First Listen: HiFiMAN HE-400 Value-Priced Planar Magnetic Headphone

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HiFiMAN HE-400
First Listen: HiFiMAN HE-400 Value-Priced Planar Magnetic Headphone

Background

Those of you who have followed high-end headphone reviews in Playback over the past several years know that we have been very favorably impressed by models we have tried from Audeze and HiFiMAN. Headphones from both companies have demonstrated an ability to deliver top-class performance that rivals—and in some cases surpasses—what upper-tier electrostatic headphones can do, while at the same time offering the twin benefits of (somewhat) lower prices and the ability to be driven by conventional amplifier (whereas electrostats require purpose-built high-voltage amps that are typically very costly). What’s not to like? Well, perhaps a couple of things.

Planar Magnetic Issues to Address

Steep purchase prices: While planar magnetic ‘phones cost significantly less than top-tier electrostats do, costs are relative and planar magnetics typically remain fairly expensive devices. A few specific price comparisons will illustrate my point.

•Electrostatic headphones: The top two Stax electrostats are priced at $5200 (for the flagship SR-009) and $2600 (for the SR-007 Mk II)—prices that qualify both these headphones as luxury purchases by anybody’s standards. Add in the fact that they’ll require purpose-built electrostatic headphone amplifiers and you could be looking at investing thousands more. Any way you slice it, electrostatic headphones are pretty much the Ferraris or Lamborghinis of the headphone universe, meaning that they’re potentially delightful, but decidedly pricey.

•Planar magnetic headphones: The top two planar magnetic headphones on today’s market are priced at $1945 (for the Audeze LCD-3) and $1299 (for the HiFiMAN HE-6)—significantly less expensive than their electrostatic counterparts, but by no means cheap, and possibly too expensive to fit within many music lovers’ budgets. Even the least expensive HiFiMAN planar magnetic model offered to this point, the HE-5LE, sold for a relatively hefty $699.

Stiff amplifier requirements: While planar magnetic ‘phones can, thank goodness, be driven by conventional headphone amplifiers, they’re still not necessarily easy to drive and require very high quality amps to give of their best. HiFiMAN’s flagship HE-6 model, for example, specifies a very low sensitivity rating of 83.5 dB and requires an extremely powerful headphone amp in order to have any realistic chance of sounding its best. Even the most sensitive planar magnetic model I’m aware of, which would be Audeze’s LCD-2 with Revision 2 drivers, carries a pretty modest sensitivity rating of 91 dB.

Conclusions

Distill these observations down to a few basic points and several key conclusions emerge:

•Planar magnetic technology offers tremendous sonic potential.

•Planar magnetic technology is arguably more cost effective than electrostatic technology, but not yet affordable enough to achieve truly widespread acceptance. A significantly cost-reduced planar magnetic headphone would therefore be desirable.

•While planar magnetic headphones have much simpler and more straightforward power requirements that electrostatic headphones do, they still tend to be quite power hungry. An easier-to-driver, higher-sensitivity planar magnetic headphone therefore would be desirable.

Happily, HiFiMAN did the same analysis we just did above, came to same conclusions, and then took meaningful action.

HiFiMAN’s HE-400: Finally, A Planar Magnetic Headphone for Everyman?

At CES 2012 HiFiMAN introduced its all-new HE-400 planar magnetic headphone that is—get this—priced at a pretty darned manageable $399, and that offers rated sensitivity of 92.5 dB. In short, the HE-400 is the least expensive planar magnetic headphone on today’s market (by a country mile, actually) and it is also one of the two most sensitive planar magnetic ‘phones on the market, meaning it is sufficiently easy to drive that it can be powered directly from an iPod! (Indeed, I’m listening to my review pair of HE-400s through an iPod as I write this article, and the sound isn’t half bad—though I still feel an outboard amp should be used for best sonic results.). The HE-400 represents real progress on several fronts, meaning that planar magnetic technology is now priced within reach for a much broader group of listeners, and with no “I-need-a-whopping-big-amplifier” strings attached. Cool, no?

How did HiFiMAN pull this off? Part of the answer involves leveraging the firm’s extensive experience with building planar magnetic drivers. Until now, the planar magnetic driver used in previous HiFiMAN models all required a significant degree of hand assembly in order to achieve the desired sonic goals. With the HE-400, however, HiFiMAN founder Dr. Fang Bian and his team found a way to create a planar magnetic driver that could be mass produced and assembled via automated machinery—a step that yielded huge cost savings that are passed on to the customer in the form of a much lower retail price. Further, HiFiMAN made some judicious choices in terms of packaging and included accessories for the HE-400, which also helped to control costs. For example, all other HiFiMAN ‘phones come in hinged, padded presentation cases and typically include detachable signal cables fitted with some fairly expensive jack/plug assemblies. Those detail touches, though welcome, add costs. By contrast, the HE-400 comes in a more consumer-friendly cardboard box with a clear product-viewing window on the front and with a simple molded packing tray to hold the headphone in place during shipment. In turn, the HE-400 is fitted with a detachable signal cable, but one that foregoes the more expensive connectors used on top-tier HiFiMAN models. Steps like these help reduce costs without undercutting the performance potential of the product.

So How Does the HE-400 Sound?

Playback (and its sister publication from Europe, Hi-Fi+) has a full-on review of the HE-400 coming up in the not too distant future, so I won’t go into great depth here, but rather will try and give you a few sonic “snapshots” to go on.

If you heard the HE-400 in side-by-side comparison with a high-quality dynamic driver headphone in its price class, you would find the HE-400 offers arguably more powerful and articulate bass, somewhat better levels of overall resolution and focus (especially through the heart of the midrange), and—most importantly—eerily good coherency from top to bottom.

If you’re familiar with other HiFiMAN headphones, I think you’ll quickly discern that the HE-400 bears a strong family resemblance to its more expensive siblings, while putting forth a sound that is just a touch warmer and more overtly powerful in the low-end, that provides a desirable degree of focus on the midrange (where most of the music really lives), and that is slightly more subdued in the upper midrange and treble regions.

Is the HE-400 fully the equal of its more costly brothers? Not quite, though it comes pretty close in light of its dramatically lower price. If you listen to the HE-400 alongside the HE-5LE, for example, you’ll notice that the more expensive model offers more nearly “textbook neutral” tonal balance and a heightened level of focus and resolution. But the key point to bear in mind is that the HE-400 is no slouch in those areas and strong enough in performance to contend for best-in-class honors among other mid-priced headphones. And that, in my book, is good news for us all.

Stay tuned for the upcoming Playback/Hi-Fi+ review of the HE-400. Until then, happy listening.

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