Let me start this review by getting a few things clear: I am not, or was not anyway, what I would consider a true audiophile. I also am not (or was not) much of a headphone user. All this changed when I got the chance to spend a couple months with the Sennheiser HD 238 Stereo Headphones. Have you ever had a toy or product that just made you giddy every time you got to use it, and you ended up loosing track of time because it was so enjoyable? The HD 238s have been that for me.
Not a true audiophile? Well, of course I am way more into and appreciative of fine audio equipment and high fidelity sound than most people, but so is just about everyone who is reading this right now. But I’m not one to coat the edges of the discs in my audio collection with green paint, if you get my drift. And when it comes to headphones, I think I’m more like non-hi-fi enthusiasts out there: I mainly use headphones for things like working out, traveling on airplanes or trains, and basically any time I want portable audio. As such, I’ve been a long time user of ear-bud headphones. A few years ago, I upgraded from standard ear-buds to a “nice” sound-isolating pair from Sony. I thought I had found the perfect set for me: tiny, comfortable, and they rejected enough sound that I could use them as earplugs when I slept on a plane. In contrast, the HD-238’s are what are known as “on-ear” headphones, and while certainly not huge, and easily carried in a back-pack or purse, they are not tiny enough to fit in your pocket with your iPod Shuffle.
- Impedance: 32 ?
- Sensitivity (dB SPL): 114 dB (1 kHz/1Vrms)
- MFR: 16 – 23,000 Hz
- THD: <0.5% (1 kHz/100 dB)
- Weight: 286 grams (10.1 oz)
- Cable length: 1.4m (4.6ft)
- MSRP: $139.95 USA
- Sennheiser USA
The HD 238’s are very nicely designed. They are light at 286 grams (10.1 oz) yet still feel solid and well put together. When I hold and look at the HD 238’s in my hand, they definitely give me a sense of quality. The upper head band is adjustable for head size, and the ear cups rotate to sit comfortably on one’s ears. The head band has soft leather covered padding, and the ear cups also have the same material on the inside part that touches your ears. The ear pads are very soft, and removable for replacement ear pads if the originals wear out or are damaged. Overall they are very comfortable to wear. I would leave them on for hours at a time while working at my desk, sometimes forgetting to take them off even after the album had finished playing. Aside from the quality of design from a functional perspective, they just look great: The HD 238’s are all black and dark metallic gray, with a subtle yet distinctive white lettering on the head band, and a silver ring around the driver ports.
The ear cups are 2 ¾ inches (7cm) long by 2 ¼ inches (5.7cm) wide. The drivers feature neodymium magnets and lightweight diaphragms. Sennheiser rates the frequency response from 16 to 23,000 Hz, with a nominal impedance of 32 ?. Total Harmonic Distortion is reported as less than 0.5% at 1 kHz & 100dB. Given that these headphones are “optimized” for and marketed for use with portable audio devices like iPods, MP3 players, and portable CD players, the connector is a standard 1/8” audio plug. Sennheiser chose not to include a ¼” stereo headphone adapter which is required for use with most pre/pros and receivers. A black woven nylon carrying pouch with draw-string closure is included with the HD 238s. The pouch is very basic, and does not match the level of quality of the headphones themselves. I would have preferred something made of softer material, or at least lined with a softer material.
As mentioned earlier, the HD-238’s are “on-ear” and also open-back. They therefore offer no sound isolation. For people who use headphones in noisy environments, these Sennheisers may not be the best for them. On the other hand, I found that the lack of sound isolation can sometimes be beneficial: while listening to some favorite music at home, I could still hear my wife call me, or the phone ringing.
Since Sennheiser claims these headphones are optimized for portable audio use, I started with my MP3 player, which is a Motorola Q9 phone. I don’t generally expect great sound out of my phone when listening to music; it’s more utilitarian for me than anything else. When I first sat down to listen to the HD 238s, I happened to have Dire Straights’ “Sultans of Swing” greatest hits album loaded up as 192kbps MP3. The pure simplicity of guitars, bass, drums, cymbals, and Knopfler’s baritone make track 1, “Sultans of Swing” one of my favorite demo tracks. Listening with the HD 238s, to this track that has been a favorite of mine for almost as long as I can remember, I was taken aback. I know this is a phrase that is used a lot in audio/video reviews, but I heard things that I had not heard before, even with my humble little MP3-playing cell phone. I immediately wanted to listen to EVERY disc in my collection, on every piece of source equipment in my house. I didn’t get to every disc, but I did try some of my discs out on most of my sources.
The improvement over my old in-ear headphones I heard from my MP3 collection was obvious. I wanted to listen for finer details – those that the MP3 format would mask anyway. Moving away from MP3, I plugged the HD 238s directly into the headphones jack on my Sony DVP-S7700 reference DVD player, which is also a great CD transport. This was the shortest path from CD source to the Sennheiser headphones at my disposal.
My Telarc recording of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” performed by the Cincinnati Pops and Erich Kunzel was next. Many audiophiles love to demonstrate their system with pipe organ music. Personally, I’m a sucker for timpani, and Copland makes good use of this percussion instrument. If you’ve never messed around with some timpani first-hand, you owe it to yourself to do so. There are so many overtones from timpani that are often lost in many recordings. Much of the timbre of the drum can be heard if you just lightly tap the skin, and listen for the higher-frequency overtones. When struck for a forte or louder dynamic, the primary sound dissipates and if the timpanist doesn’t dampen the skin with his fingers, the overtones continue. Copland’s “Fanfare” opens with three sets of three timpani strikes, each one a softer dynamic than the last. In the final three strikes of the opening, you get to hear the overtones of the drum quite clearly, if the audience is quiet, and you’re near the front row (or on stage). The Telarc CD actually captures these overtones quite well, which I had forgotten – until I demoed the Sennheisers, that is. With my other headphones, and with my HT sound system, the overtones are there, and you can hear the drum passively diminuendo into silence. But you don’t hear ALL the overtones. It just doesn’t feel quite “right”. When I listened with the HD 238 headphones, I was transported to the stage. I could nearly feel the subtle vibrations of the big brass drum. I was sold.
I spent the rest of my time with the HD 238s listening to many of my favorite CD’s “again, for the first time.” I also spent time trying out different connectors and sources, just to see what kind of differences I could hear, and if I could make any improvements in the signal chain.
If you are like I was, and only use ear-bud headphones for times when you need portable audio, and you have not invested in a pair of fine on- or over-the-ear headphones, you should seriously consider the HD 238s. I was overall blown away with their performance. I thought the carrying pouch was a little cheap, and I really would have liked to see a ?” to ¼” headphones jack adapter included. These headphones are so good, that you’re going to want to listen to them from your main audio system, not just your MP3 player, so be prepared to go buy an adapter if you don’t already have one. But at less than $140, these headphones represent a great value. They are a fantastic compromise between the performance of large, over-the-ear audiophile headphones (which are generally not very portable and can be quite cumbersome) and the convenience of tiny in-ear “buds” that come with most portable audio players. With the HD 238s, you will have a very fine pair of headphones that are very comfortable, and which you can take with you on the subway, or airplane, but that also make a fantastic upgrade for critical listening at home. Indeed, I fear that 2 months with the HD 238s has put me well on my way to tweaker-audiophile status. Now, where can I find some green paint?