Pros: Neutral, bass response and impact, smooth and detailed midrange, value for money
Cons: Heavy, Flimsy velour pads and cable, amp requirements.
My HE-500 review
Source: Audiolab M-DAC (USB output). First impressions based on Asus Essence STX.
Headphone Amp: Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear
On first listening to the HE-500 I found a lot that reminded me of the Sennheiser HD580 which I still regard as my reference in terms of what a neutral headphone should sound like. On first listen to the HE-500 you will immediately notice the exceptionally clean and clear sound you get with an orthodynamic transducer which Hifiman are masters of. Switching between the HD580 and HE-500, the HD580 (which I thought up till then to be pretty good in the clarity stakes) to be much grainier by comparison, especially in the treble regions.
The HE-500 has excellent bass in my view with nice slam and impact. Visceral would be an apt description and it is particularly good at picking out bass notes. This is particularly enjoyable with rock and metal music with bass guitars and also gives orchestral music some body and scale which I found lacking with my dynamic headphones. I really enjoyed going through all my old rock/alternative albums again and found myself listening to albums I haven't listened to in years totally enjoying how different they sounded. There is no boominess and flabbiness to the bass and doesn't dominate the treble or midrange like a lot of other headphones would.
The mid-range on the HE-500 is musical, nicely detailed and involving, but not forward in your face like a Grado headphone would be. It is slightly more forward compared to the HD580, but does not detract from the overall balance. Violins and piano sound really great and the tonality seems pretty good. With rock music I managed to pick out quite a few extra instruments in songs I thought I knew pretty much inside out. It trashes out tons of detail on guitars. The HE-500 is fantastic with female vocals. The mid-range on this headphone is really excellent and in my opinion its stand out feature.
The treble has a slight bit of air to it which most likely has got to do with the sizeable drivers and ear cups.The treble is very clean. I can't really comment on extension as my hearing isn't particularly great in the upper treble regions. The headphone changed quite significantly in the treble during the burn-in period, from being a bit hot to noticeably more mellow after about 50 - 100 hours of burn in. It does have a slight peak around the 10kHz region which seem to give the treble a bit of sparkle which I quite like. The treble is nicely balanced with the rest of the audio spectrum and while not perfect, definitely nothing there to put anyone off.
Sound staging and Imaging: (Good)
The HE-500 projects a nicely detailed soundstage, but does lack that last ounce of information. In my view this makes this headphone slightly more suited to rock/pop type music than to large classical works. Imaging is also decent, but not as good as my Grado RS1i's. So whilst I reckon that there are other headphones out there that excel in either of these categories the HE-500 makes up for this by not having any notable weaknesses in either of these categories and by virtue of its excellent sound quality. This also makes the HE-500 a good contender for a wide variety of music.
- Comfort. (Good)
In the beginning the headphone had quite a bit of clamping force. This appears to have reduced somewhat after owning this headphone for some period now. It is a very heavy headphone and you do need to take a break once in a while to give my neck a breather. My neck appears to have gotten used to weight of the headphone after about 6 months. I can now wear the headphone for quite long periods of time without any obvious discomfort. The headband has more than enough padding and the headband pressure is spread out nicely by using memory foam. I prefer the velour pads over the leather pads, though the leather pads are more comfortable in my view. The velour pads add a bit more sparkle to the sound. Hifiman appear to aim this headphone at people with normal to large size heads. I wear the HE-500 on their smallest setting. On the HD580 I have the headband set to 4 clicks down for comparative purposes.
- Noise isolation. (Poor)
Leak monster. My wife has complained about the HE-500 quite often and I would put it down as a negative. Not a good option for late night listening in a bedroom. If you have your own listening studio then this isn't a problem. Your listening environment also needs to be pretty well isolated as the HE-500 also lets in a lot of sound from external sources of noise.
- Amplication. (Average)
Very dependent on good amplification and matching. With my desktop amplifier the sound is noticeably full and with lots of impact. When under driven the dynamics and bass are lacklustre. I haven't managed to properly power these from a notebook, portable player, AVR or portable headphone amplifier. I will eventually look at upgrading to a more powerful amplifier as I think there are still gains to be made over the Lehmann Black Cube Linear that I'm currently using. The HE-500 also scales nicely with better DACs. I recently upgraded to the Audiolab M-DAC and this provided a noticeable step of improvement in sound staging, detail retrieval and clarity over the Asus Essence STX I used initially for this review.
- Construction. (Average)
The headphone itself looks to be solidly constructed and the headband is nice and comfortable. I'm a bit nervous about the assembly mechanism that attaches the ear cups to the headband, but so far no problems. I received the twisted copper cable with my headphone which I think was shipped with the second batch of HE-500 before Hifiman switched over to the silver cable and I quite like the sound, but construction does come across as flimsy and I suspect that the connector or wire might break one day. At least there are a lot of 3rd party cable options out there as well as replacements available from Hifiman. I also received the old velour pads with my headphone which use a flimsy method of attaching to the ear cups. The new attachment mechanism as on my leather pads are a big improvement.
- Summary: (Excellent)
I really enjoyed these headphones with all kinds of music, from rock to classic rock, metal, jazz, country and classical music. All in all a superb set of headphones and a terrific all-rounder. After owning this headphone for about 9 months now I find that my other headphones seldom get any listening time. In light of this I reckon the HE-500 is an excellent candidate for people who want to own one single high end headphone that does pretty much everything well. I am hoping to still have the opportunity to listen other high end headphones in order to place the HE-500 in better perspective, but to my ears this is a really fantastic bit of kit will hopefully give me years of listening pleasure.