“Upon first listen with the stock leather earpads, I was completely unimpressed. I would describe the sound as shouty or honky, and generally unpleasant. I switched over to the included velour earpads and the sound was instantly much improved, but still not what I was expecting. After hearing all the raves about clean bass extension, transparent mids, "liquid" and "sparkling" highs, and unmatched instrument separation, I have to admit that I disagree with all of those descriptors. Bass is certainly big, much fuller than my Grados, but it can sound a bit undefined. Mids and highs are very good, but they're missing that magic that so many other reviewers seem to describe. But the biggest problem I have is an overall sense of congestion. I'm a detail-oriented listener, and these phones have a very frustrating muddiness to them. Music feels closed-in or restrained somehow. Much of the midrange, including female vocals which so many people rave about with the HE-500s, seem to have a slightly resonant unpleasantness laid overtop. Overall, the sound profile is neutral and inoffensive, but seems to keep the music at arm's length, leaving everything I've listened to feeling rather dull and unengaging.”
These are the thoughts of an Amazon reviewer (which I trust aren‘t copyrighted--eek), which I quote at length because they tend to agree with mine. However, this review only alludes in passing to the one thing that bothers me most about the HE-500: a kind of resonant overlay that makes everything sound like it was recorded in a cave. For a while I seemed to be the only one who heard this; then I came upon this review and another, which I can’t seem to find again, where the writer described the sound as being “like in a giant box”. So there’s some oddity there, which apparently bothers only a few of us.
Of course there's the jergpad mod, which seems to successfully address this issue and one or two others. However, it’s a mod, and not everyone wants to mod, especially expensive phones. But I guess my real point is: if this “resonant boxiness” exists, and the phone sounds anything like the above reviewer describes, how come it’s so highly praised and popular, with not even the professional reviewers raising any issue of resonance? Are we dissenters imagining things?
I had the HE-500 a few months ago, and after lengthy comparison with a Beyer DT880 Pro decided to sell it and keep the Pro. I half suspected something was wrong with the Hifiman, so when the opportunity of a second HE-500 came along (thanks Ebay) I grabbed it, especially as it included some expensive cables and the HE Adaptor. I’ve now done a second comparison, and unfortunately come to the same conclusion. Though the HE-500 is fuller with better bass, and is generally smoother and more grain free, it’s less open and enjoyable to listen to than the Pro, despite the fact that the latter initially (and inevitably) sounds a little thin and "tizzy" after each swap.
This is even using the HE Adaptor and Stephan Audio Art Endorphin cables (out of a NAD 314). Certainly the balanced sound is smoother and more detailed, but the criticisms set out in the first paragraph, and my complaint of resonance, remains.
It feels like this phone needs to be set free, as if something is stifling it. Is some odd resonance in the enclosure muddying and colouring the sound? Do the HE-6 or HE-5LE have the same sort of sound? Actually I’d like to hear the latter just out of curiosity.
I won't get into the issue of comfort with the HE-500; the Pro of course wins hands down. But I could live with the discomfort and weight and sheer bulkiness and general instability (phew) if the sound was as good as its reputation. To me it just isn't.