Pros: Lightweight/comfort, pricing, largely balanced signature, rhythm and pacing, versatility. ease of driving
Cons: Bass somewhat rolled off, inexpensive construction materials.
Introduction: The HE-400S is a planar magnetic headphone designed and manufactured by HiFiMAN. Since its introduction in 2015, the HE-400S has won numerous awards and received a large number of accolades, drawing much attention to the newest member of the HiFiMAN family. The HE-400S becomes the third in the HE-400x series, following the HE-400 (discontinued) and the HE-400i (still in production). The HE-400S becomes HiFiMAN's least expensive headphone, a full two hundred dollars cheaper than the well-reviewed HE-400i at $299.00 MSRP. When listeners heard that HiFiMAN was releasing a planar magnetic at the three hundred-dollar price point, the question many observers had was "Yes, but will it be worth anything?' I am here to report that the answer to that query is a resounding 'Yes.' Let's take a look at the HE-400S from HiFiMAN.
Driver Type: planar magnetic Frequency Response: 20 hz-35,000 hz Impedance: 22 ohms Weight: 350 gm Cable Length: 1.5 m Connector Type: 2.5 mm x 2 (cups) and 3.5 mm right angle (termination)--also includes a 3.5mm to 1/4 inch adapter. Design Type: Open-back
Gear: iPhone 6S, iPod shuffle 2G, FiiO E17K
Construction: The cups are primarily constructed of some sort of plastic-ish material. The headband is a synthetic leather that is quite comfortable. There are a number of settings for the adjustable band and I had no difficulty finding a setting that worked well for me. One very cool aspect of the design is that the drivers can be clearly seen when looking at the side of the cup housing. It's kind of neat to see, given how different it looks from a dynamic driver.
Comfort: I'll come right out and say it--these headphones are extremely comfortable. Partly due to weight, partly due to cup design and pads, the comfort factor with these headphones is high. I find myself wearing them for hours with no problems of ear discomfort. Stock pads are velour, but Focus pads are available for those who prefer pleather (more on this later).
Music: The music in this review was all simply standard iTunes files--nothing fancy.
Sound: The first word I would use to describe the sound of the HE-400S is engaging. The headphone draws you in. It grabs onto you and before long, you find you've been listening for an hour or more. That's how this headphone goes. It makes me keep putting song after song after song on. Oh, Mettallica sounds excellent--how about The Dixie Chicks? On and on it goes. These are if nothing else supremely musical headphones. They make me want to listen to music on them. And I have been doing an awful lot of that of late. The second word I would use to describe the HE-400S is easy-to-drive (Is that a word? It is now.). I had absolutely no issues driving the HE-400S to high sound levels using a shuffle or phone. Does it sound better with an amp? Yes, in my opinion it does. But it is by no means a requirement. These cans are just easy to drive, period.
The soundstage is wide and precise, with vocals and instruments placed in specific points in space. The individual parts are well delineated and spacious. There is no sense of crowding--there is plenty of room for everything and everyone. On Britney's "Everytime" her voice is front and center surrounded by a capacious piano and keyboards, the outro of which just seems to go on forever in a slow decay that is quite remarkable for its ethereal vibe. On Verdi's Requiem (Karajan, Price, Pavarotti, La Scala), the chorus's power is communicated perfectly by the HE-400S, with multiple layers of singers extending within the soundstage. Imaging is beautifully precise and at the same time, complex, with the natural echo of the La Scala theater suffusing the recording. This is a wide and detailed soundstage.
Detail is excellent in my view. A good example of this being the percussive parts on Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On." Bonham's lines during the verses sound literally like they are in the room with me. The guitar parts are well-etched and distinct from one another. On "Jesus Take The Wheel," the rich harmonic complexity of Carrie Underwood's beautiful voice is rendered perfectly. It sounds like I'm in the studio with her. Just beautiful. Rhythm and pacing are also terrific with this headphone. The music has drive. It has go-juice. It has gitty-up.
Treble is very good, if slightly laid back. On "Perfect Day" by Lady Antebellum, the ride cymbals are just slightly recessed, as is the high hat. On Journey's "Ask the Lonely," on the other hand, Steve Smith's cymbals and Steve Perry's voice have just the right amount of treble energy or bite. It's just about perfect. Overall, I would describe the HE-400S treble as being a bit on the warmish side, though it does vary from recording to recording. Some people have described the treble as smooth, and I suppose I could get behind that, too.
Midsare where these cans really shine brightest in my view. Going back to Verdi's Requiem, the richness of the vocals and massed strings is positively intoxicating. There is so much harmonic information here that it is almost overwhelming. Acoustic music (Alison Krauss, eg) is similarly inviting. Female vocals in general (Krauss/Sugarland/Heart/Dixie Chicks/Underwood) are rendered with such beauty that I find myself playing songs over and over again. This headphone really gets the midrange right. It's breathtaking.
Bassis somewhat rolled off on these cans. According to numerous HE-400S users, however, that bass lightness can be largely ameliorated by going with the Focus pads rather than the stock velour HiFiMANs. I personally have not done that yet, so I cannot comment personally other than to say that it seems a good number of folks have found the pad change useful. Other than that, I do wish the stock pads provided a bit more sub bass energy. On Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About," the bass line, normally quite strong and driving, is just a tad anemic. Even my Superlux HD 681 Evo at fifty bucks provide substantially more bass energy. Don't get me wrong, the bass is there. It just isn't as powerful as I would like it to be. What bass is there is quite detailed, though. It is what I would term high-quality bass, just not high quantity.
Comparisons: I don't at the moment have an HD600 on hand, unfortunately, so I have chosen to compare the HE-400S to the HD598 instead. On Pat Metheny's "First Circle," Lyle Mays's piano is definitely more forward on the 598 than it is on the HE-400S. The treble of Paul Wertico's drums and cymbals is also more present. The vocals are clearer and there is much, much more detail, whether it is Lyle Mays's synthesizers or Metheny's guitar--on the 400S. It is simply the more detailed can. As for which evokes more emotion in me, I would say that is probably also the 400S, though the 598 is no slouch. But the 400S just over overwhelms with information. On the whole, what is the better can of the two? Better is a subjective term, clearly. I would say that for me, the HE-400S is the more detailed and nuanced can and I enjoy that added level of detail. If I could just have one, I would probably go with the HE-400S, but the 598 is a very good can, no doubt about it.
Conclusion: The HiFiMAN HE-400S is a remarkable headphone. It is lightweight and comfortable for long sessions. It performs at a level that exceeds its price, in some respects, by a lot. It competes effectively with cans costing two hundred dollars more. It is detailed and nuanced and has a spacious soundstage. Its midrange is world-class, its treble, excellent. Its bass can be augmented by using the Focus pads to strengthen the low end. At its price of $299, the HE-400S is a world-beater. Run out and get one. You will be listening to a lot of music, I can promise you that.
Headphone Adapter - 3.5 mm to 6.35 mm
Headphone Cable - 1.5 meter, 3.5mm 90-degree angle plug Cardboard box with foam padding on the inside Build Quality, Aesthetics and Comfort While there have been reports of earlier model HiFiMan headphones having less than desired build quality, thankfully this is not the case with the 400S. Overall the quality, fit and finish of the materials is very decent. The headband pad is pleather and other than the headband arch and side grills, all visible materials are plastic. The 400S has the new HiFiMan style headband and angled ear pads, whichare covered in a very comfortable black velour material.
Especially welcome is the use of removable 2.5mm female mini-jacks on the ear cup connectors (like the HiFiMan HE-1000, or Sennheiser HD 700), rather than the older screw-on type. Use of plastic for much of the construction and the newly redesigned drivers (half the magnets of other models), means that the 400S weighs about 20-25 grams less than other HiFiMan headphones. The planar drivers can be seen in direct light through the exterior grills of the ear cups.
Overall this is a very comfortable headphone. The circular ear pads are large enough to accommodate most ears. The relatively low weight and headband pad design combine to rest easily upon the head, and the clamping force of the headband is not too strong for extended use. The headband, pad and cups offer a good range of movement to accommodate a variety of head sizes. I only have 2 complaints. The included cable is wrapped in a paracord material and is quite stiff, making it unforgiving and at times frustrating to use. Due to its detachable design, this can fairly easily be replaced. I’m also not in love with how the 400S looks when wearing. The squared off metal band with the pleather hammock headband is, as noted above, absolutely functional and comfortable. However, coupled with the large circular ear cups, it is a bizarre contraption for your head. To best describe the headband look, is to picture one of those large black paperclips with the fold-back silver arms, clamped solidly on a GI Joe action figure’s head (right over both ears). This is the very silhouette that the headband on the 400S achieves.
Sound Signature and Quality
The 400S is a superb sounding headphone. It has been described as being entry level, of not delivering the same visceral experience as other (more expensive) planar headphones, of sounding more like a traditional headphone than a planar, and of (most likely) not meeting other expectations of other reviewers. However, for sound quality (and especially at this price point) it is an extraordinary sounding headphone. I will compare it to the previously similarly priced Sennheiser HD598, an excellent bang-for-the-buck dynamic headphone, as I am intimately acquainted with this model.
Clarity and coherency is very good. It is smooth and musical with a slightly warmer than neutral sound signature. The midrange shines with excellent imaging, and noteworthy realism and transparency. The 400S is extremely easy to listen to and non-fatiguing, with a natural sense of space and vocal presentation. Compared to the Sennheiser HD598 the 400S has a better presence and sense of engagement. Midrange in the 400S is very enjoyable and smooth. It has good body and detail, and maintains clarity and musicality. Voices are engaging and intelligible, as they should be.
Treble is on the softer side but clarity and detail are maintained. While not sounding greatly extended, it's never harsh, nor dark.Compared to the Sennheiser HD598, the treble extension of the 400S does not sound as bright.
Bass has too much body to be classified as neutral (note: which I find appealing) and sounds more like the bass expected from good dynamic headphones. It is worth mentioning that changing the ear pads to Hifiman Focus noticeably improves bass response. With the included pads, the 400S lacks low bass extension (or slam) but does remain fast, tight and without distortion. It also achieves greater low bass extension than the HD598.
I believe strongly in the concepts of bang-for-the-buck and the law of diminishing returns with music playback equipment. Although the HiFiMan 400S is one of the least expensive planar headphones ever available, they provide much of the clarity that is inherent in planar type headphones (while admittedly sacrificing some of the bass slam) and they uniquely bring the ability to be driven well from a portable player or inexpensive amplifier, while also combining light weight and remarkable comfort. While this entry-level for audiophiles price point stretches my own tight budget, the 400S certainly delivers with excellent sound, comparable to much more expensive models and to some of the most respected dynamic headphones available.