Over the past year or so we’ve seen the arrival of a new uber-class of high-end headphones such as the Beyerdynamics T1 Tesla, the Grado PS1000, and the Sennheiser HD800s. These are all great ‘phones, but one catch is that all three cost well over a thousand dollars—a price point that may place these models beyond reach for some listeners. But what if someone made a technically innovative headphone that could go toe-to-toe with these acknowledged class leaders, but for a bit less than half the price? Well, someone—in this case, the firm HiFiMAN—has done just that with an impressive product called the HE-5LE Planar Magnetic Headphone ($699). $699 is not, of course, “chump change,” but for this the level of performance on offer in the HE-5LE it is an undeniable bargain.
HiFiMAN is a Chinese firm headed by a gentleman named Fang Bian, who is a high-end headphone enthusiast extraordinaire. Accordingly his company makes a range of performance-oriented headphones and headphone-related products, including the HE-5LE’s, various headphone amplifiers, specialty headphone cables, several very cool high-end personal digital music players, and a range of in-ear headphones. In this country, HiFiMAN products are sold through a related distribution company called Head Direct (www.head-direct.com).
Most of today’s top-tier headphones use ultra-high quality piston-type drivers, where a traditional voice coil powers a circular (often cone or dome-shaped) diaphragm. This is a time-proven approach and one that can give superb results. Still, some might argue that one weakness of traditional dynamic drivers is that the voice-coil motor is attached to the diaphragm only near its rim, so that driving forces can not—for obvious reasons—act upon the entire surface area of the diaphragm.
In the HE-5LE, HiFiMAN tackles this issue head on by using a planar magnetic (or so-called “orthodynamic”) driver that is conceptually similar to the planar magnetic drivers used in Magnepan’s famous Magneplanar loudspeakers—but that is of course executed on a much smaller scale. In an orthodynamic driver, the diaphragm is a thin, light membrane whose entire surface is covered with a conductive coating whose “conductors” are arranged in a specific pattern. The conductive driver membrane is in turn suspended near an array of magnets arranged so that, when an audio signal is fed to the driver, the entire diaphragm surface is alternately pulled toward or pushed away from the magnet array. In theory, the benefits of this approach are twofold. First, the diaphragm can be very light and responsive (lighter than the voice coil/diaphragm assembly of a traditional dynamic driver). Second, driving forces act over the entire working surface of the diaphragm, potentially offering more precise control with greater freedom from unintended resonance or vibration.
Is there a catch to the orthodynamic approach? Apart from the cost and complexity entailed in building orthodynamic drivers, one drawback is that planar magnetic drivers tend to be less sensitive than dynamic drivers. HiFiMAN addresses this fact forthrightly, stating that, “potential customers have to be aware that the HE-5LE is not easy to drive. It will not be used on most portable devices such as an iPod. Customers need to have a decent headphone amplifier with a powerful output to drive the HE-5LE to get its full potential.” But assuming you power planar magnetic headphones with an appropriate amp, performance potential is very high. For our listening tests, we used HiFiMAN’s own recommended EF-5 tube-powered headphone amp ($399).
Interestingly, the HE-5LE is not the first orthodynamic headphone that HiFiMAN has made. Instead, it is the direct successor to the firm’s earlier HE-5 model. According to HiFiMAN, differences include a “driver coating (that) has been made thinner with the aim of improving bass frequencies, while driver cups are now made of plastic with a hexagon mesh.” The signal cable is a removable design with gold-plated, threaded connectors, so that users can experiment with cable upgrades, if they wish. On paper, the HE-5LE certainly sounds promising, but what is it like in real life? Let me simply say it is one of the finest headphones I’ve heard at any price, and a remarkable performer for the money.
Consider this headphone if: you want to explore true top-tier headphone sound quality at a price that falls comfortably below $1000. The HE-5LE offers balanced and effortlessly extended frequency response, with an exceptional degree of sonic transparency and detail. Unlike some ‘phones that convey an aura of detail but at the expense of an artificial layer of treble “sheen,” the HE-5LE offers resolution without unpleasant artifacts that detract from the music.
Look further if: you favor light, compact, and relatively easy-to-drive headphones. The HE-5LE is comfortable, but also relatively large and moderately heavy. Look further too if you require a headphone that offers good isolation from external noises (or that does not put much sound into the room when in use). The HE-5LE is an open-back design that lets room noises through, and that can faintly be heard from the outside when it is in operation.
RATINGS (relative to comparably priced headphones):
• Tonal Balance: 9.5
• Frequency Extremes: 10
• Clarity: 10
• Dynamics: 9.5 (note: performance in this area is amplifier dependant)
• Comfort/Fit: 9
• Sensitivity: 3
• Value: 10 (the phrase “off the charts” comes to mind)
More so than many headphones, the HE-5LE offers very wide-range frequency response. In practice, this means two things. First, up high, the headphone delivers a full measure of treble detail and easily captures the elusive sense of high frequency “air” surrounding instruments. Second, down low, the headphone is simply fearless with respect to reproducing very low frequency information (pipe organs, the lower reaches of synth bass passages, etc.). Together, these factors along with the HE-5LE’s generally neutral tonal balance give the listener the keen sense that these headphones leave no parts of the audio spectrum unexplored.
But there is more to the HE-5LE than good frequency response, per se. Two other crucially important characteristics are the HE-5LE’s sonic coherency and overall levels of resolution.
Let me say a bit more about the idea of coherency. With some headphones one has the sense that drivers perform particularly well in some frequency bands (which represent sonic “sweet spots”, if you will), but perform less well in others. Often this can be due to subtle textural discontinuities, where drive units sound smooth and finely focused at some frequencies, but perhaps sound rougher (or softer) and less finely focused at other frequencies. But when a headphone exhibits the quality of coherency, as the HE-5LE does, you have the sense that drive units sound almost perfectly consistent from top-to-bottom, with a smooth, sharply focused quality throughout. Coherency, I think, is one of the HiFiMAN’s greatest strengths.
This is also a very high-resolution headphone. When fed with high quality recordings, it is astonishing to hear just how much information the HE-5LE’s can retrieve. To use an optical analogy, the HiFiMAN headphones let you “view” recordings as if through a magnifying glass, so that details that are hinted at by lesser headphones suddenly become clear and explicit, yet still natural sounding. One of the beauties of the HE-5LE is that it conveys a lot of musical information, but never in a forced or overdramatized way.
If your reactions are anything like mine, you’ll find yourself instinctively seeking to compare the HE-5LE’s to competing models roughly twice their price. Surprisingly, the HE-5LE’s not only hold their own in such comparisons, but also actually surpass their more costly counterparts in some important respects. That is a remarkable achievement in light of their price. As my colleague Tom Martin put it after getting a taste of the HE-5LE’s, “I’m not necessarily saying this is the best headphone out there… but it certainly might be.” The HE-5LE is that good.
The only ‘phones I’ve heard that could demonstrably outperform the HE-5LE’s have been ultra-costly electrostatic models driven by four-figure, dedicated tube-type amplifiers, or a tiny handful of dynamic models in the roughly $1500-to-$1700 range that were custom modified so that they could be driven by specialized balanced-output headphone amplifiers. (But note: Even in those cases, the differences I heard might be more attributable to the amplifiers used than to the headphones themselves.).
To experience the richness and beauty of the HE-5LE in action, try putting on the title track from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s well-recorded Come On Come On [SBME Special Mkts.]. First, note the sheer delicacy and purity of Chapin Carpenter’s voice and the way those qualities hold up even when, as happens in the song’s chorus, she chooses to half sing/half whisper the lyrics. Part of what’s impressive about the HE-5LE is the detail levels remain constant, no matter how loud or soft a given passage might be. Next, listen to the backing vocalists, especially on the chorus, where they carry the song’s signature vocal phrase, “Come on come on…” Notice how distinct the individual voices sound, rather than collapsing into a muddled mosh of vocal sounds. Finally, listen closely to the timbres of the backing instruments—especially the piano, and note how pure and harmonically “right” they sound. Some headphones make the fundamentals and harmonics of instruments sound as if they somehow don’t quite belong together, but not so the HE-5LE. It presents instruments with a very desirable kind of “cut-from-whole-cloth” integrity that greatly enhances realism and the listener’s involvement in the music.
To appreciate how refined the HE-5LE’s bass can be, listen to Christian McBride’s “Night Train” from Getting’ To It [Verve]. The song, performed on solo acoustic bass, features alternating lines played with a shuffle feel and played first in pizzicato and then arco style. The result is a veritable showcase of almost every imaginable sound and voicing of which an acoustic bass is capable. Through it all, the HE-5LE not only captures the basic timbral and textural distinctions between one musical phrase and the next, but also conveys the inherent size, weight, warmth, and power of McBride’s bass with a kind of “you-are-there” realism. The HiFiMAN’s quality of coherency, as mentioned above, really comes into play here, so that you don’t so much think in terms of hearing “great hi-fi,” but instead feel tempted to listen more intently and intimately—as you would to a live performance.
Finally to enjoy the sonic sophistication and versatility of the HE-5LE, check out Patricia Barber on the classic tune “My Girl” from A Distortion of Love [Island Records]. Note, for example, the powerful and distinctively elastic feel of the bass lines and the soaring arc of Barber’s vocal lines above. Through the HiFiMAN ‘phones, the sound of reverberations from Barber’s voice seems to perfectly complement and even extend the vocal lines, themselves. Then, for a real treat, pay close attention to the sharp, pointed textures of the jazz guitar solo and the almost eerily liquid tone the guitarist manages to achieve. Where some headphones get flustered as the textural complexity of music increases, the HE-5LE’s almost seem to relish textural challenges (which they pass with flying colors).
To give readers some idea of where the HE-5LE fits within the broader price/performance spectrum, I compared the HiFiMAN headphones to two sets of excellent Sennheiser headphones I had on hand: the Sennheiser HD650 and the flagship Sennheiser HD800.
HiFiMAN HE-5LE vs. Sennheiser HD650 ($600)
• The Sennheiser HD650 is roughly $100 less expensive than the HE-5LE.
• The HD650 is more compact than the HE-5LE and therefore somewhat more comfortable, though some listeners might prefer the HE-5LE’s significantly larger earcups.
• The HD650 is easier to drive than the HE-5LE, which suggests to me that it could potentially be used successfully with a broader range of amplifiers (though both headphones require good amplifiers to give of their best).
• The HD650 is backed by Sennheiser’s time proven customer support organization, which implies that many years from now spare parts for the HD650 will continue to be available, should you ever need them. As a relatively new company, HiFiMAN’s long-term customer support capabilities are as yet unproven.
• The HD650 offers a lively and articulate sound, and offers decent low frequency response. Relative the HD-5LE, however, the HD650 gives the impression of a somewhat more midrange-forward presentation with slightly truncated response at the frequency extremes.
• Relative to the HD650, the HE-5LE offers superior extension at both high and low frequency extremes (but especially noticeable in the bass region), higher levels of resolution, and a more focused and coherent presentation overall. If your headphone amp is up to the task, the fact is that the HiFiMAN ‘phones offer much greater performance upside than the HD650s do.
HiFiMAN HE-5LE vs. Sennheiser HD800 ($1595)
• The Sennheiser HD800 costs a whopping $896 more than the HE-5LE.
• The HD800 is essentially a hand made product, and it shows; while apparent build quality on the HE-5LE is fine, the HD800 more nearly reminds me of a Swiss watch.
• The HD800 is easier to drive than the HE-5LE, though again both headphones require high quality amplifiers for optimal performance.
• The same comments I made about Sennheiser’s customer support organization apply here, too.
• The HD800s are, as you might expect, a much closer match for the HE-5LE’s than the HD650s are, and there are some notable similarities between the two. Both headphones offer a dynamically expressive sound with good measure of midrange detail. In back-to-back listening sessions through the same amp and using the same musical selections, however, several important distinctions became apparent between the Sennheiser and HiFiMAN ‘phones.
• First, the HE-5LE enjoys a subtle but clear-cut edge over the HD800 in terms of upper midrange/treble clarity and smoothness. By comparison, the HD800 sounds rougher and less well controlled up high, occasionally imparting a “spitty” or overtly “splashy” quality on sibilant “S” sounds.
• Second, the HiFiMAN sounds more harmonically coherent and all-of-one-piece on many instruments—qualities most easily heard on female voices, plucked guitars, bowed violins, and the like. In contrast, there seem to be very small yet audible textural discontinuities that keep the HD800s from snapping into sharp focus the way the HE-5LE does.
• Third, the HE-5LE offers slightly better low frequency extension and drive than the HD800, though both are markedly better than most competing headphones in this respect.
• Although the comparison is a very close one, I would say the HE-5LE is the stronger performer overall, which is impressive when you consider how good the HD800 is to begin with (many listeners rightly regard as a benchmark product).
HiFiMAN’s tube-powered EF5 headphone amplifier ($399) was used throughout these tests, in part because HiFiMAN recommends the EF5 as suitable for powering the admittedly difficult-to-drive HE-5LE. However, my practical experience was that the EF5 (which will be the subject of a later Playback review) also gave good results with a variety of other headphones, including the Shure SRH840’s, the Beyerdynamic DT990’s, and Sennheiser’s HD650’s and HD800’s.
Source components included a Musical Fidelity kW SACD player and A5 CD player, plus a Nottingham Analogue Systems Space 294 turntable/Ace-Space 294 tonearm fitted with a Shelter 901 MkII phono cartridge and fed through a Fosgate Signature phono stage.
The HE-5LE is generally comfortable, though it is a relatively large and moderately heavy headphone, which may be a problem for some. The earcups are well padded and comfortable. One small problem I noted, however, is that the earcups tend to ride quite low relative to the top of the headband. Thus, even with the earcups raised as high as they could possibly go, I found the headband only just barely contacted the top of my head. For this reason, I would encourage HiFiMAN either to consider changing headband dimensions, or to provide a thicker headband pad.
The HE-5LE ships in a padded presentation case with detachable signal cables with OFC conductors and a 4-pin balanced XLR connector, plus an XLR-to-phone jack adapter cable.
HiFiMAN's HE-5LE is one of the most technically innovative and best-sounding headphones on the market today. It demands a high-powered, high-quality headphone amplifier to sound its best, but if you can meet that basic requirement you will be in for a sonic treat. At $699, the HE-5LE can and does stand tall in comparison to competitors twice its price, making it one of the best high-end headphones values we've yet found.
SPECS & PRICING
HiFiMAN HE-5LE Planar Magnetic Headphones
Accessories: as above.
Frequency response: 10Hz – 60kHz
Weight: 402 grams (without cables) (12.3 oz)?
Sensitivity: 87.5 dB (1 mW input)?
Impedance: 38 ohms?