HiFiMAN HE-400 Headphones Review

So far, all the headphones I have reviewed have been based on a single speaker technology. While the sound signature from all of them has ranged from bass heavy to bright sounding, the tech is basically similar. It’s tweaking and build quality that determines how cheap – or expensive – they are. That’s not the case with the HE-400 headphones from HiFiMAN. These headphones are in a whole ‘nother league.

Headphones generally fall into two categories: Dynamic and Electrostatic. I’m not going to go into the differences, except to say that the dynamic design (which is the kind I have been reviewing) can range from cheap to quite expensive and are usually – but not always – easy to drive.  That just means that they can be easily used with an iPod without needing an extra amp. Electrostatic headphones range from expensive to “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” territory. Plus, they require massive amounts of amping to get optimum sound. This is a gross simplification, but for this review, it will have to do. If you’re still with me, let’s plow ahead.

Dynamic  headphones are usually warm sounding and very easy and forgiving to listen to for extended periods, depending on comfort. Electrostatics are extremely accurate and will give you what you give them. In other words, higher resolution audio files will sound much better than lower quality files.

The HE-400 headphones are somewhat of a combination of electrostatic and dynamic – again, a gross simplification. This is called planar magnetic. There are some advantages to this tech: they approach the accuracy of electrostatic without the massive power demands, although most planars still require a headphone amp. However until recently, the price for this technology was still out of reach of mere mortals. Until the HE-400 came along, that is.

HiFiMAN may have found the holy grail of headphone manufacturing. They figured out how to mass produce what to this point had always been hand-made headphones. Mass production means lower prices while maintaining a specified level of quality. The HE-400 is the first mass-produced planar headphone available and doesn’t require an external amp. At $400, it’s still  quite expensive, but compared to others costing almost double to well over $1,000, the HE-400 can look affordable.

So what does all this alternate tech sound like? What specifically are the advantages (and disadvantages) to planar phones compared to what almost everyone else is producing? First, the HE-400 is an open-back design. Heck, all planar magnetic (and electrostatic) headphones are open-back. This means that these headphones are open on both sides. Anyone sitting near you can hear what you are listening to, and you can also hear outside noises, which makes them lousy for commuting. If I place my hands over the backs of the earpieces, the HE-400 sounds tinny, artificial and just plain awful. The fact is that planar phones need air to get decent sound and a spacious soundstage. These headphones are made for serious listening in a quiet room.

When you listen to the HE-400, your first impression might be that a little more bass could help. Don’t be fooled. Added bass can be a cheap trick to make sound seem more dramatic and have more impact. Over time, it just becomes tiring. While I did increase the bass a bit using the equalizer on some overly bright sounding songs, it was rarely done. A good example of this is “When The Levee Breaks” from the Led Zeppelin IV. This song has power, emotion and a relentless drive. It’s also a harsh recording. I tweaked the bass just a bit and cranked it up. Because of the open-back design, the soundstage was wonderful. Plus, there was no hint of muddiness. I haven’t heard Led Zeppelin sound so clear before.

But usually, the equalizer was set to flat or not used at all. The HE-400 handled every genre of music, from classical to rock, like a champ. Everything I listened to sounded more fun, more detailed, more alive. With the exception of lower resolution files, I had trouble finding any music that didn’t sound better on the HE-400. But let’s be honest; music should sound better on any $400 headphone.

You can get the HE-400 headphones in any color as long as it’s dark blue. While blue may not seem like a good headphone color, it’s kinda classy – as classy as blue can get, anyway. The cups are large, due to the planar design. They pivot on an aluminum arm which is attached to a headband which could use more padding, especially in this price range. The cables are thick and split into a “Y” that screws into both cups. The connections are secure but very small, which can make connecting difficult for people with larger hands. The headphones are a bit on the heavy side and could become uncomfortable for long periods, but since these are not made for long distance commuting, this shouldn’t be a big issue.

There are two choices for ear pads: felt and leather, however switching between those ear pads is an exercise in frustration. There are four plastic “hooks” that connect each earpad, and while the first three connect easily, that last hook always gave me fits. It shouldn’t be this frustrating on a headphone this nice.

HiFiMAN has packaged the HE-400 headphone in a sturdy, reinforced cloth case along with a velour drawstring carrying bag, earpads, and a regular jack for home amps and receivers. That’s it. No bling or unnecessary add-ons.

The HiFiMAN HE-400 headphone will not win any fashion contest. In fact, they can look a bit dorky when worn. But since these will probably not be seen or heard in public due to the open-back design, all that matters is how they sound. As I said earlier, $400 is a lot to spend on a pair of headphones. Even so, these are still a bargain.

 

Product Information

Price:$399 US
Manufacturer:Hifiman
Retailer:HeadDirect, the HiFiMAN Store
Pros:
  • Affordable (for this technology)
  • Open, spacious sounding
  • Excellent sound quality for the price
Cons:
  • Large
  • Not for commuting
  • Still not cheap
  • Blue is the only color choice
Posted in: Audio, Video, TV Gear, Reviews

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • C D Roth July 20, 2012, 2:56 pm

    Out of curiosity, what did you use as source material? By that I mean vinyl, cd, super cd…

    1
  • Bill Henderson July 20, 2012, 3:14 pm

    C D,
    I try to mix it up so I can tell what earphone/headphone handles what kind of music better, meaning genre and file bitrate. I stick to digital, because that’s where most readers are. So the sources are mostly, CDs ripped by me in Apple lossless, HDtracks downloads, iTunes and Amazon downloads. I’ll leave the vinyl to the audiophile sites.

    Bill

    2
  • Jeff Friedman July 20, 2012, 4:03 pm

    I have used the HiFiMan HE 5LE for a few years, and absolutely love them. The only problem is that they make everything sound so good it is hard to use them for mastering work (I use either Stax electrostatics with a tube amp or Sennheisser 600s for that). I got the HE-400s earlier this year to have something I can use with portable devices, and though I haven’t had lots of listening with them yet, I agree with your review. About time we had some serious sound on Gadgeteer!

    Jeff

    3
  • Bill Henderson July 20, 2012, 4:07 pm

    Jeff,
    Haven’t you read some of my other reviews – Grado, Westone, Phonak Audéo, B&W, Audioengine? ;)

    Bill

    4
  • Srinivas September 2, 2012, 3:19 pm

    Hi Jeff,

    I will be picking these up in a couple of weeks. Since i will be using this primarily with my Quosmio laptop, will it have enough juice to run the HE400 perfectly or do i need to get a usb dac+headphone amp. I was thinking of the Audioengine D1, or should i get some other amp?

    5
  • Bill Henderson September 2, 2012, 3:30 pm

    Srinivas,
    Jeff can answer your question, but here’s my take…
    Your laptop should be able to drive the HE-400s, however they will sound better using an Audioengine D1, or any other DAC, for that matter.
    Bill H.

    6
  • Jeff Friedman September 2, 2012, 5:23 pm

    I use a Sound Devices USBPre 2 to take sound from my computer for the 5-LE headphones, this serves two purposes, it provides the power needed by the 5-LE headphones and also provides better A/D than my laptop’s crummy sound card. I got the 400s to use with portable devices that lacked the power to drive the higher-end HiFiMan headphones but have decent A/D (in the case of the HiFiMan portable audio player, very good A/D). It depends on your budget, but if that is no object I would go with the LE-5s and a nice USB preamp-A/D for the computer and the 400 for portable use. If you have a decent soundcard on your computer, the 400s will do fine with it.

    Jeff

    7
  • Coury H October 28, 2013, 9:09 pm

    Question…I’m rocking a very high end setup, with a tube amp, and upgraded tubes, and high end 24 bit DAC….the sound
    Is amazing! Do you think the sound quality is electrostatic quality? Thanks Jeff!

    8
  • Jeff Friedman October 29, 2013, 10:08 am

    I use the 400s on a completely different setup from my Stax electrostatics or HiFiMan 5LE so it’s hard to be sure. The Stax have more detail I think, but the 5LE and 400 are equally though differently pleasant to use. If I had to pick one I’d stick with the Stax (with tube headphone amp) but it is the opposite of portable (and also an order of magnitude more money). The 400s go everywhere.

    9
  • Bill Henderson October 29, 2013, 3:06 pm

    Jeff,
    Thanks for all the info and opinions. They’re appreciated!
    Bill H.

    10

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