Yesterday, Fang Bian stopped by Head-Fi HQ to give us an early listen to a version of HiFiMAN’s upcoming flagship HE-1000 that's closer to production than the one they were showing at CES. (CLICK HERE to see what I thought about the HiFiMAN HE-1000 CES prototype(s).) When Fang told me they'd improved the HE-1000 since CES, I was a little concerned, as two of the three CES units I heard were outstanding as they were.
As he pulled the HE-1000 from his bag yesterday, though, I was encouraged from the start, even before hearing it. The HE-1000 he brought to our office yesterday is gorgeous. If you thought that the prototype they had at the Las Vegas Convention Center was too gauche, stop worrying. If you thought the one they were showing at The Venetian was an improvement (over the Convention Center unit), but still a bit gaudy, stop worrying. This latest pre-production version--for a headphone that has to be so large, by virtue of its driver size--is very tastefully styled, and a solid dose more subtle than its Las Vegas predecessors.
One very important visual improvement is the outer grill, which now sports horizontal bars, versus the vertical ones on previous prototypes. The vertical bars made the tall earpieces look even taller than they are--it may not seem like a big deal, but if you saw them side by side, you'd get why this is a significant aesthetic improvement.
Also, all metal parts are now brushed (not mirror-gloss), and there's no gold-colored metal parts anymore--the appearance of the newer HE-1000's metal is a vast improvement. The only colors on this latest version of the HE-1000 are the attractive, natural colors of the suede comfort strap, and the wood on the earcups. The metal chosen for this latest HE-1000 has a warm tone--definitely less cold than my stainless steel watches--looking almost like it's been aged a bit. In short, in terms of its physical appearance, the HE-1000 went from Las Vegas lurid to sophisticated siren since CES. Its Las Vegas look is one thing that happened in Vegas that I'm glad stayed in Vegas.
In terms of its sound now, let me cut to the chase: The HE-1000 has indeed improved, which, outstanding as it already was, was a very tall order. My fears of the HE-1000 taking any turns for the worse have not only proven unfounded, they've been trampled on, left behind, and all but forgotten. The latest pre-production version of the HiFiMAN HE-1000 is--and I can say this very comfortably--the best sounding non-electrostatic headphone I have ever heard. My Stax SR-009--a model considered by many (myself included) the best electrostatic headphone currently made (especially when suitably amped)--is in California right now being fitted for an amp, which is why I'm qualifying it this way (pending a comparison).
NOTE: The system we used at my office was my MacBook Air (as transport)-->Schiit Audio Wyrd (USB power isolator)-->Schiit Audio Yggdrasil (DAC)-->HiFiMAN EF-6 (amp). (The Wyrd was used because the pre-production Yggdrasil doesn't seem to get enough power from my Air's USB ports, which the Wyrd solves.)
Versus my recollection of the Vegas prototypes, the current HiFiMAN HE-1000 is even more open sounding, airier. This is probably due at least in part to the visibly reduced obstructions between the diaphragm and the world around it. HiFiMAN decided that some of the protective elements they put in place on the prototypes for CES could be stripped away without compromising durability in normal use. Just holding the headphone, one can now clearly see the diaphragm and the traces through the outside grill.
One of the first tracks I played was the Firebird finale (Eiji Oue, Reference Recordings), and I don't think I've ever heard such power and physicality from any headphone prior. It is the closest to putting me in the charged acoustic of the performance space as I've ever experienced from a headphone. I just about fell out of my chair. I called @joe over to listen to it. His eyes were saucers, his jaw literally--literally--fell open. I called local Head-Fi friend @musicman59 to see if he was available for a visit. I asked him to start his HE-1000 demo with the same track while I stood behind him. He looked like he was imitating a startled owl responding to a threat behind it when he turned his head to greet me with the same expression Joe had on his face (and that I likely had on mine the first time).
From triangles down to the deepest bass my ears can discern (and that my head can literally feel from the diaphragms), the HE-1000 (with recordings that supply it with such information) conveys the sense of a physically energized acoustic at least as well--and probably more--than any other headphone I've heard. Of course, it can't place my body in the space, but it can place my head there. It's uncanny. The bass, for example, doesn't sound to me like it's coming from drivers, but that my head is in the acoustic, experiencing the sound's physicality as if there. musicman59 and I were struggling to put the sensation into words, but what I've said above is pretty much what we were saying.
What accounts for this? I don't know that there's an easy answer. The drivers are perhaps the largest I can recall seeing on any headphone--the diaphragms are huge. The base diaphragm material is less than a micron thick, making it the thinnest diaphragm material in any headphone I'm aware of, including Stax's SR-009. In fact, if I'd never experienced the HE-1000 before, and you'd blindfolded me for a listen, I'd swear up and down it was a an electrostatic headphone.
By the way, in case you haven't seen the video of Fang dropping the HE-1000's diaphragm material--which takes a good long time to float to the ground--here it is:
I suspect a significant part of the magic we're hearing is Dr. Bian's increasing ability to successfully ply his knowledge of nano material technology (it was the focus of his PhD) in his pursuit of making better headphones. Again, with the HE-1000, the sensation of listening to the acoustic itself--versus listening to drivers recreating it--is more convincing than I can recall any other headphone in production being. I think Fang is attempting to approach the asymptotic ideal of a massless radiating element that disappears in the sound its reproducing, and, to my ears, is perhaps closer than anyone else at the moment.
Of course, not every recording is engineered by Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, but the HE-1000 will be a tremendous, huge window into any recording. It's at least as revealing as any other headphone I can recall hearing, but it doesn't make me think of the word "ruthless" at all when describing it. The sound captured on the recording is just...there...and the rewards are of course most ample on recordings of music one loves that also happen to be high-quality recordings. Even on less-than-ideal recordings so far, though, I've still found the HE-1000 immensely gratifying.
We're working on the CanJam Preview Videos all day today, so I don't have time at the moment to say much more than this right now. I do have time, however, to answer one question that I and so many others have been asking since the HE-1000 was announced: What is the HE-1000's price? The HiFiMAN HE-1000 is expected to be priced at $2999. Do I think it's worth it? If HiFiMAN would let me buy this pre-production unit for that price, I'd pay them now. To me, it's like having the performance of an outstanding electrostatic headphone that I can plug into all of my good headphone amps, but without the need for (nor the extra expense of) a purpose-built electrostatic amp.
If you can make it to New York on Thursday, March 19, 2015, you will have a chance to hear it for yourself at the Stereo Exchange event. HiFiMAN will be bringing HE-1000's to the event, and I think at least one of the prototypes of their upcoming EF-1000 flagship amp (which, in theory, should be better than my EF-6 that I've been using so far here). Here's the event's time and place:
New York, NY 10012
Thursday, March 19, 2015
12:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (EDT)
If you enjoy classical music (perhaps even if you don't, and just want to experience the spectacle of the demo in question), buy and download the following track or albums before you go to the Stereo Exchange event:
I will have this HE-1000 on hand until it's needed at CanJam SoCal, where all available HE-1000's will be on duty. Until then, I'm looking forward to trying it in at least a few other rigs. I have a feeling @musicman59 may be stopping by Head-Fi HQ again before CanJam , and I hope he shares some of his initial thoughts here, too.
(Above) @musicman59 listening to the HiFiMAN HE-1000.
If you can make that event at Stereo Exchange, you really should. And, again, it would be fun if you'd download the demo track I used as the intro to this HE-1000. (Of course, I've since heard many other tracks and genres through the HE-1000 since yesterday, and have continued to be amazed by it, but that Firebird finale is such a dramatic way to start with it.)
(Above) The HiFiMAN HE-1000 (right) compared to the HE-560. The HE-1000's diaphragm is
approximately the size of its entire grill opening.