Pros: Precise imaging, great comfort, fantastic detail retrieval.
Cons: Needs a correspondingly expensive system to get the best results. Bass a bit lacking in quantity to be ideal. Materials a bit cheap-feeling. Expensive
Back when I owned a modified Denon D5000, I went to a local hi-fi store and demoed a Stax system. I almost bought it on the spot, only hesitating because it would have been the most expensive audio purchase I'd ever made. Later on I ended up using a vintage Stax rig as my primary system which I've since regretted selling. It consisted of the Lambda Nova Signature, but with newer, thicker ear-pads and a borrowed SRM 717. The thicker ear-pads increased the bass, resulting in very entertaining listening. I don’t know what made me decide to sell them, as given all the experiences I’ve had since, it would have been simpler to just stick to what I had and upgraded my digital source instead.
Until now at least. The market value of Stax ear-speakers and amps, along with the US dollar both have increased quite a bit in the last few years (the latter more recently) and I could have got quite a bit back for them and put it towards new gear, specifically the headphones I’m listening with right now, the Hifiman HE1000 V2.
While it may not have been apparent when Audeze released the LCD-2 and Hifiman the HE-5, the popularity of planar headphones has caused half a dozen more manufacturers to join the fray with their own models and put the inevitable writing on the wall. Eventually planar headphones would catch up with that local deity, housed in a small factory outside Tokyo in Saitama and makers of what is probably one of, if not the greatest pairs of headphones ever made, and one that they bet the whole company on to design and manufacture: The SR-009.
There’s one thing I don’t like about the HE1000: given its cost is so much closer to that of the SR-009s, material-wise it isn’t anywhere near as beautifully made. Roughly-finished and poorly fitting aluminium and visible flaws in the drivers did not befit a $3000 pair of headphones. I had hoped to chalk this one up to my pair being a beta test model and not final production, but prior to the V2 the only change I know of that was made was to the headpad size to make it smaller. If you look up close at an SR-009 long enough, just like how that first experience I had with a Stax system made regular dynamic headphones seem like a pretentious effort at reproducing music, so do does the fit and finish of the 009s make most everything else look poor in comparison, especially the HE1000s.
Old on left, new on right.
With the V2, the quality has gone up a notch in a couple of critical areas. The first, obviously, is the earpads, the inner material lining of which looks classier than before. The second is the attachment point of the gimballs and headband. On the original, the gimbals almost flopped around with a slight gap in the hinge. However the V2 has a teflon insert on the gimball side and the fit is tight, leaving the gimballs to smoothly rotate. Even if the new cable's rubber sheath feels a bit lower class than the older, nylon-coated one, the headphoens themselves feel like they are put together a bit better than before.
Old on top, new V2 on bottom.
Material quality stops mattering when you put them on your head and start listening through a good system. They sit there with a lightness that makes the already light-and-comfortable -- MrSpeakers’ Ether feels heavy in comparison. The huge soft cushions envelope your head and it is easy to forget that they are there. Hitting play one does very much notice, and on a top-notch system the music is presented with tight and detailed bass and a sparkly treble more in line with an electrostat. It reminds me a lot of that old pair of Lambdas I owned, excepting possibly the greater precision and detail coming through. The treble on the V1 was a bit uncomfortable at first, something that settles with use. It is unlike the more upper-mid-forward SR-009s -- Mr. Speakers’ Ethers are closer in tone to those. The HE1000s deliver the full delay of cymbals as their sound fades for seconds after the hit and deliver a good thump of bass with the music, neither betraying the mids. They differ to the Ethers, which are more in-your-head, the bass punch fooling you into thinking you’ve left speakers on and your body is feeling it, while the sound from the HE1000 is all around it, giving a big wide space to instruments whose sounds float in to your ears.
To get this punch requires a good amp. Straight out of my Hugo and Mojo the HE1000 sounded some what flat dynamically. It was only using my Studio Six that they came alive. This was true down to simple drum hits in something like Diana Krall singing Temptation and all the way up to complex music of any kind. They had my AK240 at full volume using the balanced output, even if it did an admirable job. It would be interesting to try the same trick with Vinnie Rossi’s mod as it is supposed to help with the power delivery. Where the Ethers can be driven by portable amps to a satisfying degree, the HE1000s sound more muddy even out of the best portable amps, even Chord's Hugo and Mojo which are capable in their own right. Like other planar headphones when under-driven, detail is lost, transients are smeared and the bass becomes muddy.
If you’ve not experienced electrostatic headphones then descriptions of the sound are going to be all that more difficult. For those that have, Hifiman has made, in essence, a planar that sounds like an electrostat. If I put my hands even a few inches from the back grill the sound immediately changes, just like it does with the Stax models. Music itself comes through as light and airy, almost floating out of the air. Instead of being hammered into your ear, it is delicately and sharply placed there. However, the imagining feels somewhat akin to a video screen having been placed at either ear for the view of left and right, leaving an impression of the music coming from immediately around your ears. Contrast that to the Mr Speakers’ Ethers, where the soundstage seems distinctly in-your-head if you listen to them afterwards, but their incredible detail accuracy makes this disappear into an effect of the sound coming from everywhere it actually did when it was recorded.
However, despite the light and airy touch of the treble, deep bass is freakish. There is no other word I can find for it. At the beginning of Song of the Stars by Dead Can Dance is a didgeridoo playing. The deep guttural notes are so convincing that I could have sworn that the headphones themselves were vibrating with the sound, but touching the outside of the cups proved this wasn’t so. The mid-range leaves no questions unanswered except in intimacy, neither being too forward or too distant. C.C. Colletti is out there singing on the binaral Bring It On Home album, but she isn’t right up there in front of me like she is with the Ethers. The treble initially has a bit too much bite and is a bit unnaturally bright. I am not entirely convinced it has the ‘stat magic, to the degree that Stax's earspeakers do.
If there is one downside to this presentation, it is the same one that electrostats have, in that the music doesn’t have as much impact as it seems to with a regular dynamic pair of headphones. I keep wanting to the turn volume up when I should really turn it down. The over-detailed mid-range and treble reveal too much of the recording quality of many tracks I like, including very much where they might have benefitted from a bit more bass in the mix.
All the same, when I managed to get them dialled in right, the marginally warmer Mojo taking the place of the Hugo as the source, ever so slightly taking more of an edge off the treble, the HE1000 gave me musical entertainment in spaces. I felt, however, that the review wouldn't be complete without at least Schiit Audio's Yggdrasil as my main DAC, impressed as I had been by the level of detail retrieval it is capable of.
All that was left was to compare it with the HD800. I have replaced the plastic inner liner on my pair with perforated non-slip matting, leaving the driver un-covered, and also use aftermarket cables. This leaves them with a sound signature that is more precise without harming their spaciousness or treble, only removing the slight smear in the headstage that gives a false feeling of their being more space than there is. Despite this, and the slightly stronger bass from this modification, the HE1000 versions have more of a lush and warm presentation with more intimacy. The HD800 gives the more technically competent presentation, each pluck on Timeless (Three Guitars) revealing the guitar's position more precisely on the stage, and the notes themselves sounding more three-dimensional. Possibly partly because the different treble response, the HE1000 V1 presents each note more vaguely, but more gently, unlike the HD800's stronger but sharper delivery.
It was apparent that the HD800 are better when it comes to detail retrieval and less of that is clear with the HE1000 V1. The fine nuances of various tracks, from the hammers hitting the piano strings through to aspects of the voice of the guitar player as he hums in Three Guitars, which I spent so much time on perfecting the delivery of through a careful choice of digital components (see my Yggdrasil review) are not quite so clear as they are with the HD800. It isn't a matter of frequency response, or one pair of headphones being brighter, as these things are apparent at a variety of frequencies.
The V1 also seems to have a bit of distortion in the mid-range. This lead me to experimentally add surgical tape just under the cups to the reflective surfaces there. That seemed to improve things, while keeping the slightly vague, but pleasant presentation. Alongside a cable upgrade to a Moon Audio Silver Dragon, the level of detail seemed to increase, and the bass was fleshed out better.
Original on left showing the driver/pad gap, and V2 on the right.
With the arrival of the HE1000 V2, the distortions and vagueness are gone, and the sound is more precise, with noticeably better imaging, the removal of the gap between the pads and the driver likely having removed the source of the issues. The stock cable, now with 6 wires instead of 4, gives them something of a forward presentation. I compared it to the Silver Dragon which presents the sound in a more relaxed and less intimate manner. Unlike with the V1, the Silver Dragon is not a distinct improvement, but merely has a different effect. I don't feel one is better than the other.
Compared to the more punchy-sounding, if less detailed Edition X, the HE1000 V2 sounds more relaxed, very much needing a good amp to wake it up, yet more detailed where the music is. I could get good listening from ALO Audio's latest Continental V5 portable amp or HeadAmp's Pico Power, but it didn't deliver the spacious detail my Studio Six could. Even the good value, but quite competent Audio-gd NFB-1AMP, which was a good match with the Edition X, seemed to lack a bit of liveliness and detail retrieval capability ideally needed for the HE1000.
Music that is most ideal with the HE1000 V2 is that which is well-recorded and has a strong bass line, as one of the reasonable criticisms of the HE1000 is that, while the bass quality is excellent, it could do with a bit more quantity. I found myself reaching for MrSpeakers Ether Flow when I wanted more intimacy and punch, or my Sony Z7 when I was listening to modern music where detail didn't matter as all, but bass did.
When well-recorded vocals and instruments were the order of the day's listening, the HE1000 was magical, allowing me to feel the emotion of each note. One of my recent favourite finds on TIDAL has been Sarah Jarosz's Undercurrent. Both her voice and the guitars are wonderful through my system, the echo of her voice off the surrounding studio coming through clearly. This is something that doesn't come through the Edition X nearly as well.
Listening once again to Three Guitars, the presentation is now deliciously and effortlessly precise, the efforts of both Mike Moffat to get a natural sound from the Yggdrasil as well as mine to nix any digital gremlins bringing much pleasure through the Studio Six and HE1000 V2.
Jonathan Wilson's gentle voice singing Desert Raven as electric and acoustic guitars are gently plucked in the background is an absolute pleasure. Now I feel like I'm listening to music.
When a manufacturer comes out with a new flagship, it attracts a lot of negative comments, especially at the $3000 mark. While there was most reasonable concern with the original HE1000, I feel that the V2 performs at the kind of level expected of headphones at its price.
Thanks to Fang Bian of HiFiMan and HiFiMan Japan for lending us a pair of HE1000 V2s for review.