When asked about the headphones that represent the best value for money in this hobby's top tier, any well-versed audiophile would probably mention the the HE-500 and the HD600.
When I think about these two, I envision a sort of changing of the guard. I see an older Michael Jordan, still as wily and skillful as ever, standing next to the younger, flashier Kobe Bryant. This analogy is valid (at least in my mind) because of the differing technologies used in both; the "standard" dynamic driver in the HD600, and the planar magnetic driver of the HE-500. Of course, planar technology been around for quite a while, but a recent resurgence has put such phones in the forefront of attention once more. The new crop of phones have refined the drivers to deliver awesome performance.
The HD600's performance is from standard. For over a decade, it's been a standard bearer for top tier performance without spending the small fortunes this new crop of headphones require. I bought my HD600 off the FS forum of this site for a price that made click buy without even batting an eyelid. In the day or two before it arrived, I exchanged what must have been dozens of PMs with members who have owned the HD600, and have gone up to phones such as the HD800, HE-6, etc. and have found that the difference is relatively minimal when compared to the phenomenal leap in price. The same applies to the HE-500, though it retails at a few hundred more than the HD600.
In terms of looks, the HE-500 is like a Lamborghini compared to the HD600's Toyota Corolla aesthetics. The HE-500 is built from metal all around, and just spanks the HD600's plastic construction. Unfortunately the Lambo/Corolla metaphor also applies to the overall practicality of the two phones. The HD600's construction and shape follow function over form, preferring comfort over the HE-500's relatively poor ergonomics. The HE-500 is quite heavy, and the pads don't quite caress the ears like the HD600's do, even with the velours.
The sound signatures of both headphones are somewhat similar in that they share a more laid back sound. They both offer a relatively smooth response, with capable bass and extended, smooth treble.
There are significant differences, however.
First impressions of the HE-500...it's remarkably similar to the HD600, with slightly more shimmer to the sound and slightly more visceral bass impact. I also thought "wow, so these are the Ortho Mids everyone talks about..." Vocals are about as magical as on the HD600, but the HD600's way of warmly embracing you with the singer's voice is absent here.
The sound seem more cavernous (not in a good way) vs the HD600 as well.
As for drivability, the HE-500 operates very well from my amp. I was worried that I would need a separate line from my power company, so that was a pleasant surprise.
I've used a set of tracks to evaluate the abilities of these headphones. Notes are under each song.
Song #1: Oakland UFO - The Flashbulb - MP3 320
The first thing that strikes you is the natural presentation of the drums in the HD600. I've played the drum set since I was six years old, and they are represented fully here. Despite the warmer presentation, transparency is top notch and every slight hi-hat strike is clearly audible. I'm noticing that the sound space is more 3D than the HE-500 due to better height, but it ultimately falls short of the width of the HE-500. I noted earlier that the HE-500 has a more cavernous sound. I'm attributing to the fact that the center channel doesn't seem to be quite as represented. The HE-500 also has a more visceral bass impact that makes the kick drum better felt. The biggest advantage the HE-500 has over the HD600 is in the percieved clarity department, where its greater treble response propels it over the top. The side effect is that percussion seems a bit thinner.
Winner: HE-500. The more open sound, combined with the more impactful bass, was simply more appealing on this track.
Song #2: The Girl - City and Colour - MP3 320
(I'm already starting to find the HE-500 very uncomfortable by this point)
The HE-500 does a great job at portraying spaciousness here, but the mids are quite forward - and this is coming from someone who really likes the HD600's mids. While the mids are very clear, switching to HD600 uncovers extra vocal depth and warmth, while retaining the same transparency. The guitar strums carry about the same amount of detail in both phones, but the HD600 has significantly less bass (which may be a result of the HE-500 headache I have going on right now).
Song #3: Come Healing - Leonard Cohen - MP3 320
I chose this song because 1) Leonard Cohen is awesome, and 2) the song is a great test for bass performance. Leonard's voice is, IMO, one of the hardest to accurately portray due to the delicate balance and texture that's required to pull off that raspy croon.
The HE-500 did a good deal more justice to Leonard's voice because of its more spacious sound and shorter decay time. The HD600's longer decay did no favors here, adding extra reverb to the vocals. This hampered the overall experience of the song. The HE-500 also separated the female vocals better, giving them more dynamics and heightening the engagement factor.
Song #4 : Stank - Lenny White, et al - FLAC 24/172 - Binaural track to test soundstage
The actual track isn't on youtube, but the album demo is:
(I'm sweating bullets under the weight of the HE-500. My eyeballs are going numb, and I can't stop farting. I can't keep this up much longer)....
Given the HE-500's more open sound sig, I was expecting total dominance here. Not so! The HD600 not only managed to match the HE-500 at throwing sound cues off into the distance, but it also succeeded at presenting a more coherent soundstage. Add in the better percussion timbre, and the HD600 wins this one pretty easily.
Song #5: Stubborn Love - The Lumineers - MP3 320
One of the reasons I love this track, and album, is because it's one of the few recordings that actually convey the vibe of a live performance.
The HE-500 is immediately lacking in this respect. The HD600 just presents a more wholesome sound stage, more dynamic vocals, and better timbre on the cymbals, drums, and guitars. The lead singer's voice sounds more natural as well, versus the more glaring/etched presentation of the HE-500.
I made it. I finally got to the last song. I'm now hunchbacked and I walk with a limp, but I finally finished the review. I had to take a massage break in between each A/B, but I made it. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be Atlas.
Exaggerations aside, both these phones are fantastic. IMO, they should not be missed on the journey to the top, whatever that may be for you. Despite the HD600's age, it's still got plenty of moves to show the younger contestants in this era. The HE-500, while great, still has a bit of a ways to go before it can fully take over the reigns in this market segment.
One HUGE deal breaker for me is the HE-500's ergonomics, or lack thereof. I started to feel the fatigue set in after less than an hour, and it got progressively worse. I just don't see myself investing such a sizeable sum on something that brings such discomfort, no matter how good the sound.
Thanks for reading!
More Concise Comparison (April 5th)
I'm only vocal about the HE-500 because I imagine there are others in my shoes, who have saved up X dollars and are willing to spend it on the right phone. I feel as if certain issues with the HE-500 are brushed under the rug, and when people like myself attempt to bring it to light, we are shushed. I've repeatedly been specific about why I find the HD600 better than the HE-500, but others are only content to say that they find the HE-500 better in every way.
Here is a concise list of the things the HE-500 fails at:
1) Soundstage height and depth. The HD600 is not only just as wide, but it is taller and has a greater sense of depth.
2) Upper mid oriented vocals. The vocals here are ultimately too forward and lack true vocal depth, whereas the HD600 takes a step back and allows you to hear deeper into the singers voice. I gave an example of this in my review.
3) The HE-500 also falls behind in overall timbre. Instruments don't sound quite "right", especially percussion and treble related instruments, like cymbals.
What the HE-500 is good at:
1) Clarity and spaciousness. The HE-500 has somewhat drawn back lower mids and more shimmery treble, so this is great for the apprent clarity.
2) Great bass extension. The bass has a very nice visceral feel to it, where it is more felt than heard. I feel if the HE-500 shipped with better pads, it would be a much improved phone.
3) Treble?? Like I mentioned earlier, it has a greater treble response than the HD600. Some might think it's better due to the increased treble quantity, I think the way it was integrated with the upper mids throws off the timbre. For instance, my DT880 has even more treble than the HE-500, yet it has better overall timbre.
4) Looks. It's quite a sexy phone.
The HE-500's sound stage (and overall sound) compared to the the HD600's can be described as such:
Imagine two rooms of equal size/dimensions. One room is furnished as a family room, while the other is a bachelor's living room. The family room has a 40 inch television, along with a few couches, side tables, and plush chairs. The bachelor's living room has an 80 - inch television, but only a tiny leather sofa. On first glance the bachelor pad may seem more open and appealing, but over time you begin to notice its lack of charm and functionality. The family room now seems like a much more practical and useful space. Then, to compound the issue, you start to notice that the bachelor pad has somewhat short ceilings that you occasionally bump your head on.
That pretty much sums up my thoughts on the two.