I've had the HE-500 for about a week now, my only previous audiophile headphone being the HD650. My previous chain was iMac (Spotify/iTunes/Fidelia) -> HRT Music Streamer ii+ -> Fii0 E9 -> HD650. Everything is the same for this review except that the HE-500 are taking the place of the HD650.
Build and Design Factors:
Let's start with build quality and comfort. These are obviously boutique cans, albeit well-crafted ones. The headband is thin with thin-yet-utilitarian foam and the metal cup holders are solid and look like something I'd buy from a third party for my motorcycle (rear luggage rack, etc). What I mean by that is that it is a simple, reliable, uncomplicated design. There's a lack of cost-cutting in the materials whereby cheap materials can be seen to be expensive. The few cheap-looking/feeling areas of the headphone are not hidden by lines that downplay such decisions. The headband foam is entirely too thin for how heavy these cans are. The cable-entry design is less than elegant. Those are really the only obvious downfalls to the design. I should also note that I bought these open-box return from Amazon Warehouse, and so there are some very small scratches on the front of the metal cup-hanger-holders - it was insignificant enough that I had to really look to find the scratches.
These cans are heavy! I'm sure that there's a way to design planar headphones that reduces the impact of their weight, but a straightforward design such as that employed by HiFiMan doesn't do it. You won't be headbanging with these headphones on. This wouldn't even be noticeable except that they sound so good, you will likely be wearing them for long periods of time.
Lastly, I have a small head, and in order to keep the cans from sinking down too low, I have wrapped a small towel around the headband in order to bolster the nearly-nonexistant foam of the headband.
Sound: Compare and Contrast:
I didn't realize how drastically different the planar magnetic or orthodynamic drivers would sound from dynamic drivers. It's really quite different. Some highlights:
Bass: At first, I thought the HE-500 sounded bass-thin - I'd really gotten used to the gooey goodness of the HD650 mid-bass hump. Nonetheless, when listening to truly bass-heavy music, I noticed that all the bass was still there, with excellent extension and control. Most shocking was the instrument separation! Even with very dirty, heavily distorted guitars over the bass-line, the bass was clearly defined and didn't bleed into the mids and vice-versa. Listening to the HD650 again, I realized that it was emphasizing bass in songs where it wasn't actually there in such quantities. The bass of the HD650 is also much sloppier and it can sometimes bleed into the mids or vice-versa. This was most noticed with an album I like in spite of its poorly recorded samples and dirty-as-hell production: Stunt Rock 'This is Stunt Rock Volume III'. There are tracks on this album that are just noisy and distorted on dynamic headphones - the HE-500 had very clear instrument separation - such that a dirty and distorted guitar noise sample in the mids didn't obscure what remained a very clear and tight bass track 'beneath' the guitar noise.
Mids: Oh, what can I say here? The mids are the best aspect of these cans! Voices are eerily intimate if they're recorded that way. I was disappointed to hear new sibilance in the Allo Darlin' album 'Europe' - more than likely some bad recording that isn't hidden by the veil of the HD650s anymore. I deduct that because I have other female vocal tracks where there's no sibilance whatsoever. The truly interesting thing about the HE-500 is the way there's energy injected (or perhaps just not sucked away like in the HD650s) in the mids that is nonetheless non-fatiguing. They aren't like the Grado Sr80i that I had before the HD650s...the Grado left my ears feeling the way my hands might feel after a long motorcycle ride with unweighted handlebars - just numbish and 'zingy'.
Treble: Wow. There's a big difference from the HD650 here! The energy is back in my music! The HD650 sounded like I was listening to music through a painkiller buzz - the music was all there, but honey-like and somewhat distant. Not with the highs of the HE-500. Hi-hats hit and shimmer and there's very little sibilance unless the track was recorded poorly. Albums like 'Criminal Art Lovers' by Northern Portrait can be murder with bright cans. Somehow the highs on this album are neither fatiguing nor rolled off at all. It's a hard album to like a bright set of cans...but it loses energy with the HD650. That doesn't happen with the HE-500.
The HD650s were my first real jump up from crap-phones and I thought they were amazeballs - but I've never heard instrument separation like I do with the HE-500.
This is the first headphone experience that I can truly say is 'Hi-Fi'. Even my audiophile-agnostic friend can hear the difference with these headphones. I expected poorer sources to be noticeable with the HE-500 and they definitely are. I made a huge order of CDs of artists I'd already like on Spotify. Spotify is not unlistenable, but running an ALAC through Fidelia (or even iTunes) is much preferred. I couldn't tell a difference on the HD650s.
I wish I had more experience and could compare them to other heavy hitters in the world of headphones, but I'm very happy with the resolution and overall sound. I DO miss the more expansive soundstage of the HD650s, but not enough to downgrade from the amazing clarity and instrument separation of the HE-500.