Pros: Portable and stylish. Good bass, isolation, and comfort for an on-ear open-back design.
Cons: Congested sound. Boring signature. Sub-par materials, especially the cable.
The on-ear open-back design is not a very popular segment. I suspect most overlook this category largely because of the lack of isolation compared to the many closed-back designs in the same price range. However, open-back designs usually sound better at any given price, and are quite a bit more comfortable. This segment appeals to those who want to try out the open-back sound on a budget, or those who want something for the office that allows you to hear the phone ring when it’s on. I happen to fall into the latter category.
I found my pair on sale for $70 USD. I also own the well regarded Grado SR60i in the same category and price range, which I will compare head to head with the HD 239. My source in testing is the 1/4inch headphone output of my TEAC UD-H01 DAC/Amp connected via USB to my Windows 8.1 desktop. I use the foobar2000 player with EQ off playing various files from FLAC to m4a to mp3 (VBR/CBR 320).
The HD 239 comes well packaged and includes a nylon soft pouch for transport. The one sided (left) cable is fairly short at 1.4m and terminated to a straight 3.5mm. No ¼ inch adapter is included. The length is ok for portable use but some will find it too short for office use. The cable is a weak point in the design. It’s super thin, akin to cheap $10 in ear headphones. Worst of all you can’t replace it. Although the straight 3.5mm connector should not be a problem fitting through the cases on portable devices, it would have been nicer to see an angled connector.
The headphone is entirely made of plastic with the exception of the screws, black metal grills and silver accent around the grills. Although the plastics feel pretty cheap and thin, particularly on the headband, the design is actually quite durable. I wouldn’t be worried about throwing them around. You’re just not going to get any brownie points for build quality or fancy materials here, it just screams average. Maybe even below average considering the $100 USD MSRP. I find Sennheiser doing this a lot recently, releasing well-designed products with sub-par materials and craftsmanship in hopes to make more on shear volume. Well I can’t argue, it’s clearly a winning strategy.
The ear cups rotate 90 degrees to sit flat on a desk. The ear cups also pivot to ensure a proper fit for different shaped heads and ears. The replaceable ear pads are the most interesting part of this headphones design. They are mostly made of microfiber cloth material, with a leatherette portion in the center that rests on the ear to provide an enhanced seal. Inside of that is a perforated cloth center. The leatherette material is very soft on the skin, akin to that used on Bose OE headphones. However, the padding is not memory foam.
To remove the ear pads simply pull. There’s a plastic edge which clicks at various points around the ear cups. They simply click back in place the same way. Upon removal you can see the foam has two layers. The outer blue portion is plusher, while the inner white portion is denser and firmer, akin to the design of a pillow top mattress. The center portion of black padding is completely separate and removable. This black portion is much less dense and allows the ear to get “closer” to the driver. Less is more when it comes to getting between the drivers and your ear drums. It’s refreshing to see how much thought Sennheiser put into these ear pads.
The head band uses the same microfiber cloth as the ear pads for support. The padding is light but adequate. The headband is quite flexible and even out of the box clamping force for me was moderate. After weeks of use I would say it’s on the light side of moderate. Comfort is above average for an on-ear headphone, even amongst open-back designs. Even with glasses I never had discomfort on the ears or head after several hours of use. Best of all no sweating issues like most closed-back designs, even full-size ones. The enhanced seal also provides higher than average isolation for a headphone in this category. Leakage is minimal. I think many owners will be pleasantly surprised by this. In my quiet office environment I could listen at low levels without bothering people beside me, while still being able to hear the phone ring. Some could get away with moderate volumes depending on the ambient noise and how close others will be.
Visually they look subtle on the head and follow the contour of the head quite well. The black metal grill and silver accents are a nice touch. They look stylish without attracting much attention. A good look for teens and adults alike. Overall it’s a nice package with a good blend of comfort, portability, isolation, and style. But it’s cheaply made in terms of materials, with the biggest weak point being the cable, which can’t be replaced. At an MSRP of $100 USD I expect better from Sennheiser.
The Grado SR60i has better craftsmanship (hand made in Brooklyn) and higher quality materials. But lacks the style and portability of the HD 239. The cable is at least 5 times thicker on the Grado. It comes with the ¼ inch adapter too. It’s also longer at about 1.7m. The straight 3.5mm connection is bulkier though. Plastics on the ear cups are much thicker and higher quality. Although the ear pads are less sophisticated, they are larger and just as comfortable. I also don’t mind the metal headband. After molding it to my liking the comfort is at least on par with the HD 239. If you can get over the vintage styling, the SR60i is a refreshingly simple and well-made competitor.
Both headphones are 32 Ohm. Although the SR60i can be driven to adequate levels from portables the HD 239 will get a little louder. This is because the SR60i provides less isolation, requiring you to compensate for ambient noise by further increasing volume. Also the drivers are at least 25% larger on the SR60i. On paper the HD 239 has a slightly greater response range 16 Hz – 23 kHz vs the 20 Hz – 20 KHz of the SR60i. I put very little value on numbers, largely because manufacturers make them up as they go these days, but some people care.
Bass response is generally a weak point for open-back headphones, especially cheap on-ear ones like these. Sennheiser did a great job of addressing this with the HD 239. Bass is definitely more present without sounding loose or boomy. The quantity of bass still won’t satisfy the bass heads among us, but it’s tight and well controlled. I suspect the ear pad design is a large contributor to this. Bass has always been a weak point of the SR60i and compared to the HD 239 it pales in comparison.
The weakest area for the HD 239 is in sound stage and imaging. Stereo separation is barely noticeable for me. It just sounds congested, even connected to my fabulous TEAC UD-H01 DAC. Because this is an area people need to learn to appreciate I doubt many will notice. Especially those who don’t own higher end open-back headphones, or stick to mobile sources. As a proud owner of the HD 600 I do appreciate the SR60i’s much more in this regard. For me the SR60i more than makes up for the lacking bass with superior sound stage and separation.
I love my mids, and for me the HD 239 was lacking again. Vocals sound distant and stringed instruments lack detail. This is a major strength of the SR60i. In comparison the music comes alive. Vocals in particular have a more forward presentation. This combined with superior separation is so much fun to listen to, particularly on more complex tracks. It just makes me smile. When it comes to high’s it’s more of the same.
To summarize, the HD 239 is the more neutral of the two, but slightly on the dark side. It also has great bass response for an open-back headphone at this price point. The SR60i is a stark contrast in sound, providing a brighter, more airy, and resolving nature in the mids and highs. It more than makes up for lackluster bass response with superior sound stage. In terms of sound signature these two couldn’t be farther apart.
Tyll from innerfidelity favored the HD 239 over the SR60i. That was a large contributing factor for purchasing this headphone. For the first time I couldn’t disagree more with Tyll on this one. As a happy SR60i owner I was expecting better. Sure the HD 239 is flatter on the graph with better bass. It might be more portable, stylish, and practical. But in terms of the build and experience it screams boring to me. Sometimes new isn’t always better, and there’s a reason the SR60i has been a classic for so long. It makes people smile, something you won’t see on a graph. Only time will tell, but I predict the HD 239 will be forgotten in the not too distant future.
NOTE: My comparison was with the SR60i. The newer SR60e has greatly improved bass response and should be an even stronger competitor.