HiFiMAN HE-500 Review
Thanks to http://www.electromod.co.uk/ for the loan.
First Impressions: It’s a lot bigger box than I’m used to that’s for sure, actually looking at the box it’s a bit naff for something so expensive. Okay so it’s utterly functional it just doesn’t scream expensive at you. The same can’t really be said of the cable on them, holy crap its serious stuff. It’s pretty substantial and the gigantic balanced connector and adapter screams this is a proper serious headphone. The headphones themselves are pretty nice too. They look and feel very solid and very substantial.
First listen and I can instantly tell these are good but a little treble happy. The bass is pretty fantastic and much more articulate than I thought would be. Still it’s not flooring me. However once I took them off my ears and switched on my Radiance 1 speakers I really noticed a difference. They sounded like mud soup, so unbelievably thick and undetailed. I hadn’t really noticed but the HE-500’s are so effortlessly leagues above them in clarity and openness. They are just so casual about it, its so subtle you may not quite realise how good they are.
Source mostly FiiO E7 and E9 combo and the HM-601.
Lows: Stunning, just outstandingly good. They have such articulation and power you can feel them literally sculpting the low end from marble and presenting it to you. It is amazingly good. In quantity it isn’t excessive but it can cope with more or less whatever you throw at it. It’s still not what I’d call best suited to abundantly bass heavy stuff as the bass isn’t ever dominant. It does exactly what the song tells it to, if that’s a lot then it does a lot but it never takes the bass and runs with it. It’s too well controlled and behaved. Honestly it’s pretty much perfect. If any aspect is at fault then it’s that it’s so perfect it doesn’t ever soften and a lot of modern music assumes that will take place to some extent. This is too clean and too sculpted marble like level of perfect. I really don’t know if you can actually call that a failing or fault though. I can’t imagine anyone buying this will be wanting huge amounts of bass as it’s obviously not aimed at the “chav listening to 128k mp3s on their mobile” demographic.
Should you be more inclined to fire up something like some Holst and his frankly kick ass Mars, the bringer of war then these do an amazing job. They can take the lows from anything in an orchestra and dish it up superbly well. They have not the slightest hint of trouble reaching low and holding any depth asked of it and all with such incredible heft yet so agile. Effortless and perfect. I really think I do mean that, the bass has everything you could ever want with fantastic depth, power, amazing slam and the most wonderful articulation ever.
Midrange: Gloriously beautiful. Oh my god vocals are stunning, STUNNING!!! Just for the love of all that’s holy treat these to good recordings. Serve them up some fantastic quality stuff and they will reward you for doing so. I don’t really have much in the way of proper high ress files and I’m not going to comment on how much is that the high res files are actually better than red book quality or just that stuff that is recorded in high res is done people that give a crap about sound quality. Listening to Rebbeca Pidgeons “Spannish Harlem” is such a pleasure. Her breathy vocals flow not only over the ear but over the soul. Smooth, airy and just achingly subtle. Possibly my favourite artist, Beverly Craven, and one of my favourite songs ever and a great demo song too, “Hope” just sounds so staggeringly beautiful to behold. I say behold because its more than just listening its more like its infusing you with aural beauty and sheer wonderfulness. The mids are just so open and so transparent they are practically holographic. I do wish though that the mids were a touch forward as though they are super clear they are in a little bit of a dip behind the rather abundant treble. They also don’t quite do the smooth richness that while not strictly always accurate, lends a beauty and grace to many a vocal. I’m really thinking of things like the SE530 here. Its mids are a little wrong but are achingly beautiful and the mids we have here on the HE-500 are achingly accurate. Once more I’m not really sure if you call that a fault. Many people will love the slightly Nike swoosh shaped sound signature.
Highs: Fantastic but honestly too abundant. They have an incredible level of clarity and fidelity but they also have a pretty high level of abundance too. Now this isn’t really an issue if all you ever listen to treble light and super well recorded stuff. That Krall woman for instance plays so well here. Well recorded stuff with faint, shimmering and delicate highs. I can see why people listen to things like here when we get to this level of audio reproduction. It’s not about what music you like but about what sounds amazing weather you really like it or not. Trust me you are not going to be happy listening with these to a lot of crap that’s out there. They do badly recorded and poorly mastered stuff zero favours. That is a real shame as I can think of a couple of artists that make great music but their recordings suck. For instance Steps “Paradise Lost” came on and oh god its unpleasant to hear. (Note: I am in no way shape or form suggesting they are artists who make great music, they just had coincidental timing.) The highs are hard, brutal and just so unpleasant, oh god it’s brutal on the ears. It’s not alone either the HE-500 takes no prisoners and frankly it makes a lot of things I’d normally enjoy hearing a rather unpleasant experience. In fact the treble abundance never allows me to sit back and relax with just about anything. They are so bright and crisp that they quantity of treble is tiring and too much. I want to calm down and enjoy myself while these are the sun beaming in through a window. There is a time and a place for that and first thing in a morning I’d love that life and energy but of an evening, no. These are not something I’d be able to relax with, they demand you pay attention to them, how dare you relax!
The high end extension these have outstanding however and I cannot in any way fault its actual abilities. It is so lighting fast, its transient response is so stupidly fast yet feels so effortless. It’s just its chosen tuning I’m less enamoured with. They sound amazing though!
Soundstage: Holographic. Now I’m not usually one to give much of a toss about soundstage as I think it’s entirely a presentation style issue. Something’s love intimate, some suit a big open air type feel. These though are on another level. They have an incredible soundstage that is so holographic in nature you can place everything in both position and distance. It’s frankly wonderful. Oh and in comparison the make the HD600 sound tiny and weedy.
Comfort: Hmm, they were comfortable but they have a pretty significant clamping force and after an hour or so it was very nice to take them off for a minute or two. Nothing bothersome really but not quite melt away like the Senn HD-600’s are. The pads are plush and lovely though.
Cable: An awesome level of awesomeness. It feels like you could tow a car with it yet it’s not too heavy and is nice and flexible. I like it a lot. Oh its also detachable so if you don’t like it you can change it and you get in the box some headphone attachment do dahs to attach to your own cable if you felt so inclined.
Amped/Unamped: This section feels almost a little silly but it’s here because I wanted to comment on the use of a portable player. I don’t know about you but I like to not be plugged into a wall with headphones. So why did I say the sources I was using was the mains powered E9 and the HM-601 and not the ipod and XM5? Well it was the treble. The HE-500 have a lot of treble and the HM-601 is rich and warm and frankly they paired up nicely. Also it offered a test of the claims that the HE-500 is the low power requiring ortho from HiFiMAN and at the same time testing the claims of power from the HiFiMAN DAP. The two paired up spectacularly well, the 601 tones down a bit the over eager treble on the 500 and added a hint of richness to them. Granted the volume control got a bit of a workout but they 601 could still make them go louder than I’d actually want but with not a lot of headroom. Not that I’m suggesting it’s what you should use to power the 500’s I’m just saying you can and you’ll actually be pretty happy doing so too.
Isolation: None, but then you already know that was going to be case anyway.
Value: I don’t know. There is no way to escape that fact that these are expensive, prohibitively expensive, these cost an amount of money that most sane people would see and think “F that!” so can I really argue that these are good value? No I can’t. Since I don’t live in the land of no Tax these cost in the UK £775, that works out as US$1220. VAT is a bitch. So I’m not going to in anyway pretend this is a value for money proposition because it’s just so not. However it is F ing amazing. If you want this kind of aural extravaganza then prepare to get wallet raped, I dare say of all the ways to get to this level the HE-500 is going to be one of the most kind and gentle ways for your wallet to take it. If it helps any I’m told Electromod are offering a one year warranty and a 28 day replacement policy rather than repair if there are any issues.
Conclusion: These are simply outstanding. They are just so good and so blisteringly clear that they make everything else sound like crap. You could say that’s their biggest fault, they will take the rest of your audio stuff and show you just what you were missing out on and just how crap everything else really is. They are so good it’s a real disappointment to go back to lesser stuff. Everything they do is so amazing. Actually it’s all a little too amazing. Frankly who wants spectacular and incredible all the time, it’s exhausting.
I should point out that’s not really something the HE-500 is alone in though, the other decent full sized head phones I have to compare them to, the Sennheiser HD600 and the Grado 325is are both treble happy too. The 600 I’ve always found rather gritty up top and the Grado, well it’s a a Grado. I suspect anyone reading this know they have a little bit of a rep for being forward and blindingly bright. Sure it’s fun for a little bit and it does lend itself to an analytical ability that’s more apparent than it otherwise would be. When the detail is violently hurled at you it’s much more noticeable but honestly is it really necessary. I don’t think anyone has ever laid the accusation of lacking detail to the HD600 and 325is and I would say the same about the HE-500. There is just no need for such emphasis. The HE-500 are so incredibly good they are a very clear step up on the other two. Okay so they cost what, three times as much. Obviously they don’t sound three times as good, maybe just twice as good. I’m totally serious. The other two are excellent but they make mistakes and they are so good it makes those mistakes feel all the more noticeable. The HE-500 doesn’t.
If there was one thing I would change though it would be its sound signature, this is tuned like the RE-272, phenomenal fidelity and clarity but I’d rather it was tuned like the RE-262. I love the 262’s rich, chocolaty, velvety flowing dreamyness that just oozes beauty and fluidity yet is so gentle on the ears. The HE-500 is stunningly good but it’s got rather too much treble for me (the other two do too btw) it’s not something I can sit back and relax with. It commands I listen to it as it awes and humbles. It is just so extended on both ends it really kicks the other two squarely in their gentleman parts and shows just how lacking they are. I feel as though I’m strapped in the passenger seat of a Ferrari being drive by a racing driver. At first it’s thrilling and exciting but I can feel myself edging towards the point where I’d really rather be in a Golf with some nice, soft suspension and driven by a little old lady. I just so much want these to just relax a little.
When it comes down to it the HE-500 are a masterpiece and I can’t see anyone disagreeing. You may not personally love the decisions that have been made in its tuning but unquestionably it’s an aural deity. It is amazing in its technical abilities, just staggeringly amazing, so incredibly fast and effortless. It has a phenomenally capable low end. Its mids are supremely open and clear. Its soundstage is like hearing a hologram. Its treble is hyper extended and impossibly detailed.
Now if I can just persuade Santa to bring me a pair for Christmas! I may not love all that treble but oh god I really would like a pair!