Upon receipt of the headphones I noticed the manual recommended 150 hours of break in. I plugged them into my Simaudio Moon Neo 430 HA reference headphone amplifier, fired up Roon server, and then went on the road for a week of business travel. Upon my return, I started off with the Moon Neo amp plugging into the single ended 6.35mm jack and fired up a long time favorite, ‘Take It Easy’ from The Eagles Greatest Hits [CD Elektra NY, NY. 1976]. I was immediately struck by the directness of the attack on the opening guitar strumming on the steel strings, which was appropriately bright and clean. The soundstage of this multi singer track was broad and displayed the breadth of the stage and the correct and identifiable positioning of the artists. The bass guitar providing the low end momentum had authority and mass without being overly boomy. The banjo was crisp and had the twang as expected. This was a good start to the evening. A top amp can reveal shortcomings in a low end headphone. The HE400S scaled nicely and offered an excellent presentation well beyond a typical modestly priced headphone.
Turning to tubes I switched to my Cary SLI-80 Ultimate Mod amp in triode mode. This amp is switchable between Triode and Ultralinear modes. I have it upgraded with VCaps, Hexfreds, and Vishay resistors, along with a selection of Golden Lion and Northern Electric tubes. When you switch to headphones from speakers the amp provides the full tube circuit with a resistor to step down the power to appropriate levels. I queued up Sting’s ‘Send Your Love’ from the Sacred Love album [A&M Records, SACD Santa Monica, CA. 2003]. Using my Denon DVD-5900 as the transport, this was an excellent opportunity to see what the HE400S could do. My first impression was ‘clean’; there was no grain between notes, and clarity between notes and instruments. Castanets were crisp and concise. Drums and conga were perfectly defined and correctly placed across the stage. The impact of the hand on the drum head had the correct character of contact. There was a terrific sense of soundstage, too. I have listened to many headphones with £1,000+ price tags that felt closed in. The depth and scale was there with the HE400S. Combined with that clarity, the HE400S made an impressive showing and before I knew it I had listened to the entire disc. At the end of the day, I love music more than I like to review gear, and sometimes when a piece of gear overachieves, you just get lost in the moment.
It is gratifying to find a lower cost headphone that is able to hold its own when plugged into aspirational components. Both the Cary and the Simaudio Moon gear would be among the top picks within their respective categories with prices to match. In these first listening sessions, the HE400S played its part in the high quality delivery of music. In each session the HE400S was able deliver the clarity and scale worthy of the top-end gear throughout the chain. This ability to scale when paired with higher quality gear is something that I do not find often and for me it is a highly desirable trait in any piece of gear. Few of us can just go out and buy a new rig from front to back in one go. We need gear that can either hold its own as we upgrade, or be able to participate fully in whatever chain we have built over time with our hard earned money. The HE400S provide impressive results without breaking the bank. Add to that the comfort factor for long listening sessions and I could certainly spend many an enjoyable afternoon deep into my music.
It was time to get portable. Next up was the highly regarded Questyle QP1R Digital Audio Player (DAP). The QP1R offers a full Class A current mode amplification system and the ability to play PCM or DSD while on the go. It also offers three gain levels to adapt from sensitive in ear monitors to larger less efficient full sized headphones. It is also the best sound quality regardless of price I have heard for a portable player. I plugged in the 3.5mm cable and selected Disturbed’s album Immortalized and the bands haunting rendition of ‘The Sound of Silence’ [HDTracks 24/48 AIFF Reprise Records 2015]. David Draiman’s deep baritone opens backed by a piano played behind him in a larger room. The echo and decay of the piano’s notes were clear with clean decay never smearing or washing out. You receive the sense of scale from the large room. As the strings began to come in you could easily distinguish each section. Cymbals shimmered brightly then faded off appropriately to nothing. (Did I mention these headphones go to 35 KHz?) As the volume rose and more instruments come in, each maintained its own place as they accompanied David’s surging vocals. Tympani provide a powerful end to this amazing interpretation of the Simon and Garfunkel classic.
A couple of observations. First, the available volume was more than I would ever want to listen to for any prolonged period. The Questyle DAP offered plenty of power for the HS400S. Even at the low gain setting, there was plenty of power for comfortable listening levels. At high gain and at near full power it was very loud but not distorted or of poor quality. Second, the pairing had excellent synergy and would make a remarkably portable rig. However, I would also surmise the sonic quality exceeds most listener’s current rigs today, and the total cost of the DAP and headphones is in the £1,000 mark. Certainly not throwaway money, but nothing like the price of the top priced DAP’s and headphones people travel with today. I have travelled with similar sized top of the line headphones and amps, and this presentation definitely can hold its own against much higher priced fare.