By sheer coincidence and happenstance, I had a brief amount of time to spend with a near-production level prototype of the HE-400s, courtesy of Fang. Actually, not just the HE-400 but the new EF6 amplifier, which was a unit approved for production.
Let me emphasize a few things:
- I only had a very brief time to spent with these new headphones, shared with two other individuals comparing impressions and observations
- The unit has been equipped with the Whiplash Reference TWag cable (balanced XLR4 termination) instead of its stock cable to be properly comparable to my HE-500R hardwired model featuring the same cable
- The Zodiac Gold+Voltikus DAC was also nearly new, less than 200 hours of break-in was performed. It was connected to the MBP via direct USB connection using a Locus Design Cynosure USB cable running various high-res material up to 24/192 presented by Amarra 2.3
- The Zodiac was connected to an RSA Dark Star amp using Frost Audio BlackFrost balanced XLR ICs
With all these caveats, there have been more than a few "Wow" moments primarily due to the price factor of the HE-400s (especially the $349 limited time pre-order pricing recently announced). Even if we discard the cable upgrades and just focus on the similarities and differences between the higher priced HE-500s, these attributes make a strong case for most headfiers, including yours truly to consider this new addition to your arsenal. Why?
According to Fang, the HE-400s were tuned primarily for North American tastes in music preference. This means primarily to deemphasize the mid-forward sound signature of the HE-500s and clear up the lower treble and tighten up the bass octaves. Indeed the new drivers may appeal to a much wider audience because of this, even fans of the HE-500s. In my limited comparison listening, the HE-400s were complimentary to the creaminess of the HE-500 and instead delivered a much more neutral sound signature, but with a twist towards just enough emphasis towards "natural" sound signature that will give fans of jazz, rock, r&b and, yes, even vocal or new age performances goosebumps. The HE-400s do not have the level of treble extensions and transparency of the HE-6, however, they will satisfy most listeners just fine. They also do not require HE-6 level amplification or scale up to that extent when they are driven to the extent the Dark Star is capable of driving these types of headphones. So, I would expect them to do just fine with most headphone amplifiers on the market. I have not done testing with any direct DAP-driven configurations, but given the nature of orthodynamic drivers, offhand I would not recommend it.
Speaking of the drivers--mass-manufactured for the first time as opposed to hand-made--, as you can see on the "naked" photo, they are of decent size, but somewhat smaller in diameter than the HE-500 or HE-6 brethren's. Not much, but a bit smaller and neatly enclosed in a dampening crossbeam structure fastened to the outer housing, which is identical to the current lineup of the HE-xxx cans, with the exception of the color. A color, that I've actually found very pleasant in person. These pictures were taken with a Nikon D300S and external flash and are pretty close in color temperature to the real thing. The HE-400s are reasonably light--always a good thing--although not as light as the HE-300 dynamics, the sound quality overall is in a different league of those headphones, at least to my ears and preferences.
I could write much more about the experience, but I would prefer doing so at a later date. At $399 I can't imagine doing any better than the HE-400s assuming the production version will be at least as good as this. For $349 it's a steal. I predict a very favorable reception at CES--which is where this particular demo unit was headed--and a following critical and commercial success. At near commodity-level pricing these are simply a must buy, even for owners of existing HE models. The HE-400 fills in a gap very nicely, not just in the model lineup and price range, but as a genuine alternative to much higher priced headphones in general.