True confession: I’m a great admirer of the most recent crop of planar magnetic headphone designs from firms such as Audeze and HiFiMAN. What attracts me to planar magnetic designs is the fact that they offer many of the benefits of electrostatic ‘phones (sonic transparency, openness, excellent transient speed and definition, etc.), while also providing some of the key strengths of traditional dynamic-driver headphones (e.g., robust dynamics, powerful and well-defined bass, and the ability to be driven by conventional amplifiers). The only drawback I can see is that planar magnetic headphones have, as a rule, tended to be quite power hungry and relatively pricey—until now.
At CES 2012 HiFiMAN surprised the headphone universe by announcing its new HE-400 planar magnetic headphone priced at $399, making it the least costly planar magnetic headphone on today’s market. When you consider that competing planar magnetic models typically sell for hundreds more, and sometimes for whole multiples of the HE-400’s price, you can begin to appreciate what a quantum leap forward in cost reduction the HE-400 truly represents.
Better still, the HE-400 is quite easy to drive and offers rated sensitivity of 92.5 dB—a figure that, while not astoundingly high in an absolute sense, is sufficient to make this HiFiMAN one of the (if not the) most sensitive planar magnetic headphones available. Indeed, HiFiMAN says the HE-400 is so amplifier friendly that it can even be powered directly from an iPod (something no sane person would attempt to do with any other planar magnetic ‘phone).
All of this sounds great on paper (er, in pixels), yet some important questions remain. First, are the HE-400’s able to retain some if not most of the positive sonic qualities that have earned critical acclaim for their more expensive HiFiMAN brethren? Second, are the HE-400’s fully competitive with the best dynamic driver-equipped headphones now available in their price class. In short, are HiFiMAN’s efforts to build a cost-reduced planar magnetic headphone a success? We’ll tackle each of these questions in this review.
Drivers: Until now, HiFiMAN’s HE-5LE headphone ($699) was the firm’s least expensive planar magnetic model. One might well ask, then, how HiFiMAN suddenly was able to produce a planar magnetic model that sells for hundreds less. The answer involves important changes in the manufacturing process used to build the HE-400s.
Up to this point, the planar magnetic drivers in all HiFiMAN headphones have required a high degree of hand assembly and tweaking during the manufacturing process. Or the HE-400, however, HiFiMAN made a concerted effort to design a planar magnetic driver that could be mass produced using automated assembly equipment. As a result, labor costs involved in building the HE-400 are significantly reduced, and the cost savings are passed through to the customer in the form of a dramatically lower price.
At CES 2012 I spoke with HiFiMAN President Dr. Fang Bian and asked him if the technical advancements that led to the HE-400 might also allow mass produced versions of the company’s higher end designs. He slowly shook his head and said, with a wry smile, “No, because we have certain performance goals for our top-end models that can only be met with hand-built drivers such as those used in the HE-500 ($899) or HE-6 ($1299). So, I don’t foresee that those models could ever be machine made.”
Still, HiFiMAN says, the performance tradeoffs involved in the machine-made HE-400 drivers are modest, while the price advantages are substantial. As evidence of this, the firm quotes following basic specifications for the HE-400:
•Impedance: 35 Ohms
•Sensitivity: 92.5 dB/mW (much higher than any other HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphone and—so far as we are aware—the highest of any planar magnetic design now on the market)
•Frequency Response: 20Hz – 35kHz
•All HiFiMAN planar magnetic phones are open-back models that share a common, molded thermoplastic housing. Unlike the other HiFiMAN ‘phones, which are finished in various shades of black or dark gray, the HE-400 adds a touch of color; it is finished in a deep, gloss Cobalt blue that (to my eyes) is very attractive.
•The HE-400 features the same basic headband design as other HiFiMAN ‘phones and comes with a leather (or leather-like?) headband pad. Our only complaint with the design is that it could use a broader range of vertical adjustment. For some listeners (and I’m one of them) there is simply no way to avoid having the ear cups ride slightly too low on your ears. Mercifully, the headphone is relatively light: 14.5 oz. (or 440 grams, for those of you who prefer the metric system).
•Most previous HiFiMAN ‘phones have come fitted with plush velour ear pads, but the HE-400 comes standard with leather (or, again, leather-like?) ear pads.
•The HE-400s, like all HiFiMAN ‘phones, come with a detachable signal cable that connects to the headphone ear cups via screw-on fittings. The cable features high-quality wire sourced from the Japanese firm Canare, though it uses a different (and presumably less expensive) grade of wire than is used in cables for some of the higher-end HiFiMAN models. Termination is via a standard ¼-inch phone jack plug.
•A fabric, drawstring-equipped carrying bag.
•A ¼-inch phone jack to 3.5mm mini-jack adapter plug.
The voicing of the HE-400 is significantly differently from that of the top three HiFiMAN models (namely, the HE-5LE, HE-500, and HE-6). Specifically, the HE-400 has a noticeably darker, warmer character than any of the other HiFiMAN models, and it also shows a judicious touch of upper midrange/treble roll-off relative to its siblings.
How you feel about the HE-400’s voicing will, I suspect, largely be a matter of personal tastes. For my part, I would say that the voicing of HiFiMAN’s top models (in particular, the HE-500 and HE-6) is more neutrally balanced and thus more accurate overall; they certainly display more upper midrange/treble energy that the HE-400’s do. But with that said, let me also acknowledge that some readers have voiced the perception that the top tier HiFiMAN ‘phones (most notably the HE-6) might be too bright for their own good, and so they have reasoned that a somewhat darker, warmer sound would be, if not more accurate in a strict textbook sense, then more appropriate and more musically satisfying on a wide range of less-than-perfect recordings. For those readers and those who perceive music as they do, the HE-400 could be just what the doctor ordered.
Despite its different voicing characteristics, however, the HE-400 does evince certain unmistakable elements of the traditional HiFiMAN “house sound.” First, the HE-400 offers powerful, articulate, and deeply extended bass, which is one of the qualities we’ve admired most in the other HiFiMAN ‘phones we have reviewed. Second, the HE-400 offers a midrange sound that offers plenty of openness, very good measures of resolution and detail, and that delivers expressive dynamics. If solid bass performance and seductive mids are the qualities that float your sonic boat, you may find much to like in the HE-400. If, however, you yearn for a headphone whose upper midrange and treble are accurately balanced relative to bass and mids, you may find the HE-400’s top end roll off a bit frustrating (as if some desirable parts of the music are being subdued or sacrificed in the name of achieving a warmer, more forgiving sound overall).
How does the HE-400 fare in comparison to today’s best, comparably priced dynamic driver-based headphones? To address this question, we compared the HE-400 extensively to one of our favorite $399 dynamic ‘phones: namely, the Fischer Audio FA-002W High Edition. The results were eye-opening. In terms of overall tonal balance, we found the Fischer sounded more neutrally and accurately balanced (indeed, the Fischer’s balance reminded us to some degree of how the HiFiMAN HE-5LE sounds). Both the FA-002W High Edition and HE-400 headphones are highly articulate, but if you focus on areas of the HE-400’s particular strengths—bass and midrange—you will discover the HiFiMAN ‘phone does enjoy several advantages. First, the HiFiMAN’s bass is just a touch more powerful and articulate, especially when listening to instruments such as well-recorded acoustic basses where there is a lot of low-end textural information to savor. Second, its midrange offers the aforementioned seductive quality that pulls you into the heart of the music. Third, the HE-400—much like its more costly siblings—offers a desirable quality of top-to-bottom coherency or self-consistency.
Conversely, though, the Fischer can often sound like the more detailed and revealing headphone overall, and that is true in part because its upper mids and highs are more accurately balanced than the HiFiMAN’s. Interestingly, and this is a new wrinkle that the HE-400’s design makes possible, the HE-400 is if anything easier to drive than the Fischer Audio headphone is. The Fischer ‘phones really need a good, powerful amp in order to do their thing and if you plug them in to a wimpy amp the headphone’s performance suffers noticeably. The HiFiMAN, too, sounds best with a good amp, but the key difference is that its performance doesn’t drop off too dramatically when you use lesser amps (or even an iPod, though you’ll need to crank up the iPod’s volume levels to get the HE-400 to sing). The bottom line is that the HE-400 is thoroughly competitive with one of the best $399 dynamic headphones we’ve yet tested, though which you might ultimately prefer could easily be a matter of personal taste.
To appreciate both the strengths and limitations of the HE-400, a track that proves very revealing is the title movement of Robert Paterson’s “Freya’s Tears,” as performed by the Clock wise duet [American Music Recordings]—a duet consisting of harp and violin. The supple, seductive quality of the HE-400’s midrange is much in evidence as the harp and violin trade ethereal and at times fast-paced lines. Indeed, the voicing of the HE-400 gives this track a warm but also softly focused quality that makes it seem even more dreamlike than it ordinarily might. At times, you hear the harp as if it is mic’d from distance away, while the violin, whose tonality is sweet and delicate to begin with becomes sweeter still. Yet at the same time those familiar with this lovely recording will note that a certain something is missing through the HiFiMANs. Specifically, the crisp leading-edge transient sounds of the harp being plucked seem “rounded off” to a degree, while the upper harmonics of the violin seem recessed. Most of all, the sense of terrific treble openness and high frequency “air” that should be present are almost missing in action. The enchanting qualities of the track are a tribute to the expressiveness of the HE-400 design, but the missing air and top-end openness are indicators of its limitations.
Yet another good illustration of the HE-400’s core sound in action can be had by listening to the track “Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa” from eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell’s Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones [Nonesuch]. The depth, power, and agility of the HE-400’s bass are put to good use by Dave Holland’s lovely and inventive bass grooves on this track. More than many bassists, Holland has a delightful ability to imbue his playing with certain qualities that give his bass a singing and almost human vocal quality—a quality rendered quite effectively by the HE-400. Similarly, Frisell’s winding, intertwining guitar themes take on a nearly preternatural sweetness and warmth as captured through the HiFiMAN ‘phones. Specifically, the HE-400 capture a distinctively “organic” quality in Frisell’s playing that many headphones miss. But once again, tradeoffs can also be heard. Normally, this track should have an open, airy quality with numerous small but significant treble textures and details in evidence—particularly from Elvin Jones’ brushwork and cymbals. But through the HE-400 those treble element are pulled well back in the mix—enough so that the track takes a noticeably warmer, darker cast than it otherwise might have. It isn’t a case where treble details are swallowed up in their entirety; rather, it’s a case where they are present but recessed, making the recording sound as if it had been made in a somewhat over-dampened recording space (which isn’t the case).
The good news is that the HE-400’s balance can make the many excessively bright recordings on the market sound not only tolerable but enjoyable. The catch, however, is that really good recordings seem partly present (in the bass and midrange), but partly not (in the upper midrange and treble regions).
Consider this headphone if:
•You want the least expensive planar magnetic headphone on the market—one whose bass and midrange will remind you of the sound of considerably more expensive headphones.
•You want a planar magnetic headphone that is well and truly easy to drive. This may be the only planar magnetic model around that you could, in a pinch, power directly from an iPod.
Look further if:
•You consider neutral tonal balance a prime requirement in your headphones of choice. The overall balance of the HE-400 is skewed somewhat, so that bass and mids are prominent, but upper mids and highs are pulled back in the mix.
Rating relative to comparably priced headphones:
•Tonal Balance: 7
•Frequency Extremes: 9 (bass)/6 (treble)
•Clarity: 7.5 (would be higher if tonal balance were more nearly neutral)
•Comfort Fit: 8 (HiFiMAN needs to address the issue of ear cups potentially riding too low on some listeners’ ears. This should be an easy fix.)
•Sensitivity: 9 (this headphone offers the highest sensitivity of any planar magnetic design we’ve tested)
•Value: 8 (again, would be higher if tonal balance were more nearly neutral)
HiFiMAN’s HE-400 represents a strong, credible effort to build a planar magnetic headphone that is affordably priced easy to drive. In terms of bass and midrange performance the HE-400 gives listeners a significant taste of what planar magnetic magic is all about. The only drawback is that tonal balance is not as neutral as in the top-tier HiFiMAN ‘phones, meaning that the HE-400 misses the terrific upper midrange/treble openness for which its more costly siblings are known.
SPECS & PRICING
HiFiMAN HE-400 planar magnetic headphone
Accessories: As above.
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 35 kHz
Sensitivity: 92.5 dB
Impedance: 35 Ohms
Weight: 14.5 oz.