A Great Headphone for the Kids: The Sennheiser Urbanite
Sennheiser Urbanite ($199)
Seems like nobody can talk about the new Urbanite and Urbanite XL without concluding it's Sennheiser's response to Beats. I don't quite buy it. Sure, Sennheiser is aware of Beats' colossal market share....who isn't? But Beats' share is so huge you might as well equate chasing Beats to chasing the entire market.
Beating Beats means you've got to get the attention of all market segmentsteens, millennials, hipsters, urban youth, yuppies, aging hippies, baby-boomers, you name it. You're not going to do that by looking at what Beats didI reckon Beats waking up the popular consciousness to the world to headphones was a one-time deal.
It seems to me the biggest vulnerability Beats has is its one-size-fits-all product lineBeats has six headphones and five earphone models; a quick and incomplete count shows Sennheiser having 37 over-ear, 25 on-ear, and 26 in-ear models. Beats may own the lion's share of the market, but they don't make models specifically for the various demographic segments. It seems to me, beating Beats means producing models designed specifically for each market segment and winning over one or two at a time...and then doing it over and over again. To my eyes, and ears, that's exactly what Sennheiser is doing.
Sennheiser's Momentum line is pretty obviously meant to attract a rather more up-scale and sophisticated audience than what we think of as the typical Beats buyer, and they've done quite well in the effort. Now, it seems, with the Urbanite, Sennheiser has set its sights squarely on Beats traditional stronghold: Millenials (born 1982-2000). Though it's far too soon to know if they'll succeed I will make this initial observation: The Sennheiser Urbanite headphones are much more comfortable when worn around my neck than the new Beats Solo2. I suppose that's a good start, but, of course, there's much more to the story.
The Sennheiser Urbanite is an on-ear, sealed headphone. With the exception of the fabric headband cover, stainless steel hinges, and aluminum slider arms, remaining parts are high-quality plastics and synthetic materials of various types. Most parts have a satin finish that resists fingerprints nicely.
Much is made of the Urbanite's durability in Sennheiser's marketing materials for the product, and while it's a very difficult thing to test for with surety, the Urbanites do indeed apear to be built like a tank. I've been to the materials analysis lab at Sennheiser's headquarters, and can tell you I walked away extremely impressed with their command of the field.
The headband is fairly wide and has a fabric outer cover. The cushion on the inside of the headband appears to be a molded silicon rubber part covering the entire inner surface of the headband. I can't tell by feel whether or not there is any foam beneath it, but I think not. The shape of the headband cushion does does bulge out and provide enough give for a cushiony action.
The Urbanite arm ends fold inward to make them smaller for storage and transport. Hinges of the Urbanite are stainless steel and seem almost overkill for a pair of headphones. The aluminum slider arms rotate inward on a pivot pin press-fit into the top end of the arm. A second pin is also press-fit through the arm and acts as part of the detent locking the arm in place when fully open. A small plastic block mounted in the injection molded metal headband end-piece provides just enough give for the detent pin to gently click into place. These hinges are nice and beefy, for sure.
In the Solo2 literature, Beats made an effort to point out that the screws were no longer visible on their hinges. Personally, I think a headphone with visible screws that make it obvious how to take it apart is a plus. An even bigger plus is when it's so well built that taking it apart and putting it back together doesn't need three hands or cause damage to the headphones. (One disclaimer here: I really don't recommend that people take things apart just out of curiosity. The majority of screws in most headphones thread into plastic bosses, and the threads in the plastic will suffer to some degree in the process of assembly and disassembly, and will eventually strip out.)
I've taken a lot of headphones apart in my career as a professional headphone geek. Without doubt the Urbanite is among the best constructed headphones I've experienced at anywhere near this price range. V-Moda headphones are the other stand-out manufacturer in this regard.
Ear cushions on the Urbanite are a particularly nice velour material and cover a moderately dense memory foam. I found them to be very comfortable for an on-ear headphone, and my ears and measurements show that isolation is excellent.
Somewhat large silicon rubber cable housings exit from the headband and enter the top of the ear capsules through openings. As the capsules slide up and down during adjustment, the cable housings are allowed to remain stationary as the capsules move around them. This is a novel and pretty slick idea.
The rear of the capsules are attached to a ball joint joining them with the slider assemblies. The slider assemblies clamp to the beveled inside edge of the aluminum slider arms, and ride on small pads that looked like nylon to me. The movement is smooth and without detents, but with enough friction to remain nicely secure when worn.
I've read a number of comments on Head-Fi from people wondering if there's any commonality between the HD 25 Aluminum and the Urbanite as their capsules are about the same size. I did partially take apart my HD 25 Aluminum and found very little in common.
The Urbanite's driver and acoustic design seems somewhat unusual to me. The capsule housing has a large opening at the top through which the cable guide enters that creates a significant air leak. I wondered about that at first, but upon opening the Urbanite and removing the driver I noticed that there's an internal cover for the back of the driver. There are to vents covered with damping cloth on this rear cover.
The Amperior had a little acoustic damping foam in the capsule housing, the Urbanite does not. This doesn't bother me much because I would assume all the magic is in the driver housing. While there's a large opening to the outside around the cable guide at the top of the housing, measurements show very good isolation for the Urbanite. Again, most of the acoustic control must be in the driver housing.
For iOS device users, the Urbanite is available in the above five colors. Urbanite models with cables for Android and other smartphone users can only select Black and Denim colors (first two at left).
I would say these headphones look a little better in person than in the pictures, though the headband does seem slightly too wide for the ear pieces. There is another model coming soon, the around-the-ear Urbanite XL, that uses the exact same headband. Its larger ear cups look better in proportion to the wide headband. Personally, I like the look. It's a bit utilitarian, but since one of the major goals of the product was extreme durability it seems perfectly acceptable to have a chunky, solid appearance.
Cable and Accessories
The Urbanite cable is 48" long and flat in cross-section. Insulation is black and seems to be a silicon rubber compound. The headphone end of the cable terminates in a TRRS 2.5mm plug, which plugs into a recessed jack on the left earpiece. There is a locking mechanism. Aftermarket cables will be difficult to refit. A 3.5mm 90 degree angled plug terminates the player end of the cable. This connector has very little space before the angled part and I did find it interfering with my Otterbox Defender case around my Samsung Galaxy S3. On wrong move in my pocket and the plug would slightly ease out of the jack and the phone would go into pause.
I had the iOS version of the cable with three button remote. The remote is rather high on the cable making it a bit hard to see next to your cheek, but the remote is rather large and buttons easy to access by hand feel alone. I had no problems using the remote.
Accessories include...one very thin fabric drawstring bag. This is one area that could have been significantly improved upon; the bag is pretty cheap. 'Course it could be that Sennheiser put so much money into the headphones (they are very nicely built and will take a beating) that they couldn't budget for a nicer bag.
The Urbanite hits on all cylinders. The headband rests at the top of your head, but the headband cushion is very soft and the contact patch large enough to disperse the modest weight of the headphones. Earpads are ample and nicely cushioned, and the velour coverings are very comfortable and cool against the ears. These hang very nicely around the neck. The Urbanite is a very comfortable on-ear headphone.
The Urbanite is built to last, I've seen very few headphones at this price point with any where near this quality of construction and durability. (V-Moda headphones also come to mind.) I'd feel very comfortable putting these into the hands of a shredding skateboarder; if there's any headphone that will survive a faceplant in the skatepark, the Urbanite would be it.
Personally, I like the looks of bicycles, pianos, and sailboatsthey all have a strong "form follows function" design, something I quite enjoy. The Urbanite is first and foremost a comfortable and durable headphone...and it looks the part.
Now, about the sound...