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Positive Feedback ISSUE45
as reviewed by Will Wright
Listening habits have changed over the last few years and innovative companies change right along with the times. Take Sennheiser's HD 2xx series of headphones, said to be optimized for iPod, iPhone, MP3 and CD players. They are "on the go" 'phones with a short (1.4m), light cord terminated in a mini (1/8") jack. The subject of this review is the top of the series HD 238 with a street price between about $70 and $100.
The sleek black / metallic finished electrodynamic HD 238 utilizes Sennheiser's advanced acoustic system with powerful neodymium magnets and light weight diaphragms, plus premium metallic components and exchangeable earpads. A carrying pouch is also included. Frequency response is listed as 16 - 23KHz with a nominal impedance of 32 ohms @ 1KHz. This is an open back design with supra-aural (on the ear) ear coupling. The headband is made of flexible plastic with soft leather covered padding. The earpads also sport soft leather and cloth for a comfortable fit.
I did most of my listening with the HD 238s connected to an iPod Nano, an Aqvox USB 2 D/A DAC, or an Alesis Masterlink CD recorder. Rather than a cable from either earpiece meeting in the middle to form a Y-cable, the 238s have a single cable from the left earpiece to the connector. This proved most convenient for iPod listening, at least in my experience, as this helped make it possible to keep the cable out of the way. The small light design of these 'phones seemed an excellent compromise between performance and convenience.
I never had, or experienced any comfort problems with these headphones during extended wear. The pressure at the ears was not excessive and their light weight meant no numb spot on the top of my head. The bass did seem a little odd upon first listen, but break-in only took about 30 minutes. After that the sound was more consistent. Each earpiece rotates independent of the strap, ensuring a good fit and also allowing the 'phones to be laid down flat for ease of storage. Be aware that, as with any open backed headphones, the sound is audible to others around you. This usually didn't prove to be a problem, although once while I was watching my son's martial arts class and listening to music, the person next to me got up and moved, presumably because she didn't share my taste in music. So, remember, if you are listening to something that starts out "your mission, should you decide to take it…" you may want to seek privacy.
The Sennheiser HD 238s will not make the sound of a low bit rate sound file from an iPod sound like anything but what it is. If the sound is dynamically flat and rhythmically challenged, as it often is from such sources, no headphone I've run across can change that. However, I was very surprised at just how listenable such music was through these transducers. It is my impression that the open back design contributes to more open, natural and accurate soundstaging. On more than one occasion when listening to my iPod while reading, I was torn away from the words by the engaging and musical presentation as if the HD 238s were not satisfied with simply participating in the sound track to my life but instead wanted to be the center of the party. At times, I obliged them.
I have heard comments about flat, muddled sound with less than precise earpiece positioning but didn't experience any problems with this myself. I've also heard some complain about uneven frequency response, but I think this goes back to the positioning issue as well. For my money these 'phones were clean and extended in the highs and even handed through the midrange. Bass response was extended but not full. If you have a dedicated headphone amp with eq available, almost any headphone will benefit from some response tweaking. No two ears are alike, including your own two, so having the ability to adjust response can be a plus. Just be aware that too much eq can translate to limited dynamic headroom and lead to increased distortion at higher volumes.
Listening to higher resolution sources at home, I compared the Sennheiser HD 238s with the only comparably priced headphones I had available, the Grado SR 60, also an open back supra-aural design. The SR 60s, however, are clearly meant for home use, being larger in every way, including a longer heavier cord. In this case, size does matter, as this allows the Grados to incorporate a larger transducer, which usually translates to fuller bass performance. Sure enough, the most noticeable difference between the HD 238 and the SR 60 was the latter's noticeably fuller bass.
The Grados have an overall darker sound compared to the Sennheisers, partly a result of the fuller bass but also, I think, because the high end is less extended. Depending on your listening priorities, I could easily see someone preferring the Grados. For my money, the Sennheisers sound more accurate, especially in the highs.
Whether listening to the Academy of St. Martin-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble or "the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a windowpane", I found the HD 238s always listenable and agreeable. On something with synthesizer bass, like Anastacia's "Not That Kind" (Epic/Daylight EK 69948), the HD 238s competently conveyed the boogie factor but, in spite of its claimed 16Hz low-end extension, if I had to guestimate, I'd say roll-off started around 30Hz. On the other hand, with Madeleine Peyroux's "Careless Love" (Rounder 11661-3192-2) in play, the first cut, "Dance Me To The End Of Love", had bass that sounded almost too full, making me suspect that there is a bit of a hump in the mid to upper bass. To investigate this further, I tried The Ray Brown Trio, "Live At The LOA/Summer Wind" (Concord CCD-4426). Ray's bass playing is resonant and full. Starting with the first cut, it sounded just that way through the HD 238s. On cut 4, the Ellington/Mills "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing", Jeff Hamilton's drum solo has air and space around the kit, and the HD 238s let that swing come through.
You'll have to go upscale to one of Sennheisers more audiophile approved models to get that last bit of wide open airy and extended presentation available on such discs as the above mentioned Ray Brown. However, it is impressive to see just how close you can come for not that much money. The HD 238s limitations are not overt and once you get caught up in the music, you'll forget about such things and just enjoy yourself.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Sennheiser HD 238s, and at this price point, it's hard to complain about this product. The sound is consistently on the crisp side of agreeable, open and lively, with a bit of boost in the mid to upper bass, a smooth midrange and reasonably extended high end. On my iPod, I had to dial the volume up to near the top of it's range, so, if I were wishing, I might wish for a little more sensitivity. On the other hand, Sennheiser is already employing neodymium magnets, the most powerful commercially available magnets I'm aware of. You could complain about the use of plastics instead of more metal in the fabrication but that only adds to the weight of a product targeted at a more mobile environment. I like these 'phones! All in all, these are an easy recommendation. Just remember; never depend only on a review for making buying decisions. Listen before you buy. Even excellent products don't match up to everyone's tastes. Will Wright