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HE-500 Review: The Long Road to Happiness

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
I originally posted this to my blog, but since no one here probably reads it, I posted it here. I have never written a review before, but have a fairly critical ear. I have been in to hifi for over 25 years, but only really got into headphones in the last 2 years. This is in a journal format and it took about three months to complete.
To start with all the usual preliminary commentary about the Hifiman's latest, and some say greatest, orthodymanic headphones like product & design history, build quality and packaging is nice, but 90% of audio guys/gals first want to know: what do I think of the sound of them? We want to see if it clears the first hurdle before having to read all that other stuff. That is why we frequently scroll to the bottom first and then read the rest afterwards. Well here is the problem with journal style, it is updated as one continues to assess their impressions. I will try to balance the review by adding some of the non-SQ discussion in between the listening session impressions. I will start with the burn-in process.
Mid-April - Straight out of the box with no burn-in:
-The highs are kinda dull and rolled off. There is no sparkle or airyness.
-The dynamics seems compressed. Sort of like a bad MP3 file.
-Soundstage? You know those small stages found in small restaurants, where all the musicians are cramped together trying not to elbow each other... Well it should improve after burn-in.
-The bass is a bit wooly and not well defined. It's kind of like putting a subwoofer in a closet next to your speakers. Low frequencies are there, just loose and recessed.
-The sound is muffled. I felt like I have cotton in my ears during this first listening session. In general, it sucked. I have high hopes for improvement over time.
As this is review will be journal format, I'll make entries periodically to update the progress of my listening experience with this new equipment. First a warning/disclaimer: I firmly believe that electronic audio equipment needs to "break/burn in" for a few hundred hours before the performance potential is achieved. Not everyone agrees with this. Most of my engineering friends think it is rubbish. I have been told more than once "copper is copper, it won't change." I have been listening to high end audio equipment seriously since the mid-80s, and can tell you that running electrical current through audio components changes them and they sound better. The best analogy I can come up with is if you lay gravel down on a road, it is difficult to drive over it until it gets tampped down a bit. I'm sure there is science behind the concept, but I dont know it.
Day 1-about 24 hours of burn-in:
-The sound has opened up a little bit, but has a long way to go before being compared to my Hifiman HE5 prototypes, which sound many orders of magnatude better. The prototypes have outstanding clarity, tight and ample bass, excellent high frequencies without any sibilance, and beatiful mids. They also have many hundreds of hours of use. The HE-500s sound like I have toilet paper tubes on my ears.
-The sound is tight and constrained. I would say that my Koss PortaPros sound better at this point. This is not a knock on the Portapros, they are great for the $40 I paid. I actually bought a second pair when the first pair broke. But at 17x the price, I do have high expectations for the HE-500.
-They are slightly less unlistenable than when I first started the burn-in process.
While I have had good headphones (referred to as "cans") when I bought Sennheiser HD580s in 1999. About a year ago I began getting serious about my music listening with headphones. I attended a "meet" where members of the online forum Head-fi.org get together to hang out and meet each other in person and listen to each other's equipment. Usually vendors setup tables also. At the meet in Queens, NY held in March, 2011. I met Dr. Fang Bian, the owner/founder of Hifiman Corporation. His products are well know to Head-fi.org readers. I had the opportunity to listen to many of his offerings. Having completed his PhD in NYC, he was moving back to China and was selling off all the headphones he had in his NY apartment. Among which was a prototype of his now famous orthodynamic headphones. His cans look more can-like than most headphones. I compared the SQ of the prototypes to current production HE-5LE & HE-6, and the out of production HE-5. While I could easily discern the sound quality difference between the four cans, the difference was not that great. In fact the SQ differece was much less pronouced than the difference in efficiency. The HE-6s sell for about $1200, the HE-5 and HE-5LE listed for $700 each. Fang sold me his prototypes for $100. That was a no brainer-I bought the prototypes. I was amazed by the sound quality of all of them. All these cans REQUIRE a dedicated high-gain headphone amplifier and a high quality music source. I bought a FIIO E9 headphone amplifier. It sounds quite nice, it's SQ faults are more of omission than commission. It was well worth the $104 I paid for it on ebay including shipping.
Day 1.5-about 36 hours of burn-in:
-A slightly less bad sound than at 24 hours of burn-in. All descriptives are the same, though.
For those that that are new to audiophilia, MP3 files aren't CD quality and usually not even close. With HE-500s and other high end cans the highest quality audio files can be enjoyed and the differences are very noticable by most anybody not just audiophiles. I always rip my CDs as Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) files. I sometimes listen to Jazzradio.com, which streams at a low bit rate in either free or slightly higher with a paid subscription, but sounds decent anyway.
Day 2-about 48 hours of burn-in:
-The treble is beginning to flesh out somewhat.
-The bass is better, but rather recessed still.
-The midrange frequencies are far from where they should be.
-the clarity is improving, but not much airyness yet.
One might be wondering why I'm writing a review about audio equipment in a blog for eco/enviro/sustainability articles with a few photography articles tossing in for flavor. Well, I have been a huge fan of high end audio for 25 years, and I enjoy reading audio blogs by others. This not an attempt to write my own audio review, but more of practicing writing a journal style article. Also, I'm really into this stuff and I can get my geek on.
Day 2.5-about 60 hours of burn-in:
-The sound has opened up alot, the mids are fuller and have more definition. Although, they are still are more hollow compared to the prototypes.
-The highs has more clarity and a smoother character now. 
-Listening to solo singers with an acoustic guitar was pleasant with less fatigue.
-The sound is less constrained, but there is still a weird tone to the vocals of James Mercer of the Shins.
-There needs to be more air in the presentation.
-The presentation is very forward and the soundstage is still compressed.
-The bass is better, less flabby and a little tighter. Someone opened the closet door. It has not come out of the closet yet, and it as a ways to go before it is fabulous.
-I am able to distinguish the sonic differenced between my two headphone amps now.
-Overall, I think these cans have turned a corner. I was getting a little worried that they would live up to the hype on the interweb. 
Fast forward to April, 2012, My wife was kind enough to indulge my desire to upgrade my headphones and amp. Her birthday gift to me was to buy me the lastest and nearly greatest Hifiman headphones, the HE-500. I bought myself a new amp a Vincent Audio and a high performance mains cable from the very nice people at Audio Advisors. The next upgrade will be the DAC.
Day 4-about 90 hours of burn-in:
-Getting better, but the mids are still sucked out and has a weird reverb-like distant quality to them. 
-The highs are smoothing out, but a little rasp is noticable.
-The bass of fleshing out, but not very pronouced. Like a good English butler, very polite, but there when needed.
-The improvement jumps are decreasing.
A few words on the product itself. The drivers are orthodynamic and are essentially at least a 5th generation driver from Hifiman. This assumes that my prototypes are the 1st generation. I'm sure there were experimental drivers before it. Also, two versions were introduced afterwards, but they were more mid-fi mass market cans not designed to push the envelope. The housing is polymer resin rather than the beautiful wood housings on my prototypes. The HE-500 come with leather and velour pads, a spare set of SMA connectors for a DIY cable, and a very nice semi-hard side carrying case with foam cutouts. A very complete package, indeed. The headband could use more padding as they are a little too big for my head. I had the same problem with the prototypes. I had to make an add-on pad for them. My HD580s were fine and I did not use even them at the smallest setting. There is actually very little difference visually between the HE-500s and the prototypes.
Day 5-about 120 hours of burn-in:
-They are closing the gap between themselves and the prototypes, but the prototypes are holding a healthy lead. They will have to cover some significant ground to overtake them.
-The mids ain't right yet.
-The are still smoothing out.
-The bass is leveling out, tho I suspect there is more refinement to achieved.
I'll being going on vacation for a week, I'll be burning them in for that time.
Headphone equipment setup:
The USB digital signal out of my Foobar player is connected to a Trends Audio UD-10 USB Audio Converter (Transport) which sends the digital signal via a Tara Labs RSC 75 cable to a Beresford 7510 digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which I plan on upgrading very soon. The analog signal is then sent to a Vincent KHV-111mkII hybrid headphone amplifier via Transparant Musiclink Plus interconnects. The amp is connected to a Monster Power Reference PowerCenter HTS3500mkII power conditioner via a Pangea AC14SE mains cable. All components are plugged into the conditioner.
For all the really geeky audiophiles, here are some more details: I compared the HE-500s using the stock silver 3m cable with leather ear pads that came with the unit. The prototypes were used with the Canare L-4E6S 2m cable with a Neutrik 1/4" that came with them. The connectors to the cans are gold plated push on SMB connectors.
Day 6-about 144 hours of burn-in:
-not there yet
-a bit or harshness still noted in the music
-The lows are still recessed and uninvolving
-the mids are not magical or liquid
-the highs are harsh and have good amount of sibiliance
I have to say that I am unimpressed still. However, it is a well know fact (at least among 'philes) that break can taking a long time. As an optimist, I'm sure these phones will settle in soon.
Day 13-about 312 hours of burn-in:
-I regret to day to say that the HE500 have not lived up the the hype. However, I have not given up on the company or the product. I think I have a defective par or HPs. I called AA and they have issed me a return authorization. AA gave me the option to either return the units for a full refund or get a new pair shipping prepaid. I have selected getting a new pair, but from a new batch. I really truly wanted to like the HE500s. I'd like to think that I have evolved past an unrational brand loyalty bias, but I know better. I can feel loyalty develop and bias set in and know that I can do little to avoid it. The best can do is understand it and work with this disability. Many people delude themselves that that they are above it, but I have finally accepted the reality of it. "I'm bias, now what?" Well, work extra hard to power past it. These HPs sounded bad. Now I will wait for the new ones.
Update (2 weeks later): So I contacted Audio Advisor about the HFs. They offered to either give me a full refund or replace them. No restocking fee, no shipping fee either way. They are are first class operation. My representative was named Joe. When ever I called and asked for him, I got him (except when he was not available, and then he always called back in a timely manner.) I really want these HFs to be awesome, so I asked for another unit. After a small computer snafu that required me to call and inquire about the status, I got them three days later by FedEx. Please bear in mind that I'm not a reviewer, I'm just a regular customer, who last ordered a product from them in 1999.
I got these on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in the US. I did not get a chance to unpack them and take a listen until Monday night. I played JazzRadio.com. I usually have the "Current Jazz" channel playing. Lots of variety. While the streaming quality is not great, it is listenable. So starting the break in process over again kind of sucks. I will be giving a truncated version of the process. Bascially, the initial listen, a week later and a final listen. Then I will decide if these stay or go back. 
The criteria is very simple, they have to be better than my HIFIMAN ortho prototypes. And I dont mean a little bit. They have to be great. Like I said earlier, I have high expectation for the HE500s. Needless to say that the delivered package and included accessories are the same. No visual defects were noted. One bonus is that they fit on my head better. I do not need a pad between the headband and my head for the cups to fit over my ear more comfortably. Another thing is the clamping force of these HPs is a little firmer than the other pair. I expect them to loosen up as they break in.
New out of the box, literally, zero hours on them: (based on my memory of the old pair, which got about 8 hours of listening by me) They are better than the other pair of HE500s. The bass is deeper, but not well defined yet. The highs are not so raspy. The mids are little woolly. The tubes on the ears sound is there but not too bad. The prototypes retrive more detail and are easier to listen to and enjoy. While, I would not consider them good yet, I am encouraged.
After about 24 hours, improvements were noted in many areas. At this point, this pair of HE500s sounds better than old pair sounded. They are approaching the prototypes now, but not there yet.
On June 2nd, I attended my local Head-Fi meet in Babylon, NY. I discussed my story with the HIFIMAN rep. who was showing the HE500, HE6 and the HE400 HPs with their EF6 high-end amp ($1600) and a Meridian 508 disk player. After listening to his well broken in HE500s, the HE6 and both pairs of my 'phones. He believed that my HE500s were fine and just needed more burn-in. After comparing his and my 'phones extensively, I believe him. Interestingly, I liked his HE500s better than the much more expensive HE6 phones. 
While at the meet, I had a chance to listen the Beyerdynamic T1, T5p and DT1350. I really liked the T1 alot, but at $1300 I can't swing that until well after grad school. At the WooAudio table, I was able to compare my 'phones to the Grado PS1000 ($1700), Senheiser HD800 ($1500) and the Audeze LCD3 ($2000). I did not like the Grados sound or fit. The Senn & Audeze 'phones were both outstanding. While the sound signature was a little different, the detail, space/air, emotion were amazing. The Audeze were more comfortable than the Senns. It goes without saying that they both blew my 'phones away listening to a 16/44 file of Vivaldi's Four Seasons through Woo's WDS-1 DAC and WA22 amplifier. Indeed, a very sweet rig. Jack Wu was on hand to encourage me to spend as much time as I wanted comparing all his equipment.
Mid-July - It has been a few months since I started listening to my (not so new) HE500 HPs. After finishing my final paper for my spring semester class and being a Teaching Assistant for the first summer session, where I had to grade papers at the computer, the HPs are fully broken in. They are living up to their potential. I think they have over 300 hours on them. During the last few months I did a little tube rolling in my Vincent HP amp. I have three Telefunken 12av7 tubes and one Sylvania 12av7 tube. I took the opportunity to do a comparison with the pretty good sounding stock tube, which is either Chinese or Russian. But... I have to say all the older tubes, sourced from an original Dynaco PAS2 preamp, sounded better. I settled on one particular Telefunken. Very sweet! Nice HF extension, bass and smooth dynamics. I am happy with the setup.
As you guess I am finally happy with me new-ish audio gear. It was quite a journey. Next on the horizon is upgrading the DAC. And I thought finding new HPs was difficult...
This can also be found on my blog, http://humanityscape.com/
post #2 of 5

Reviews like this are what concerns me about Hifiman's quality control.  While I think instances like this are rare, it is still enough to make me think twice before buying. 

post #3 of 5
Thread Starter 

While the QC could improve, everyone I dealt with was very courteous and professional. I had an excellent CS experience. Compared to dealing with Mini Dealer (owned by BMW), the the AA and Hifiman CS was better.

post #4 of 5

Nice review, and you have covered a very similar journey with me regarding burn in of these. About how much of a difference the 2nd set was, is arguable. Not that I don't believe that you are being as honest as possible. Only that the mind plays many tricks when it wants something to happen... You're first set sounds like how mine was to begin with. Different amps, a moment in music, frame of mind etc changed my opinion dramatically (check out the sound science thread). And it's on going with all of the phones I've owned... My experience with Head-direct was excellent.

post #5 of 5
Thread Starter 

I am always wary of "its in your head" syndrome. My engineer friends and wife keep me honest. That said, I did a constant comparison to my other HPs with reference tracks. I know very well that one's mind will hear what it wants and often make us believe things that are not there. (I worked in retail high end AV for many years, this mental phenomenon keep that industry alive). I work very hard to mitigate that in me. I'd like to think, that I am more resistant than most. But who knows? 


My review is more about the break in process than about whether the HP sound good to me vs other people. We all have make our own decisions about our preferences.

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