Rockin' with Sennheiser's Latest Business Headset
Over the years I have had the opportunity to use a wide range of different headsets and earbuds from a variety of vendors, including Plantronics, Jabra, and even small companies like Etymotic. I recently had the opportunity to try Sennheiser's new over-the-ear business headphones, the MB 660 -- and, oh how far we have come from the early days when headsets were little more than a single small speaker on the ear and a boom mike. As I am also a bit of an audiophile and music fan, the convergence of UC functionality with great sound is the right path forward.
The MB 660 is designed for business UC users, those who have eschewed the traditional phone and rely on their PCs and smartphones as their primary business devices. As such, it offers support for USB and Bluetooth, but not the deskphone. The MB 660 includes an audio jack and cable for direct connections, important for users who will take these on airplanes where Bluetooth is banned, and it uses several built-in microphones so there is no mike boom or anything to catch or get in the way.
The MB 660 is not designed to be unobtrusive like my Jabra Motion Office or even the Plantronics Savi 740. It is a full-fledged over-the-ear headset that reflects the design heritage of the Sennheiser audiophile headphones, some of which cost close to $1,000. The headset is relatively light, but feels more like a high-quality stereo headphone than a UC headset. The earpads, which appear to be a soft leather or synthetic equivalent, are comfortable.
Going to Graceland
In one of the first tests, I used the headphones to listen to music on my PC. I played a remastered 96/24 recording of Paul Simon's Graceland using Media Monkey. Even though the playback was over Bluetooth, the overall quality approached that of my audiophile headphones, even though they are wired and have a significantly higher cost.
The bass and overall sound quality reflects the experience Sennheiser has as one of the leaders in music headphones. I was impressed by the bass reproduction, generally missing in UC headsets. It was well reproduced without the artificial emphasis of the Beats variety. This is further enhanced by active equalization that enables users to select the equalizer they desire from club, movie, or speech. Each mode enhances the specific use of the headset.
This feature is important as many of the users of this type of headset/headphone will use it to listen to music while waiting for the next call. I found that both the club and movie modes enhanced the respective listening experience. In fact, the imaging in the club mode enabled the music to move out of my head into a more expansive experience (not perfect, but better).
The 660 number in the Sennheiser line reflects a high-quality level, and both the design and sound quality of the MB 660 reflects that. Compared to the Plantronics Backbeat Pro, another closed back high-end headset/headphone, I found the MB 660 sound to be slightly more engaging, but this may be personal preference.
Quiet, But Not Too Quiet
For UC calls, I used the MB 660 with both Skype for Business and several WebRTC-based applications. When testing a new headset or speaker device, I not only pay attention to how the conversation sounds to me, but also how I sound to others. As this is an over-the-ear closed back headset, the issues of introducing echo into a conversation are completely non-existent (these are the best types of devices to make the overall experience for others better), the key value was how I sounded to others. The comments I got were uniform that the sound was great, reflecting how I sound in person. Unfortunately, the MB 660 reproduced my voice accurately, not improving it as I had hoped.
The major innovation beyond sound quality in the MB 660 is variable active noise cancellation. Active noise cancellation uses active circuitry to essentially cancel out external noise by reproducing an inverted sound wave that cancels the noise. This technology has been made popular by the Bose headphones, but Sennheiser is also a major player.
This issue with noise cancellation is that in a relatively quiet environment the resulting very low level of sound can seem almost too quiet, much as an anechoic chamber is unsettling since we are used to some background environmental sound. I find when using some noise cancelling headsets in my home office, the resulting experience can be a little too much. In the MB 660, the level of noise cancellation is adjustable from off to two levels of noise cancellation aggressiveness.
In my office use, I found the mid-level setting to be ideal. I also tried a test with a mix of airplane noise and a speaker projecting a person's speaking voice to simulate a "noisy" environment. As I increased the volume, the increased noise cancellation affected the continuous noise while still allowing me to hear the person speaking. I also used the MB 660 as my headphone on four multi-hour airplane flights. In this noisy environment, I found the noise cancelling equally effective to the Bose Quiet Comfort Headphones, and the sound reproduction better. Overall, I think that this feature will have value for users in an office environment.
Touch & Listen
The last area is the user interface, which is both cool but also presented a bit of a problem for me. The flat cover on the right earcup is a touch pad (think of the one on your laptop). You use it to control headset functions, with a music and a phone mode, depending on what you are doing.
In both modes, the swipes on this touchpad control the headset. An up-swipe increases volume, a down-swipe is a decrease. When you get a phone call, a quick touch on the center answers, while a one-second touch rejects the call. These functions worked well with both my iPhone and Skype for Business. There is a short learning curve, but I found the functionality to be well implemented and better than a set of buttons. However, I often cross my arms over my head while on a call, a way of relaxing. If I was not careful, I would inadvertently mute myself with an unintentional tap on the touchpad. Clearly this is a personal issue, but for others like me it can be mitigated by wearing long sleeves (or maybe less exercise for smaller biceps). I found after about a week I was quite comfortable with the interface and it was very effective.
Audiophile Meets UC
The MB 660 uses Bluetooth to a small dongle plugged into the PC for UC access. While the use of Bluetooth is great for mobile where you take the phone with you as you leave the office, I have found that Bluetooth to the PC is an issue if you are a pacer while you talk and leave the area of your PC. The MB 660 Bluetooth range is similar to others, about 60-70% of the range of a DECT headset like the Plantronics Savi 740.
The only complaint I have is how the MB 660 turns on and off. The on/off switch is built into the rotating mechanism for the earcups, so when you take the headset off and set it down the earcup rotates 90 degrees, turning the unit off. I found this to be an innovative way to turn on/off versus the typical switch, but I missed the head detection in the Plantronics Backbeat Pro that stops playback and goes to low power when the headphones are removed from your head. The ear/head sensing in the Plantronics line is a great innovation.
Overall I have found the MB 660 to be an excellent headset/headphone for the UC user that wants both an excellent audio experience for PC-based UC and mobile devices while also listening to music between conversations. The variable active noise cancellation makes this an excellent headset to use in the office and carry when traveling. As you look for UC-enabled audio devices that will appeal to the Beats generation, the Sennheiser MB 660 may be an ideal alternative. But it may appeal to the executive as well for those quiet times.
Now I am going to go back to listening to Paul Simon...