Sennheiser HD238 / HD238i Review

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Sennheiser HD238
Brief: Top-of-the-range headphone from Sennheiser’s ultraportable line, the HD238 promises top-quality sound in a compact but open form factor.

MSRP: $139.95 (discontinued)
Current Price: $70 from amazon.com

Build Quality (6.5/10): The HD238 is made mostly of plastic but features metal hinges and fittings. The metal trim gives them a distinctive but neat look and they are wonderfully unobtrusive to wear. The pads, while foam on the inside, and lined with cloth and pleather. Unfortunately there are about as many squeaks and rattles in the structure of my HD238 after several months of use as with my 3-year-old PX100s. The single-sided cord is rubberized and doesn’t tend to tangle but is quite thin for a headphone. The 3.5mm plug is oddly shaped, quite large, and lacks any proper strain relief. If you’re the kind of person who tends to knock the plug about when it’s connected to something, the HD238 may end up being a danger to other electronics and to itself.

Comfort (9.5/10): Comfort is definitely a strength of the wonderfully small and light Sennheisers. The headphones themselves are much smaller than I envisioned – just barely large enough to cover my ears – and the pads are very soft and stay cool even after very long listening sessions. The padding on the headband is adequate and the flat-folding cups have enough rotational freedom for a compliant fit. Those with smaller noggins may have trouble keeping the HD238 on during any sudden head motion, though the problem isn’t nearly as severe as with the smooth-and-slippery Ultrasone Zinos.

Isolation (3.5/10): The HD238s are open-air headphones but have significantly larger and better-sealing pads than Sennheser’s own PX100 or the Koss PortaPros. As a result isolation is just a tad better and leakage is a smidge lower, but I still wouldn’t use the HD238 anywhere others may be annoyed by music.

Sound (6.75/10): First of all, the sound score I gave to the HD238 is based on running them through a mini3 portable amp – without it they would have scored lower as I personally prefer even the lower-end HD228 to an unamped HD238. I am not usually one to advocate for portable amplifiers but the HD238 is one headphone that is dreadfully mediocre when powered by a weaker portable player such as my Sansa Fuze or Clip.

The sound signature of the HD238 is unsurprisingly Sennheiser-esque in nature, with plenty of bass, slightly recessed mids, and extended but sparkle-free treble. The low end is reasonably extended and has a moderate mid-bass emphasis. It tends to sound slightly muffled and boomy when running unamped and distorts faintly at high volumes. Even with a proper amp, bass tightness doesn’t even begin to approach that of the impossibly controlled PX200-II. Control aside, the bass is rather pleasant in character – deep and full-bodied but with soft impact and lacking slightly in definition. Next to the woolly MDR-XB500, the HD238 is rather punchy and resolving. Next to the Alessandro MS1, the Sennheisers sound distant and muffled. Does the HD238 hit the sweet spot between the Grado and Sony sound signatures? Maybe for some, but my personal preferences lean towards the clarity of the Grado end of the spectrum.

The midrange of the HD238 is warmed up by the mid-bass and very slightly recessed in comparison to the low end, though amplification helps bring it forward a touch. Clarity is good but the warm and smooth HD238s are bested by the PX200-II, the Beyer DT235s, and any of the Grado headphones. Detailing is quite impressive and the HD238s are ultimately more textured than my initial listening indicated, which makes them less relaxing to listen to than the rather less agile-sounding PX100s. The smoothness of the midrange carries over into the treble which, while quite crisp, is never sibilant. The crispness and detail are actually quite impressive in the context of the rest of the sound sig and the treble is less recessed than the midrange. There’s not much sparkle in the treble but it is well-extended and the microdetail improves further with added power.

The HD238 also does a good job of presenting audio, boasting good soundstage width (better with an amp) and decent depth. Positioning is solid but the like Sennheiser’s own PX100s and IE8 IEMs, the presentation of the HD238 is distancing in nature – portraying intimacy is definitely not one of their strong suits. The HD238 is also not very resolving in nature, even with an amp, making it less-than-ideal for busy pieces of audio – jazz, acoustic, instrumental, and vocal tracks all work very well but the presentation breaks down somewhat when confronted with a large orchestral piece. The Sennheisers also lean towards the dark side tonally, which detracts from the realism of their sound in some instances. Overall, I found their presentation rather spacious for a portable headphone but not quite as well-separated as I would have liked.

Value (6.5/10): As someone who still finds the sound signature of Sennheiser’s aging PX100 enjoyable in a relaxing sort of way after years of ownership, I had high hopes for Senn’s new ‘audiophile’-class portables. What I got was a more refined dose of the typical Sennheiser sound in what is admittedly a very handsome and convenient portable. Though the comfort of the HD238 is superb, their lack of isolation once again reminds me of why higher-end open-back portables are so rare – there are simply very few occasions in which I found myself needing a truly portable open headphone. And of course there’s the amping requirement – without a half-decent portable amp, the HD238, while still superior to the PX100, fails to justify the street price (never mind the MSRP) as far as I am concerned. The HD238 seemingly caters to those who have a portable amp handy and need a laid-back but surprisingly detailed open portable. For the majority of listeners, however, other options abound.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 16 – 23,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4.5ft (1.5m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding


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About Author

Living in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, ljokerl has been using portable audio gear to deal with lengthy commutes for the better part of a decade. He spends much of his time listening to music and occasionally writes portable audio reviews across several enthusiast sites, focusing mostly on in-ear earphones.

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