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My first high-end production 'Planar' (Ortho) and wow, what a start!

A Review On: HiFiMAN HE-400

HiFiMAN HE-400

Rated # 17 in Over-Ear
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Audio Quality
Comfort
Design
Value
Quadpatch
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Pros: Balanced, Decent Bass Body, Not much Plastic

Cons: Rather Heavy, Slightly overzealous Clamp, Cable connection could be better - Not much really

This review was originally posted on my blog [ http://noblehifi.blogspot.co.uk/ ].

 

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Disclaimer: A big thank you to Electromod for loaning me the HE-400.


For those of you who don't already know - Hifiman are a Chinese company, although technically founded in New York (2006), their R&D department is in China. In just a few years they've made quite a name for themselves making high end portable audio players, amplifiers and headphones. For the latter their focus has been with 'planar magnetic' (commonly and less correctly referred to as orthodynamic, or 'ortho'), apart from their entry level model, which costs £300. The ortho's range in price from £400 to £1000, but share a very similar design - essentially only the colour changes. Their model numbers can be a little confusing too, so let me try to get my head around this hierarchy:


Their current flagship model is the HE-6. This now has a baby brother with the HE-4, but originally the next model down was the HE-5 and that was replaced by the HE-5LE. Both of the HE-5 models have now been phased out and replaced by the HE-500. Finally there's the focus for this review - the HE-400, which is the company's cheapest and most successful selling ortho to date. 


Hifiman have made a couple of other interesting products recently too. Like the EF-6, a high-end headphone amplifier that partners with the power hungry HE-6 headphone. Then there's the EF-2a, an affordable ($169 US) USB DAC and tube amplifier. More recently Hifiman have been branching out into in-ear monitors, with the RE-400. Let's not forget about their portable audio players too. Models like the HM-801 and the more reasonably priced HM-602, I've always been interested by these, but unfortunately never got the chance to try them. So they clearly have the audio pedigree, albeit a pretty short one. 


I've tested a lot of open back headphones lately, with the DT880HP200GMP400. Plus although I haven't reviewed them, I've spent quite a bit of time with the Sennheiser HD600 & HD650 too, so let's see what I think of this more expensive newcomer.


     SOUND

The HE-400's sound is well balanced, but it's also very impressive and exciting. The real icing on the cake for me is their versatility with various genres. It's an airy and clear sound with slightly warm leanings. There's lots of presence and body here, but with very little colouration or fatigue. Bass almost verges on the epic considering it's control. Mid-range is clear and detailed, while the upper ranges sparkle without being harsh. The soundstage is wonderfully spacious and three dimensional, as is instrument separation. 


That pretty much sums up the HE-400 for me, it's a stunningly likable headphone. There really isn't much to complain about in the sound department, even at this price. If the Sennheiser HD600 was a little cheaper I would say they are equally matched for value, but this is purely based on sound. I have a couple of reservations about the HE-400's comfort, but also at the HD600's price point I would still give the overall crown to the Hifiman. Damn it! Now I'm getting into comparisons, OK I'm struggling to say more here so I will move on and go into more detail later on...


     AMPLIFICATION

Running the HE400 from my phone (Galaxy Note 2) and trying to get the sound loud proved a bit of an issue. At maximum setting it was about 90% of the volume I wanted for Electronic music, which means it would be about 70% for most classical music. That's unfortunate because the sound quality wasn't too bad, but let's face it, if you're looking at these headphones you will most likely already have some decent amplification for them. 


Proper amplification wise I started with the Schiit Modi and Magni, which have a tremendously compelling performance that combines very well with the HE-400. I can see why Electromod concentrate on these two brands almost exclusively, you can't go too far wrong with them. The only down side is that the three entry level models will set you back around £600, which is a lot to swallow in a single purchase for many people. Perhaps it's slightly over the sweet spot of diminishing returns too, but wow does it attain a seriously compelling sound!


Next up I partnered the HE400s with a nice portable solution for laptop use with the Ifi iDAC (combined DAC/amp that I will be reviewing soon), which is rather unusually is capable of 24bit 192khz through USB and is purely powered by the USB bus. The only other unit I had like this was the iBasso D7, which I also tried with the HE-400. The D7 Sidewinder was actually a lot better than I remember, possibly because it's better suited to more demanding headphones like this. Anyway, it still exhibited it's typical power issues when plugged into the non-powered USB ports of my laptop *sigh*. The Ifi iCAN showed no such power issues and drove the HE-400s loud and well, no matter what ports I connected it to. This was not as a compelling sound as the Schiit combo, but don't forget this is a lot more convenient if you're away with a laptop, or perhaps a Windows surface?


I also plugged the HE-400s into the Benchmark DAC2 HGC. This combined DAC/amp might be ridiculously more expensive than the HE-400, which are not cheap already, but it was understandably entertaining. On the Fostex TH600 (also being reviewed soon), the DAC2 was almost surreal in it's separation, but the HE-400s soundstage stayed a little more reasonably great and retained a level of coherent realism as well. The imaging was still given a wide push compared to anything else I tested it with and it is lot of fun. I'm left feeling that you can safely spend considerably more on amplification with the HE-400s and keep getting tangible improvements, where that same investment could be a waste with other headphones.

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    MUSIC

Here are some individual music tracks and how I felt the HE-400s coped with them. Most tracks were listened to in CD format with lossless compression. All tracks are also available on Spotify, which on the 'premium' service are maximum quality MP3s and I find these highly acceptable.

  • Jesper Kyd: "State Of Decay Main Theme" - I actually don't know what this is a score for, I just follow the Danish composer because I love some of his other game soundtracks.   One of reasons the HE-400 is so good with Classical and soundtracks is it's nicely flat response, although flat can sometimes mean a bit boring, it certainly doesn't here. There is a quality and emphasis to the bass and treble, while not being offensive and that really makes these headphones special!
  • Excision: "Deviance - Original Mix" - With the HE-400s superb upper bass body I had to try some nicely powerful Electronic / Dubstep type tracks. This one has some great & dynamic bass! The HE400s do a stunning job of rendering it without any mid-range contamination. This is one of those headphones that can be addictive for bass as well as agile and powerful, yet delicate for something like classical.
  • Jason Mraz: "I'm yours" - The bright and crisp vocals are beautifully presented, produce zero harshness and have a great sense of air. I want to say that these headphones make a compelling argument for vocals, but again it's their versatility that seems to really stand out.
  • Fear Factory: "Replica" - The HE400s transition from delicate vocals into aggressive death metal with ease. There's great attack and speed from the guitars, while aggressive vocals are clear and nicely separated as possible. This is as good as I've heard this music. 
  • Amy Winehouse: "Back To Black" - This track has nice sense of smoothness and good emphasis on vocal clarity. It's as entertaining with slow or simple music as it is with fast, densely packed instruments fighting for attention. 
  • Orishas: "A Lo Cubano" - This latin pop is extremely enjoyable through the HE400s. It's a nicely mixed, dynamic sound that will have you foot tapping at the very least and these headphones bring out the full soul of the music. 

     COMPETITION

Comparing these headphones to others can be rather difficult. There are clear differences and advantages to orthodynamic drivers and the problem with comparing the HE-400s to other orthos is that there's nothing else in quite the same price bracket. On the low end there's Fostex's most expensive orthodynamic headphone - the T50rp (£100). The best option here is to compare the HE-400s to a modified T50rp, like the Mr. Speakers 'Mad Dog', there are several others, but this is one that I've reviewed. At around £300 this is a much closer price to the HE-400 and luckily I still have them here to compare. The only other orthodynamic manufacturer around is Audeze, but their cheapest model is twice the price of the HE-400 and is a lot harder to find. This means that the next most expensive ortho after the HE-400 is HIfiman's own HE-500 (priced at £700), so you can see the problem. So for this reason I will open the comparisons up to some dynamic driver headphones as well.


Mad Dog - This is the only other orthodynamic headphone that I've had the fortune to try so far. Although it's based on a much headphone costing 1/4 of the HE400, the external changes that Mr. Speakers have added to it (additional leather headband and new Alpha pads) make it feel infinitely more comfortable than the original, or indeed anything else around that price. In fact this is one of the nicest headphones I've worn and it clearly beats the much heavier HE400 in the comfort arena too. Apart from weight the big enemy of the HE400 is clamping force (which it probably needs to stay on your head), it's a little too tight. This is made worse by the ear-cushioning being rather hard, which being symmetrical doesn't hug the head nearly as nicely as the Mad Dog's 'Alpha' pads. So the HE400 doesn't seal quite as well, but being open-back it doesn't really need to and here we reach our next problem comparing the sound. The original Fostex T50rp was a semi-open headphone and it isolated reasonably well, but the Mad Dog modification has made it more like a closed-back. 

The air and separation of the Mad Dog may not be quite as impressive as the HE400, but the soundstage is stunning with both. The tonality of the two presentations seem pretty similar, especially now that the Mad Dog is using the new Alpha pads, they're both a little on the warm side, but both manage a staggering lack of colouration into the mid-range, shine for vocals and have very well controlled upper ranges. Both headphones need nice, powerful amplification to flourish, but I would say that the HE400 comes out a bit ahead on pure versatility of sound quality (possibly more for Classical and Jazz) because of the few open-back qualities. If you find yourself sitting on the fence between these two headphones I would recommend mostly using the need of isolation to steer your decision.  


Sennheiser HD650 - This is a classic, well balanced dynamic headphone and it's price is close to the HE-400 (£330 vs £400). Comfort wise the HD650 pretty much wins. Not only is it very light, but the ear-cushioning is fabric, which makes makes it a bit more comfortable and less hot. The HD650's clamping force is similar to the HE-400, a bit too much relative to weight, but since the weight isn't there it's less of an issue. Like the HE-400 the HD650 has dual entry removable cable, although the Sennheiser's push fit might be much easier to use it also seems more problematic under constant use. 

So tonality wise the HE-400's sound seems to sit neatly between the Sennhseiser HD600 and the HD650. With the dynamics the more neutral HD600 seems to be what most audio enthusiasts & pros  prefer and I agree. The HE-400 is a little warmer than that, The upper bass has a substantial weight and kick to it, but it doesn't poison the mid-range as many lesser headphones do. By comparison, even the HD650 is a bit bloated for some music, although it's saved somewhat by being in the realms amplification tonality balancing, which is why I think it's loved so much. 


I wish I could say more about the Audeze range and how it compares here, but unfortunately I haven't had the chance to try them yet. Since the price is so far different from the HE-400 to the LCD-2 I'm too worried about this right now, if I get my hands on the HE-500 it will be more of an issue

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     BUILD

The HE400s are one of the most heavy headphones I've tried to date. This seems to be a theme with the orthodynamics from Hifiman and Audeze. In the Hifiman's defense there's a lot of heavy-duty metal in the construction. Actually the first bit of plastic you'll probably find is as you examine the cable terminals. Then there's the fake leather headband & ear cushions, but apart from maybe a couple of tiny washers (and perhaps the driver assembly itself) the rest is all metal. They feel very strong and the design is nicely simple, which at least seems like parts are easily replaceable. 


Speaking of removable & replaceable parts Hifiman have done a nice job with the cable. Yes, you expect a removable cable at this price (even if you don't always get one), but this screw fit, dual entry cable is a really nice touch. I guess if I was to nitpick I could say that it's a little fiddly to secure at times. A better grip on the screw mechanism and end of the cable, so you could hold both and twist more easily would be appreciated, but this really isn't that bad. The other end of the cable is terminated by a 3.5mm connector and it comes with a push on 6.35mm adapter. I would have preferred to see a 6.35mm connector here and an adapter for smaller jacks - a la Sennheiser HD650, again a very small nitpick. 


     COMFORT

The large space inside the ear-cushions makes for an almost perfect comfort for the ears themselves. The HE-400 might be described as a 'Lightweight' on the companies website, but it still weighs a hefty 440g. To better manage the pressure on the headband and stop the headphones from slipping down Hifiman have made the clamping force quite a bit above average and some people will find this annoying after a while. OK, it's not the most comfortable headphone in the world, but it's not that bad either. I wonder if a velour type ear-cup material could have softened the clamping pressure and lowered the ear temperature somewhat.


     FINAL WORDS

OK, I have a couple of reservations about the HE-400s comfort, which I know I made sound worse than it really was, but overall there really isn't much to complain about with this headphone. I would still give comfort & fit an 8/10 score. 

Overall I really love the HE-400 and I can't recommend it highly enough. If you can afford it and you like a generally balanced sound with impressive bass body then put them at the top of a small list. This is the cheapest high-end production orthodynamic headphone available at the moment, but it certainly doesn't seem like a cut-down model. It's also the cheapest one that I have tried, so I hope to try many more soon (stay tuned).


If you can't stretch to this budget, but you like the idea of this sound then I highly recommend looking at the SoundMAGIC HP200. 

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    EQUIPMENT USED

 

Desktop PC, Dell Vosto Laptop, Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Audiolab M-DAC, Shonyun SH-306A, Schiit Modi & Magni, Epiphany Acoustics E-DAC, Benchmark DAC2 HGC, SoundMAGIC HP200, Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm, AKG Q701, Sennheiser HD650, Sennheiser HD600, AKG Q701, Mad Dog (Fostex T50rp mod), Fostex TH600

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