Pros: Sonic balance, bass and midrange quality, speed, cohesiveness of imaging, construction, tuneability
Cons: Require an amp with a lot of power and tuned for low impedance phones
I received the HE-5 LE about 7 weeks ago and I've been dying to post a review on them. But I haven't been feeling well lately and it took me longer than usual to put my thoughts together. I'm sorry this is not as organized and coherent as I would like it to have been, but I can't delay posting this any longer.
As they arrived:
INTRODUCTION: I probably have about 400 hours on the HE-5 LE right now, with about 250 being 24/7 burn-in and 150 hours from listening to music or movies. I want to start by saying that during this time the HE-5 LE have become my "go to" daily listening phones for over 6 weeks now. I'll also say right away that while they are not a "giant killer" I prefer them over just about anything else that I have heard in this price range or less. In addition, they are not totally embarrassed by headphones costing much more.
The HE-5 LE are an evolution of the original HE-5 that were released November 2009 with a wooden driver housing and silver plated copper cable. When I first received the original HE-5 I found them to be an excellent headphone, and felt that they surpassed my more costly Grado RS-1 with APS V3 cable. With the Grados and flat pads the soundstage was somewhat 2D sounding and more of a "wall of sound" vs the HE-5 which had a bigger soundstage and sounded more open and transparent. Speed and detail seemed similar in both, being above that of my APS V3 cabled HD600 or stock Gradp HF-2 which sounded almost sluggish and veiled in comparison.
The RS-1 had a slightly rolled off or muted treble with the flat pads, but the quality of the mids and bass with flats was similar to the HE-5. In contrast, my original HE-5 have a much crisper and present treble, and in my case there is no hint of sibilance like others have reported. Switching the RS-1 to bowl pads improved their soundstage and treble sparkle, but made them sound thinner in the mids and lighter in the bass - areas where the original HE-5 excel over the RS-1/Bowls. My only complaint with the original HE-5 was the slightly nebulous or indistinct imaging of individual instruments, and I found them just a little lacking in the sense of weight or body to the mids.
Some people liked the HE-5 more than the HE800 while others complained of the treble being bright or sibilant, and a few people had the wood housing crack (likely due to changes in humidity). I have had no such problems and still have the original HE-5 while the re-cabled RS-1 are long gone. Head-direct set out to address the few complaints about the original HE-5, and I think that they accomplished what they sought to do when they released the HE-5 LE.
GEAR USED: A Large part of my recent Luxman P-1u review was done using the HE-5 LE, and you might want to read that as well. The Luxman mated very well with these phones and had slightly better treble extension than my ZDT amp, which otherwise matches the Luxman P-1u performance in all other areas. So, the HE-5 LE have been treated to being used with a couple of the best amps out there, in order to find out their true potential. I don't think that they were held back at all by the gear used, and they still work very well with lesser gear as well.
In my main rig I used a Samsung DVD > Synergistic Research active shielded coax cable > PS Audio Perfectwave DAC > anti-cables XLR and RCA IC > Luxman P-1u or Eddie Current ZDT. I also used my Macbook Pro as source via optical out > Emotiva and sysconcept.ca optical cable. And I used an Apple 802.11n only Airport Express at 5Ghz with this rig to connect to my iTunes library on my iMac (which seems to have no stutters or drop outs). I used a simple APC computer UPS which does a good job keeping everything quiet.
In my bedroom rig I used my Macbook Pro or Marantz CD5001 > Apogee mini-DAC > maxed Woo WA6 and SAC KH1000 amps, as well as EF-5 amp and Nuforce HDP. I also tried them with some portable solutions including a CEntrance DACport, RSA Protector with balanced 4-pin XLR TWag adapter, iBasso D4 and ALO Amphora.
MUSIC USED: (24/96 only where noted, otherwise 16/44 lossless):
* Diana Krall - Live in Paris
* Peter Asplund - As Knights Concur
* John H. Clarke - Acoustic Guitar (bought off CDBaby.com)
* Nils Lofgren - Acoustic Live
* Tord Gustavsen Trio - "Restored, Returned"
* Esbjorn Svensen Trio - From Gagarin's Point of View
* Mattias Svensson Bill Mays Joe La Barbera - Head up High
* Sara K. - "Hobo" 24/96
* Jack Johnson - In Between Dreams, On and On, and Sleep Through the Static
* Jimmy Cobb Quartet - Jazz in the Key of Blues 24/96
* Shelby Lynn - Just a Little Lovin
* Nancy Bryan - Neon Angel 24/96
* Joel Styzens - Relax Your Ears (bought off CDBaby.com)
* Wendy Sutter - Songs & Poems For Solo Cello
* Bob James Trio - Straight Up 24/96
* Eva Cassidy - Live at Blues Alley
* Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra - Up Close 24/96
* HDTracks.com - Open Your Ears (variety) 24/96
* Bill Evans - Waltz for Debby
* Carla Lother - 100 Lovers 24/96
* Infected Mushroom - B.P. Empire
* Pink Floyd - Animals
* Led Zepelin - Mothership
* Bella Sonus - Enamoured
HEADPHONES COMPARED: In addition to comparisons with my original HE-5, I compared the HE-5 LE a wide variety of headphones, including re-cabled HD800, AKG 600 ohm K240M, K1000, Smeggy SFI ortho-pucks, HD600 with APS V3 cable, Lawton Audio modded D7000, Grado HF-2, ATH-ESW10 and Sarn modded ATH-A900. I did not re-install the stock HD800 cable, since it adds some upper mid/treble colorations of the headphone and would make the HD800 an inferior tool for comparing to the performance of the HE-5 LE.
FEATURES and SPECS:
Planar Magnetic driver
Plastic driver housing with leather wrapped headband
OFC removable cable with 4pin XLR (same to K1000), and XLR to 6.5mm converter
Frequency Response: 10 Hz to 60 KHz
Sensitivity: 87.5 dB, 1 mW
Impedance: 38 Ohms
Weight: 402 g, without cable
And an included wood presentation box (seen below)
INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: The first thing I heard with the HE-5 LE out of the box was their improved and more cohesive imaging, with better weight and body to the reproduction, especially in the mids which I think are a bit better than the original. Like their predecessor they don't isolate outside noises at all, and everything comes through. Unlike their predecessor there is no wood to be found anywhere on these. They do seem to be very professionally made, and on par with other large scale production headphones by the "big guys". I also found the LE velour ear pads to be softer and they conformed to the shape of my head better than the originals - so they fit better and feel a little more comfortable to wear. Clamping force is just fine, but I do have to wear them with the headband at the smallest settings despite an average sized head. The decrease in weight vs the original HE-5 was also noticeable, and appreciated when wearing them.
Vs the original HE-5 the differences in sound were not as big out of the box, but I noticed them right away and the improvements increased through burn-in, which resulted in a more refined and complete sounding headphone in the end. Since I felt that the HE-5 LE sounded slightly fuller/richer in the mids than the original, this gave me a little better feeling of being in the same room with the recorded piano than with the original HE-5. The different harmonics and keys on the piano seem to have a more cohesive body and point of origin, rather than being slightly nebulous in origin and space. And at high volume levels I thought the LE were indeed less fatiguing in the treble than the original HE-5 which have hundreds of hours on them, all the while retaining all the great things that I posted about liking in the original (like the detail, sparkle and impact). However, there was a sense of slightly more space or openness in the original HE-5, where the LE seemed a little more constrained or intimate sounding than the original (until I removed the grill clothe later).
COMPARISONS: I then compared them to my re-cabled HD800, with the LE and HD800 both plugged into my SAC KH1000 amp at the same time. The amp has a 4-pin for K1000 phones plus a 1/4" jack and there was no change in amplification quality with both phones vs only one at a time. So I used this amp initially to compare them. In comparison of the two phones I thought the HD800 were a little more fatiguing with moderate to loud volume levels of jazz trumpet music (Peter Asplund), in exchange for a bigger more spacious soundstage. The HD800 just don't like being paired with a bright amp like the SAC. The HD800 excel because of their extraordinary clarity and soundstage, where the sound doesn't seem to come from a little speaker next to the ear, but rather the sound seems to come from outside the headphones. The LE seem to have more of a wide and deep in-the-head "head-stage" combined with some out of the head imaging, for an overall more intimate presentation. With the SAC amp I would say the HD800 are more detailed and aggressive, but to me the HE-5 LE don't seem to lack much in the way of detail or liveliness except when in direct comparison to the HD800. With quick switching back and for the contrast between the crispness of the HD800 and smoothness of the HE-5 LE is more apparent. After this I started looking at amplifier synergy along with my comparisons, and a lot of the following discussion covers how they sound with different amplifiers.
Moving the HD800 over to the Woo WA6 and comparing them again to the HE-5LE/SAC amp combo, the HD800 improved noticeably but I thought the 800's were still a little more fatiguing with some music than the HE-5 LE once the volumes get very loud. This was less of an issue when moving the HD800 to the ZDT amp. So, with many amps the frequency response of the HE-5 LE is a little more balanced than the HD800, and the HE-5 LE are more forgiving of the choice of amplifier as well. I love the huge soundstage of the HD800, but it quickly seemed that there would be some things that the HE-5LE would be better at. For example, I switched to Fourplay "Between the Sheets" and the bass line with HE-5 LE was more visceral and punchy, and close to that of the LA7000 (but less than the O2 Mk1 and maybe a stock D7000). With loud rock music the HE-5 LE seemed more suited to the task than my HD800, unless I used the HD800 on the ZDT amp. The LE were also less fatiguing with loud rock music than the Grado HF-2, as well the original HE-5.
The HE-5 LE on the SAC amp can play a good bit louder than with the Woo WA6 amp. In comparing both phones on the Woo WA6, the HD800 will play louder than the HE-5 LE with that same amp but both could use a little more impact. But switch the LE over to the SAC, EF-5, ZDT or Luxman amplifiers and the HE-5 LE take on a new level of impact, power and energy. So, the amp you use to drive the HE-5 LE can still be important. Meanwhile the HD800 don't sound nearly as good on those other amps as they do one the ZDT or Luxman. Despite the lesser power, I still felt that the HE-5 LE sounds very nice and balanced with the WA6. While the WA6 doesn't have the impact and power of the EF5 or SAC amps, it has enough juice that I would not be maxing out the WA6 very often if I was using it as my primary amp for the HE-5 LE. Power isn't everything and the tonal balance and soundstage with the WA6 was very good. The LE responded similarly with the ALO Amphora, in sound and power levels, and like the WA6 it was adequate but at the lower end of what I would recommend for these headphones.
Heck, if absolutely needed I can actually drive the HE-5 LE with an iBasso D4 portable amp or CEntrance DACport, but that would not be my first choice as they are less powerful than the WA6. Headphone efficiency seems close enough to the original HE-5, but it's slightly easier to drive the LE with some portable amps because it doesn't seem to demand as much current from the amplifier. Underpowered amps sounded less strained when pushed to the limits with the LE vs trying the original HE-5 on them, but I would not be happy driving them with a typical 5v portable rechargeable amp. Oddly, the HiFiMan HM-801 actually seemed to have some difficulty driving the HE-5 LE, while it had no trouble at all driving the 300 ohm HD600 and HD800.
In previous testing the SAC amp was better with my K1000, while the EF5 was better with HE-5; but the LE seems to do well with either amp. I did prefer the RCA cleartop tube with the LE, while I was using a Mullard for the original HE-5 or HD800 (can't find my tung sol black glass 12AU7). The SAC and Nuforce HDP amps do give the LE a little bigger soundstage than the EF5, although their soundstage is still slightly smaller than when using the Woo WA6 (which has a smaller soundstage than the ZDT or Luxman). All of these amps had more power for the LE than the WA6 or Amphora. The ZDT and Luxman sounded very similar to each other and were the best amps for the HE-5 LE, giving them a combination of bigger soundstage and better impact that I don't get get at the same time with my lesser amps. I would say the LE soundstage has good depth and width, although it's a little more forward/intimate and less deep/wide than my HD800/HE60 or K1000. I'd say it's soundstage is almost as big as the O2 Mk1, HD600 or LA7000 (and it's bigger than HF-2 or ESW10).
I thought the Nuforce HDP amp sounded good with HE-5 but it's even better with the HE-5 LE, as is the RSA Protector and ALO Amphora - but the HE-5 LE still really shine with a high-end amp like ZDT or Luxman. While the HDP seems to have more power for the LE than the WA6, it's just a little less than the SAC or EF-5. The Protector and Amphora were closer to the power of the WA6, and still adequate - surprising considering they are both battery driven. Even with the DACport and D4 I would not typically listen at higher than 75% on the volume, because the HE-5 LE are easier to drive than the original HE-5. The HE-5 LE actually sounded better with the DACport or Protector than the HD800, where the HD800 seemed more underpowered with the DACport and a bit bright with the Protector.
When reviewing the Luxman P-1u amp I also did a lot of comparison between the HE-5 LE and the Stax O2 with the WES amp. The Stax O2 Mk1 excel because of their transparency, detail and their solid foundation in the bass lending weight to the instruments. The HE-5 LE with grill clothe removed come closer to the detail but not the transparency of these flagship headphones. The LE come close to the soundstage and headstage size of the O2, but they sound a little thinner than the O2 although fuller than the HD800. The un-modded LE on the Luxman P-1u seemed to be a little more balanced and neutral than the O2/WES, with a little more treble extension; but they still had less weight in the bottom-end and less transparency overall. The Stax O2 still gave a better sense of being there at the performance, but with the WES amp the O2's bass can also be a little more prominent than is necessary. On the other hand, the Sennheiser HE60 on the WES are also very balanced sounding and can easily top the HE-5 LE at normal listening volumes. But like the HD800, the HE60 can sound a little fatiguing at high volumes and they cost me 3x more than the HE-5 LE.
So, overall I'd say the HE-5 LE frequency response is very balanced sounding, but leaning towards the "warm side". I was happy with the bass, mids and treble although I might have wished for slightly more bass weight when the grille clothe is removed, or more treble sparkle, extension and transparency when the grill clothe is in place. The descriptions below were with the stock cable and grill clothe in place, and then I'll further discuss the changes with different cable and grill clothe removal.
BASS: The LE's bass is tight and fast, without bloat or one-note bass. Bass detail is good. The LE plays strong to 25Hz when checking with test tones, and 20 Hz is maybe only 2-3 db down from that. Bass impact is greater than that of the HD800 and less than that of my O2 Mk1 with WES, so it's fairly close to the impact and quantity of my LA7000 although not quite as strong at 20-30Hz. If I had to guess I would say that the LE have less bass weight than a stock D7000 would have, but more than the HD600/800. I don't think the LE take away from or add to the bass when the grill clothe is left in place. They can be appropriately punchy and weighty when called for when using an amp with good current reserves like the SAC, EF5, HDP or ZDT. With the WA6 or Amphora the bass impact is a little softer although they never sound thin with those amps.
MIDRANGE: Instruments and voices have very good timbre and tone. Vocals are rich and involving, and seem firmly grounded. I did not hear any unwanted peaks or troughs with test tones from Bink Audio Test CD. I felt the mids to be slightly forward sounding but not overly so, and maybe closer to that of the presentation of the HD600 (i.e. less forward than the HF-2). Listening to the HE-5 LE for a long time and then quickly switching to my Grado HF-2 reveals just how colored my HF-2 are, which sound a little nasally in the mids after hearing and adjusting to something much more neutral. I can switch from the HE-5 LE to the K1000, HD800, LA7000 or O2 Mk1 and not feel like I have much adjustment to make to the new sound (my re-cabled HD800 are not as bright as with the stock cable).
TREBLE: The treble is ever so softly muted in comparison to the original HE-5; but I don't feel that it's lacking, and in comparison to my Stax O2 Mk1 they are not as dark sounding as the O2 (even with grill clothe in place). They have a nice sparkle to the sound, and cymbals ring true. I can hear out to 16Khz with them using my 48 year old ears, although the 12Khz and 16Khz tones sound a bit quieter than the 10Khz tones where I believe I can hear a peak in the frequency response. I could not hear a 6Khz - 8Khz peak to contribute to sibilance, and even my sibilant recordings from Diana Krall or Kathleen Edwards sounded good with the LE.
MODIFICATIONS: After reports of the LE improving with the original HE-5 cable, or with the grill clothe removed, I tried both of those mods after the headphones had over 250 hours on them. I did find improved treble presence with the silver plated copper cable of the original HE-5. This could lead to the sense of better detail even though it wasn't really that much more than with the original cable. It's possible that there was slightly more micro-detail, but I think it was more of an improvement in the tone than detail. I wanted to use the stock LE cable with 4-pin XLR plug on my SAC and ZDT amps, so I tried removing the grill clothe next. This also increased the treble energy a small but noticeable amount, but also resulted in the sense of better transparency and openness to the sound.
There was a small reduction in bass impact and weight with the grill cloth mod, but this only brought the bass to be slightly less than the LA7000 and still more than that of the HD800. I prefer the bass and lower-mids weight with the grill clothe in place, and the highs with the grille clothe removed. If I had an especially dark sounding amp or source I might use both of these mods at the same time, but otherwise I did not feel the need to do that.
In comparing the modded LE to my AKG K1000 I found the LE's mids and highs to sound almost identical in richness and detail; and while the K1000 were more open and had a larger soundstage, the HE-5 LE sounded much more natural and realistic in the bass region. The LE bass detail, speed and impact was noticeably better than the K1000, to the point that I could live with the smaller soundstage since the mids and highs were just as good. With the grill clothe in place and the original HE-5 SPC cable I still prefer the HE-5 LE over the K1000.
Previously I mentioned that the LE are not a giant killer, but I think the K1000 are just a little over-rated, after hearing two different pairs on a variety of headphone and speaker amps. They have great mids and highs, but they just don't seem to have the focus and detail in the bass that a high-end headphone should have. I simply preferred the HE-5 LE over my K1000 driven by ZDT or SAC KH1000 amps.
The modded LE's mids and highs are also very similar to that of my LA7000 with bubinga wood cups and Jenna Labs cable, although the LA7000 further improve upon the LE's bass (and they don't sound like closed cans). And the LA7000 have a little better lower midrange presence than the LE unless I replace the grill clothe. But if I replace the grill clothe then the HE-5 LE don't compare as well in the highs or sense of openness; although they gain back the lower mids and bass impact/control and move closer to the LA7000. Some people may be willing to sacrifice this small amount of bass impact/control for the improved transparency, especially since the bass is still more than adequate with the modification. Other's may find using the SPC cable to be the better option.
I keep switching back and forth and haven't decided on my favorite configuration yet. Right now I have the grill cloth re-installed with the stock cable, using them on the SAC amp. The beauty of these is that I can mix and match the mods on a whim, or even add more dampening under the grills if I wanted to improve upon the bass even further. In the future I'd like to try the Smeggy mod, along with the original HE-5 SPC cable or a balanced APS V3 cable someday, and maybe even a new material for the grill itself.
(with stock cable but grill clothe removed):
CONCLUSIONS: The HE-5 LE seem to be a refinement and improvement over the original HE-5, but not such a big change that Head-Direct would want to continue selling the old model at the same time. I love the wood cups and wood sliders on the original, and am sorry to see that part discontinued, but I can see how the new materials would be more reliable and long lasting. I also think the 4-pin XLR cable with single ended adapter is a great move, and many audiophiles will welcome this change. They will still have people who want a shorter lighter or thinner cable, or a brighter sounding cable. Since they can't make everyone happy with just one cable, they started offering people the option to buy these cables separately if you email them.
After spending several weeks with the HE-5 LE, I can honestly tell people who can't afford the LA7000, or HD800 with a nice amp and aftermarket cable (or Stax O2 Mk1 with SRM-717 or better) to consider the HE-5 LE as their next choice. My HD800/ZDT amp and O2/HE60/WES amp are down in my basement so I don't get to listen to them as much as I do the HE-5 LE in my bedroom rig. I don't like carrying headphones up and down the stairs, where I often forget where I left them or can't find them where I need them to be when I want to have a listen. I prefer to pair a set of headphones with a particular rig, so I am perfectly happy to listen to the HE-5 LE upstairs where I spend a lot of my time being closer to my family (and other times I do want to hide in the cave with my big headphone rig).
The cheapest headphone to come close to replicating this kind of sound is the $699 SR-404 Limited Edition, which is sold out as new and hard to find used. I don't feel that the RS-1 or stock D7000 perform quite as well as these - those are still good options to consider if you must, but I feel that they both need to be modded to be able to catch up or pass these up. In my case I simply prefer the HE-5 LE, which are a good compliment to my HD800 for when I want something a little different or want to listen without my ZDT amp.
My Grado HF-2 and Sennheiser HD600 don't get any ear time at all these days, because I'm enjoying the detail and speed of the LE more. And I'm enjoying the HE-5 LE/SAC amp more than my SR-Lambda/eXStatA combination in the bedroom. My ATH-ESW10JPN remind me a bit of the HE-5 LE, but the LE still have more detail, speed, soundstage and bass impact. When I need isolation I grab the LA7000, but during the summer the LA7000 are hotter and not as comfortable to wear as the LE. The K1000/SAC amp used to be my bedroom summer headphone rig, but the HE-5 LE have now replaced the K1000 permanently. I think that is a strong testimony to how much I enjoy using the new HE-5 LE so far.