No, Pocket-Lint is not turning into the Sennheiser tribute site, the problem is that universal German rival Beyerdynamic has returned to the studio level of audio equipment, content to let Sennheiser carpet the portables market with the kind of spread that Beyer boasted in the 1990s - and at the same time, updating the looks and prices to make them attractive enough to serially replace without necessarily repairing broken sets.
We first discovered the HD201s in Ireland and Sennheiser has such a large range we thought they were being sold off and discontinued at EUR€30 (£20) - only to see that the “if” design trophy was awarded in its launch year (2005). The cable measures 3m and there’s no take-up spool so the 201s are best for home use - if you want proper portability but with flexibility, the existing HD202s also have a 3m cable and a tidy to wind round the lengths of lead you don’t want bulging out of your pocket.
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 getting tired or causing earache - though in the summer you may have to have the cloth ready to wipe off the sweat.
Once the HD201s 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 up these cans with many more CDs than our test set, and 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.
We 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 HD201s’ soundstage makes you feel like the drummers are in the room right next to you.
The string section is also crisp and sharp although since they are twice the price, the PC150 headset range manages some more subtlety where the tracks are solely comprised of strings without percussion. For Ave Maria by Calli as part of the Donnie Darko soundtrack, in spite of simply listening to it as the DVD end credits were playing, the soprano was not 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.
The good news doesn’t stop there, when 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 song “Discotheque” by U2. The album version was given enough of a bass boost that we were 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 any tangible flaw, it’s that bass is all that the HD201s will lend to your skinny weakling MP3s (though not as much as the ridiculously low end HD Master DJ-targeted range). 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 would 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 HD201s at home - through a 900-series Sony Minidisk Walkman, the sound was good but quiet without some digital trickery to crank up the volume of recordings before transferring to MD.
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.
We do worry that the company may become a victim of its own success, because many buyers will be enjoying these cans certainly through the 2 years of warranty and beyond with no need to buy another set until these break.
Then you see the (street) price of £17 on Amazon and that seals it for us - these are great if you want to work with music or have neighbours to keep happy but you don’t want to compromise on your hi-fi listening.
As always, more money buys better but if you can get great value and quality at a lower price, British (and Irish) buyers will hardly ever turn that down. Treat with the same care Sennheiser took with the design and they won’t let you down - but if you know you want a set for your walkman and not for the home, then in our opinion seek out the HD202s if on a budget or the recently reviewed head-banded PX200s if you want your closed-back ‘phones to leak as little sound as possible.