Greetings Head-Fi! The following is a review of the Sennheiser CX280, one of the German company's newest entries in their Street Line of earbuds and canalphones. The following is my attempt at dissecting Sennheiser's latest entry-level canalphone.
As always, the sound of a canalphone or IEM is highly dependent on fit, so mileage may vary.
The CX280 package and its contents
ACCESSORIES, BUILD QUALITY, AND FIT
The CX280 package, which thankfully isn't a finger-shredding blister pack like previous Sennheiser CXs, includes pretty much the bare essentials: three sets of silicon tips, a simple but nicely oversized soft pouch similar to the one included with the Sennheiser's MX580 earbud, and, of course, the earphones themselves. Certainly it would have been nice if a better tip selection was included, but I feel that the CX280 package really could use a nice clip, especially one similar to that included with the MX580.
The CX280's build quality is good, with decent strain reliefs on the housings and a solid gold-plated L-plug connector. The raised dot on the strain relief on the left side is a nice touch, making it easier to discern the left housing from the right. However, there are a couple of elements to the design that could be improved. Firstly, the cable, which appears to be identical to the one used in the MX580, has a very rubbery texture that's prone to tangling. It doesn't help that the cable is also quite microphonic, though to be fair the addition of the cable slider certainly reduces the movement-induced noise significantly. If a clip were included and placed between the Y-split and the volume controller, it would further reduce cable movement and thus almost eliminate microphonics. Alternatively, Sennheiser could also consider using the excellent translucent cable found on the MX471 and CX281 (which I do not own) on all of its entry-level models, though I can't say if the cable will solve all of the microphonic problems. Secondly, I'm not fond of the plastics used in the housings. As pictured below, the housings are made of two materials: a glossy black plastic, and a matte finish gray/silver plastic. While the design looks distinctive (and I find its appearance quite agreeable), the glossy plastic, like any of its kind, is quite prone to scratching. This same plastic is also on the volume controller, mine of which has amassed a handful of hairline scuff marks. The second plastic, in its primer-like finish, tends to attract any sort of debris, making cleaning more difficult than it should be. However, its rough texture does have the benefit of making it easy to grasp the housings when inserting the phones into the ears.
Fit is quite comfortable despite the housings, which are larger than previous Sennheisers such as the CX300 and CX150/200/250. At first, I had some trouble with getting a sufficient seal with the included tips, which led to non-existent isolation and a harsh and hollow sound. With the CX280, a good seal is necessary to get the best sound, which is somewhat opposite to that of certain other Sennheiser models. Even with a good seal, isolation is below average, as the ported housings let a noticeable amount of outside sound in. Leakage isn't too bad, similar to the Head-Direct RE2, JBL Reference 220, or similar canalphones, but those who are conscientious may want to check their volume.
Close up view of the CX280 housing
The CX280 and its volume controller
The ports/slits of the CX280's housings seem to have quite an affect on the earphone's sound presentation. The most noticeable, and what I feel sets it apart from previous CX entries, is its soundstage, which is quite large and very airy. Honestly, I've never heard anything quite like it, though admittedly my experience with IEMs is still too limited. It's somewhat hard to describe in the context of width, height, and depth, but never does it feel confined or claustrophobic. Indeed, it sounds closer to an earbud than a canalphone, and combined with good imaging and a very layered sound, the CX280 is quite enjoyable in this aspect.
The rear port also lends well to the bass response, which is tight, fast, and never bloated. With a good seal, the quantity of the bass seems to be slightly more than neutral, just enough to add a good amount of warmth but not enough to overwhelm other frequencies. The impact is good, though it seems to emphasize the initial attack more than the proceeding reverberations. This leads to what I hear as a very taut, deep, and controlled bass response which some bassheads may feel to be a bit lacking. There is also little mid-bass, and the infamous "veil" of the CX300 and even the CX95/550 is nowhere to be heard.
Midrange response is typical Sennheiser in its laid-back nature. There is much air separating the listener from vocals, so those who prefer up-front mids may not be satisfied. Vocals are however quite clear and slightly sweet, and strings are well represented in speed and articulation. All of this is presented in a very smooth manner, up until the upper mids, where a slight bit of sibilance can be detected. Still, the CX280 displays believable timbral and tonal characteristics when compared to the overly thick sound of certain Sennheisers past.
It's the treble response that's probably the most surprising coming off of previous Sennheiser entries. The treble here is well-extended, with excellent articulation while remaining controlled and detailed. Though bright sources and higher volumes can introduce a slight bit of harshness to the CX280's higher frequency response, its treble is quite an improvement from the CX300 and CX95/550.
There is one aspect of the CX280's sound characteristics that I find a bit odd: there are times where I feel that, particularly in a recording with a larger soundstage, some voices and instruments can sound slightly distant. That, combined with a tendency to sound a bit too airy at times, can create the sense of lacking cohesion as individual sounds seem a bit too separated.
While the CX280 doesn't represent a complete deviation from Sennheiser's standard formula, it does refine the aspects of previous CX series phones that worked well while correcting some of their shortcomings. In particular, the excellent soundstage, airy presentation, and improved frequency extension and tonality go a long way toward making the CX280 more relevant as far as performance is concerned. However, the improved sonics come at the price of decreased isolation, which ultimately hurts the utility of the product. Still, the CX280 is a solid canalphone in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. And if the CX280 shows a glimpse of future Sennheiser products, I feel that the next generation of CX (and IE?) series IEMs could be very interesting indeed.