I suppose it's strangely appropriate that I am running the HE-400 (a comparatively inexpensive planar magnetic) from a very budget-oriented setup. I'm all about bang-for-buck. An old portable CD player, the Panasonic SL-SX469V that I've had since I was, oh, ten years old, feeds via line out a JDS Labs Objective2 "portable" amplifier I picked up below MSRP on eBay. Into this amp plugs our succulent HiFiMAN orthodynamic.
The first thing one notices about the HE-400 is its physical character. The HE-400 looks and feels high-end in just about every way. From the robust 3-meter cord to the leather-ensconced headband, to the tight, sturdy hinges and the big navy blue-accented earcups, everything is constructed of the sturdiest materials and to the finest tolerances to create a beautiful whole. These are headphones that feel like they could take a beating, but due to their subtle class, beg not to. They are the first cans I've owned that cry out for a stand; to be an object of decor, and not just a tool. Add a pair of velours, and these are real stunners.
All that said, the first thing I did upon receiving the headphones was plug them into a hole and listen to "Varúð" by Sigur Rós. Listening to "Varúð" on the HE-400, one feels Jónsi's unearthly falsetto float out from a short distance ahead, and one can't help but quiver with the force of its beauty. Not because the voice is different than before, but because it's as if it finally exists somewhere in this world, like an hallucination becoming material. And in the crescendoing final passage, when the song can seem busy and muddled within my Shure SRH-750DJ, the HE-400 renders each detail, instrumental and vocal (including the grungy noise of the severely distorted guitar) with ease, thus translating the power of the moment. The Shures, by comparison, allow the sheer number of coinciding sounds to overwhelm the music.
Having bawled at Jónsi's genius, I decided next to throw on one of my favorite albums of the past year, Mumford and Sons' Babel. From the eponymous opening track, it was apparent that I was in the big leagues with these headphones. It was as if I hadn't really heard Marcus Mumford wax vaguely poetic before. His raw rasp hit me almost as if he were personally serenading me, so present and lifelike he was rendered. But where I was really taken aback was with the authenticity of all those throatily twanging strings. The acoustic bass in particular is a joy to hear through the HE-400.
The XX is not a band one would reckon should benefit greatly from an audiophile headphone and its easy detail or precise soundstaging. The soul of the music is in the intimate, whisper-quiet, minimalistic musicianship. So it should come as no surprise that the HE-400 does precisely nothing for this music. Coexist sounded almost flat. This is one example of where a much less resolving headphone, provided it has the right sound signature (preferably punchy) can sound every bit as good as the HE-400.
Arcade Fire is another story. Funeral was my next listen, and... wow! A great big, shuddering wo-o-o-o-ow! This album comes alive! It shimmers, it sparkles, it dances, it makes itself dizzy, it pukes up glitter and rainbows! Holy wow, unicorn horn! Yay!
Perhaps I'm not doing justice to the tasteful subtlety with which these cans operate. They don't seize on the bass, for instance, and crank it up to 11. They don't spike the treble for the illusion of resolution. They do, however, open up a whole new world within well-layered recordings.
Listening to Funeral, cliché though it may be, I actually did hear things I hadn't heard before. Minor details popped in a new way compared to the Shure SRH-750DJ. Mostly, though, everything just sounded... better. From the crunch of the bass guitar on "Neighborhood 3" to the fuzz of the opening seconds of "Une Année Sans Lumière", to the sound of fingers sliding over guitar strings from note to note on "Neighborhood 4", to the growling bass lines in "Wake Up", the sounds were simply layed out before me, crystalline in their clarity.
Listening by the HiFiMAN HE-400, music is liquid smooth, just there to float about in, picking out the little details or taking in the whole as one chooses. And there's nary a false moment to be found. It's delightful.
Edited by applaudio - 12/7/13 at 1:48pm