Every so often I just need a break from Bluetooth headphones. I’m getting tired of charging them. Heaven forbid I accidentally put my phone in my left pocket while on the road instead of my right and start noticing audio cutouts. (Yes, this can still happen with today’s best wireless earbuds and phones.) And I remind myself that I’m robbing my ears of the true potential of my cultivated lossless music library by settling for Bluetooth codecs instead of wired to go. I’ve been feeling that wireless fatigue lately, and it just so happens that Sennheiser just released a new pair wired earbuds, the IE 200, that seemed worth a try.
These $149.95 earbuds promise balanced, detailed sound in a compact in-ear monitor (IEM) with adjustable ear hooks and a detachable braided cable. There’s no built-in microphone – these are music-only earbuds – and Sennheiser lets you choose between more or less bass via a unique “dual-tunable” earbud. In one position, the IE 200s add some punch to the low end. But mount their earbuds in the outermost position and the lower frequencies become more neutral.
The IE 200s borrow much of their DNA from Sennheiser’s $700 IE 600 earbuds — ranked among the cream of the crop of IEMs — and aim to deliver some of that magic at a more accessible price point. The company sent me a pair of the IE 600s to test alongside the latest earbuds so I could compare and contrast. But my focus while using this was to keep things casual; I haven’t put them through a DAC or done much intensive analytical listening at home. I just wanted my music time to feel more intentional and deliberate. Wired headphones will always do that more effectively than a set of AirPods Pro or even Sennheiser’s own Momentum True Wireless 3. “It would be nice if the weather meant something,” I said out loud at the coffee shop – probably alarming the person sitting nearby who heard me say that out of the blue.
The way I consume music depends on the phone I’m currently using. If it’s an iPhone, I carry thousands of music tracks encoded in Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) that I’ve collected over the years. I always want to have my favorite albums at my fingertips, regardless of my current Spotify or Apple Music subscription status. And I have tried to keep my personal collection in reasonable quality without going at overboard; if I ever need high resolution lossless audio I’ll turn to Amazon Music or something like Qobuz.
If I’m on an Android phone, where ALAC is somewhat out of place, I usually stick with Spotify, Amazon, and personal library stuff I’ve uploaded to YouTube Music. (I really can’t recommend that service enough for storing your hard-to-find songs in the cloud. It doesn’t do any of Apple Music’s error-prone nonsense and just uses the files and song metadata you enter. If you’re a geek like me who is meticulous about that sort of thing, it’s great – and free.)
But the dilemma in both scenarios was the same: I quickly returned to our modern reality where the headphone jack does not exist on popular smartphones. So I swallowed my pride while testing the IE 200s and made sure I always had two dongles with me: a 3.5mm to Lightning adapter for my iPhone 14 Pro Max and a USB-C equivalent for my Pixel 7.
The differences between the IE 200 and the much more expensive IE 600 start right out of the box. The 600s come with a hard case, while the 200s fit into a soft carrying case. The nicer case has enough free space for a spare/replacement cable, but it doesn’t fit well in the bag. Both the IE 200 and IE 600 contain six sets of tips: three silicone sizes and three foam alternatives. I’m a foam person when given the choice, and the largest size served me well in all my testing.
The two sets of earbuds have the same outer housing shape and are very similar in size, but they use different materials. The IE 600s are made from a very neat, hand-finished 3D-printed zirconium shell that will probably look as good in five years as it does now. Sennheiser didn’t intend to match that level of craftsmanship with the regular IE 200s, so it opted instead for a low-profile, all-black plastic case. It may not age as gracefully, but it still looks sleek. In both cases, the earbuds were nicely compact and sat tight and flat in my ears. They’re both plenty safe, especially with those foam tips. Sennheiser has done a great job on ergonomics here: the IE 200s fit me naturally and comfortably in a way not all earbuds do, and my glasses weren’t a problem for the adjustable ear hooks.
The braided cable that came with the IE 200s was super light and actually felt like nothing while I was wearing them. That’s a good thing, but the cord isn’t immune to microphonics and crowding noise when you’re out and about. Like Sennheiser’s other IEMs, these attach to the cable using MMCX connectors, but the recessed connector design on the earphones can pose a problem for some aftermarket cables; make sure they are specifically compatible with Sennheiser’s products.
Sennheiser describes the IE 200s as “exceptionally neutral”, but that’s not right. Turns out a bland presentation just isn’t very exciting for many average consumers, and they definitely share a V-shaped sound signature similar to the IE 600s. The bass boost on the cheaper earbuds is harmless and never veers into bloated territory. Everything is well controlled, extending to their balanced mids and boosted highs. The IE 200s are articulate, detailed and pleasant to listen to.
But you don’t get exactly the same experience as with the already known IE 600s. Despite these two sets of earbuds having a similar frequency response, you don’t need fancy audio gear to notice that the more expensive pair has a smoother, more dynamic tone. The sub bass hits a bit fuller. Everything feels richer and less clinically sharp than on the IE 200s, and the soundstage is less condensed. The IE 600s have that extra touch of warmth and authority. There’s a reason these earbuds are hundreds of dollars apart, but I still believe the $150 IE 200s are a good option if you’re looking to splurge on wired earbuds. You won’t be so concerned about babying them, and they sound really good. I’m not here to debate whether “Chi-fi” IEMs are a smarter buy; I’m sure you can find all sorts of discussions about that on headphone forums and on YouTube.
But I will say that Sennheiser’s “dual-tunable” earbud concept seems very gimmicky. Most people will place the earbuds flush with the housing, which is where the IE 200s perform best and are more bass-forward. To reduce that low end for the “analytical” listening mode, pull the tips forward to a secondary position. The easiest way to do this is to remove them completely and replace the tips very carefully; they just naturally catch on to that initial outside position. Push more and they go to the bassier seat. The problem is that the tips can move very easily when you put the IE 200s in your ears, so if you want a light bass tune you have to be careful. In the end, it’s not worth it: these earbuds sound better with fuller bass, and this idea seems a bit too clever for its own good.
It was nice to be reacquainted with wired earbuds while reviewing the IE 200s. I still regret the dongle life, and it can be awkward if I occasionally forget there’s no microphone on it when answering a call. But none of these things are enough to stop me from occasionally pushing aside Bluetooth earphones – even for all their convenience – and plugging them in. When I take my time, I still feel most connected to the music I’ve loved for decades and where it sounds best. I still grab my go-to wireless earbuds most days; that’s not going to change. But if you pick up Sennheiser’s latest earbuds, you might find yourself enjoying the occasional respite from our wireless world.
Photography by Chris Welch/Acutely