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."
"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.
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 studiothe 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.