button when you need to stop the music.
You need to fold the headphones to turn them off.
A bit buggy
We found a handful of bugs in the Wireless 3 headphones.
- You usually need to turn the headphones, or Bluetooth, on and off a couple of times before they connect.
- Mute randomly activated during calls around once a minute, before quickly unmuting.
- Buttons would stop responding if audio was paused for longer than a few minutes. They reactivated when we hit play on the audio source (e.g. a smartphone).
Call clarity and digital assistants
Built-in microphones and digital assistants allow you to make/answer calls and issue voice commands without taking off the headphones. Like noise-cancellation, this feature is fine if a bit dated.
Call quality is occasionally tinny and distant and the mics pick up a fair bit of background noise which can affect clarity. Also, they occasionally struggle with voice commands, so while these features are functional, you'd expect something a little more refined for the price.
Battery life and build
With 17 hours battery life, the Wireless 3s don't have quite as much juice as similarly priced models from other brands. The charge takes an even greater hit with noise-cancelling enabled, and even more if you turn on aptX. While most people can probably get by without aptX, you're unlikely to use the Wireless 3s without noise-cancellation, which brings battery life down to around 12 to 14 hours.
Battery life feels a little lacking at a maximum of 17 hours.
Bluetooth connectivity is consistent, even in crowded locations, and occasional interference rarely lasts longer than a second or so. The Wireless 3s also come with TILE support, which is a third-party device that adds location tracking to items like keys, wallets and so on. Once you install the TILE app, you can use it to track down your Wireless 3s if they go astray.
Design and comfort
Perhaps the only welcome retro-aspect of the Wireless 3s is the design. Sennheiser has retained the classic, studio build synonymous with the whole momentum range, with adjustable metal sliders on each can, and black leather padding across the top. Earpads are nice and deep with plenty of room for all but the largest ears. The leather around each cup is soft, comfortable and feels durable too.
The adjustment slider's resistance level is firm and comfortable to use.
The build feels solid, particularly the sliders which have a good amount of resistance that holds the cans in place once you find the sweet spot. However, this all comes at a heavy price. The Momentum Wireless 3s are weighty, and a little tight if you have a big head. They don't get uncomfortable after prolonged use, but you can feel them on the top of your head.
Sennheiser, Bose and Sony now have similar headphones duking it out for a place around your ears. Each has a selling point and in the case of Sennheiser it's the brilliant dynamics of the Momentum Wireless 3, especially across delicate or intricate music, that is its main distinction. Unfortunately, the bells and whistles leave a bit to be desired when you factor in the asking price.