- Review Price: £58.52
When it comes to headphones, you have three basic choices to make. You either go for ‘cans’ that fit over the top of your head and sit on or around your ears; you can choose earbuds – which hang just on the cartilage ‘hook’ of your ear; or you can plump for canalphones, the type that you shove right down your ear canals.
The latter has experienced a huge uptake in popularity in the past few years. Once the idea of inserting a foreign object deep into my ears seemed an objectionable concept; now it seems second nature – and earbuds are slowly but surely being consigned to also rans.
It’s easy to see why this is happening: the passive sound isolation you can achieve with a snug-fitting pair of canalphones allows you to get closer to the music without having to crank the volume up to deafening levels, and the design has proved so popular that all sorts of variations on the theme have sprung up.
Fittings range from triple-flanged rubber cones that go deep inside your ear to single fitments that sit just at the end. The latter is where Sennheiser’s latest canalphones – the CX 95 Style – sit. These are headphones for those who may not yet be convinced or converted by the canalphones concept: they’re designed to plug just the outer part of your ear canal not go right in. As a result they’re pretty comfortable to wear. Even someone not used to wearing in-ear headphones will get used to these pretty quickly and their light weight means they don’t tug at your lugs as other headphones can.
In the box there’s plenty of scope for different ear sizes too: small, medium and large fittings are supplied in the box, though I was a little disappointed to see no foam tips. There are other handy accessories, though. You get a sturdy hard case with the CX 95s with a central cable winder, along with a metre-long extension cable, should the 30cm-long captive cable be too short.
The light weight of these headphones and mid-range cost – a reasonable £63 – aren’t without their downsides. They don’t feel like the most robust phones I’ve ever used. The cable is the chief culprit here: it feels thin and flimsy, and I was quite nervous about catching it in my jacket zip. Ultimate Ears’ Super.fi 4’s were much better in this respect, combining thick cabling with a remarkable resistance to tangling. The cables on Shure’s headphones are also thicker and feel more hardwearing than this. The earpiece bodies are light, too – they don’t feel as well-made as the hefty, metal-bodied Super.fi 4s or the Cerulean X1’s I reviewed last year.
The protective sleeves at the plug and earpiece ends, at least, are better made – and I like the fact that the plug at the end of the extension cable is a right-angled one. It means that it’s a lot easier to slip your player into a pocket without catching the cabling. And there’s further compensation for the flimsy cable: the earpieces have slightly angled tails, which means the cables hang vertically from them without straining against the sleeves; and the CX 95’s smart matte gold and black paint job is lovely to behold – in an understated sort of way.
But all of these considerations take a back seat when you hook these things up and start listening in earnest. I place great stall on first impressions with headphones and my immediate reaction on plugging in the CX 95’s and listening to the opening track from Newton Faulkner’s recent album, ”Handbuilt By Robots”, was “wow”.
The presentation was full of zingy detail and warm mid-range coupled with defined bass. The quiet atmospheric acoustic guitar was rendered perfectly: I could clearly hear the faint zip of fingers sliding on strings, the rattle and buzz of those strings as they came into contact with the fretboard and the hollow knocking of Faulkner’s knuckles as they beat the rhythm out on the front of his guitar. And as the pure sound of the acoustic guitars gave way to vocals and a bigger band sound, the CX 95’s coped superbly, with a balanced mid-range – vocals and studio instruments were all easy to pick out – and bass notes that thumped out with wonderful power and definition.
With some headphones you turn up the volume to try and hear more detail; with the CX 95’s I was turning up the volume for the hell of it – because I was enjoying the music so much. They’re clearly a significant step up from the company’s excellent CX 400’s – and anything else in this price range for that matter.
Next, I fired up some more relaxed jazz to test the CX 95’s ability to render voices and live music, and was just as impressed. Diana Krall’s smoky vocals wrap you up in their sensual silkiness yet consonants and sibilants retain an edge, and when her piano playing kicks in, the notes ring out effortlessly with purity and clarity that’s hard not to love.
For something a bit more energetic, I turned to the opening track from Biffy Clyro’s magnificent ”Puzzle” album – a perfect way to test power and control – and again was not left wanting. The CX 95’s balance comes through yet again: the music has power and drive without sounding woolly, muddy or ill-defined.
I could go on waxing lyrical about how good these headphones are, but probably the best way of summing them up is to say that they’re extremely easy to listen to. With other headphones, such as Ultimate Ears’ Super.fi 4’s or iSkin’s Cerulean X1’s, for instance, you have to sacrifice one attribute for another; bass goes in favour of diamond detail, or you lose a little clarity in favour of visceral, gut-rumbling low notes. These Sennheisers, however, have that most difficult of things to achieve – balance. Pin-sharp detail at the top end is coupled with thunderous bass; atmospherics are achieved at the same time as a warmth and smoothness of delivery that means they sound good no matter which source you use.
They’re not perfect, of course – I wouldn’t expect a pair of sub-£100 headphones to match a pair costing in excess of £200 for instance, and they don’t compare with my Grado SR35is or the incredible neutrality offered by the top end Shure in-ear headphones. And there are small areas of weakness. Sometimes with live recordings you don’t quite feel as in-the-room as you’d like, occasionally instrument separation isn’t all it could be, and sometimes there’s a touch of over-emphasis on sibilant sounds such as cymbals and snare drums. But these are tiny, teeny complaints in the overall scheme of things.
Even the not-so-deep-in-my-ears design works well – at least as well as my now ageing Shure E2c’s – at blocking out extraneous noises. In the raucous surroundings of the London tube network I never found I had to turn the volume up, even to listen to quiet classical music. And while walking down the street I only became aware of a council worker wielding a chain saw when I passed within two metres of him.
In simple terms, Sennheiser’s CX 95 Styles are the best headphones I’ve listened to for under £100 by quite some distance. Ignore the slightly cheesy name and flimsy cabling, concentrate on the sound quality and you have a pair of headphones that offers incredible value for money.
These CX 95s pull off a difficult trick, balancing crisp detail with warm mids and thunderous bass in a way I haven’t heard from any headphones approaching this price tag. If I had £100 to spend on a pair of headphones, these are the headphones I’d buy – I can’t think of any better recommendation than that.
Score in detail