Sennheiser Urbanite on-ear review

Sennheiser's bass-blasting Urbanite headphones beat Dre's Beats at their own game

Sennheiser’s Urbanite beat Beats at their own game. Once bass-heads get their ears on these headphones, they’ll never turn back.
Sennheiser’s Urbanite beat Beats at their own game. Once bass-heads get their ears on these headphones, they’ll never turn back.
Sennheiser’s Urbanite beat Beats at their own game. Once bass-heads get their ears on these headphones, they’ll never turn back.

Highs

  • Incredibly detailed treble and midrange
  • Just the right boost in bass
  • Highly dynamic
  • Awesome stereo separation and soundstage
  • Comfortable and stylish

Lows

  • Headband lacks padding, can slip while active
  • No ¼-inch adapter included

Hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre was just three years old in 1968, when Sennheiser developed what still stands as the number-one-selling headphone model of all time, the MD 414. Of course, Dre was too young to take much interest in headphones back then, but we’re willing to bet he was hustling for a pair by age 15, when in 1979 Sony introduced the Walkman and portable headphones became all the rage. By the time the rap star and record producer was 25, headphone sales had hit a plateau, and they would cruise that straightaway for another 15 years before the good Dr., along with Jimmy Iovine and Monster Products, set off what can only be described as a headphone revolution with the launch of Beats. It’s been over six years since that day, and headphones are still hotter than ever before.

Sennheiser has always kept busy developing next-gen tech in the music recording and playback fields, and consistently produces some of the best microphones and headphones the world has ever heard, but it wasn’t until recently that Sennheiser started making serious stabs at style. Hey, when something as big as Beats comes along and you realize there’s a whole generation of young listeners that like their headphones stylish and their bass big, you either hip-hop aboard the bus, or take a hike to obscurityville.

Enter Sennheiser’s latest effort: The Urbanite headphones. The name says it all, really. The Urbanite are designed to offer the style and boosted bass today’s young listeners are into, but — staying true to Sennheiser form — without sacrificing overall sound quality. It sounds like a simple idea, and Sennheiser isn’t the first to have it, but the Urbanite execute it better than any pair of headphones we’ve heard before, and totally earn their $200 asking price. When folks get their ears on these headphones and realize it’s possible to have bumping bass without otherwise sacrificing balance, or giving up detail, clarity, dynamics and musicality, they’ll never turn back.

Hands on video

Out of the box

The Urbanite’s box somehow looks like it is going to fly off shelves, especially at those headphone stores you see in all the airports these days. It’s larger than it needs to be, and that’s good because it’s going to call attention to itself. The image on the front, though well done, doesn’t adequately impart the sense of awesome (or the “new headphone smell”) you get when you crack open the box, though.

The Urbanite are an arrestingly stylish pair of headphones.

The Urbanite are an arrestingly stylish pair of headphones – simply designed, yet you can’t help but ooh and aah over them. Inside the box, the Urbanite are folded up and nestled in dense, squishy foam. Whichever one of the five available color schemes you pick is bound to impress. Ours arrived in black, with white and off-white accents.

The moment you pick the Urbanite up, you know you are dealing with a high-quality product. They exude the same vibe of German engineering and manufacturing vibe that makes a Mercedes feel simultaneously luxurious and badass. The precision stitching that borders the canvas-lined headband, for example, is super-tight and laser-straight. The rest of the materials – a blend of plastic with some metallic accents – are rigid, lightweight, and built to last. Even the radius on the headband just looks right.

The Urbanite are an exercise in minimalism, and overall that’s a good thing. However, the only other pieces we found in the box were a flat, tangle-resistant headphone cable and a storage sack fashioned from the same material those Dri-Fit golf shirts are made out of. We don’t need a whole lot more, mind you, but a pair of headphones such as these deserves to come with at least a ¼-inch TRS adapter.

Features and design

Sennheiser got a lot right with the Urbanite, and that starts with the removable cable used to connect the headphones to devices. We already mentioned it is flat and tangle resistant, but it is also robust in a way that expels any concerns of breakage without going so far as to feel clunky. That includes the larger-than-average in-line control microphone, which spaces the buttons out far enough that you’ll never have to worry about hitting the wrong one. Inside the piece is what Sennheiser claims is a best-in-class noise-cancelling microphone.

The Urbanite’s ear cups are mounted on a track and suspended using elastic-y rubber straps. The ear cups move smoothly and without great effort, yet stay in place when the cans are folded down. This is an under-utilized design, and we hope to see a whole lot more of it, because it functions extremely well.

Comfort

At first blush, the Urbanite don’t look like they would be especially comfortable, but they are easily one of the most comfortable on-ears we’ve tested, trumped only by the excellent Sennheiser Momentum on-ears.

Part of our initial concern was the headband cushion style Sennheiser used here, which looks like it was ripped right out of the Beats design book. It’s that nearly padding-less rubbery stuff that doesn’t look or feel to the touch like it’s going to be kind to your cranium. We had only mild problems with feeling a little pressure on our crown, but the great thing about the Urbanite is that just a touch of repositioning goes a long way, and their gentle-yet-firm clamping force takes a lot of stress off the top. Still, we’d prefer the underside of the headband to be as plush as the ear cups.

When folks get their ears on the Urbanite, they’ll never turn back.

Speaking of: What really make the Urbanite especially comfy are their plush, velvety ear pads. They cozy up to your ears without actually getting too cozy. Ear sweats were never a problem during our testing.

Keep in mind, however, that an on-ear headphone is always going to feel a little more “clamp-y” than an over-ear headphone. If you tend to feel claustrophobic with on-ear headphones on, the Urbanite, as great as they are, still grab on to your head a bit, so be prepared for that.

Also, we’re concerned this isn’t going to be the best headphone for a workout. We found the headband had a tendency to slip off the back of our head when we looked straight up. Others may not have this problem, but if you’re head bobs around a lot when you exercise, you may find the Urbanite dislodging from your noggin.

Audio performance

Since testing the original Beats Solo nearly five years ago, we’ve heard every variation of “bass-centric” headphones out there, with bass manipulation ranging from the subtle to the egregious. While we found something to appreciate about many of them, even the best of the bunch fell short of this ideal we’ve had stuck in our head.

You see, unlike many other audio purists, we don’t necessarily object to a little goosing in the bass department – to quote Maude from The Big Lebowski, it can be a natural, zesty enterprise. What we do object to is when enhanced bass has a deleterious effect on other parts of the sound spectrum. What good is boosted bass if the rest of the music sounds like its being pumped through a sweaty gym sock lined with tin foil?

Sennheiser Urbanite

With the Urbanite, Sennheiser doesn’t just sidestep this bass boost landmine, they singlehandedly redefine what’s possible with headphone voicing. These are the headphones Beats wishes it was making. What you get with the Urbanite that you won’t find elsewhere is incredible detail, mesmerizing stereo effects and soundstaging, lightning-fast transient response, and treble so sweet it will ruin you for nearly any other headphone or speaker you’re likely to listen to for years.

We tested the Urbanite with our new iPhone 6, an older iPhone 4S, a prototype of the new Pono Player, and with our PC routed through various premium DAC/Headphone amps. While the headphones sounded incrementally better with each source we connected them to (especially so with the Pono – can this thing just come out, already?) what really impressed us is how much the Urbanite was able to transform the listening experience straight off our iPhone.

The way these headphones expose subtle sympathetic harmonics, especially in brass and wind instruments, is a treat to hear.

Whether listening to 320kbps streaming music from Spotify, our own lossless CD rips, or even iTunes’ lossy music files, we heard something new to enjoy and appreciated a higher level of dynamics, detail and realism. The way these headphones expose subtle sympathetic harmonics, especially in brass and wind instruments, is a treat to hear.

Of course, the bass is the star of the show, and the Urbanite do a great job of putting it in its best light. The response is deeeeep, and poignant, with an especially large dose of punch that doesn’t pummel your eardrums, but still manages to tickle the back of your head just a bit. It’s a fun ride, and one younger listeners are sure to appreciate.

Passive noise isolation is excellent, making the Urbanite a top choice for daily commuters. And the built-in microphone really is best-in-class as Sennheiser claims. We made several phone calls and asked the party on the other line to tell us which sound they liked better, alternating between the iPhone 6’s built-in mic and the Urbanite’s without saying which was which. The Urbanite won every time, by a landslide. Yes, the Urbanite’s microphone sounds better than the one in the brand-new iPhone.

Conclusion

Sennheiser’s Urbanite are a real party for your ears. And not just some sloppy frat house kegger kind of party (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but one of those ripping end-of-summer blowouts you have poolside at some classy joint up in the hills with unreal food and top-shelf liquor and Crystal flowing from the bar. The Urbanite give you all the class you expect from a top-tier headphone company, with just enough exuberance in the bass to make it an experience you will never forget, no matter how much fun you choose to have with them. If you get a chance to, be sure to give the Urbanite a listen, and good luck putting them down.

You can pick up the on-ear Urbanite at Amazon now for $200.

Highs

  • Incredibly detailed treble and midrange
  • Just the right boost in bass
  • Highly dynamic
  • Awesome stereo separation and soundstage
  • Comfortable and stylish

Lows

  • Headband lacks padding, can slip while active
  • No ¼-inch adapter included
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