Sennheiser HD 201 headphones
Can these budget cans revive your record collection?
Review Now that German's Beyerdynamic has returned to studio-level audio equipment, it's let Sennheiser carpet the portables market with the kind of spread that Beyer boasted in the 1990s. At the same time, Sennheiser has updating the looks and prices of its headphones to make them attractive enough to replace regularly with the latest model...
I first discovered the HD 201s in Ireland, and at €30 (£20) we thought they were being sold off after being discontinued. Yet they'd only recently won the IF design trophy.
Put on the phones, even when new and brittle-sounding, and you'll understand why the set won an award - they can be worn for hours without tiring you or causing earache - though in the summer you may have to have a cloth ready to wipe off the sweat.
Once the HD 201s have been 'run in', you'll find the most open sound heard in a pair of closed-back cans in a long time, as if you had speakers right next to your ears, which is how voices will sound.
This review took longer than expected because I was looking for faults, some way to trip these cans up with many more CDs than our test set. It was almost impossible - you can crank up the volume through an amplifier only to find the music distorting - but at that level the listener would probably go deaf long before fussing about the loss of sound quality.
I took the first major challenge of testing: the soundtrack to Batman Begins. From the start, this album features sampled effects and powerful kettledrum rolls, which give bookshelf speakers a pounding. The Sennheisers lapped up the percussion with ease, allowing the listener to hear the whole orchestra with none of the parts drowning out. Kettledrums are also the star of the 11-minute main theme from Master and Commander, and the HD 201s' soundstage makes you feel like the drummers are in the room right next to you.
The string section is also crisp and sharp. Sennheiser's PC 150 headset range manages some more subtlety when the tracks are solely comprised of strings without percussion, but then they're twice the price. For the Ave Maria on the Donnie Darko soundtrack, in spite of simply listening to it as the DVD end credits were playing, the soprano wasn't lost in the naturally bass-heavy background which deepened, nor was it as sibilant as older, even cheaper headphone sets. Its handling of classical music and film soundtracks is better than you have any right to expect for less than 20 quid.
The good news doesn't stop there. Switching to rock and pop, the age-old problem of singles with louder recording levels than the same tracks on an album was tested with the U2's song Discotheque.. The album version was given enough of a bass boost that I was able to put the single on the shelf and stick with the whole Pop album.
The same improvement occurred with music from tape, which we had transferred to CD, although the production quality of Massive Attack's Safe From Harm should be easy for any half-decent headphones to handle. We also updated our over-produced modern pop category with Don't Cha by the Pussycat Dolls, and the ensemble of voices on the chorus was weighted and accurate, and the bouncing bass richer and deeper than expected.
Nothing is perfect though, and if you're looking for a tangible flaw, it's that bass is all that the HD 201s will lend to your skinny weakling MP3s. We were listening on a Marantz CD Player, which could supply enough bass through its headphone socket to make it worthwhile. Without proper amplification you'd need to crank up the level of your recordings in a package like Goldwave to get the best out of the headphones - another reason to keep the HD 201s at home. Through a 900-series Sony MiniDisc Walkman, the sound was good but quiet without some digital trickery to crank up the volume of recordings before transferring to MD.
The cable measures 3m and there's no take-up spool so the HD 201s are best for home use - if you want proper portability but with flexibility, the existing HD 202s also have a 3m cable and a tidy to wind round the lengths of lead you don't want bulging out of your pocket.
For making you fall in love with your record collection again, these Sennheisers are a remarkable feat and the IF design award is by no means excessive hype or marketing flannel - they really are that comfortable.
Then you see the price of around £17 and that seals it. As always, more money buys better, and these aren't the best cans for out-and-about usage, but these are great if you want to work with music on or you have neighbours to keep happy but you don't want to compromise on your hi-fi listening.
Treat them with the same care Sennheiser took with the design and they won't let you down.