For as long as I have been able to beg, borrow or steal such an item I have spent any walking or commuting time plugged into something portable which will pipe music into my ears. I see no point in proceeding in silence when, with the right electronic gizmo at my fingertips, I can imbue my boring every day to-ings and fro-ings on with the excitement and glamour of a popular music video. Yes! Even the most turgid commute or walk to the shops feels like a bit part in a movie when combined with a suitable backing track.
The trouble is, the sturdiest, most robust pieces of electrical equipment dislike being dropped, yanked, rained on and generally abused in the way that daily use by me entails. I would be ready to believe that the second largest percentage of the worlds in-fill, just after disposable nappies, is accounted for by the many pairs of headphones I have broken over the years. That said, the shelf life of all my headphones increased dramatically with the advent of the ear bud style when it arrived in about 1990 along with those handy little boxes you could put them away into. Gone were the days when, in my haste to begone from the office I would whip them out of my handbag with a flourish which tore wire from ear piece. Even so, I tend to upgrade every couple of years or so because no carry case, however handy, can guard against my propensity to absent-mindedly trail them along the ground while Ive removed them to listen to platform announcements and the like and then tread on them.
The ear bud style also enjoys the advantage of piping the music directly into your ear, hopefully without the trendy guy next to you on the train realising what you are listening to Remember Youre a Womble or shocking the middle aged CEO opposite with the tinny drum beats of ACDC. It also seems to the untutored eye that you get more engineering for your money with ear buds. On the downside, it never seems to go quite as far. A traditional headphone style, though audible to others, still seems, in my inexperienced ears, to contain a wider range and frequency of sound, notably bass of which I am a great fan.
Bass and drums are important to me. So the principal difficulty I encounter with ear bud style phones is finding a pair which will deliver these in suitable amounts. In addition, there needs to be enough middle and high end tone to enable me to listen to any genre of music you care to name without loss of quality or alteration to any MP3 player settings. Enter the Sennheiser MX 400.
WHO THE HELL ARE SENNHEISER?
According to the company website, Sennheiser was founded by Proff. Dr Fritz Sennheiser in 1945 as Labor W but later renamed after its founding father. From these humble beginnings in it has grown to a world wide company concentrating on the development and manufacture of I quote. High-quality microphones, wireless RF technology and headphones. Conference and information technology, infrared systems, products for the hearing impaired and aviation headsets round off the comprehensive product portfolio. They are also studio microphone/loudspeaker/monitor specialists - presumably this last area is where they picked up their Emmy and their Grammy. Clearly no strangers to innovation then, they also brought out the first open back headphones and radio mics... in 1968. A definite hint of the Lotus Engineering ethos but better organised and with more onus on exploiting their discoveries themselves. In short known and regarded by hi-fi anoraks worldwide but unknown to the rest of us.
HOW DID I FIND OUT ABOUT THEM?
I lay the blame firmly at Mr Swearys door.
First, he IS a hi-fi anorak. The sound on our system passes through a whole host of black boxes most of which have very few knobs on, some nothing more than an on/off switch and a blue led - a sure sign that they are either more expensive than he cares to admit or that pieces of alien technology. There are amps and pre amps and pre-pre amps and all sorts of other gubbins that appears to be put there for no particular reason other than that it can. The result gives you a sound quality that has the inside-your-head aspect of listening to headphones, only outside. Its great and its also very loud. In deference to our septuagenarian neighbours, Mr Sweary decided a pair of headphones would be a good idea but the kind of headphones that were up the rest of the hi-fi, obviously. I offered to buy them for Christmas and having listened, with him, to a shortlist of 10 pairs we found that the best but also the cheapest in the price range we were investigating were manufactured by Sennheiser.
At around the same time, Mr Sweary got fed up with the paraphernalia required to fulfill my personal music needs; ergo, my dodgy 1980s walkman, manky tapes, battery charger and the mounds of elderly rechargeable batteries in general stages of slimy decay which were lying about the house. He decided to banish them instantly by buying me an iPod. Immediately, my need for a pair of headphones to go with it which were not white and therefore not the equivalent of tattooing Mug Me across my forehead, when used outside became acute. I had a good pair of Sony Fontopias which had done the job up to this point but they werent quite as good as the ones that came with the iPod and had a couple of annoying niggles which made me happy to look for a substitute.
I did intend to do the Captain Caution thing, research headphone makes, take advice, read reviews and do all the things Mr Sweary had done choosing his. But then, I am not an engineer like Mr Sweary and one quick rootle through a hi-fi magazine in Smiths confirmed my suspicions.... it might have been written in Norwegian for all the good it was going to do me. On my way home, I saw a pair of Sennheiser MX 400s in my local independent electronics store for £9.99, remembered how good - and more to the point, how much cheaper than everyone elses the ones we use on the stereo are and bought them immediately. They come with a 2 year manufacturers warranty, too - which is nice.
WHAT DO MY HEADPHONES LOOK LIKE?
Mine are black, with a little chrome flash on the ear piece. Theyre not a design icon, or at least not the way the white iPod ones are but they are perfectly serviceable. Elegant, sleek, discreet and comfortable. The wire is 1 metre long and to my joy and delight - its symmetrical ie it splits in the middle, none of this strange proclivity to put all the weight on one ear with one short and one long string. They come with the ubiquitous carry case which allows me to store them so safely that even in my cavernous handbag they are not in any danger of being torn to pieces, although their compact size means that finding them can be a bit of an effort.
The MX 400s are standard intra-aural style, that is they fit in your ear but not right into your ear canal - although Sennheiser do produce that type. They feel lighter than any I have worn before and are so comfortable to wear that their presence is easily forgotten. They dont fall out easily, even during prolonged bouts of running about or jumping up and down on the machines at the gym.
AND THE SOUND?
Unlike their slightly more upmarket cousins the MX 450s these are not endowed with Sennheisers innovative Basswind system. I suspect that just as Silver Cloud loses something in translation from English to German, so Basswind loses something in translation from German to English. Mmm.
Putting aside the five or six pairs I have broken, or lost, I have three other sets of actually functioning, here now, inter-aural headphones to compare my MX400s with. The first are from Panasonic, three years old now and Im afraid I dont know what model but they were £11.99 when new. The second is a 2 year old set of Sony Fontopias which cost £14.99 and which I actually reviewed very enthusiastically on Ciao and the third are Apples own, which come with the iPod - I have no idea how much these cost as Apple, at any rate, are not selling them separately. The nearest product on the Apple site is a headphones and radio combination for £35 - a significant proportion of the headphones they are selling for £35.00 and under being made by... yes, youve guessed it, Sennheiser.
The MX 400s are head and shoulders above these three. They do allow some ambient sound to penetrate but then most headphones of this type do and in the case of the MX 400s there is very little and not enough to distract me from the sound. Let's face it, if you really want to squash the ambient stuff youre going to be going for an in-canal model anyway, aren't you? Since I mostly wear mine in places where there are roads to be crossed and plenty of traffic, a wee snadge of ambient sound makes for more awareness and is, in my view a GOOD thing. There is plenty of bass, the kind of bass I like, bass with depth. In fact the sound seems to be surprisingly wide. The middle tones are rich and warm, the high end bright and exact but free from any distortion or much hiss. Cranked up as loud as my iPod will go there is no distortion whatsoever to any part of the sound. There is no pain at high volume either. At your average gig, my ears sing so much I have trouble hearing whats going on unless I dampen it all with ear plugs. Turn these up, even to the point where you can hardly hear yourself think and the famous Sweary singing ears remain mute.
In addition, there seems to be way more detail in what I hear. Whether the MX 400s are delivering a wider frequency than is usual, whether it is down to the quality of the sound reproduction or simply the way the speakers in them are damped it is difficult to say. All I know is that I can hear background sounds at all volumes and by this I mean sounds which, though present on many recordings, arent usually audible unless I seriously crank up the volume - people whispering, sweaty fingers sliding on guitar strings, the sound of the singer swallowing or taking a breath, the hiss of a bow as its drawn across a violin string... I love all of that and I love the fact that I can hear it all on these. It makes the whole listening experience more personal - as if the Sweary denizens of music are actually THERE.... running along behind me.... it might be more of a roll for some of the classical musicians.
This is especially impressive when you bear in mind that my MX 400s cost me £9.99 in June 2005 from my local independent electrical store and Apples standard offering aside, the Panasonic and Sony Fontopia pairs I am comparing them to cost £11.99 and £14.00 three and two years ago, respectively. In short Im getting in exponential increase in quality - about a third I reckon - for about a third less.
So far, reliability has been excellent.
WHY DO I LIKE THEM?
1. The design.
They are straightforward and elegant, they fit properly in their carrying box - a lot of other makes dont - the separate cables to each ear piece are the same length and the overall cable length is not too long, it wont be getting wound round your coat buttons or caught in your zip! They also stay in your ears better than other makes and are more comfortable to wear. The jack is at right angles to the wire, which, in my experience, reduces the stress it puts on the socket and internal connection between wire and jack, itself.
2. Value for money and quality
They deliver exceptional quality sound for pretty much anything in the £10.00 - £20.00 price range. Something about buying top end headphones for bottom-end cost has left me feeling insufferably smug.
3. They are quiet.
If you're listening to the Wombles full volume, it's unlikely that anyone around you will know. If youve got an iPod playlist like mine thats important.
If you find a pair of these, I would strongly recommend you buy them, in fact, Id recommend any Sennheiser headphones full stop as being some of the best around in terms of quality for price. Me, well frankly Im already thinking about upgrading, Sennheiser again - if their entry, well entry and a bit-level headphones are this good, I keep asking myself, what could I get for twenty five quid?
WHERE CAN YOU BUY SOME?
Ah now therein lies the rub. They seem to retail for two prices £9.99 or £13.99. Having searched the web I found them for sale in the following places:
Source: My local independent electronics store
Price: £9.99 plus postage (£6.00 standard charge for goods totalling less than £500)
Price: £13.00 incl delivery
To find out more about Sennheiser products you can visit their website at
To buy them, you could do a lot worse than the Apple Store at http://store.apple.com/Apple/WebObjects/ukstore although bizarrely, they don't have the MX 400s, only the MX 550s which are several notches up, retailing at £19.99.
For those of you who DO understand Hi-fi magazines, heres the Norwegian.
Wide dynamic range
Excellent bass response
Dual-sided highly conductive OFC copper cable
Can be connected directly to personal stereos, CD
players, DAT recorders and hi-fi systems
black and silver
1 Roll-up box for convenient storage
Nominal impedance 32 Ohm
Ear coupling intra-aural
Weight w/o cable ca. 6 g
Jack plug 3.5 mm stereo
Transducer principle dynamic, open
Cable length 1 m
Frequency response (headphones) 18.....20000 Hz
THD, total harmonic distortion 1 %
Sound pressure level (SPL) 125 dB(SPL)