Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless review: sonic standoutNovember 30, 2018
Tech daydreams are the closest thing we have to a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, we imagine how we’d like technology to improve and evolve, and then, with plenty of time and hard work, we make that change real. That’s what I was thinking about recently when I took a call just by tapping an earbud in my ear, no wires dangling anywhere, and I was reminded of my teenage yearning for a pair of wireless earphones. Twenty years ago, that was just a fantasy; today, the earphones in question are just the latest in a rapidly growing succession of true wireless models.
Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless are, in one respect, a dream piece of technology. They sound absolutely terrific, eclipsing the sound quality of everything else that’s come before them in the category. But humanity is still far from perfecting the true wireless earphone, so they have a few nightmarish features as well, including a daunting $299.99 price. Such is the cost of technological progress, and I do think these new earphones move us closer to the goal of crafting our fantasy unentangled earphones.
The Momentum True Wireless — the name is such a mouthful that I’m going to just call them the Momentums or MTWs — come in a chunky, rigid, fabric-covered case that opens and closes with a nice snap. This case conveys a premium, high-end feel that is very much carried over in the earphones’ design. Both the case and the MTW buds are built to a high standard with durable, solid materials. Sennheiser knows its wireless buds are among the most expensive in their class, so it hasn’t cut corners in crafting them.
USB-C charging, my favorite thing to complain about with previous wireless headphone models, is present on the MTWs. This is important in rendering these earphones that extra bit more wireless. What do I mean by that? Well, the AirPods are wireless in use, but they always require that I keep a Lightning cable around for when I need to charge them. With the Momentums, the charger I use for my laptop and phone is also my headphones charger. This cable synergy is neat, useful, and subtly transformative to my anxiety levels when I need to dash off to a meeting in a hurry.
The first time I encountered the Momentums at IFA this year, I tried to intuit my way around them and failed spectacularly. These buds have no buttons or switches, and in their designers’ pursuit of a smooth and flowing form, they also have no labels or hints directing the user’s hand. In spite of my experience with every type and brand of wireless headphones to date, I have to admit I couldn’t even figure out how to pair my phone to them. The flat metallic (but not metal) portion on the exterior of each bud is a touchpad, so I started experimentally tapping, swiping, and holding those pads, but the buds gave me no helpful audio feedback.
A kind Sennheiser rep explained to me that holding both touchpads for five seconds turns the pairing mode on, and the first time you open up a fresh pair of MTWs, they’ll be in pairing mode by default. That was all well and good, but what else do those touchpads do?
To play and pause music, you tap the left pad once. To access your device’s default voice assistant — Google Assistant on Android, Siri on iOS, or Cortana on Windows — you tap the right bud. There are no swipe gestures, so advancing a track is two taps on the left bud, going back is three taps. Changing the volume is accomplished by holding the left pad to turn it down or holding the right to turn it up. And if someone calls you, it’s a tap of the right bud to answer. I hope you find that as befuddling as I initially did. No one else uses this arcane control scheme.
In Sennheiser’s defense, the company has released an app that walks users through its bizarre controls for the Momentums, and once I learned how it worked, I adapted to it. But even when you’re fully informed and up to speed, it’s just a bad way to control your music. It should be obvious that tapping a thing that’s nestled deep inside my ear a bunch of times is kind of an unpleasant experience. One tap, fine, but three taps in quick succession to go back a track? No, thank you. The prolonged press to tweak volume is also unwieldy: if you just want to go one notch in either direction, you have to quickly pull your finger away, or the buds will keep going until they hit the maximum or minimum volume. Oh, and if you hold the buds for 30 seconds instead of five, you’ll do a factory-reset on them. It’s like the French language: every logical guess you make is wrong, and you just have to be told how to do it.
It’s a good thing that Sennheiser has built such a sturdy and handsome case for the MTWs because I found myself stranded any time I tried to go somewhere without it. The case provides two additional full charges for the buds, but it wasn’t battery life anxiety that troubled me. Sennheiser claims four hours on a single charge, which is right in line with what most competitors achieve, and my testing confirmed that. But without an on-off switch on the buds themselves, the earphones switch off automatically, and I find putting them in the case is the only way to wake them back up.
Sennheiser has implemented an automatic pause feature that works great when I take out one earbud, but it sabotages itself when I take out the second. My music will reliably stop any time I pull out a bud to talk to someone, and it will just as reliably resume if I pull out the other bud and hold them together in my hand. It’s really dumb smart technology. This feature can be disabled via Sennheiser’s app, but it’s disappointing to see it implemented so badly and then also set as the default behavior. This was another thing nudging me toward always keeping the buds in the case.
The Momentum earbuds are quite large and hefty for true wireless buds. They fill the outer ear cavity and then protrude a little bit further, though not as egregiously as some other Bluetooth earphone models. At their longest point, they’re about the same length as Apple’s AirPods, and they’re significantly fatter. That being said, I find the Momentums comfortable to wear, and when I use them for extended periods of time, the battery warning precedes any sort of wearing fatigue. Others may find the way these earphones fill the ear to be unpleasant and off-putting. They’re about on par with custom-molded in-ear headphones, albeit with less penetration into the inner ear.
One major benefit of their voluminous physical design is that the Momentums offer great noise isolation. The one big weakness that Apple’s AirPods have is a strength for the MTWs. These won’t replace your earplugs on a long flight, but they do quiet the environment around you, and I appreciate having that in busy offices, on clattering train commutes, and any other time I want to escape my surroundings.
With a comfortable fit providing a good seal in the ear, the true star of Sennheiser’s MTW show makes itself apparent. The sound of these earphones is easily the best I’ve heard from any truly wireless pair. The bass isn’t exaggerated or distorted, the treble isn’t spiky, and the midrange is smooth and harmonious. Aural detail is abundant, right down to the sound of Melvyn Bragg’s breathing in the background on the In Our Time podcast.
I’ve listened to a wide range of music with the Momentums, from At the Driven-In and Autechre to Zoë Keating and Zomby, and they have yet to disappoint. While I’ve noted their bass isn’t excessive, they do have a warm tuning that I very much like. Bass comes through with absolute authority and a weight that justifies the buds’ chunky form. Instruments and vocals have an organic and realistic timbre that’s both pleasing and enticing.
Using Sennheiser’s MTWs for calls has also been a pleasure for me. Even when I’ve been out on the street and wearing a hoodie, the microphones pick up my speech and deliver it with clarity to the other side. As far as audio performance goes, the Momentums are difficult to fault. Going to the AirPods after listening to the MTWs for a while, I find Sennheiser’s earphones expose all the deficiencies of Apple’s sound (which I still think is very good). I usually have more to say about the sound of headphones, but here, it’s sufficient to say that no true wireless buds have been this good before.
I’d strongly recommend the MTWs to my colleague Dieter Bohn, who loves conference calls and values good mic performance, but I know he also likes to keep his headphones synced to multiple devices at once, and that’s something Sennheiser’s buds can’t do. To switch from my phone to my laptop, I have to disconnect one and reconnect the other.
Sennheiser has a few additional issues to iron out on the wireless front with the MTWs. They support Bluetooth 5, but that’s not really much of an advantage in the realm of wireless headphones. I had an epic struggle pairing these buds to a Windows laptop and had to do a full reset to make them communicate. Keeping a stable connection to my phone is also not a sure thing, as I find the Momentums to be extra sensitive to the way I grip my phone (in a fashion that other wireless headphones have shown themselves resilient to). And then there’s the connection between the two buds, which I’ve noticed drop off without any apparent reason on occasion. These are small foibles, but they’re there.
It’s difficult to offer a straightforward judgment of the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless because of how good their good parts are and how frustrating their bad aspects are. Want the best-sounding true wireless earbuds? Here they are. But should you pay $300 for the privilege of being annoyed by your earphones?
Wireless headphones, in all forms and sizes, are going through a period of rapid transition and transformation. For its first entry into the true wireless realm, Sennheiser has upheld its reputation for excellent sound, but the company hasn’t completed the job with matching functionality and usability. I rate the Momentum True Wireless highly because of their sound, which is recognizably superior to everything else. You’ll just have to weigh that against all the little annoyances that come with it.
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