CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
The $30 Sennheiser HD 201 headphones are a great value aimed at the infrequent user who's simply looking to upgrade from poor-quality stock earphones without spending a ton. The HD 201s are far from audiophile quality and lack the low-end oomph of pricier headphones from the competition, but we do recommend them to casual listeners who will find satisfaction in their comfortable build, balanced sound, and affordability.
Design and features
The HD 201 headphones are a full-size pair that incorporates a circumaural (over-the-ear) design and includes a 1/4-inch gold-plated adapter that easily pops onto the 1/8-inch plug. A limited swivel design is implemented into the hinge of the frame, and each earcup pivots slightly back and forth allowing one side to stay in place while the other side is off.
The oblong pads are black, replaceable, and primarily made of a leatherette material and foam padding with a cloth interior sewn in. The right and left earcups tip 20 degrees forward and back to its original position, although we can find no desirable benefit to this feature aside from its ability to fit a range of head shapes and sizes. The outside of the earcups are accented with an oval-shaped silver and black design, and the rest of the frame is black.
The hard plastic adjustable headband is well-padded inside the crown, and lightweight materials add comfort so little pressure is put on the head; however, the headband tends to focus its weight onto a small patch that touches the skull. As a result, the headphones tend to slide back and forth quite often. The HD 201s feel lightweight albeit slightly flimsy, but they survived several of our drop tests to prove their durability.
The traditional dual-sided, nondetachable, 10-foot straight plastic cord exits from both ear cups and terminates at the 1/8-inch plug--not exactly ideal for travel, but roll it up and it's not a big deal. The cords inside the cups are snug and secure.
We listened to the HD 201s with a Toshiba Qosmio X505-Q880 laptop (includes Dolby Home Theater technology), an Onkyo TX-L5 receiver, and the Apple iPod Classic, Creative Zen: Vision M, and Zune HD MP3 players. With a 24-ohm impedance level, it takes little power to drive these headphones, so they're easy on the batteries in portable devices but require a lot of current (i.e. a strong headphone jack or an amp) to sound best, especially when it comes to the bass.
In our audio test, we compared the HD 201 with a favorite in our budget category, the Koss PortaPros. In contrast, the bass is clean and even with the rest of the soundstage but still lacks the power and oomph of the PortaPros, though good amplification helps a bit in that regard. If you're partial to Sennheiser and want to stay under a $100, the Sennheiser HD 205-II headphones provide better bass, but they'll cost you three to four times as much as the HD 201s and less than twice as much as the PortaPros.
The midrange avoids any serious resonance and sounds natural, though there are a few mild peaks to the sound that do little to offend the ears, but the guitars tend to sound either too bright or get lost completely in the mix. Vocals are also on an uneven scale; some notes are slightly overstated on some songs, yet understated in others.
The highs put a slight emphasis on sibilance, or words that include an s sound with a harsh hiss that can be annoying at times, but isn't a major problem. Extension and detail are pretty decent, and the soundstage is typical of closed-back headphones, although slightly better than what one would expect for the price.
For a closed headphone, the HD 201s don't shield against ambient noise very well. They're adequate for blocking out sounds in the home, but disappointing for most portable use. The HD 201s also exhibit very low sensitivity, so it takes cranking up the volume to the max to bring them to satisfactory or normal loudness levels. This may not present a problem for home theater listeners, but MP3 players with volume limits can be frustrating to use if you enjoy listening to music at a very high volume level. Noise leakage is nonexistent on MP3 players and at a minimum on AV receivers, allowing you to remain a closet Beiber fan.
The Sennheiser HD 201 headphones aren't the most revolutionary cans ever created, but their price and tonal balance make them a boon for the casual listener. They may sound underwhelming compared with boomier headphones with multiple drivers, but they still deserve high marks for achieving a cleaner overall sound at such a low price, not to mention their comfortable fit for extended listening sessions. We recommend these headphones if you have an amp or like to listen at home. Otherwise, you may want look into something that is more commuter-friendly.