Pros: Excellent Pairing, Size, Balanced, Accessories & Packaging
Cons: Adapter, Jack Position, Current UI
First I’d like to thank HiFiMAN for sending me their new HM-700 DAP and RE-400B (balanced version of the RE-400) bundle for me to review. I have always wondered about the balanced players that HiFiMAN offers and what they do to balanced IEMs. From what I hear, the RE-400B is a very nice match with the HM-700 in balanced mode.
Now, if you are around on Head-Fi often, you probably know about HiFiMAN by now. For those who are unfamiliar with HiFiMAN, they are a company founded by Dr. Fang Bian in 2007. I haven’t had any experience before this about their DAPs and IEMs, but I really do like their planar magnetic headphones, especially the HE-6 and HE-500. I’m gonna be honest; when I first heard about HiFiMAN, I immediately thought that they were another new company from China, but boy was I wrong.
I should probably tell you some more about the HM-700. It is a balanced DAP, which is not very common. To use the balanced function you will need an IEM or headphone with a 4-pole TRRS plug. HiFiMAN claims that the soundstage is improved with a balanced source and I was expecting quite a bit from the combo.
**Disclaimer** I was given the HM-700 + RE-400B bundle as a review sample and this review will be my honest, unbiased opinion.
Unboxing & Accessories
When I first saw the HM-700 box, I was rather impressed. It looks very high quality and straight away, it leaves a good impression. Surprisingly there was no seal though, I’d rather that they’d have that, but no big deal. Upon opening the magnetic flap, you are greeted with the RE-400 and the HM-700. All in all, HiFiMAN has presented the HM-700 very well made me think that it is a very high quality product.
The HM-700 bundle certainly doesn’t skimp on accessories. It comes with some manuals, quite a few tips for the RE-400, some adapter cables, a USB cable, a cleaning cloth and a cloth case for the DAP. Outside the box, there is an armband as well. I thought that there would be a case for the RE-400, but it’s alright; I’m sure we all have some cases floating around somewhere. One thing I’m not entirely sure about is the balanced to unbalanced cable – it is rather confusing. I’m not sure why it connects to the USB port, but if you get what this is for, do feel free to correct me.
Design & UI
Before I forget, I’d like to mention how much I like the HM-700’s appearance and build. Amongst the huge DAPs that seem to be becoming more and more popular, HiFiMAN seem to still remember that some people value portability a lot. It is the smallest “audiophile” DAP I have come across. It is built rather solidly and it feels like it could survive a fall or two from your pocket. I, however, do not like the 3.5mm jack on the side of the player at all. It is very awkward if the plug of your headphone is straight instead of right angled. The buttons feel solid and overall the HM-700 is designed rather well. I just wished that HiFiMAN will stay away from putting the jack on the side in the future. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there is no micro SD slot, which might be a problem for some people, but 32 GB on the go is enough for me.
The UI is somewhat a sensitive issue. I remember when the DX50 came out and everybody was bashing its terrible UI, but with firmware updates, it turned into a very smooth experience. Right now, the HM-700 UI is not unusable, but it is unpleasant to use to say the least. It lags and is quite hard to navigate. I hope that with future firmware updates, the HM-700 will improve on the UI and I will wait for some firmware updates before I judge the UI.
For most of the review, I used the RE-400B IEMs in balanced mode and I really think that they are an awesome pairing. The HM-700 takes the slight warm edge off and like they claimed, improves the soundstage. I also tried the DN-1000, AX35, DN-900, BA-100 and some other IEMs on it through the adapter. The adapter looks and feels a little dodgy though, so I’m not sure if that affected the sound. Unfortunately I could not just test the HM-700’s DAC section because there was no line out. I did put the volume to max and try it with my O2 and UHA760 loaner unit though. The sound was quite clean, but lacked a little bit next to the DX50’s line out.
Here is where things get really interesting and we see what impact the balanced output has on the sound quality. I was not really sure what to expect from this player because it is so different from all the other “audiophile” DAPs. For one, it is a lot smaller and thinner than other DAPs. However, I have heard a few HiFiMAN headphones and I was quite impressed, so I did expect the HM-700 to perform quite well.
Fast and unobtrusive would be the best way to describe it. The mid-bass is rather neutral, but perhaps just a little bit on the lighter side of things. The RE-400 in unbalanced on the DX50 and DX90 seems to have a little bit more bass; there seems to linger there for a little longer than with the HM-700. This is very welcome as it takes that little bit of warmth away from the RE-400. The detail in the bass is around the level of the DX50 in balanced mode with the RE-400, which is quite a feat considering that the HM-700 and RE-400 bundle costs $249. Whilst the HM-700 is very competent in the mid-bass, I feel like maybe it rolls off a little lower down because the sub-bass seems to be a bit less than the iBasso players. The bass is definitely very nice and I think I might actually prefer the bass of the HM-700 with the RE-400 over the DX50, but it doesn’t quite reach the DX90 yet.
If there was one thing I could change about the RE-400 it would be to pull back the forward midrange a little bit and the HM-700 in balanced mode does exactly that. I wouldn’t call the midrange recessed, but it is a little pulled back in comparison to other players. This works very well with the RE-400 because it is a bit mid forward, but with IEMs like the DN-1000 and AX35 that already had a recessed midrange it didn’t work too well (this is running them unbalanced using the adapter). I also feel like there is a slight upper midrange spike which makes the vocal clarity better and helps some IEMs sound less veiled. Instruments sounds realistic and I love the way that the HM-700 and RE-400 presents pianos. It’s not too thick, like the DX50, or too thin – it’s just right. Personally I really enjoy the laid back midrange with the boosted clarity; it sounds great to me.
Ah, this is what I enjoyed most about the HM-700. They have a lightly boosted treble that is very well extended. There are no odd spikes to me, but instead the entire treble is a little bit elevated. This results in the overall sound being livelier and it sounds more detailed and gives an impression of better clarity. The RE-400 is very neutral in the treble region and I have no complaints, but I do like a brighter presentation and it’s almost like the HM-700 and the RE-400 were designed specifically to match each other. Cymbals have more of a clash to them and the decay is a little longer compared to the unbalanced DX50. Due to the longer overall treble decay, I feel like there is more detail in the high frequencies compared to the DX50, which was quite surprising. It is still quite a bit away from the DX90 though, but it costs almost twice as much so it’s not really a fair fight.
Soundstage & Imaging
The soundstage does seem to be boosted when running the RE-400s balanced. The RE-400s already have a pretty good soundstage trough the DX50, but the HM-700 improves the width and height. The depth stays roughly the same. When listening to classical music, the difference is quite obvious, but with bad quality files the difference is not as noticeable. The soundstage is not as good in unbalanced mode though but in balanced mode, it is very impressive.
Imaging is another of the HM-700’s strong points. It doesn’t quite have the pinpoint imaging of the DX90, but it is more or less on the DX50’s level. Instruments are very easy to tell apart and I think that on congested tracks it might even be a little bit better than the DX50 when running the RE-400s balanced (the DX50 -> RE-400 is not balanced obviously).
Separation, Detail & Clarity
The HM-700’s separation was definitely impressive for a $150 ($249 - $99 for the RE-400) player and it doesn’t do anything wrong, but it isn’t top notch either. I think I have been a little spoilt by the DX90’s separation over the past few days lol. The instrument separation is good, but it does get a little congested at times, but I get the feeling it is the RE-400 that is causing this instead of the HM-700. The vocal separation is better over here and the HM-700 makes the RE-400’s vocals easily compete with more expensive IEMs. I think that overall it just falls a bit short of the DX50’s separation, but I think that the DX50 has good separation and the DX50 costs as much as the entire bundle, so once again, not a very fair comparison there.
The HM-700’s cooler tone makes me feel like it is quite detailed. Detail wise, it is a clear upgrade from a Sansa Clip+ or iPod Nano and it is right up there with the DX50. Although I didn’t hear anything I couldn’t in the DX50, the HM-700 rendered some small details better, so just for the RE-400, I have to say the HM-700 is more detailed here.
Clarity from the HM-700 is also excellent for its price. As I mentioned previously, it has a slight upper midrange boost that improves the vocal clarity of the RE-400 a bit, but it can also make some IEMs a little more sibilant. Instruments sound sharper with the RE-400 on the HM-700 than the DX50. It does very well in terms of clarity.
HiFiMAN RE-400 Mini Review
Now I’m sure that many people are now quite familiar with the RE-400. It’s been quite often recommended around the forums and ljokerl even rates them at a 9/10, which is ridiculously high for a $100 IEM. Now that I have listened to them, I completely understand all the hype surrounding them. I feel like for $100, the RE-400 is very impressive and I think it may outclass the AX35, my favourite IEM under $100. Granted, the RE-400 is slightly more expensive than the AX35, but the AX35 really does punch way above its price point. To make this comparison fair, I ran both from the DX50.
The bass is almost perfectly neutral. It does lack a little bit of sub-bass, but it doesn’t feel very rolled off. The mid-bass have good impact and is very fast. I have never once felt like the bass was bloated, but times I did long for a little bit more impact. The detail is wonderful with the RE-400, but I do feel like overall, the AX35 is a little better in terms of bass. It has more impact, but it still stays as fast; the sub-bass is around the same on the AX35.
The midrange is where the RE-400 does extremely well. Never have I experienced any vocal sibilance and it has excellent clarity. Compared to the AX35, the RE-400’s midrange is a little creamy sounding and less bright. It is also slightly forward whereas the AX35’s midrange is recessed. The RE-400 is also very detailed here and I can hear little nuances that aren’t there in the AX35. The RE-400 simply has the best, non-fatiguing midrange in its price range that I have heard.
The treble is the area that the RE-400 is a little weak in. I find that it is a little bit too subdued for my taste. With the DX50, it is quite smooth and a bit rolled off. It isn’t rolled off to the point where the treble sounds veiled though, the best word to describe it would be relaxing. There is no sibilance and it is very non-fatiguing. The AX35’s treble is on the bright side, but both are about equally detailed. It really depends on whether you prefer a boosted treble or a slightly relaxed treble.
Soundstage is impressive for the price, being more or less equal with the AX35 and imaging is very good. I think the imaging of the RE-400 surpasses the AX35. The clarity of the RE-400 is perhaps a little behind the AX35; it is smoother while the AX35 is sharper. I have to say the separation of the RE-400 is better than the AX35, especially in the midrange.
Overall, the RE-400 is perhaps ahead of the AX35 in terms of technicalities. If the RE-400 rates a 9, I would give the AX35 a 8.6-8.8. However, these two are quite different in terms of sound signature (AX35 is V shaped while the RE-400 is just about neutral) and I can see some people preferring the AX35. Both are incredibly good value for money and if I had to pick one it would have to be the RE-400. Do note that when you pair the RE-400 with the HM-700 balanced is quite a bit better than the AX35 with the DX50.
It has been an exciting ride with the RE-400B and HM-700. Honestly, I just expected the HM-700 to be another DAP and the RE-400 to be a nice sounding IEM, but they have really shocked me. I was honestly not expecting them to sound this good; they completely exceeded my expectations. Anybody who thinks the RE-400 is good should hear them balanced on the HM-700. If HiFiMAN’s entry level products are this good I can only imagine how their RE-600 and HM-901 balanced combo will sound.
Most of these pictures are taken by user twister6, they are not mine. If he doesn't want me posting them I will take them down.