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Review: Hifiman HE-6/EF-6: An Elite Headphone System, Under One Roof

post #1 of 244
Thread Starter 

Hifiman HE-6/EF-6: An Elite Headphone System, Under One Roof

 

 

Not that long ago, even the best headphone systems nearly always had a glaring deficiency or two, and few, if any, were all-around performers that could transition from musical genre to genre, let along into home theater.  Sonic colorations abounded, and choosing a high-end headphone rig was almost as much about choosing which flaws to accept as which strengths to embrace.  However, in recent years, a flurry of new elite headphones have come to market, largely with far fewer compromises than their predecessors.  Today I look at one of the new guard, the Hifiman HE-6 headphones as powered by the new Hifiman EF-6 amplifier.

 

 

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Technical Talk

 

The HE-6 stands at the top of Hifiman’s line of planar magnetic headphones, with the largest driver area of any model.  Hence, the HE-6 is an extremely power hungry headphone, with an efficiency of only 83.5dB/mW at 50ohms impedance.  This demands a powerful, sophisticated headphone amplifier with low output impedance and high drive current, in order to maximize the sonic performance.

 

The EF-6 is just that, a full class-A headphone amplifier with discrete output topology, capable of delivering a full 5W of power into the HE-6’s 50 ohm load (enough power to drive the HE-6 over 110dB, sustained with headroom for dynamics).  Only a few headphone amplifiers of similar discrete, class-A heritage exist, and they are nearly exclusively the realm of DIY experts, rather than polished, off-the shelf products.

 

 

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The side panels of the EF-6 serve as heatsinks for the output transistors, as they have on many other class-A solid-state amplifiers.  After many hours of continuous use, the temperature of these heatsinks remained stable at approximately 30 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient room temperature, the highest temperature I measured at any point on the amp’s exterior.

 

 

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The large front volume knob is linked by extension to a stepped attenuator near the rear of the chassis.  The knob turns firmly with deliberate stops for each volume level.   The amplifier’s front also features push-buttons for power on and relay-controlled input selection, as well as blue LED’s to indicate the active input.  The power LED is purple when the amp is turned on, to indicate a warm-up period, and turns blue after ten to fifteen seconds as a relay clicks, indicating the amp is ready to play.

 

 

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The EF6 includes front 1 / 4” and 4-pin XLR headphone outputs, and a  1/8” auxiliary input jack for convenient connection of portable devices.  The 4-pin XLR output is key, as the HE-6’s standard copper cable is terminated with that very connector.  While the HE-6 is not a balanced amplifier, the front XLR connector is a convenience for HE-6 (as well as K1000) owners, who need not connect an adapter cable with bulky inline XLR connectors when using this amp.  The rear of the EF-6 features dual RCA inputs (toggled by relay from the front selector switches), as well as one pair of RCA preamp outputs.

 

 

For the purposes of this review, the EF-6 was fed by a Hifiman HM-801 DAC/PMP.  Boasting a PCM 1704 multi-bit DAC chip, among other noteworthy parts, it is superior to every home DAC I’ve owned (in the $1k-2.5k range), and a worthy companion to this headphone system.

 

 

 

Sound Impressions

 

The most fundamental characteristics of the HE-6/EF-6 sound are precision and control.  The system maintains a toe-tapping enjoyable character, while fleshing out layer after layer of detail.  Often these sound characteristics are thought to be mutually exclusive, but this headphone system manages to straddle the lines between musical and analytical, forward and laid-back, neutral and natural.

 

The bass is remarkably taught and well-controlled, even down to the depths of 20hz and beyond.  Whether pounding timpani or taiko drums, electronically modulated beats, or explosive Hollywood effects, the bass is as powerful, lifelike, responsive as I’ve heard from a headphone, all without overshadowing or bleeding through into the midrange.  Driven by the EF-6, the HE-6 maintains this bass control up to and beyond any volume my ears could tolerate, unflapped and without distorting.

 

Unlike many headphones, the bass of the HE-6 is not boosted beyond neutral, and delivers a palpable thump through the tremendous dynamic capacity of its’ massive drivers.  Many high-end headphones of the past, even when well driven, produce a slow and flabby bass by comparison.  The visceral depth and punchy quickness of the HE-6’s bass becomes apparent quickly, then addictive.

 

Transitioning to the midrange, the HE-6 maintains a very well-balanced and open sound, allowing the minute details of performance to come forward.  The midrange is nothing if not precise, every note clear, distinct, and perfectly measured.   The HE-6 projects a very live sound, without being too forward, or ever becoming shouty, echo-y or sibilant.  Textures are palpable, and acoustic recordings shine with realistic snap and energy.  The treble is extremely detailed, yet smooth, with great extension that helps produce a very well-imaged soundfield.

 

Imaging is a strength of the HE-6, and it performs with the best headphones I’ve heard in this regard.  It is most fruitfully put to use when listening to multi-channel material through a Smyth Realizer.  Whether multi-channel SACD’s or the lossless audio tracks from the latest Blu-Rays, the combination of the HE-6, EF-6, and Realizer creates an amazing virtual surround sound experience.  The depth of the soundfield is quite remarkable, just close your eyes, and you can almost reach out and touch the speakers, across the virtual listening room.

 

 

The Impact of Pads

 

The choice of pads will be a question of preference, but fortunately Hifiman provides both options for your experimentation.  The factory installed pleather pads provide a slightly warmer sound with a bit more presence in the low- to mid- bass, and slightly less treble energy.  The soundstage presentation is a bit less wide left to right, but no less deep nor well-imaged.  The velour pads, supplied with the HE-6’s accessories, imbue a slightly leaner tonal balance with a wider soundfield left-to-right.  Or, put another way, if the HE-6 with velour pads is a front-row listening experience, the HE-6 with pleather pads is a few rows back.

 

In general, I prefer the sound of the HE-6 in conjunction with the velour pads, even if it is somewhat less forgiving of substandard recordings.  It should be emphasized that changing the pads does not drastically alter the overall sound of the HE-6, and characteristics like supremely fast, tight bass and wonderful layering and instrument separation remain hallmarks.  The pads should provide a useful tweak, allowing the user to minutely tailor the sound signature to their own preferences.

 

 

 

Comparisons

 

My past experiences with the HE-6, using powerful, but lesser, headphone amps, like the Grace M902 or a Gilmore Dynalo based amp, yielded a sound that was not quite so impressive.  Bass certainly lacked the power and authority I have come to expect from the HE-6, using it with the EF-6.  Imaging also suffered by comparison, still performing well, but without quite the level of depth and precision.  Further, the overall sound was a bit duller, more veiled, less upfront and involving.  Without question, the HE-6 demands an amp on the level of the EF-6 to reach its’ true potential.

 

Powered by the EF-6, the HE-6 stands up well in a field of contemporary headphone juggernauts.   A common comparison is the Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, the alternative in planar magnetic headphones, with a markedly different sound presentation to the HE-6.  The Audeze strike me as sounding less expansive and layered than the HE-6, with a more prominent bass, which makes for a more intimate sound, as if seeing a band in a club rather than a theater.  Also with a smaller, but brilliantly imaged soundfield is the JH Audio JH3A system, a portable pro-audio studio.  On the other hand, the new flagship Stax SR-009, in conjunction with the Headamp BHSE amplifier, throws a massive soundfield, as if listening inside a grand concert hall.

 

All of these grand new headphone systems perform on a level beyond that of forefathers like the HE90, R10, L3000, Qualia 010, and so on, as they offer fewer sonic compromises in their respective presentations, not to mention less fuss and system matching to optimize.  Now it is a question of which style of presentation best suits the listener, rather than which compromise would they be most willing to live with.  Having heard them all, most quite extensively, without question I would rather have an elite headphone of today, than an elite headphone of the past.

 

 

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Conclusion

 

The Hifiman HE-6 and EF-6 are a shining example of the great recent progress of headphones, driven by rising newcomers, and market stalwarts alike.  That it is now possible, for under $3000, to quickly and easily assemble a headphone system which sonically outperforms the $5000 and up systems of five to ten years ago is quite a feat indeed.  While headphones themselves can be a very personal, and often less than rational decision, there is no denying that the readily available HE-6 is the equal, if not superior, to many of yesteryear’s best headphones, which were often produced in limited quantities, hard to find, and more expensive.  Now, paired with the EF-6, a headphone amplifier with few peers, and even fewer easily obtainable peers, it is clear that one of the world’s elite headphone systems can now be found under one roof: Hifiman.


Edited by Iron_Dreamer - 7/14/14 at 11:11am
post #2 of 244

That's a really nice review.  Did you get a chance to listen to any other Headphones on the EF-6 - like the HE-500, HD800, LCD-2, T1's?  How does closed HP's do with this amp ie D7000, Edition 8's?


Edited by preproman - 2/1/12 at 2:13am
post #3 of 244
Thread Starter 

I don't currently own any other full-size headphones.  I did try the EF-6 with my JH13, and could find no flaws there, other than a lack of volume adjustability due to the relatively high gain of the amp.

post #4 of 244

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Iron_Dreamer View Post

I don't currently own any other full-size headphones.  I did try the EF-6 with my JH13, and could find no flaws there, other than a lack of volume adjustability due to the relatively high gain of the amp.


Sounds like the amp could use a High, Medium, Low gain switch.
 

 

post #5 of 244
Quote:
Originally Posted by Iron_Dreamer View Post

 

All of these grand new headphone systems perform on a level beyond that of forefathers like the HE90, R10, L3000, Qualia 010, and so on


Seriously LOL. Have you heard a HE-90? I can assure you that almost no one on head-fi would agree that any of the "new headphone systems" such as the LCD-2s or HE-6 come close to beating it. In my experience, the only headphones that can perhaps even compete with the HE-90s are the 009s and LCD-3s. If you want more opinions, just take a look at the Canjam thread, a fabulous HE-6 setup with the RSA Darkstar was still noticeably inferior to the HE-90s from the RSA A-10. Please justify your comments more before making such sweeping statements, as I'm sure that even apart from the Orpheus, many would disagree that heaphones like the R10 are inferior to the new orthos.

 

post #6 of 244
Quote:
Originally Posted by dyl1dyl View Post


the only headphones that can perhaps even compete with the HE-90s are the 009s and LCD-3s.

 



LCD3blink.gif.. 

post #7 of 244

Have you heard the Schiit Lyr? I suppose it is not summit-fi, but how distant in power, detail, transparency do you suppose the Lyr is from the EF-6?

post #8 of 244

Thanks for sharing Iron Dreamer. I agree with your review for the most part.

 

The HE-6 have been tied with the HD800s for my favourite cans. I think the HiFiMANs are easier to listen to and more balanced, but fall a bit short of the technical capacity of the Senns.

 

Regardless, if I were to recommend one high-end headphone to someone on a limited budget, it'd be the HE-6 hands down. As you mentioned, you get the most amount of SQ for the least amount of dough.

 

Recently, some people have been calling the HE500 the king of Fang's lineup, but I'm convinced these folks haven't heard the HE6 perform to their potential. Having owned both the first and second, newly-released, iterations of the HE500, it's easy to hear they're not even in the same league.

post #9 of 244
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by dyl1dyl View Post


Seriously LOL. Have you heard a HE-90? I can assure you that almost no one on head-fi would agree that any of the "new headphone systems" such as the LCD-2s or HE-6 come close to beating it. In my experience, the only headphones that can perhaps even compete with the HE-90s are the 009s and LCD-3s. If you want more opinions, just take a look at the Canjam thread, a fabulous HE-6 setup with the RSA Darkstar was still noticeably inferior to the HE-90s from the RSA A-10. Please justify your comments more before making such sweeping statements, as I'm sure that even apart from the Orpheus, many would disagree that heaphones like the R10 are inferior to the new orthos.

 


I have heard the HE-90 numerous times over the years in a number of systems, though I have not owned them myself.  The HE90 has consistently been one of the most disappointing high-end headphones for me, with it's overly colored, warm midrange.  To me the sound is rather fake, and overly romanticized.  It can be a nice flavor for stereotypical "audiophile" music, slow vocal jazz and the like, but I have never really liked the sound for much of anything else.  I would absolutely rather listen to a well-driven HE-6, LCD-2/3, etc, as all the recent headphones I cited (and some I didn't, like the HD800), have a more balanced sound than the HE90 which is much more compatible with a wider array of uses.  The same can be said of the R10, Qualia, etc, as I cited in the review.  I have listened to all of those headphones extensively, and I feel that the newer class of elite headphones offer as many, if not more positives, with fewer negatives and compromises.  Furthermore, the elite headphones of old had an appeal based almost as much on exclusivity as on actual performance.  Of course, the HE90 et al are still out of production, so their exclusivity continues to escalate, and perhaps a lot of people have a hard time looking past that, and believing that current production, easily available headphones could be as good, or better.

 

FYI using RSA amps as your baseline of great performance indicates you still have much to learn about the world of high-end headphones.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Timestretch View Post

Have you heard the Schiit Lyr? I suppose it is not summit-fi, but how distant in power, detail, transparency do you suppose the Lyr is from the EF-6?

 

I have not heard it, but it looks like it has a lot more in common with the Hifiman EF-5, than the new EF-6 (which is more similar to a Dynahi or Beta22).
 

 

post #10 of 244

Thanks for the review.  Heard the EF-6 at RMAF.  I found it to be quite good, though others disagreed.

post #11 of 244
Quote:
Originally Posted by dyl1dyl View Post


Seriously LOL. Have you heard a HE-90? I can assure you that almost no one on head-fi would agree that any of the "new headphone systems" such as the LCD-2s or HE-6 come close to beating it. In my experience, the only headphones that can perhaps even compete with the HE-90s are the 009s and LCD-3s. If you want more opinions, just take a look at the Canjam thread, a fabulous HE-6 setup with the RSA Darkstar was still noticeably inferior to the HE-90s from the RSA A-10. Please justify your comments more before making such sweeping statements, as I'm sure that even apart from the Orpheus, many would disagree that heaphones like the R10 are inferior to the new orthos.

 

Everything in this post screams at the fact that you have much to learn....

 

The HE-90 is one of the most colored headphones I have ever heard and is easily outclassed by many other headphones that are currently available. While I agree that the HE-90 is a beautiful headphone, it's overly romantic and forgiving nature make it a mid-level headphone for me in terms of sound....much like the LCD-3. However, between the two, I would take the HE-90 over the LCD-3 any day of the week. Iron_Dreamer is entirely correct in mentioning that the elite headphones of old had an appeal (and continue to do so) based on exclusivity.

 

That said....I thought this was a fantastic review by Iron_Dreamer. Well done!
 

 

post #12 of 244

Iron_Dreamer you are a great writer. I love to read your posts. A few years ago I purchased a Veda Audio Dynahi amplifier modified by Mr. Gardner from you. That amp continues to bring me such joy. I know it would be a difficult task, given that it has been several years since you heard your old Dynahi, but I was wondering how you feel it would stack up to the EF-6 in driving the HE-6? 

post #13 of 244

Thanks very much for this review. I'll admit to being very curious how the HE-6 sound with a powerful, purpose-built SS amp vs. my Liquid Fire.

 

I fear the only way to find out is to buy an EF-6. blink.gif

post #14 of 244
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by gunting View Post

Iron_Dreamer you are a great writer. I love to read your posts. A few years ago I purchased a Veda Audio Dynahi amplifier modified by Mr. Gardner from you. That amp continues to bring me such joy. I know it would be a difficult task, given that it has been several years since you heard your old Dynahi, but I was wondering how you feel it would stack up to the EF-6 in driving the HE-6? 



Nice to know that amp is still working well.  Honestly it would be impossible for me to make that comparison for you, as I have not heard the HE-6 from a Dynahi, though I would expect it to be quite a good pairing.  Both the EF-6 and Dynahi have what it takes, from a technical standpoint to drive the HE-6 extremely well.  However, these days, the EF-6 is a commercial product, whereas the Dynahi is a DIY adventure.  I'm not sure the comparison is relevant to many, outside of the few, like yourself, who already own a Dynahi.

post #15 of 244

Thanks for the review Peter, been a long time since I last read a review written by you! wink.gif I don't suppose you'll be bringing the HE-6/EF-6 to the upcoming SF Bay Area meet? Would be interested in hearing it if possible.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by dyl1dyl View Post
Seriously LOL. Have you heard a HE-90? I can assure you that almost no one on head-fi would agree that any of the "new headphone systems" such as the LCD-2s or HE-6 come close to beating it. In my experience, the only headphones that can perhaps even compete with the HE-90s are the 009s and LCD-3s. If you want more opinions, just take a look at the Canjam thread, a fabulous HE-6 setup with the RSA Darkstar was still noticeably inferior to the HE-90s from the RSA A-10. Please justify your comments more before making such sweeping statements, as I'm sure that even apart from the Orpheus, many would disagree that heaphones like the R10 are inferior to the new orthos.


Not to continue to beat a horse here, but Iron_Dreamer properly qualified his HE-90 comment if you missed it: "All of these grand new headphone systems perform on a level beyond that of forefathers like the HE90, R10, L3000, Qualia 010, and so on, as they offer fewer sonic compromises in their respective presentations, not to mention less fuss and matching to optimize." In the aspect he mentioned I totally agree with his opinion - I too think the new spate of flagship headphones offer fewer sonic compromises than the high-end headphones of the past. Granted, I don't think any current flagships beat certain qualities from the old high-end headphones - for example, I don't think there's any current dynamic headphone that remotely matches the clarity, treble, & impulse response combo of the Qualia - but at least the current flagships don't cost more than $4K used and most of them are relatively easily driven by increasingly prolific amps, don't have finicky fit issues (compounded by 3 different-size headbands), and don't require extensive amp/SQ relationship hunting.

 

I can also assure you that Iron_Dreamer has heard everything of which he speaks - most notably the L3000 which he previously owned.


Edited by Asr - 2/1/12 at 9:58am
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