Pros: Neutral frequency balance, plenty of frequency extension
Cons: Possibly the price and the weight, some may prefer a darker sound signature.
It’s been an eventful week for me in which I’ve received three pairs of headphones in four days: a new Audio Technica ATH-M50s, a loaner Audez’e LCD-2, and a loaner HiFiMAN HE-500. I got quite intimate with music via the LCD-2 and was rather wowed by it (see here for more on that). I’ve also been sitting with the HE-500, and my first impressions are that it’s another great headphone that shines in many ways.
The following impressions are based on listening to music via 320 kbps and Apple Lossless audio format files played via iTunes and fed via an optical cable to a Lavry DA 10 DAC/Amp.
Overall, the HiFiMAN HE-500 is a neutral-sounding headphone that presents a high level of detail with a well-balanced sound.
Packaging, Looks, and Physical Feel
After removing the packaging of this loaner HE-500, the black leather-covered HiFiMAN box was revealed to me. It feels solid, robust, and refined, though not as opulent as the case which came with the LCD-2. A few weeks ago, I had some concerns that the HE-500 box may not be ideal for travelling with the HE-500, which some HE-500 owners may like to do, as it may get scuffed and detract from its attractiveness. Though the same could be said of a hardcase, I thought that a more travel-friendly option could be worthwhile, so I suggested that to Fang of HiFiMAN, and he informed me that a travel case for the HE-500 would be available in the near future. That is a great example of HiFiMAN’s continued willingness to improve and update their product line and their openness to customer feedback and suggestions. Well done.
The supplied Canare cable was fitted with at ¼” Neutrik connector, was more flexible than the stock LCD-2 cable, and less flexible than the stock Sennheiser HD 6x0 series cables. Connecting the Canare cable to the HE-500 requires screwing some small nuts at the end of the cable into the ear cups. Once the cable is connected it stays firmly in place, but I find connecting it to be a bit fiddly and take a little longer than installing a cable with mini-XLR connectors. It has occurred to me a few times that a tool to assist the cable screw-in process could be a worthy inclusion with the HE-500.
The HE-500 design reminds me slightly of the Stax SR-40, and the gunmetal grey colour of the HE-500 is attractive to me. I find the HE-500 comfortable to wear, but slightly less so than the lighter Sennheiser HD 6x0 series, which I am used to and often forget I’m wearing. Due to the clamping force of the HE-500 pads, I can be aware that I’m wearing it, but not always (I’m wearing it now and didn’t notice it was on my head until I wrote the last sentence). But overall, to me the HE-500 is a well-made headphone that feels nice to wear and handle.
Clarity, Timbre, and Sound Signature
The HE-500 clearly reveals all of the details of the recordings I feed it. Mids and treble are presented very well and there’s great qualitative bass extension, but more on that later.
There is great PRaT with the HE-500, and though I find that it seems to present the sound of recording upon me with slightly less force and immediacy than the darker-sounding LCD-2 does, I can easily get inside the music with the HE-500, and with it I seem to be in the position of detached observer mode by default, just like I am with the HD 600, to a lesser extent. But the sonic quality is much, much higher with the HE-500.
I really enjoy the soundstage of he HE-500. It is wider than the soundstage of the LCD-2 and HD 600 and narrower than that of the HD 650. I find the HD 650 soundstage very immersive and wide, sometimes too much so for my preference, and for that reason I often prefer the narrower soundstage of the HD 600, which I find places me as if I am sitting further back in the audience or further away from the monitor speakers, situating me at what can sometimes be a more comfortable distance from the music. The openness of HE-500 soundstage is somewhere in between the two Sennheiser models I listed and is really enjoyable to me. I find that I am at enough of a distance from the music and able to immerse myself in it with ease. Though I compared the HE-500 soundstage to that of the HD 600, I just want to clarify that to me the HE-500 soundstage is far more detailed and of a much higher quality. Well done, Fang!
Perhaps one of the few caveats of the HE-500 to me is that it sounds a little bit thin or light at times in relation to what I would call natural i.e. what I would hear when observing a live performance, and that thinness is sometimes just enough so to remind me that I’m wearing headphones. But they are headphones, which is after all a different experience from going to a gig of listening to studio monitor playback. However, the HE-500 has a really excellent frequency balance that reveals all the details of the recording being played, and I often find myself enjoyably immersed in the music I'm listening to with HE-500.
Bass, Mids, and Treble
Since recently spending a few solid hours with the LCD-2, I am still in admiration of its bass reproduction, and the HE-500 also reproduces bass very well. With the HE-500, I find sudden bass punctuations e.g. when a drummer hits a floor tom, more noticeable to me than against the blacker background of a darker headphone such as the LCD-2, which is a definite plus for the HE-500. I find the bass impact of the LCD-2 more realistic for certain instruments e.g. drums, as it seems to produce a more pointed and weighty bass impact, possibly due to its darker sound, than that of the HE-500, which I find to have a softer than natural impact. But the bass reproduction of the HE-500 is very detailed, extends low, and I find it enjoyable.
The mids and treble performance of the HE-500 is excellent and perhaps its best sonic feature. Mids and treble are very clear and vocals are well-represented. A few hours ago, I discovered many new nuances in Frank Sinatra’s ‘Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!,’ and am currently enjoying Michael Jackson ‘rockin’ the night away,’ in ‘Rock With You.’ Though, to my ears, the HE-500 treble has much extension to the point of sounding slightly more forward (or brighter, depending on how you describe it) than natural, I’ve never found it to make recordings harsh or fatiguing, just detailed and revealing in a very musical way.
With the Lavry DA 10, I find the HE-500 to audibly shine when listening to much of the music I feed it, and have noticed it to be particularly well-suited to acoustic-based jazz and vocal playback. Whilst some may prefer a bassier headphone with more sonic slam for genres/styles such as Rock and Electronic, the HE-500 will accurately represent what’s on the recordings you play through it in a way that’s true to its nature.
I find the HiFiMAN HE-500 to be an excellent quality headphone, slightly reminiscent of the Sennheiser HD 600; its neutral and slightly warm yet forward sound make recordings come alive in a revealing way that is very enjoyable. Well done, Fang, and all else at HiFiMAN.