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.