I've had the HE-400 for close to 24 hours. Driven by the ODAC & O2, I've done lots of listening with them last night and all day today.. and as of right now, I couldn't be more happy or impressed with the purchase. Considering my grievances with the HE-500's tuning.. what the HE-400's tuning delivered is almost exactly what I hoped for.
I love the HE-400's bass response. It's got the linearity & punch I desired. Much more to my liking that the HE-500's thick, slightly midbass-centric, elevated bass response. The bass quantaty sounds very close to neutral to my ears.. but it's got terrific depth and punch (when the music calls for it).. just how I like it. The HE-400's mids? Oh, those mids.. how I missed that ortho goodness. Airy, dynamic, smooth, effortless, and beautifully colored.. neutral-ish.. just what I was hoping for. I get a better sense of space around instruments thanks to the slightly crisper, open tone.. the HE-400's soundstage in the midrange sounds more open than the HE-500 midrange's more intimate presentation. This actually makes it the HE-400's mids less fatiguing to my ears. Again, the HE-400's midrange tuning is much more to my preference than the HE-500's mids. The HE-400's treble is simply fantastic. Bursting with energy.. but in a very elegant, controlled manner. Hearing the spike, one might be worried about fatigue or excessive presence.. but I found it very easy to listen to this phone for hours on end. The treble has that smooth, liquid-y, ortho touch.. so while it's sparkly and 'brilliant,' it never comes across as harsh and grating. Rarely have I heard treble that can be this engaging and fun.. but still remain so controlled and non-abrasive. That enhancement in the 10K range gives the entire soundstage a deliciously open, airy feel that never seems to gets old. I can see how some say it could get harsh at times.. but in my experience, this seems more attributable to a track's (lack of good) recording quality or coloration from the gear upstream. In my posts leading up to this one, I talked a lot about desire for 'artful' coloration.. I can confidently say the HE-400 delivers that.. in spades.
I wrestled with trying to understand all the "dark but bright" characterizations until I got this phone. I figured it was something I'd just have to listen to, to understand. Having done son now, I definitely understand that description. It's wholly accurate.. and, surprisingly, pleasant. I looked at the HeadRoom graph and figured the deep dip between ~2K & 8K would lead to sounds being almost absent in that region. I sense in a more conventional (dynamic) driver, this would be the case.. but this ortho pulls off the peculiar tuning with stunning results. Despite the dip, sound doesn't feel missing or oddly recessed. I'm very easily able to retrieve & enjoy the details that typically occupy that band of frequencies. I've got to think the ability of this ortho driver to deliver clarity & separation in such a natural, effortless manner has something to do with it. On a lesser driver or technology, this tuning would sound very odd, I think. It definitely gives this phone a very unique sound.. one I can't seem to tire of. Instead of delving into this more.. I'll just say the "dark but bright" sound simply works. It's beautifully done and doesn't hinder the HE-400's ability to be versatile.
I've been listening to a lot of Jeff Golub's work since the HE-400 arrived.. most of his albums are well engineered and aside from me really digging his music.. it also sounds utterly amazing though the ODAC/O2/HE-400. To use an oft-mentioned cliche, it feels like I'm "right there in the studio with him." The smooth but energetic tuning of the HE-400 compliments his blues/soul/rock chops exceedingly well. All the intricacies, shifts, tonal qualities, and layers of instrumentation are presented in such a breathtakingly effortless manner, it feels less like I'm wearing headphones.. and more like I've got a pair of near-field Maggies beside me. I've heard enough good (and bad) phones to maintain tempered enthusiasm.. but the HE-400 is a phone I'm genuinely giddy about. The praise & hype, IMO.. is fully deserved. I can certainly see why many enjoy running it through a tube amp (upgrade/mod work on mine will be done soon).. I'm salivating at the thought of how it will sound through the Lake People G109-S which arrives tomorrow. Do note that if all I had to drive the HE-400 was the ODAC & O2, I'd be more than content. The transparency this DAC & amp offer is terrific and it accentuates all the wonderful things the HE-400 is capable of (by 'getting out of the way,' so to speak).
More thoughts coming after the G109-S arrives tomorrow...