Sennheiser HD 202: Inexpensive Headphones Done Really Well

I was on the phone a week ago with Jon Iverson (Stereophile's DAC reviewer and The Home Tech group's web monkey) lamenting...

"I'm in a funk, Jon. Been reviewing all these high end cans and I want to switch it up...but I'm not sure what to do."

"Well, when I'm in that sort of mood I sometimes go to Amazon and see what products are popular. Um, let's take a look..."

Separated by a thousand miles or so, we both surf over to Amazon, find the headphone category, click on over-ear, and view the list.

"Well, the first two are the Bose QC25, which I've reviewed already" says I. "But the third one is the Sennheiser HD 202 for $19.99."

"There you go," says Jon, "it's got 3,633 customer reviews; it's marked as a best seller. There's obviously a lot of people interested in them. I think it's perfectly legitimate for you to evaluate some low cost cans for folks. And, of course, a headphone that's broadly popular might be good for page views. Why don't you go ahead and contact someone at Sennheiser to see if you could...."

"It's done, Jon."

"What's done?"

"I just one-click ordered them on my Prime account."

"...I...I didn't mean for you to order them right now."

"What the heck, Jon, it's only twenty bucks."

And so it was: I purchased my first headphone in five years. (My previous headphone purchase was a second hand HD 800 from HeadRoom when I bought all the measurement gear. And no, I really have no need for another headphone...but hey, twenty bucks...not much to loose here.)

Sennheiser HD 202 ($34.95 MSRP; can be found as low as $14.95 at times)
First, how in the hell do you make a pair of headphones, distribute it to retailers, and have it shipped overnight to your house for $20!? I shake my head; how can this be? Well, the answer, of course, is economies of scale. And with 312,000,000 headphones sold world-wide annually, there's plenty of scale in that economy.

Second, it's still only $20, and even if you're selling (and this is all wild-ass guessing here) 100k units/year at $15 wholesale and making a gross profit of a couple of bucks a piece, that's still only $2M/year to handle the overhead and, hopefully, put something into the bank as NET profits.

A closer look at Sennheiser's annual statement for 2014 (the latest available on-line) states total revenues for the company at 634M Euro (about $760M), with total headphone revenue of 202M Euro ($242M) world-wide. Also reported is 34M Euro ($40M) in NET profit, which represents a roughly 5% NET profit margin. Seems pretty tight to me, but that's the beauty of a family held business: You don't have to satisfy shareholders on a quarterly basis, so you can play the long game to build a solid footing for the company.

Bottom line: Using my back-of-the-napkin math, it looks to me like the HD 202 makes up about 1% of Sennheiser's total headphone sales revinue, and may NET Sennheiser $75k in profits. Not much. So why do they do it?

The answer, as I see it, is because Sennheiser is committed to being the world's best headphone maker, and one of the very real categories for headphones is inexpensive full-sized, sealed headphones. If the category is legitimately there, well, for the sake of their integrity of vision, Sennheiser has to build one.

And that's what interests me about these cans: What choices do you make as a maker of some of the world's best headphones when you set out to make one of your cheapest products? Let's have a look.

Physical Build
Not surprisingly, there isn't a natural material to be seen on the HD 202. It's plastic, and a few conductors, from butt to muzzle. But it also feels surprisingly less "cheap" than many headphones I've experienced in the sub-$100 category. Also, the matte black with gloss black accents seems surprisingly stylish in a category filled with Hello Kitty graphics and gaudy color schemes.

Many headphones in this price range have creaky joints and lack a good ergonomic fit. Yes, if you hold the HD 202 in the air and shake them, the ear capsules will rattle in the ball joint swivels. But once placed on the head there is no extraneous noise or creaking as you adjust them on your head.

The overall mechanical design of these cans is simple and elegant. There are essentially three parts in this headphone: The headband, and the two ear capsules. The headband is a single sleek plastic arch with a fairly large headband cushion adhesively attached. The pad is simple foam covered in a thin pleather, as are the ear pads. Padding does not feel like memory foam, nor would I expect it in a can at this price.

Pleather covering is thin, and has unusual "stiction" as you drag you fingers across it, making a low frequency squeaky sound. These headphones are very light (130 gr.) and fit very well, so they don't move around on your head with activity. As one person said in an on-line review, "They stick to your head like paint." I think the stiction of the pads aids in this security.

In longer listening sessions, I found the headphones a tad tight and becoming less comfortable over time. Fortunately, the headband plastic seems extremely durable, and grabbing the ends of the headband and spreading it out and almost flattening it will loosen the caliper pressure on your head if needed. I really wish I knew much more about plastics and was able to visually identify the quality of synthetic materials, but I have visited Sennheiser's headquarters and materials analysis lab and have every confidence the plastics used are of high-quality relative to other headphones at this price. (Most on-line consumer reviews report good durability, but there are a few reports of cable failure at the ear capsules.)

Earpad openings are somewhat small (52mm x 30mm) and not particularly deep; I found the fit confined but comfortable. I'm not, however, entirely comfortable with this headphone appearing in the over-ear category of Sennheiser's web site...and evidently they aren't either as the headphone is categorized as "supra-aural" on the downloadable spec sheet .pdf. None the less, the light weight and ergonomic fit delivered what I would consider good comfort and excellent stability on the head at this price. (So many cheap headphones have shockingly poor ergonomics.) Earpads are replaceable; the spare part doesn't appear on the U.S. Sennheiser site, but can be found on the main German site here.

Much of the ergonomic fit is due to the simple but effective detented sliding ball joints that attach the ear capsules to the headband. The ball joint allows ample freedom fore-and-aft and up-and-down swiveling movement to adjust to your headshape quickly and effectively when placed on the head. Ball joints slide in a detented groove to adjust for head size. Ear capsules can be easily removed from the headband by being slid to the top of the groove, and then pulled in a snapping motion away from the headband.

Accessorization is understandably slim at this price point; only a 3.5mm-to-1/4" headphone plug adaptor and a "cord take-up" to shorten the long 3-meter cable. This very long cable has been mentioned a lot in on-line customer reviews as a negative when used portably. One needs to understand that Sennheiser sells this headphone primarily as a low-cost, entry-level pro audio product where users will likely be moving around in the studio—the long cable will be a plus for them. The elongated oval cable take-up winding spool is very lightweight, and serves well when going portable to reduce cable length to a manageable dimension. Yes, it's a little awkward when on the go, but the long cable gives this headphone welcome utility in office/kitchen use. A solid compromise, in my opinion, to give this headphone broader application in people's lives.

It's worth mentioning at this point that there has been a model number change from HD 202 to HD 202 II in the last year or so. I was told by a Sennheiser contact that the headphone itself is unchanged, and the model number change is strictly a change to the packaging to make it more retail friendly. I have measurements from an HD 202 from about 5 years ago and they do apear to have remained unchanged in measured performance.

A quick note to beginner headphone DIYers out there: The HD 202 is extremely easy to disassemble and reassemble for modifications. Just remove the ear capsule from the headband, pull off the pad and its mounting plate, undo the four baffle plate screws, and you're ready to play around. See photo of disassembled HD 202 at top of next page.

So, for around twenty bucks you get a stylish, reasonably comfortable, probably durable pair of headphones with broad applicability in diverse use. It does seem to me that Sennheiser has indeed exercised their engineering prowess and built a high price/performance product in the HD 202. Should the sound quality be as good as the build quality, then this is indeed a very solid offering at this price. Let's flip the page and have a listen.

COMPANY INFO
Sennheiser USA
1 Enterprise Dr.
Old Lyme, CT 06371
(860) 434-9190
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
maelob's picture

How would you compare them to the Porta Pro - my go to office headphone LOL wish they had a longer cable.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'd have to compare them directly, but from memory I think the Porta Pro is better. But it's a different beast being open, and of less material as an on-ear. If you need any amount of isolation, the HD 202 is better, I think.
Impulse's picture

The best really... ;)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Indeed. :thumb
thelostMIDrange's picture

The best headphone ever. I currently have ten sets. They vary widely but all usable, never break, are equal volume LR, Nice natural balanced sound with (depending on the set) a well placed (low) bass boost that sounds great and when someone wants neatral, low placed bass is easy to eq out with one low band.

Super small and are able to sit in the ear canal and be held in by the cartiledge ridge on everyone's ear. Test 3-4 sets ($40/Ea). They should measure well.

ultrabike's picture

These were my first headphones.

My story with these headphones is that I wanted something to listen to movies w/o waking up my son when he was a baby. And they worked great for movies indeed. Speech came out clear and special effects where awesome. IMO, one of the best headphones in their price range (and better than many at much higher prices).

I don't know about the Porta Pros, but I like the KSC75s a little better than the HD202s in general. The KSC75s are also a little more comfy over long listening sessions. That said, the HD202s are fantastic and offer much better isolation. Again, sound effects in action movies are awesome with the HD202s.

As far as the channel difference. I dunno. The two I have don't seem to exhibit much channel imbalance. But they might be position sensitive which may be why measurements came the way they came.

As for mods, if one looks at the cup (in the dis-assembly picture), one may find a thin plastic circle with a small hole attached by screws (if I remember correctly). That hole is a bass port. Covering the tiny hole results in no-bass. One can tune the bass response by carefully and partially blocking the port. It is already fairly small so it's a bit of a task to tune them neutral. Put it's possible, though roughness in the upper mid-range is a bit harder to tame IMO.

Anyhow. I honestly feel your review is right on the mark in your subjective evaluation. I also get fairly similar measured responses. Awesome and very thorough review as always.

Type35's picture

Good to see some love for the budget category.
In the same vein, the Tascam TH-02 and the Fostex TH-7BB deserve a review. They are from well respected manufacturers and have garnered some positive reviews on forums like Head-Fi and SBAF.
The new MK801 from 1More/Xiaomi looks mighty interesting too.

brause's picture

I first experienced these at a listening station in direct comparison to the first-generation Sennheiser Momentum on ear. At the time of the test, I did not know the HD202's price. I noticed that the are much fiimsier built in comparison to the Momentums, however they sounded almost as good.

I'd say they are really enjoyable headphones independent of price!

cdxskier's picture

These were my first "good" headphones that I owned. They were with me for all of high school and the first bit of college. They were perfect because they sounded better than the behind the neck headphones that were so prevalent among my peers. In the 5ish years of heavy use, I had to re-solder one side because the connection busted.

I credit these cans with making me care about good sound. I'm now listening to 1964 ears v3 iems with a Fiio x3 v2. Audiophilia is a slippery slope =)

markbrauer's picture

I loaned a friend a pair of my "good" headphones in hopes of getting him hooked on headphone listening. It worked, but he balked at the over $100 cost of mine. On the basis of Steve Gutenberg's positive Cnet review I recommended he try the Monoprice Hi Fi Lightweight On Ear Headphones for around $20. He liked the price and bought them. I got over to his place a few weeks later and after hearing them I immediately ordered two, one to sit at my desktop computer and the other to float around the house. They are my first true on ear headphone and I am impressed with how good they sound, which is much like you describe the Senn 202. I have spent many musical hours with them and am especially looking forward to this summer when they will be a nice respite from my way-to-hot over ear models. Would be good to see your impressions and measurements.

IgorC's picture

It's nice to see a review of economic class headphones like HD202.
Please more of them. Most of us probably are more interested (and already have) in expensive models while an average people won't spend more than 20-30$ (ok, 50$).

It will be great to see a comparison with Superlux line. They are a little bit more pricy but still approx. in the same range.

Like Superlux HD668B
http://www.amazon.com/Superlux-HD668B-Dynamic-Semi-Open-Headphones/dp/B0...

Downforce's picture

I've had 3 Sennheisers and have never been disappointed. The 2 year warranty seals the deal. I also really like my Monoprice 8323, but their new on ear headphones for $14.99 are probably the best choice at this price point. Plus, Monoprice has frequent sales and you can never go wrong with their gear. Even their $4 IEMs are well designed and sound reasonably good.

deckeda's picture

My second set of foam pads and headband pads have disintegrated on my PX100's, and they were never stellar sounding to begin with nor do I really care anymore that they fold up.

I appreciate the comparisons here, but am surprised to see the 8323 mentioned ... for me they are a specialized tool for monitoring what my mics do on location. A bit tight and uncomfortable around the house however. And threadbare, too.

But I might be a candidate for 201's if the 202's are more closed-in and muffled.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

As a lover of most things Sennheiser, ive worked my way through most of their headphones up to and including the HD600. Like several others here, the HD202s were one of my first low cost upgrade headphones. From there i moved to the HD203.

Now...years later..guess what...the HD203 is still my primary computer headphone. I dont listen to alot of music directly out of my computer but i DO listen to the audio on alot of videos..youtube being the primary source....the HD203s are perfect...a nice long cord and a crisp audio reproduction. Love em.

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

potterpastor's picture

The Monoprice Hi-Fi Lightweight on ear headphones for 15 bucks are as good as everyone says, and better than the 8323. Deep, punchy bass, and a very well-balanced musical presentation. A stunning achievement for 15 bucks

BUT.... they are very tight fitting around the skull.Not good for people with glasses, I recommend careful stretching of the headband

thefitz's picture

I have no problems recommending these to anybody - they're particularly efficient as well, so you can get great volume out of portable devices.

Please, don't succumb to reviewing budget headsets with any regularity. Maybe one giant shootout, but otherwise it's a race to the bottom. You post a review of a $20 headphone, and people will ask about a $14 headphone. Review that, and there's a sweet $10 earbud somewhere. Review that and people will bring up the best $3 in-ear they've ever heard.

artiew's picture

1. I've enjoyed your musings for almost 10 years, well before InnerFidelity came along, but you are still using 'looser' when you mean 'loser', 'peaked' when you mean 'piqued' and the list goes on. I doubt that these are typos - you've done it repeatedly over many reviews - but I offer this in the hope that it will bring your writing into line with your undeniable engineering skillset. I realize grammer nazis are as popular as neo-nazis, and we inevitably misspell (sp ?) something in our critiques, but I've reached the point where I had to comment on these glaring snafus :D

I havent seen any sign of Hemmingway on the Stereophile staff (Wes Phillips was fantastic, FWIW), but I expect that they have a proof reader somewhere in the bowels of that vast organisation. If Atkinson wont spring for one, I expect that you have other options.

2. Each to their own, but I would take even the KSC-35 over anything I've heard from Sennheiser under 75USD - you dont even want to know what these headphones retail for here in Oz.

Thanks for the massive effort you put into your reviews and I apologise if I seem to be nit-picking stellar work.