HIFIMAN HE-560 ON TAP: A FIRST DAY REVIEW SAGA (HIFIMAN HE-560 TOUR IMPRESSIONS)
Wow ... what a big box! I was expecting a more economically packaged box, but once I open it, it seems justified considering all the goodies that are packed inside. Along with the box containing the headphones there are also two bags containing two sets of cables, two regular TRS cables and two 4-pin XLR cables with TRS extenders. These cables are fantastic especially when compared to the fare that Hifiman has offered in the past. They are easily complementary to the value of the headphones; boutique shoppers can always find something better but this is stellar; kudos to Hifiman.
CABLE CHOICE and THE (t)REASON
Okay, now I'm ready to get set up. I immediately toss the standard TRS cables straight back into the bag. I won't be needing or using those. The 4-pin XLR is more versatile considering how I intend to be using the HE-560 and the comparisons I will be doing. I have owned the HE-500 since 2011 (yup ... still grooving to it) and a long tortuous road of experimentation finally led me to one conclusion – these headphones are wasted when played via any standard TRS headphone out. Yes during that time I tried various headphone amps, Bellari 540, Schiit Lyr, Musical Paradise MP-301 MK2, various integrated amps, newer and older, and all basically left me uninspired when the HE-500 was played via their headphone outs. It was only when I hooked the HE-500 to speaker taps, for example, of the MP-301tube amp (with resistors in place to protect the amp's transformers) that the 500 really woke up and that I truly heard what this headphone was capable of. Previously I could hear the promise via the headphone out but it was just out of reach. After this discovery it was just a matter of finding the proper matching amp for this kind of set up – yes, there are differences to amps when playing this headphone via speaker taps, it's not simply about power, but rather how that power is translated, with finesse or simply with raw power. My favorite amp to date is the Luxman R-1050 because it combines those qualities with a presentation that never fails to impress me. This is the amp that I will be using for putting the HE-560 through its paces.
[Two sets of cable choices / TRS vs XLR]
Okay, all this background to say I am not going to waste a lot of time playing the HE-560 via TRS which is why I tossed those other cables straight back into the bag. My primary interest is to see how this new Hifiman HE-560 offering stands up to a well-amplified HE-500, 'mano a mano'. I am giving the HE-560 the best platform for performance that I have found so far to see what it's truly made of, and I am comparing it with a member of the family that simply astounds with such a set up. My secondary set-up will be the Musical Paradise MP-301 MK2 via speaker taps, another set-up the 500 excels with. So that's the background scenario.
TRS or BUST? (What the Heck Does that Stand For?) (Hint: Try something else)
Okay, second thing, let's just get that standard headphone out thing out of the way shall we. I reach for the HE-560 TRS extender to connect it to the XLR cable I have already attached to the headphone – what's this? A mini 3.5mm connector, huh .. with four connectors (TRRS). What the ... who is going to be using these headphones with their iPhone, seriously. A quarter inch connector would have been more understandable. So now I have to look for an adapter to hook the headphones to my Luxman amp headphone out so I can get a comparative base. Is the adapter in the bags – I comb through the bags – no adapters, huh. Okay, let me look through my stash; no, not that screw on thing, I toss it back. Let's see, maybe this one, but it has a small protruding edge so that won't do, I'm out of luck. What to do. Wait, I have one I use for my ATH-M50 while watching movies. Let's see ... yeah that will work, it sits flush against the edge, sweet. Okay time for some aural sensations.
[Tube buffer / Feeds Luxman amp]
Jriver has already been on, and my tube buffer which feeds the Luxman has been warming up all this time. Random playlist – no special favorites or tracks – let's just see how things present themselves with my normal day to day listening. P.S. I have everything hooked up to the Luxman. There are two speaker outs (A and B). The HE-500 is on speaker out A, and on speaker out B I have a Stax SR-44, but it's adapter has a speaker out pass through, that I will connect the HE-560 to, after listening to the 560 via the headphone out first of course. Here goes ... cue music via Luxman headphone out!
Aargh ... anemic! Track is .. Erik Truffaz (Wet in Paris). Great track, but I am not getting that much volume. I raise it. I'm almost at noon, better but not very convincing, my back mind is doing a potential comparison with the HE-500 on tap (not even close). It's too loud and I'm still not hearing it. I turn it down a notch, okay the symmetry is there, but it's not quite whole. Joan Armatrading (Show Some Emotion). This track has a great deal of range (let's take a listen). I still get that feeling that something is missing. Yes I could try to drown that missing something with more volume, but eh, no, won't go down that track. It's all there – the detail, the full frequency, but it's just not fleshed out. Oh, alright Seal is playing (Future Love Paradise). I know this track inside out, and ah no, it's not happening. This track should really be grooving, but it feels like it's only 45 to 60% there. Aargh, enough, been there done that, trying to convince myself that these new crop of orthodynamics should sound dynamic out of regular headphone outs. Time to stop. Let's go the other route (yup .. to each his own .. and this ain't it for me). Let's strap the HE-560s to speaker taps and see what comes out. The first track I will re-try is Future Love Paradise. Gimme a minute to switch things ...
SPEAKER TAP AWAKENINGS
Okay, the HE-560 is plugged to the Stax adapter speaker out pass through. Okay, there it is, wow, voice extension, oh yeah, yes we are grooving. Man, so much was missing, unbelievable. Those left to right artifacts in the track; I was not hearing that half a minute ago. I'm grinning ..
. Okay, man. It's really good. Anecdote: why does anyone bother trying to find the mythical headphone amp that performs like this when it's so easy, so easily within reach, makes me wonder
Wow, I am impressed. Okay, a quick comparison with the HE-500. I switch the amp to speaker out A and leave volume at same level for a quick attenuation comparison. Back to Seal. Press play .. mmm, HE-500 sounds a little warmer (maybe .. wooly .. that ain't a good characteristic believe me .. not as much detail retrieval either). The 500 is little more fuller, muscular? Yes, I think that's right. But I can hear where this might be a drawback to not being able to present the frequencies more linearly. Too much wool around the edges, mmm .. and I have totally adored this headphone for the past three years. Against the HE-560 this is only becoming apparent. Okay, let's let the next track play, Bob Marley (Natural Mystic). Bass on the 500 can be downright addictive, no difference here. Mmm ... I wonder how this will compare with the 560s. Volume is a little too loud (is the 560 less sensitive than the HE-500?). Oh yeah, that reminds me, I would like to measure the impedance of this set of 560s, let's see how close Hifiman is to specs. But first a quick Bob Marley comparison. Back to speaker B ...
No doubt .. this pair of HE-560s is less sensitive than my HE-500s which measure at 35.1/35.2ohms (right and left respectively). I'll get my multimeter in a sec. Okay Bob, what's cooking? I really like the presentation of this headphone, there is no frequency smearing here, everything has it's place, nice instrument separation. Bass is a little less convincing than the HE-500, I don't know, a little missing in action, but nonetheless quite present (does that make sense?). Erik Truffaz is playing again, this time (Miss Kaba), one of my favorite tracks from him. Mmm ... yummy .. wow beautiful blending. It's reminding me of the Stax SR-44 rig (maybe I'll do a little comp after the track is through ... hey, why not right now seeing as the two headphones are on the same rig). Okay ... turn volume down, switch Stax adapter to Earspeaker, let's see .. volume back up.
[Stax SR-44 rig]
DREAMS OF STAX
Oh man .. so similar to the HE-560 in terms of detail presentation. Unbelievable, there is a closer affinity between the HE-560 and the Stax SR-40 than with the HE-500. I didn't see that coming. Rewind Miss Kaba ... man I might as well have been wearing the same headphones, yes there are differences, but it's so close. With a double-blind test I would place the Stax SR-40 and the Hifiman HE-560 in the same family but not with the HE-500. In retrospect it sounds as if the HE-500 was one of those headphones produced to satisfy the basshead era of headphones, and the HE-560s were produced to satisfy high fidelity audio enthusiasts, where the latter engineers (think Stax) were more interested in truer tonal and frequency presentation, than they were with popular colorations. I am hearing it right now in the Stax and I was hearing it a moment ago in the HE-560. As much as I love the HE-500, it doesn't quite achieve this level of balanced tonal presentation.
Okay ... break. I need to measure the impedance of these HE-560s. Gimme a moment ... multimeter time. Right channel 37.5ohms, left channel 38.1ohms. Hifiman specs call for an impedance of 35ohms ... so, pretty close, and closely matched.
BASS and TREBLE RESPONSE
Okay back to music, Cassandra Wilson (Blue Light Till Dawn). Oh by the way I went to see Cassandra Wilson this summer in Vancouver when she was here for the Coastal Jazz Festival. Her show at the Vogue Theatre was absolutely stellar (the Vogue is an acoustical gem for jazz ensembles). Okay, I need to switch headphones as much as I don't want to take these Stax earspeakers off. We'll listen to Cassandra Wilson again with the HE-560s. Switch ... mmm, nice, but a little bit slower than the Stax, I don't know, more deliberate I guess. Treble is a little bit pitchy, but detail retrieval is stellar, especially with what seems to be a wider soundstage than the SR-40. I need to compare with the HE-500 after this. Track is almost finished so I'll start afresh.
[Vogue Theatre - Vancouver downtown]
Blue Light Till Dawn with the HE-500: There is that bass presence, but I hear where it may be smearing into the mid-range. Cassandra's voice on the 500 sounds more true than on the 560, but it's competing with that bass, something that isn't apparent with the HE-560. I am torn, I am not sure which is the better phone with this track. Lol, at this stage I'd take a left-field choice and go with the Stax SR-40. The bass to mid-range frequency of the HE-500 seems a little too overpowering for this track and the HE-560 treble on it seems a little much, making Cassandra's voice a little less genuine. This track is a real test for the HE-560. Let me try it again.
This time I plug the HE-560 into the speaker A connector that the 500 was on. It shouldn't make a difference but who knows: Okay, nice balance to the bass entry. Cassandra's voice – still a little bit of sibilance, peaky treble, ummm. P.S. I don't have tonal control on (rarely if ever do I – don't like them and the same goes for EQs, I like things au naturel (as much as possible). As far as this track is concerned I am not very convinced. Excellent soundstaging though, lot's of spatial space between the various facets that make up this song. I think I'd put it down to this – the HE-560 needs a smidgen of the HE-500s warmth and the 500s need a lot less. Okay I give in ... I turn the treble tonal knob on the Luxman a little bit down. Mmmm ... still a little bit peaky in the treble. Maybe it's the track, nah... What is Stax saying, let's see. Could be the track, I do hear some peakish treble, but the Stax seems a little more accurate with a very beautiful tonal presentation. Okay let's move on ...
SUSHI, PADS and TREBLE TROUBLES
Tummy messengers are here ... it's 3:55pm and I haven't had lunch. Time for some left-over sushi. I'll get back to this (break).
[Yum ... left over sushi]
While my left-over sushi was steaming it occurred to me that a pad change might be in order. All this time I have been using the Focus pads with the perforated inside lip. I swapped to the older focus pads (Focus A) that came with the tour headphones. Okay – back to Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light Till Dawn. Okay, that definitely sounds better, the treble seems a little bit better tonally and I do attest there is a little more warmth to this signature, reminiscent of the HE-500 warmth that I was yearning for a moment ago. I like this signature ... it seems more right, and this track is sounding like it should sound like. Shucks, why did Hifiman change the pads (oh wait, there was all that fake brouhaha about ill-fitting pads), too bad. I feel that if the Focus A pads (1st
generation) had remained the stock pads this headphone would have a lot more going for it in stock form than it is being presented now with the new Focus pads. Too bad ... get those original pads while they are still available ladies and gents, especially if you already have the HE-560.
[Focus pads to the left; Focus A pads to the right]
Man I am enjoying this, it sounds just right now. Am listening to Lizz Wright (Fire). Makes me just wanna lay back into my seat, close my eyes, and be taken away by the music. Nothing to analyze any more, it sounds right, just like music. The Focus A pads definitely add some warmth but just the right amount that offsets what I deduce to be a slightly peaky treble the HE-560 often presents. This combination really works in a synergistic manner; even the bass is grooving now, a little more like the HE-500 but without coloring the other frequencies.
SOME BASS HEAVINESS and PAD SWITCHING CONCLUSIONS
I am now listening to Erykah Badu (On & On) and this track is bass heavy and the HE-560 is handling the bass absolutely beautifully without letting it take over. I wonder how this track would sound with the HE-500 and Stax SR-40. Let's find out. First up: Stax ...
The bass frequency weakness of this particular Stax headphone becomes apparent. The Stax can't quite handle bass boosted tracks. It's really not doing this track justice. It's there but the bass is supposed to be the heartbeat of this track and it's too recessed. With the right genres the Staxes are incredibly beautiful but with modern era genres like Electronica, Drum 'n Bass, Hip Hop, they fall short. It's as if the designers were not even aware such genres could ever exist. The Stax is definitely a fail here.
Okay, HE-500 (please don't let me down, eek.) Oh yeah, that's bass alright. Also excellent background detail. I'm foot tapping to the bass. Yeah this is good, everything about the sound signature says groovy track. Perhaps a little smidgen of loose bass in some passages. But vocals are still prominent and nicely blended with other details. I can live with this. Sidenote: I wonder how the HE-500 would perform with the newer pads. Time to find out ...
After some fidgeting I attach the second pair of Focus A pads (first generation) that came with the tour package. Mmm .. interesting, a bit more detail retrieval with these pads on the 500 than the stock 500 set. Nice. Lol ... time to upgrade 500 pads. I like it. Still listening to On & On for progeny's sake. Okay what about with the new stock Focus pads? Let's find out: Stop music (fidget, fidget)...Mmm comfy, more comfy than the Focus A pads. A little more detail than the Focus A pads (courtesy of the perforations perhaps?). Bass is tight (did I just say that?). Interesting, nice tonal balance, soundstage and nuances seem more extended. Lol .. conclusion to the pad saga .. Focus A pads are for the HE-560 and the newer Focus pads are for the HE-500 (irony, huh!). I am going to be picking up a set of these for my HE-500, definitely an improvement.
JUST MUSIC, NO DISTRACTIONS
Fast forward ... what else is popping up in this playlist, let's see. Jacksoul (As We); rest in peace Haydain. I am hearing a little bit of a peaky treble with the 500, but nothing to make me stop, could be a symptom of the Focus pads. Next track – Damon Aaron (All I Need). Yeah, here is that feeling again, you know, where it's now simply about the music, no distractions. Time to simply close your eyes and let the music take over. I do just that ... (The detail retrieval of the HE-500 with the Focus pads really surprises me, an excellent hardware match). Upgrade your Hifiman HE-500 pads y'all.
My man ... Barry White (Playing Your Game, Baby). Nice soundstage, sounds a little wider somehow. Will compare with the HE-560s on this track. Man, it's just about the music at this stage. I really like it after you've spent time gathering all your hardware together and it comes together and becomes art – that's what it's all about. (Forgotten time elapse ... was listening to Seal (Crazy)). Oh boy, superb track starting, Metropolitan Jazz Affair (Bird of Spring). Everything has come together ... I love it! I'll listen to this track first with the HE-500 (Focus pads) and then compare with the HE-560 (Focus A pads).
Back to Barry White with the HE-560s. Pause ... nothing to say really. This is just good music. Listening to Seal (Crazy) again – it's all there and the tonal balance is symmetrical. Metropolitan Jazz Affair (Bird of Spring). Groovy bass, for a moment there I thought I was still with the HE-500. Groovy bass without it being overpowering. Vocals are frontal, just the nice full sound I would expect from a well-amplified orthodynamic. Those pad switches really made that much of a difference, huh? Interesting. I don't feel a need to change anything. Just feels like it's time to simply enjoy the music. And I away ...
[Haydain Neale of Jacksoul - d. Nov 2009]
ULTIMATE QUESTION (hang in there ...)
Now here is the question. Which of these headphones would I keep? Since I already own the HE-500, the more obvious question is, is there a need to ditch the HE-500 and upgrade (sidegrade?) to the HE-560? Stay tuned while I come up with an answer over the next few days.
SUSPENDED IN-BETWEEN: FUZZY LOGIC CONCLUSION
What ensued was a long back and forth comparison of the two headphones listening to different tracks one headphone after the other. This was fairly easy to do having both headphones strapped to the same amplifier but with dedicated outputs (thanks engineers for speaker amplifiers with two speaker outputs -
P.S. Placing the speaker output selection on A+B also made it obvious that the HE-560 required a little bit more attenuation to match the volume output of the HE-500, perhaps underscoring the fact that this particular HE-560 may be less sensitive than the HE-500 (at least my pair). But then again what is 90db/mW (HE-560) vs 89db/mw (HE-500). That means too close to call in my book.
Some random track impressions:
Jaga Jazzist (The Stix)
- very challenging Nu-Jazz/Electronica track:
With HE-500 (Focus pads). Nice full robust sound. All those crazy details are there.
With HE-560 (Focus A pads). I am having a hard time telling the headphones apart. They are equally good, albeit with a nod for more detail retrieval going to the HE-560, but musically, they are equally convincing. One could get either, amplify it well and simply get lost in the music – which really is the goal at the end of the day.
Stee Downes (Movement)
This track highlighted how similar the HE-560 and HE-500 can sound (with the pad switches I made). I have to listen very closely to pinpoint the differences if any. The HE-500 sounds a little bit fuller whereas the HE-560 sounds a little more defined.
The HE-560 definitely wins this one. There is just more happening with it, not that much more but it's noticeable after coming from the HE-500. Again, very nice frequency balance, all the nuances are there and can be easily picked out. Yeah, oh that treble, no more troubles from it and I think credit goes to the Focus A pads on this.
With some genres the HE-500 simply shines. For example well-recorded and performed R&B/Neo-Soul. For example: Jill Scott (Golden)
, a track I felt the HE-500 out-performed the HE-560 on. Similar impressions on Brand New Heavies (Keep Together)
; Mark Rae (Medicine)
. The HE-560 doesn't seem to quite have the groove factor that these tracks and others like them call for.
Santana (Smooth (feat. Rob Thomas)
The warmer and fuller presentation of the HE-500 sounds better here too. Makes for a more enveloping and rocking sound. In comparison the HE-560 sounds like it's trying to be more proper when it's really time to let loose and really groove.
Ali Slaight (Kiss From A Rose)
Mmm ... The HE-560 sounds like the more accurate headphone of the two here. The overall warmth of the HE-500 is working against it. This is a somewhat acoustically based track and that kind of makes sense based on my other impressions: With acoustical music the HE-560 seems more accurate and better balanced overall. The HE-500 seems to bring a little more warmth to the tracks than is necessary resulting in less clarity within and between the various facets of the tracks, vocals and instruments. Still overally good but I would take the HE-560's presentation each time with acoustic based music – so much sweeter and nuanced – excellent performances.
Plantlife (When She Smiles)
HE-560 is clearer. Mmm ... sounds like the evidence is piling up. The HE-560 reproduces music with more clarity than the HE-500. I think the mid-centric character of the HE-500 may be its Achilles heel. Don't get me wrong, it still sounds world-class but it is outclassed by the HE-560 in this regard. (From Wikipedia: An Achilles heel is a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength, which can actually or potentially lead to downfall.)
And so forth and so forth, and so forth it went .... until ...
Conclusion inside the conclusion
: When musical clarity is called for the HE-560s outperform the 500s, but where full musical grooviness is called for the HE-500s seem to have an edge. So I guess it pretty much comes down to choice of the wrong that's less wrong. In this case the less significant and infrequent shortcomings of the HE-560 are easier to fix and live with than the more apparent shortcomings of the HE-500, especially if you listen to a lot of acoustically grounded music. The HE-560 is the better headphone and is definitely an upgrade rather than simply a sidegrade to the HE-500. Would I upgrade then? Yes ... absolutely, strictly based on sound-quality improvements, and especially where money is not a consideration. With the HE-500 now just over half the price of the HE-560 does that make it half as good as the HE-560? Definitely not; I would place the HE-500's abilities at about 93-96% of the HE-560's sonic reproductive ability. Is that final 4-7% worth it? My answer – a resounding yes! With the HE-560 you would have a headphone that gives you less to stop and gripe about knowing in the end there was little you could do about it.
Well done Hifiman for taking your headphones further. I didn't think you could do it, especially with single-magnet transducers but you did. The HE-560 is definitely a worthy upgrade to the HE-500!
[Grill-modded HE-500 (Focus pads) ; Stock form HE-560 (Focus A pads]
Postscript: FUZZYING THINGS UP ...
The Fuzzor mod suggested by Jerg in this thread
kinda intrigued me after realizing that the major difference between the HE-560 and the HE-500 was in their clarity and detail retrieval characteristics, the HE-560 being the better of the two in that regard. But those qualities are precisely what the Fuzzor mod is supposed to improve for the HE-500. I had to find out ...
Ran out to my local Michael's store to get some felt (shucks got the wrong one ... yeah you guessed it, I went all the way to the end of the mod with that one – don't ask; we'll leave it for the trash bin. Hint: It wasn't the stiff kind). Ran back to the store this time making sure I asked for stiffened adhesive felt ... shikes ... they were out (wha ..aat!). I won't bore you with more of this yarn (they had lots of that at the store) ... I eventually had to drive to another Michael's store farther away. Ah ... but enough of that.
The mod turned out great what with me being a more experienced modder and all (snicker ..). Now to the sound. I quickly went back to those problematic tracks that the HE-500 had stumbled on and that the HE-560 had simply been brilliant with. Wow ... what do ya know ... a mod that actually works! To my ears the HE-500 was now sounding more refined, with a very beautiful tone but still a bit more energetic than the HE-560, but it was almost, almost there. I could easily take that and not miss the HE-560 (much). Percentage wise I'd say the HE-500's rendering on those tracks was now closer to 98.5% of the HE-560 (that's as precise as I can get, sorry). I still feel the HE-560 is still the more nuanced of the two headphones and really worth that additional effort if one can manage it. But then again, there are those times when the HE-500's signature is precisely what the shaman has ordered; where it's groove fun factor simply and incredibly wows. So ... is that fuzzy enough for ya ..?