Pros: Exciting, bold sound with great bass, engaging mids, and mostly smooth highs,
Cons: Stock cable is annoying (but easily replaced), highs can be edgy at times
By now I think most of us are familiar with the history behind the HiFiMAN HE-series headphones. What started with a single model has grown into a full lineup, with prices ranging from $1299 for the flagship HE-6 to just $249 for the entry-level HE-300. Worth noting is that the HE-300 stands apart from the rest by using a “traditional” dynamic driver. Every other model in the HE-series is based on planar magnetic driver technology.
The entry level position among the planar models is held by the HE-400. It is the most recent HiFiMAN headphone released and sells for $399, putting it in competition with some more established designs such as the Sennheiser HD600/650, AKG K701, and Denon D2000. As the only planar model available in this price range, I was curious how the HE-400 would measure up.
Those who follow my ramblings here know that I have a newborn baby in the house. Accompanying the birth of that little guy was a major purge of my open headphones; the logic being that I wouldn’t be getting much use out of them. So I sold my Sennheiser HD600, HD650, and HD800, my Grado PS1000 and RS1, and my Beyer DT880 and DT990. I also passed on buying the Audeze LCD-2 and HiFiMAN HE-500, which I have borrowed from friends multiple times and really wanted to own. Yet here I am with a new open headphone – why? The answer is simple: it’s one thing to have a $900 or $1,000 headphone sitting around getting little use. It’s quite another matter with a $399 model. I figured I would start small in the HiFiMAN lineup and make my way up the ladder when the time is right. Since then, the HE-500 has dropped to $699, but the point remains the same.
One would think that HiFiMAN must have cut some major corners with the HE-400 to allow pricing it at nearly half what the HE-500 sells for. But one would be wrong in that assumption. HiFiMAN claims the key to the low price is the use of automated manufacturing techniques. Apparently their planar magnetic designs are mature enough by this point to allow some level of hands-off construction. If anyone has ever seen the episode of “How It’s Made” showing the AKG factory building K702 headphones, you’ll note how automation makes the process many times faster and more efficient than it otherwise would be. There is still an element of human involvement but it is reduced in many key areas.
Think of a handmade… well, anything really. Whatever it is you picture, it’s going to be labor intensive to build. It’s also going to be expensive compared to an assembly line type operation. And it’s going to be more prone to have variability and likely a higher rate of flaws. Until now, it seems that all HE-series headphones were hand crafted. That sounds impressive but in reality there have always been issues with the method – think Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3 sounding different from one example to the next. Think the initial run of the Grado PS1000 and the often disappointing silver finish. With the HE-400, HiFiMAN has automated the process of producing the driver, and I suspect at some point soon they will have more of the process automated, similar to AKG. The bottom line here is that the HE-400 may have otherwise been slapped with a $500 or $600 price tag if this new development process had not been achieved. So don’t think of it merely as a “budget” headphone with all the negative connotations that go along with that thought. Rather, think of it as an “optimized” design which allows the price to stay relatively modest.
In terms of appearance the HE-400 is very similar to its HE-siblings. The key difference is the blue paintjob, which I actually find more attractive than the usual dark color of the other models. Other than that we get the same leather headband, the same frame assembly, the same detachable cabling system, and the same earpads. But there are a few significant differences worth noting.
First, and probably most important, are the drivers themselves. They have smaller magnets and appear less complicated compared to the older models. While the HE-500 driver assembly looks like a fancy cheese grater, the HE-400 uses less complex perforations and a good amount of plastic. There’s also the earpad attachment system which is far better than the older “tab” system. It still isn’t perfect but I was able to swap pads several times without wanting to throw the headphones out the window in frustration. I consider that improvement. I believe all of the HE-series models are now using this new system. Then there’s the packaging and cable differences which I’ll discuss a bit later.
Here are the pertinent specs for the HE-400:
· Efficiency: 92.5 dB/mW
· Impedance: 38 Ohm
· Planar Magnetic driver (orthodynamic)
· Frequency response: 20 Hz to 35 kHz
· Weight: 440 g
In comparison, the HE-500 is 89dB and 502g. That means the HE-400 is lighter and easier to drive. Supposedly one could even run the HE-400 straight from an iPod, though I can’t imagine a scenario where I would actually want to do that. This is certainly not a portable headphone. Still, the prior HE-series models were known to bring many headphone amps to their knees, so the improved efficiency is very welcome, as is the reduced weight.
Like the prior models, the HE-400 is nice but not perfect. It doesn’t have the same level of sophistication and “tightness” that something like a Sennheiser or Audio Technica would have. But overall it is acceptable for the price. The blue finish is attractive, and there is a good mix of leather, metal, and plastic. The new pleather earpads feel decent as far as pleather goes. I’m not usually much of a fan and I would have preferred the velours instead, but I’ve seen far worse. The new pad attachment system does allow the pads to “spin” more freely than I’d like. It’s the only area that feels to me like it isn’t of very high quality. Yet the pads never fall off and are fairly easy to swap, so maybe I shouldn’t complain.
Prior HE models came in a nice looking storage case. In contrast, the HE-400 ships in a fairly basic plastic package as if it was a $50 headphone. As much as I miss the “wow factor” of the fancy box, I’m actually glad it was omitted here - unnecessary extras are just what you don’t need when trying to keep prices low. HiFiMAN does throw in a storage pouch which I’ve never once used; I guess it’s better than nothing and some people might have use for it. HiFiMAN sells a nice travel case for $29 if anyone desired such a thing. My HE-400 lives on a headphone stand so I’m pleased that I wasn’t forced to pay for a storage case that I’ll never use.
Prior models included a single spare earpad. I always thought that was strange – why not a pair? The HE-400 solves that strangeness by no longer including anything. And that’s fine by me. Additional sets in velour can be had for just $10 a pair.
The included cable is 10 feet long, terminates in a 1/8” plug, and is fairly thick and unwieldy. For me, this was the biggest letdown of the whole experience. I recall not being a big fan of the HE-500 cable, so I knew this one would probably be bad, but over time I came to really dislike it. It was an easy fix due to the plethora of aftermarket cable options on the market. Some people may not be as easily annoyed as I am, and may find the stock cable totally acceptable.
This is the equipment I used for my evaluation of the HE-400:
Source: JF Digital HDM-03S music server, Squeezebox Touch, Marantz SA-1
DAC: Violectric V800, Anedio D2, Yulong Sabre D18, Matrix Quattro DAC, Kao Audio UD2C-HP, Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11
AMP: Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2, Violectric V200, Yulong Sabre A18, Matrix Quattro Amp, Lake People G109P, Apex Butte, Audinst AMP-HP
Cables: As I’ll discuss later, I didn’t care for the stock HE-400 cable. So I replaced it with a CablePro Earcandy for single ended use and a Toxic Cables Hybrid for balanced operation.
Earpads: I swapped out the stock pads for a set of Lawton modified Denon D7000 pads. I’ll explain later.
Power was handled by a CablePro Revelation conditioner and CablePro Reverie AC cables. Interconnects were Signal Cable Analog Two for RCA and Paillics Silver Net for XLR. The HE-400 was burned in for well over 100 hours prior to doing any critical listening.
I have to preface this by telling my story about the pads. The stock pads are actually pretty nice - I was worried that I would have major isses with overheating, but that ended up not being the case. No, my issue was on the left side of my head apparently being a little lumpy. Behind my left ear, the stock pad would leave a tiny gap smaller than my pinkie finger. No amount of fiddling with the headband or cup angle seemed to remedy this. I've never had this issue with any of the dozens of headphones I've used, including the HE-500 with velour pads. I can’t fault the HE-400 but rather my own uneven skull. In any case, the gap caused a small but audible difference in sound from left side to right.
Obviously I couldn't eveluate the HE-400 without a proper seal. I borrowed an HE-500 from a friend but it used the older mounting system, so the velour pads were of no use. I was considering ordering a set (they are very reasonably priced) when I had an idea - why not try a few other pads that I have around the house? The very first set I found when I went digging in the drawer was from a Denon D7000. It had been modified by Lawton Audio when I sent my D7000 in for upgrades. When Lawton returned my Denons in LA7000 form, I never actually used the pads, opting instead for the J-Money V3 pads. So these Lawton pads were just waiting for a new home. For those unfamiliar, Lawton stuffs the pads with extra Poly Fil type material, especially to the rear area, which makes them look somewhat like an Audeze LCD-2 pad. It makes a great seal with my (apparently oddly shaped) head, and helps position the drivers at an angle to theoretically give a more speaker-like presentation. All of the impressions that follow were obtained with the Lawton pads in place. Since I couldn't get a good seal with the stock pads, no comparisons are possible. That might invalidate some of my impressions but there’s nothing I can do about it.
The sound from the HE-400 was immediately appealing to me. I heard the typical "planar" presentation which I categorize as having a sort of effortless sound to it, with excellent deep bass extension. I don't know how better to describe it, but it’s something that the LCD-2, Thunderpants, and HiFiMAN models all have in common, despite all sounding very different from one another. There's just an ease to the presentation that dynamic headphones can't quite match. I'm not saying planars are always superior, but this is one of their strengths.
Bass on the HE-400 is very nicely done. It isn't huge, but has enough of a solid impact and presence to be satisfying for all but the most extreme basshead listeners. Where similarly priced dynamic headphones from Sennheiser, AKG, and Beyerdynamic all have rolled off frequency response in the sub-40Hz range, the HE-400 (like most planar models) stays almost completely linear down to 25Hz or so, with a very mild drop below that. To my ears this ends up sounding more convincing; as if more air is being displaced. And maybe it actually is. The bass presentation is very close to that of the HE-500, lacking only a small amount of texture and refinement in direct comparison. On its own though it is some of the best low frequency reproduction I’ve heard from a non-flagship headphone.
Mids on the HE-400 are somewhat forward. This gives it a more exciting sound than the more neutral HE-500. There's an added "bite" to things like trumpets and violins, making for a very engaging listen. The mids have a nice smoothness to them though, meaning they aren't just run of mill, average quality stuff being boosted to sound more exciting. They really do have enough clarity and focus to pull off this little trick. Upper mids are somewhat subdued, which generally makes for a smooth presentation though it can occasionally take away some realism in the form of a lack of airiness or trailing edge. This was mostly noticeable with really well recorded tracks – on lesser material it could actually help hide some of the harshness from poor mastering. So it ends up being a give and take.
As with many headphones, the highs of the HE-400 are the one area where it isn't perfect. It isn't terrible either, but this is where I heard the biggest divide between the HE-400 and HE-500. The 400 has a bit of darkness to it but also has some brightness. "Dark and bright at the same time? How can that be?" Take a look at the Frequency Response chart as measured by Tyll at InnerFidelity. Notice the “droop” starting at roughly 1.5kHz which doesn't pick up until around 7kHz. From there it actually gets somewhat bright, and that's exactly how I hear it. Brass and woodwinds, while seeming fairly cool and dark overall, also have some "zing" up top peaking at 9kHz or so. This can sometimes come across as a bit brittle or harsh. Other times it is inoffensive and actually brings out some extra perceived detail. It works more often than not, but it must be mentioned because certain people are more sensitive to these types of peaks. I also need to point out how hard it was for me to wrap my brain around this presentation. With female vocals for example, you hear something of a darker presentation with less air or breathiness, which would normally be smooth all the way around. But then you get this peak which tends to accent certain consonant sounds, not quite sibilant but borderline.
Once Tyll got his measurements posted it started making more sense, though I do think my pad swap has helped the problem somewhat. I know people who use the velour pads and they report a subjective improvement as well, so that's something I definitely think is worth exploring since it costs so little.
I was surprised that the HE-400 was able to pull off a reasonably large and very well defined soundstage despite being on the darker side. Planar models tend to not have the most spacious presentation anyway, and the same goes for darker headphones in general. So I figured the HE-400 wouldn't have much going on to brag about in this area. Perhaps my angled pads are doing a lot to help, but I really do find these to be nice and open sounding, with good definition of the musical space. Imaging is accurate and there is some really nice layering going on. It might not be up to par with the HE-6 or HE-500, but it is definitely near the top of the pack in the "mid-fi" range where HiFiMAN has positioned this model. The K701 and variants might be more spacious but it comes at the cost of being somwhat artifical.
The HE-400 is supposedly the planar for the common man. It doesn't require heavy amplification, so one could reasonably use it from a fairly low powered amp, or even straight from a DAP. That's the theory anyway. In practice I found that to be only partially true.
Yes, my iPad and Sansa Clip can drive the HE400 to reasonably loud levels, and the resulting sound is certainly listenable. But I don't enjoy it nearly as much as I do when adding even a basic amp like my portable Audinst AMP-HP. Specifically, the bass presentation is nowhere near as satisfying until a separate amp is involved. And the highs are much more prone to offend with that “edginess” I mentioned. The only exception to this amp required rule might be some of the "premium" portable units such as the iBasso DX100 or HiFiMAN's own HM series. I did try my RoCoo D Power Edition and the result was reasonably good – better than my iPad, but still not great. Ultimately I would never use this as a portable headphone anyway so I don't mind the amp requirement.
As far as which amps work best, it becomes a question of sound signature preferences. All amps have their own unique presentation, and while the differences are not always huge, you want to pick one that best fits your predilection. I found that I enjoyed the HE-400 with all of my desktop amps, but some were better than others. I don't care how sensitive they are, planar headphones seem to always respond to power. For that reason the powerful Violectric V200 and its cousin the Lake People G109P did a fantastic job. The V200 had a little more clarity on the top end but for the most part the cheaper G109P was able to keep up. I also liked the Apex Butte and the Analog Design Labs Svetlana 2 for their exceptional midrange presentation. The Matrix Quattro amp in balanced mode offered an enjoyably smooth, refined presentation for a low price. But I think my favorite pairing is with the new Yulong Sabre A18 amp in balanced mode. This is a Class A, fully discrete, differential design that just mates perfectly with the HE-400. It delivers just under 2 full watts per channel to this particular headphone, bringing it close to the V200 in terms of current delivery. But it has an exceptionally expansive soundstage that sets it apart from the Violectric model. It isn't always better with every headphone, but the HE-400 seems to be a perfect match. Single ended mode was good too, but not quite up to the same level, and in that situation the V200 regained the lead. For anyone interested in balanced operation, I highly recommend the A18/HE-400 pairing.
With a seemingly dark headphone like this you don't want to obfuscate any of the top end presentation by using a darker amp. Yet the sometimes peaky highs also don't need any extra attention either. So keep in mind when planning an HE-400 based system: a generally neutral amp is desirable over one with a strong coloration of any type.
I have owned most of the similarly priced headphones that would be considered competition to the HE-400. Unfortunately I no longer have any of them on hand for direct comparison. But I'm familiar enough with them to make some generalizations.
The AKG K701, and its brethren in various colors, are very different from the HE-400. Almost complete opposites - they have significantly less low frequency resolution, and as a result give the impression of significantly more energy in the upper mids. Personally I would choose the HE-400 every time, except perhaps in the categories of comfort and soundstage size.
The Sennheiser HD650 is still a killer headphone in my opinion. I think it offers a more even, linear presentation from top to bottom, while the HE-400 is far more exciting and dynamic. These two would actually complement each other quite nicely if a person wanted to own two headphone for two different takes on their music.
The Beyerdynamic line of DT770/880/990 is in process of being replaced by the new T70/80/90 models. But not all of those are released yet, and way more people have experience with the DT series. So this is still a fair comparison. The HE-400 strikes me as being somewhere in between the 880 and 990, but superior to either. It has less bass quantity than the 990, but to my ears it does lows in a much more convincing manner. Sub-bass extension is superior to the point where it just makes the 990 sound bad in comparison... and keep in mind that I actually do like the 990. Mids are more forward than either Beyer model, which is a welcome improvement in my opinion. Highs reminds me more of the 990 but are not an exact match - I hear the HE-400 as being less grainy and having a more natural flow; even though they do both get harsh on some tracks, the 990 is clearly the bigger offender.
I mentioned prior that I disliked the length and thickness of the stock cable. So I picked up two different aftermarket cables to try out. Both of them are miles ahead of the stock cable ergonomically, and both happen to look much better as well.
The first is the CablePro Earcandy which is currently on sale for $109 (regularly $129) for a 10 foot length. Construction is described as finely stranded 22 gauge OFC conductors, with a low-loss polyethylene dielectric and an OFC braided shield to block noise. Mine has a 1/4" Neutrik plug for single ended operation though other options do exist. This is a very flexible cable with a low key, classy look to it that exudes quality while still remaining understated. It reminds me of the Cardas Sennheiser upgrade cables, but obviously priced way lower. I have to say I’m exceedingly pleased with the service I received from the company - CablePro sells all kinds of products (several of which I own) and they are extremely pleasant and helpful.
The other cable I got is from Toxic Cables. Based in the UK, their Hybrid cable uses a combination of cryo treated OCC copper and cryo treated OCC silver plated copper. I got mine with balanced termination though again, other choices exist. As of today's exchange rate the price translates to $134 for a 6 footlength. This cable looks like it should cost significantly more than it does – if the color was different it would looks a lot like the older (and rather expensive) Lawton Audio Jena Labs recable jobs. The best part is that it’s surprisingly flexible and easy to manage. I refuse to deal with an unwieldy cable no matter how nice it might look, so this aspect is critical for me. Toxic Cables is also a great company to deal with, and is actually an authorized HiFiMAN distributor as well - so headphone and cables could all be ordered together if one was interested.
With a new headphone to figure out, a newborn baby in the house, and plenty of other reviews on deck, I don't have time to get into a cable debate here. I did let a friend who is a certified cable nut (and has way more free time than I do) borrow both cables, and he loved them. He normally uses Moon Audio Silver Dragon V3 cables for his HE-500 as well as his original HE-5. In his opinion, both the CablePro and Toxic Cables products were just as good as the more expensive Moon option, and possibly better. He said he liked the Earcandy more with his Cary Xciter amp driving the HE-5, and the Hybrid more with his HE-500 powered by the Red Wine Audio Audeze Edition balanced amp/DAC unit. Something about "synergy". Neither of those amps are high up on my list of favorites, so obviously he and I have different tastes. Yet we both enjoy these cables. I intend to keep them both - one will stay with the HE-400 and the other will pair with some future flagship HiFiMAN model that I'll eventually pick up.
HiFiMAN has done an excellent job of tuning the HE-400 to have big, bold sonics with any type of music you throw at them. The low frequency capabilites are very impressive, sounding very close to the much more expensive HiFiMAN models. And the mids are wonderfully engaging - nobody would ever call this a boring sound signature. The only area of concern is the highs; most of the time it is smooth, slightly dark, and generally inoffensive. Every once in a while it becomes just grating enough to remind the listener that this is in fact still a "budget" model.
It sounds like I'm being hard on the HE-400 with my description of the highs. I don't mean to be picky and I don't want to overstate the problem. These really are excellent sounding headphones in the sub-$500 price bracket - a bracket where all entries will be flawed in one way or another. To some extent you have to pick the flaw which you find least offensive and go with that one.
I will say that these are my current favorites in the sub-$500 range. The HD650 is still an excellent all purpose model that could be a suitable counterpart for the HE-400, but if I had to choose just one I'd go with the HE-400 first. The Grado RS-2 might be more exciting for a very limited selection of music, but with everything else the HE-400 leaves it in the dust. Believe it or not, I could totally see the HE-400 being preferred over the HE-500 for some listeners. I think HiFiMAN has done a great job with this release and I can easily recommend them to anyone looking to purchase a good sounding headphone that isn't astronomically priced.