The Urbanite XL is a new addition to the Sennheiser range and was offered to me for review by Head-Fi user, White Lotus, as part of an Australian review tour made possible by Sennheiser so thank you to ‘Lotus’ and Sennheiser for making this possible.
I’m not sure what the plans are for the Urbanite (on ear) and Urbanite XL (over ear) models – they may be intended to replace the existing Momentum range or they may be intended to offer an alternate style of headphone and therefore be a completely separate line so I’ll review them without any direct comparison to the Momentum range.
Throughout this review I’ve been lazy and just typed “Urbanite” each time, but please know that I am always referring to the XL (over ear) model. I haven’t tried the on-ear model.
- Driver: Dynamic
- Cable: 2.5mm to 3.5mm with locking system on headphone and inline mic / controls
- Frequency response: 16 – 22,000 Hz
- Impedance: 18 ohms
The Urbanite XL comes in 6 colour variants (I had the Olive ones to review and photograph) and retails for around $300-400 here in Australia.
Design & Comfort
The Urbanites are meant to be a portable, rugged, urban headphone and their design hits this brief in almost every way – they are built like a tank, but wrapped in luxurious feeling (and looking) materials and the end result is both stylish and robust.
The cups are made from quality plastics and have nice accents to provide a sense of style. The tour models are the olive colour scheme and they look fantastic thanks to a slightly pearlescent finish that throws different tones of the green-brown variety depending on the light and angle.
The hinged sections of the headband / cup mounts are solid metal which is painted to suit the colour scheme and the headband is wrapped in denim on the outside and a nice, soft, padded rubber material on the underside.
Little touches and flourishes abound on the Urbanites in areas like the beautifully finished inside of the hinges, the entry points for the signal cable where it runs from the headband into the cups, and the connection between the cups and the headbands. Everything has been meticulously styled to perfection, but without pretension. The Urbanites don’t look showy, they just look quality.
All of this would mean nothing if the Urbanites weren’t comfortable to wear, but the good news is that they’re super comfy. The earpads are firm, but forgiving and strike a good balance of keeping the cups away from the ears while still being soft and plush on the side of the head. The headband is also very comfortable for reasonably long sessions so the Urbanite designers definitely struck the perfect balance of form and function here.
Unlike the headphone itself, the Urbanites cable is strikingly ordinary. It’s a flat cable with decent connectors (2.5mm 4-pole), a simple locking system at the headphone end, and an iDevice compatible volume control / microphone. What stands out is how plastic and lightweight (in a not so good way) it feels. Sure, it does an adequate job, but seems in contrast with the quality and precision level that’s gone into the rest of the headphones.
Folding & Portability
This is the other area that I’m not sold on with the design of the Urbanites. They come with a high quality, soft carry pouch and they do fold, but the folded size of them is still huge for a portable device. You’ll have trouble fitting these into a messenger bag unless they’re all you’re carrying with maybe just a wallet and phone to go with them.
I don’t know that there’s any other way the folding could have been accomplished (and I’m guessing that Sennheiser’s designers would be more than capable of finding the best possible solution), but the end result is a bumpy, bulky bag full of headphones so I’m not sure how portable these really are.
The Urbanites have low enough impedance and high enough sensitivity to easily produce good volume levels from almost any device. The impedance is getting into troubling territories for some poorly designed sources, but as a headphone designed primarily for use with iPhones and the like, the Urbanites are right on the money and also pair beautifully with quality DAPs and portable amps, but are also quite comfortable on a desktop rig (as long as the output impedance isn’t crazily high)
On first listen, the sound from the Urbanites shows a bell-like clarity and image that’s quite beguiling. As the listening session continues though, some subtleties of the sound begin to become more obvious with varying impacts on the musical experience.
The bass from the Urbanites is really solid with excellent extension. There’s good sub-bass rumble, but it’s not lifted at all so it’ll only show up in tracks that really command it – I’d describe it as neutral sub-bass, but fully extended. Further up into the bass range it sounds to me like there’s a bit of a mid-bass bump – nothing to extreme, but enough to bring some extra fun and engagement to the music. Unfortunately though, the extra fun comes at a cost with the Urbanites. On some tracks where tight, controlled bass is needed the sound can get just a tiny bit flabby. Now, I need to emphasise that it is a small amount of bass flab – like the results of a week of bad eating – not excessive flab – like a lifelong obsession with McDonalds burgers.
What this means for the Urbanites is that on some tracks they sound tight, punchy and awesome, but on some other tracks (or certain sections of the same track) they can become just a little bit unnatural in the bass. For example, on “All These People” from Harry Connick, Jr.’s album, My New Orleans, the Urbanites start off sounding sublime with the tight, authoritative punches from the kick bass, but as the other instruments join the fun the bass becomes a little incoherent and muddy to the point that individual bass sounds become hard to differentiate. I wonder if this is a sign of some reflections or interference in the bass frequencies within the cups.
The Urbanites have a really clear and clean mid-range that I love, but it can sound a bit recessed which is both a benefit and a handicap. The sense of distance between the listener and the mids means that the Urbanites have a very open sound for a closed headphone, in fact they excel in this regard, but the overall sound can be a little hollow and disengaging at times because the mids are too far away.
Other than the mids feeling a little recessed they are very smooth and clean with good speed and texture. The mid-bass lift makes the sound seem like it is slightly emphasised towards the upper mids and that creates a slight dryness to the sound of vocals and mid-range instruments, but not in a bad way – it just makes them sound very clean and neutral with lots of breath and texture at the upper ends of the mid-range register as we cross over into the territory of the treble.
The treble on the Urbanites is emphasised towards the lower treble and it creates that sense of dryness and clarity where it meets up with the mids as discussed above, but it also creates a slightly artificial character to the sound which is intriguing and enjoyable for its own sake, but prevents the Urbanites from being completely engaging at all times because they’re not quite natural.
Treble extension is good, but sounds like it rolls off towards the top to prevent fatigue and the balance between extension and sharpness is balanced well with no fatigue, but also no sense of veil to my ears.
Staging & Imaging
The staging and imaging of the Urbanites is exceptional. They create an amazing sense of space around the listener’s head and place instruments incredibly well around that spacious stage. As I mentioned earlier, there is definitely a bell-like clarity to the Urbanites and it comes from the way they place sounds in the stage and keep everything clearly defined and separated. This leads to an excellent sense of detail retrieval and accuracy across all instruments placed in and around your head.
The stage extends well in all directions going slightly beyond the ears and slightly forward. Interestingly, it sounds to me like the soundstage sits higher in the centre than on the sides. For example vocalists seem to be up in my forehead area while instruments to the left and right are more in line with my ear canals. It’s not off-putting because it all runs together coherently, but made for an interesting observation while I was listening.
Quick and Dirty Comparison
While trying to come to grips with the Urbanite XL’s sound I decided to compare them to a couple of other “competitors” in my stable. My fiancée also got in on the act as a bias-free test subject – thanks Lisa!
The two other contenders were the budget classic Alessandro MS-1 and the small, but surprising Thinksound On1. The MS-1s are way cheaper than the Urbanites, are open and therefore offer no isolation of outside noise, and they’re super basic, less comfortable, and look pretty average. The On1s sport some sexy wooden cups, but are slightly let down by their plastic headband parts and hinges. They’re also an on-ear which is inherently less comfortable for longer sessions.
Moving from the Urbanites to the On1s is like going from a great recording to a live performance. The extra warmth and body from the On1s makes for a more enveloping and relaxing listening experience whereas the Urbanites are a more exciting, but potentially artificial experience. Some people may find the On1s too smooth compared to the Urbanites though, so it’s important to factor personal taste into this equation and while my personal tastes are for the On1, yours may be different.
Next up were the MS-1s which are less refined than either of the other headphones, but bring an up-front, lifelike feel with a more forward sound than either the On1s or Urbanites. They can’t compete on bass with either headphone and are an open, non-isolating design so they’re not very good for noisy environments. Despite being a cheaper, simpler headphone they sound great with the style of sound they present. I would probably err towards the Urbanites here because they’re closed, have great bass and are incredibly well designed and styled, but Lisa preferred the sound of the MS-1s over both the On1s and Urbanites which goes to show that this is a very personal decision. In the end you wouldn’t go wrong with any of these headphones in general terms, but some may find that there are preferable alternatives to the Urbanites for the same cost or less.
What really stood out to me in this comparison is that the Urbanite XL has a very specific sound that some will love and some may find a bit artificial. There’s no question that the overall quality of the sound is excellent, but the presentation may or may not be your cup of tea.
As I was writing this, “Pá Lante” by Ozomatli came on and showcased every aspect of the Urbanites in one track. It started with amazing, accurate sub-bass performance leading to some clear and accurate instrumentals and vocals offset against some slightly over-emphasised percussion and some slightly over-blown mid-bass. As the track died away towards the end I heard crazy-good imaging as the bass receded and I was left with the achingly sweet mid-range and perfect imaging of acoustic instruments and ambient sounds of the crowd.
The Urbanites bring a mixed bag that’s at times exceedingly enjoyable and flat out awesome while at other times reminding you that you’re listening to a recording and not necessarily fully engaged in the experience of the music. Even at their worst, the Urbanites are very, very good, but a little bit of balance in the form of less upper-mid / lower-treble lift and some tighter control over the mid-bass would have created an epically good headphone. Do check these out if your in the market for a semi-portable, closed, over-ear headphone and you like an energetic, but non-fatiguing sound.