Review: Sennheiser RS 220

Sennheiser's RS 220 are a pair of digital wireless headphones that aim to deliver sound quality 'very close to the audiophile ideal'. In line with that aim, they retail at a premium $850: more than many people spend on PCs or music players.

NameWireless headphones: Sennheiser RS 220
At a glance:Brilliant audio quality,In-built rechargeable battery, charger in base station,Open design - not designed for noise-blocking or private listening,Disappointingly short range, nowhere near the advertised 100m maximum
Summary:Five-star sound quality dragged down by limited range and niche appeal.

Sennheiser’s RS 220 are a pair of digital wireless headphones that aim to deliver sound quality “very close to the audiophile ideal”. In line with that aim, they retail at a premium $850: more than many people spend on PCs or music players.

These are not headphones you go out and buy on a whim, to use when listening to your middling-quality 128K MP3s or watching YouTube videos of cats. They’re aimed at those with collections of high-quality, uncompressed audio delivered through high-end sound cards or hi-fi systems, to whom $850 is not an unreasonable price at all – if the audio quality stands up to the claims.

In short, it does. If you put high enough audio quality in, you’ll get high quality audio out. Until someone invents a magical technology that can make bad quality audio sound good, that’s the best you can ask for. Frequency response is 19Hz - 21,000Hz (the average range of human hearing), and sound reproduction is excellent across the RS220’s ranges of frequency and volume.

The headphones ship with a base station which doubles as a charging stand for the included (user-replaceable) rechargeable batteries, which provide around 8 hours of continuous use. There are just two simple controls on the base station: power on/off, and a button to toggle between the various audio inputs. The headphones have their own power switch, a copy of the ‘input’ button, and volume up/down buttons that double as left/right balance controls.

I’d really have preferred a volume wheel, rather than up/down buttons: a wheel is much quicker to adjust if you suddenly find a track blaring much too loud in your ears, which is possible given the maximum audio pressure of 106dB (similar to standing front-row at a concert).

The charging connections on the base station and headphones are large and easy to clean (like the contacts on old cordless phones, they may become dusty or gunked-up over time). However, I found that half the time I dropped the headphones onto their cradle, I misaligned them slightly so the connectors didn’t line up and the headphones couldn’t charge. It’s a minor design flaw, easily addressed by paying attention, but for $850 I’d rather pay attention to my music than correct headphone-hanging-up protocols.

Connection from your audio source to the RS 220’s base station is supported via analogue (twin RCA plugs, or 3.5mm minijack with an included adapter), digital coaxial, or digital optical. RCA and coaxial cables are included, but the TOSLINK cable necessary for optical connection isn’t. That’s a little disappointing, given the price, but hardly a deal breaker.

Each input has a corresponding pass-through output, allowing you to connect the RS 220’s base station in line with an amplifier, surround system or other audio device.

If your audio source supports it, digital is the way you want to go. Why? If you use the analogue input, your sound source will do its own digital-to-analogue conversion, and send that lossy analogue signal to the RS 220 base station. The base station then converts it back to a digital signal, and sends that to the headphones. Finally, the headphones themselves convert that back to an analogue signal to drive the speakers. In short, you’re double-handling your audio in a way that threatens the quality that reaches your ears.

Speaking of your ears, the RS 220 headphones are completely open: they aren’t designed to contain the sound they produce. This cuts down drastically on unwanted reverb, and doesn’t feel so oppressive clasped over your head. It also doesn’t block outside noise very effectively, which is useful if you need to maintain at least some awareness of your surroundings. On the other hand, that means anyone around you can hear what you’re listening to quite clearly, even at low volume.

This is not a fault, it’s a design decision. If you want a pair of wireless headphones to deliver beautiful audio directly to your ears in an otherwise unoccupied room, the RS 220 headphones are perfect. They’re just not designed for private listening.

What really is disappointing is the limited range. Sennheiser advertise “a range of up to 100 metres without the need for the transmitter and receiver to be in the same room”. Under no circumstances was I able to achieve even half of that range. Inside my tiny house, with its gib-and-plaster walls, I was able to get two rooms away, or about five metres maximum, before the sound started cutting out. In our open-plan office, the same occurred after about 8-10 metres of open air. Disappointing? Extremely.

I should point out that in all the test environments, there were several Wi-Fi networks in operation. The headphones operate in the same 2.4GHz band as Wi-Fi, so interference may have been an issue. This is going to be an issue for anyone living in suburban or urban environs, however. Even if you don’t use Wi-Fi yourself, at least one of your neighbours is sure to have a network running.

That complaint aside, the RS 220 headphones are relatively comfortable, produce beautiful sound and do work flawlessly over short distances. This elevates them a notch above ‘average’, but the extremely limited range makes it very hard to justify the price. So much effort has gone into replicating wired-headphone quality in this wireless setup, yet the effective range seems barely longer than a decent cable.

If you can find these for half the listed price, they’d be a great buy. At $850, think seriously about what you want before making a purchase. Sennheiser’s RS 220 may fill a niche for high-quality short-range wireless open headphones, but that’s about as specific and narrow as a niche market can get.

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Tags wirelessheadphonesaudioheadsetearphonessound

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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