With their Conversation Clear Plus in-ears, Sennheiser enter an exciting new market segment that lies between multimedia headphones and well-being products. Indeed, the sensation of finding it exhausting to follow conversations in noisy environments is likely to be encountered by many people who are (still) a long way from being diagnosed with medical hearing loss.
Basically, the Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus can be said to do their job well and are able to both increase speech intelligibility in noisy environments and reduce the basic stress that comes from such a noisy setting. However, users have to get used to the change in hearing experience.
As the app is still relatively sluggish and the handling of these in-ears in combination with the charging cradle could be improved, your reviewers have not yet reached the point where they would want to have these Sennheisers in their ears all the time like an implant, that would allow them to switch between noise reduction, speech amplification and music consumption as needed. But still: with a little fine-tuning of the available parameters, many public and social situations could become acoustically more pleasant than they would be without this device. This luxury has – for the time being – a high price. However, I am sure that this principle will also be implemented by many other manufacturers in the near future because many in-ears have the necessary basic requirements (microphone, DSP resources) already built in.
- outstanding concept
- effective optimisation of speech intelligibility
- very effective noise cancelling
- app with individual sound adjustment
- connection to the app often sluggish
- handling of the charging cradle and insertion of the in-ears fiddly
- earpieces do not automatically return to the correct charging position
- audible switching of ambient mode
- relatively high price
The new Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus are properly “hearable”: using special algorithms, they enhance speech intelligibility in noisy environments and so reduce the basic stress caused by this kind of background noise. That’s good news for people with hearing loss, although they will have to get used to the altered hearing sensation.
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”. This oft-quoted saying is attributed to Victor Hugo. Why has this come to mind? Well, recently, I managed to convince my almost ninety-year-old father that his hearing ability was no longer sufficient to participate in normal life, and a friendly hearing care professional presented him with a small in-ear hearing aid along with a bill for almost three thousand euros. My first thought: wait a minute, this is basically nothing more than a regular in-ear with inverted Active Noise Cancelling – only a thousand per cent more expensive. And lo and behold: barely six months later, Sennheiser has come up with the idea of “quasi-thrust reversal” for in-ears. The Conversation Clear Plus is not a fully-fledged hearing aid; instead, this device provides a support measure for noisy environments where it can be difficult to adequately understand the person you are talking to.
Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus: speech-optimised hearables
The strategy department at Sennheiser obviously thought that the area of “hearables” (or smart headphones) had the potential to become a growth market in the future (as we all know, ravers don’t get any younger, and they certainly don’t hear any better as they get older). So they started to develop products in the field of “speech-optimised hearables” under the umbrella brand Sonova Consumer Hearing GmbH.
Be that as it may, the new Conversation Clear Plus (model: ConCPlus1-C) have Sennheiser’s name on the packaging (although the bottom of the charging cradle actually says Sonova), and they are intended to impress the wearer in several respects. For one thing, they function as a high-quality in-ear with Active Noise Cancelling (called “Stream” mode in the associated app). Of course, noise cancelling can also be used without music, and these headphones can thus serve as a personal quiet room (“Relax” mode). Another thing, they are designed to be useful as a hearing aid that uses integrated microphones to record and electronically amplify voices (“Communication” mode).
Handling experience of the Conversation Clear Plus
There are a total of three pairs of oval silicone ear moulds (S/M/L) in the package, as well as three pairs of “ear hooks”, which are equipped with fins of different lengths in order to sit firmly behind the antihelix (the fold in the outer ear). Once you have selected the combination that suits you best, these Sennheisers are as comfortable as they are secure. A relatively large charging case that provides enough power for two full charges is also included. The case itself is charged via the integrated USB-C socket.
The shape of the recesses in which the in-ears are placed during charging or transport is not entirely well realised. It often takes several attempts and adjustments with your fingers before the in-ears fit into place and contact is made with the gold-plated charging points – which isn’t great. Opening the case, whose shape is somewhat reminiscent of an oyster, is also a bit fiddly, as your fingers cannot get a grip on it – except for the tiny depression at the front.
These in-ears can be operated either via the Conversation Clear app (Android and iOS) or via buttons on the back of the earphones. Various combinations of single and double presses and holds are used, and these can be individually adjusted via the app. However, throughout the entire test, it remained a mystery to me why the voice assistant (Google Assistant/Siri) often got called up – for example, when casually picking up my phone or placing it on the table – even though this function should actually require a double press of the button on the left headphone.
In contrast, the battery life can be considered very good, lasting up to nine hours. I can also report good voice quality when making calls: On both the transmitter and receiver sides, the speech intelligibility was at a good level, so even longer phone calls can be made without strain.
These in-ears connect to an external player as two Bluetooth devices that are automatically combined into one meta-device. The “old” Bluetooth 4.2 standard is still in use, and SBC is used as the codec. Since Sennheiser also use higher/newer standards in their products, one can speculate that they were aiming to provide the greatest possible compatibility (with TV sets etc.).
After connecting, the Conversation Clear Plus are essentially ready to use. If you use the app, you can create a personal sound profile with the help of a wizard. You listen to a dialogue and adjust the volume and clarity of speech, the latter by boosting the presence in the high-mids. However, registration and login to the Sennheiser Cloud are compulsory to enable you to use the app.
It is possible to switch between the operating modes “Relax” (noise cancellation) and “Communication” directly via the earpieces. The “Stream” mode is automatically activated when audio is played back via an external player. Unfortunately, this is also the case when it is a system signal, such as from a messenger app, which then leads to correspondingly audible short-term changes between the modes.
If you use the app, you can make fine adjustments in all three modes, and this is also possible via the earpieces, but they are presented in a more visually appealing way in the app. In Relax mode, for example, you can adjust the level of external noise attenuation in a range from zero to one hundred per cent; in Communication mode, you can adjust the voice amplification and the presence boost; and in the Stream menu, you can adjust the balance between music and external noise transmission.
Details of the Conversation Clear Plus’s three operating modes.
Holding down the left in-ear button takes you into Relax mode with adjustable, active ambient noise cancellation. The algorithm does a great job here, reducing outside noise with similar effectiveness to the top-of-the-line Bose and Apple.
Holding down the button on the right earpiece switches the in-ears to communication mode. Here, Active Noise Cancellation is no longer enabled. The ambient noise is only passively suppressed, and the in-ears actively amplify the speech-relevant frequencies in the immediate vicinity, which are picked up by the internal microphones. This mode of operation is similar to an “expander” – users who are familiar with sound technology will be aware of this term: soft sounds are lowered, and loud sounds are raised. This works very well in principle, but don’t be surprised if short, impulsive noises that are not speech are also amplified. The clattering of dishes or opening of a bottle was amplified in the same way as the waitress asking if you wanted to order anything else.
The algorithm apparently also analyses how loud it considers the overall ambient noises to be and adjusts the amplification. This basically works well, but it had two disadvantages: There was a slight background noise in quiet environments, and the switching action was distinctly audible. It was also somewhat irritating that the stereo panorama naturally did not correspond to natural hearing, so you occasionally have the feeling that the sound sources suddenly “jump” from left to right when you move your head.
Other than that, the algorithm does a very good job once you get used to it. At first, it was understandably quite unfamiliar to hear the other person in the conversation (and yourself) speaking through the in-ears microphone amplification. However, once you have become accustomed to this, conversations in noisy environments actually become more pleasant. Speech stands out more clearly from the background noise, and the ambient noise level decreases in relation to it.
In my test, I was able to observe this effect, especially when calling in at a small café with a mixed group of hikers consisting of adults, children and dogs. With glasses clinking, conversations progressing, children screaming and dogs howling, the multi-band noise level in the small space became very high very quickly, and it took some effort to follow the conversations at the table. With the Conversation Clear Plus in my ears, it really did seem as if the background noise receded a good deal into the background and the conversations reached my ears more clearly and distinctly; this immediately also had a positive effect on the subjective listening stress. Of course, this is very much down to the individual: hypersensitive people will find this more pleasant than people who are not as sensitive to stimuli.
The “Speech intelligibility enhancement” switch is only accessible via the app, and again this provides a slight increase in the presence of voices, as well as a setting control where you can adjust between “Soft” and “Clear”.
As already mentioned, the streaming mode for music playback is activated automatically as soon as the external player sends audio material. Here, you can smoothly control how much ambient noise is allowed through during operation (also called “transparency mode”). And that brings us directly to the subject of sound:
What do the Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus sound like?
In line with their goal of being “speech-optimised hearables”, the basic sound of the Conversation Clear Plus was rather neutral and a little bit heavy in the mid-range, but this is quite desirable considering the field of application. The fact that the stereo image was relatively narrow must of course be seen primarily from the point of view of speech intelligibility (speech occurs “in the middle”) and judged less for their audiophile aspects. Nevertheless, Sonova/Sennheiser know what they are doing, so that – regardless of the speech optimisation qualities – you get a thoroughly pleasant music performance, if not a brilliant one.
- Ear couplingIn-ear
- Transducer principledynamic
- Frequency response (headphones)20 - 20.000 Hz
- Sound pressure level (SPL)2 mW@1kHz: 100 dB
- Weight without cable6 g each, case 58 g
- BT codecs: SBC
- BT version: 4.2
- BT profiles: A2DP, HFP