The market for wireless earbuds under $200 is becoming extraordinarily crowded.
All of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds fit there, as do the new third-generation AirPods, Beats Studio Buds, and Jabra’s Elite 7 and Elite 3 earbuds, just to name a few. All of these earbuds make different tradeoffs to reach their attractive price tags and, usually, they’re worth it. Strike the right balance and you get a pair of wireless earbuds that offer such a good value you won’t care about a few “missing” features here or there.
The $179 Sennheiser CX Plus earbuds definitely fit in with the best of the best in their price range, but I wouldn’t say I can recommend them to most people. They’re really good, but I can’t pretend there aren’t options that are about as good (or better) for a few dollars more or less. In a vacuum, however, I found these to be very impressive wireless earbuds that tick enough boxes and balance their tradeoffs quite well. If you’re a super-fan of Sennheiser’s dedication to accurate sound, you’ll be very satisfied here.
The CX Plus are a follow-up to this summer’s $129 CX, one of the first Sennheiser products released after its consumer audio brand was sold to hearing aid maker Sonova. I wouldn’t call these the first Sonova products, however, as any product takes years to bring to fruition.
The only difference between the CX and CX Plus is active noise cancellation (ANC). Sound quality and fit should be exactly the same. Asides from the extra holes on the CX Plus for the ANC-focused mics, you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.
My favorite thing about the CX Plus design is the case. It’s super tiny — about the same height as an AirPods Pro case — but a little bit thicker, so I had no problem fitting it in my pockets. It’s not the kind of case you would expect for earbuds this chunky. It doesn’t support wireless charging however which has become very common with earbuds at this price point.
If you’re someone who loves a really tight fit, the CX Plus are going to work for you.
That means the CX Plus also inherit the same odd shape as the CX. The buds are squarish ovals that taper into your ear canal. I’m not the biggest fan of it but they manage to tuck deeply enough in my ears that I don’t look too ridiculous with them in. Despite that, they do manage to create a very firm seal. However, I didn’t find that seal to be very comfortable on any of the four included ear tips. If you’re someone who loves a really tight fit, the CX Plus are going to work for you. If not, you’re out of luck. Personally, I like earbuds that don’t need to create a perfect vacuum in one of the most delicate parts of my body to sound good, but there are legions of people who feel otherwise. As much as I liked listening to the CX Plus, I just couldn’t find an ear tip pairing that worked for me to make long-term wear comfortable.
Audio performance is superb on the CX Plus, especially for the price. The out-of-the-box EQ setting nails accurate playback. Songs with lots of bass have lots of bass, and songs that don’t don’t. Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color” rivets through my whole body while The Strokes’ “Last Night” is bright and poppy in all the right places. Sennheiser has put together a really impressive sonic package here that’s going to please a lot of buyers.
The Sennheiser app does include some basic EQ adjustments if you want to build your own presets. There also are some EQ settings designed by Sennheiser to favor specific content like podcasts and movies, plus a Sennheiser-tuned Bass Boost setting that’s really fun for the right kind of track. Custom EQ adjustment is basically table stakes at this point, but I am glad that these buds sound great out of the box for people who don’t know how to tweak EQ.
Sennheiser’s app gives power users added EQ and fine audio adjustments.
In every song I tested, I found the CX Plus to just handle everything really well and the ANC makes them better for it. It’s not the greatest effect in the world but it does help to dampen enough external noise to help you focus on your content. On a recent trip to New York City, the CX plus held up just fine on subway rides without losing track of my podcasts and songs. The ANC doesn’t do a great job on airplanes so I wouldn’t advise making these your go-to earbuds for flying.
The only real negative on the audio experience is the CX Plus’ transparency mode. It favors outside noises too much in its mix. Sennheiser seemingly knows this since the buds default to pausing your music whenever transparency is enabled. If you want your audio to keep going when you switch transparency on, you need to change that in the app.
Samsung and Apple’s transparency mode is a great setting for walking-based commutes. Your audio is still understandable and you hear enough of your surroundings to safely navigate a busy city. Sennheiser chose to make a transparency mode that only lets the world around you in. I understand the impulse to favor safety, but if I don’t want to hear music as I walk around, I take my earbuds out. This made the transparency mode useless to me.
Strong battery life
Sennheiser rates battery life for the CX Plus at 8 hours with ANC, 9 hours without ANC, and 24 hours total in the case. Essentially the same as the AirPods Pro, just with the listening distributed more towards the buds. In my week with the CX Plus earbuds, I only had to charge them once and didn’t get close to draining them with daily periods of moderate use. The 8-hour standalone battery life is cool since they’ll last a cross-country flight on one charge, but your total listening time available is still in line with the rest of the market.
Sennheiser’s touch controls were my biggest gripe. The touchpads on each earbud aren’t sensitive enough and it’s hard to nail the timing for any commands that require multiple taps. I often found myself going for a triple tap command, but was too slow and triggered the double tap command instead. The default touch commands are incredibly confusing as well.
A single tap on the right bud is for play/pause, but a single tap on the left ear enables transparency mode. Double tap on the left or right to go back or forwards, respectively. A triple tap on the left re-enables ANC, while a triple tap on the right summons your phone’s virtual assistant. Lastly, long press on the left for volume down or the right for volume up. Thankfully you can customize these controls in the app but it’s not exactly intuitive to get to that menu. If you grab these earbuds, please change the tap controls for your own sanity.
Another in the crowd
The biggest downside of the Sennheiser CX Plus is that as good as they are, they don’t quite justify their premium, however small, over their competitors. For a few dollars less, you can get something just as good, or notably better for a bit more. The Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 have better comfort and very comparable audio performance, not to mention a better transparency mode. The story is worse compared to the Galaxy Buds Pro, often on sale for less than the CX Plus, and only $20 more at MSRP. Even Sennheiser’s own Momentum 2 are regularly discounted (I’ve already seen them for as low as $199.)
Even with all those caveats, the CX Plus aren’t ripping off anyone. My biggest struggle with this review is figuring out exactly who they’re for, given their odd placement in the market. And really the only answer to that is people who like Sennheiser and want to spend less than $200. If you only care about audio quality, then Sennheiser’s 76 years of experience in the audio market may be what steers you towards the CX Plus. Most mainstream buyers are going to continue to look elsewhere, but for those who do choose the CX Plus, they are going to be in good hands, even if they may not be the best bang for your buck wireless earbuds.
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