Many of you reading this will know that we will be opening our Hi-Fi showroom in Clerkenwell, London at the end of November. For those who didn’t know, the cat is out of the bag.
When you are setting up a showroom, the most important (and best) task to do is testing out potential products. Often a rep or distributor will come in with one or two models from the range and let you test them against some similar products you have lying around, they then give you a pricelist and they’re gone. This is not as helpful (or as fun) as it should be.
This week we had Mark from Electromod in to AAD headquarters to try out HiFiMAN headphones. Anyone who read last week’s review of the Head-Fi show will know how much I liked the HiFiMAN HE-6 headphones, so I was looking forward to this visit quite a lot and boy, it didn’t disappoint.
Mark brought with him the entire range, from the in-ears RE-400 and RE-600 to the over-ear models HE-300, HE-400, HE-500 and HE-6 as well as the almighty EF-6 headphone amplifier. Not only did he bring them but he lent them to use for a week or so to really have a good play.
It seems a little crazy to me for us to have so many amazing high-end cans sat in our office without blogging about them and doing some reviews, right?
But before we get down to that, let’s look into the brand a little. HiFiMAN is a relatively new face in the high-end audio industry being established in only 2007 by Dr. Fang Bian whilst he was completing a Nanotechnology PhD in New York City.
The HiFiMAN story really began when Bian was a teenager. He became obsessed with the Sony Walkman and Discman, so much so that he began collecting damaged and discontinued models which he would refurbish and sell online. Later, when Bian would help his parents assemble a home theatre system, he started thinking about the idea of a high fidelity version of the Walkman and as such HiFiMAN (Hi-Fi Walkman) was created.
Though the initial idea behind the company was to create high-end portable players, it’s the well praised range of HiFiMAN headphones that really helped to put the brand on the map.
HiFiMAN has become especially known for its planar magnetic (or orthodynamic) headphones (HE-400, HE-500, HE-6) which offer a more affordable alternative to the highly-acclaimed electrostatic drivers. Planar magnetic drivers are basically a cross-breed of electrostatic and dynamic drivers. Like the dynamics they use a magnetic field around a conductor with electrical current flowing through it to drive the diaphragm but like the electrostatic drivers, the diaphragm is a thin flexible film, although differing in that the film has flat conductors on it. The diaphragm is immersed by a magnetic flux meaning that when the current is applied the conductors (and diaphragm) move back and forth.
By 2009, just two years into trading, HiFiMAN already had 2 manufacturing facilities in Fang’s homeland of China. One for headphones and one for electronics.
The goal that Dr. Fang set for HiFiMAN headphones was to achieve a high quality ‘traditional sound’ rather than the ‘modern, digital sound’ that has become common place in portable audio. Did he achieve this? Let’s find out.
I tested the in-ear headphones using FLAC files from an Astell & Kern AK120.
The RE-400s are HiFiMAN’s starting headphones; they are IEMs and retail for £99.00. The packaging is very cool, and really gives you the impression that this is a premium brand. The phones themselves are encased in a foam housing with a mock velvet top layer, which is then enclosed into a solid Perspex outer sleeve. It is probably the most premium feeling IEM case I have seen.
The headphones themselves are also aesthetically pleasing (as designers like to say), they are small and light with a simple minimalist metallic design.
The sound of the headphones is clear with great transparency; the highs are very good without distortion even at very high volumes. They are balanced towards the trebles rather than the bass, for me a little more emphasis on the deeper bass notes would be an improvement. The soundstage is wide for IEMs and they isolate the certain instruments well.
The RE-400s are versatile, they handle most genres well. Perhaps not for those into drum & bass and other bass heavy genres, but I found they handled Rock, Classical, Soul & Folk very well.
They retail at the moment for £99.00 which seems a fair price to me. They are up there with the best under £100 IEMs that I have tried.
The RE-600 is the next step up (and also the top) in the HiFiMAN IEM range; they are similarly designed to the 400s although they have a gloss black finish as opposed to the metallic look. This is in keeping with the HiFiMAN over-ear range as well, as the HE-300s are chrome and the HE-6s are gloss black. Whether HiFiMAN intended it or not, it’s a nice feature.
Packaging-wise they are very different. The 600s come with very extravagant packaging. The case is a large vanity case type box with two sections. One for the headphones themselves, again encased in a nice foam housing with a velvety top layer. The other section opens to reveal the 6 sets of spare tips and a wire holder. These are all, like the headphones, encased in the foam. Although, it looks great, it is quite difficult to get the tips out from the foam, I tend to just push them in deeper. The case is bound with mock leather and has a mirrored center display which features the RE-600 name.
The 600s are incredibly clear and analytical; their soundstage is quite incredible. They take the clear sound that the 400s achieve but then bolster the sound with more warmth, bass and give a more 3 dimension sound. Technically these are supreme headphones; they are fast paced and precise offering brilliant imagery. The bass is subtle and managed well; those who like a lot of bass might find it a tad light on the bass side, but it really comes down to a question of musical tastes.
Both sets of IEMs were very comfortable and did not tend to fall out of the ears as some can do.
The only real downside is the price, they are not cheap at £280 but if you are willing to spend that much on IEMs, it might be hard to beat the RE-600s.
To test the over-ears I was using FLAC files and ran through a Benchmark DAC1 HDR headphone amp.
The HE-300s are the starting point of the HiFiMAN over ear range at £270.00. They are the only headphones in the collection that do not feature the trademark orthodynamic drivers. They have the standard dynamic drivers. All the HiFiMAN over-ears are styled in the same way, they have large open-back cans, connected to the padded headband by metallic adjustable connections. Although they look the same, when you pick up the HE-300 you can tell that they are a fair bit lighter than the rest of the range, that isn’t to say that they don’t feel well made they still feel very well made. These are extremely comfortable headphones, the most comfortable in the whole HiFiMAN set in fact.
The sound that they give is warm, it is vastly different to the sound of HiFiMAN’s IEMs as the bass is prominent, in fact for open-backs the bass is quite staggering, there is a strong mid-range to integrate it well though. It is very easy to slip into a world of your own with these headphones on. These are not an analytical reference headphones, these are clearly made for casual enjoyment listening. Having said that, at times the highs can seem a little distant at the top end and do not have as much snap as I would like.
The performance / price ratio of these headphones is excellent.
From looks alone, the HE-400s are identical to the 300s except for the colour, however picking up the HE-400s you can straight away determine that they are made to a higher quality to the HE-300, they are heavier and the metal feels sturdier.
The 400s have one planar magnetic (or orthodynamic) driver. This is generally what people want from HiFiMAN headphones, they have become well known for these drivers.
Listening to the HE-400s you can notice the difference, though they have quite a similar sound signature to the 300s they just sound more textured, the separation is better, although there is still some room for improvement in that regard. The warmth is improved, the bass actually has a lot of umph on these headphones, when the pulsating bass kicked in on Beach House’s ‘Lazuli’ I could really feel the vibrations carry me along with the song, particularly in the deep bass.
Another step up the HiFiMAN chain is the HE-500s, these have two planar magnetic drivers, and are at present the best selling headphones in the range.
Unlike the previous 2 models, the 500s come in a great looking wooden HiFiMAN case, the appearance of the case reminds me of a vinyl carry case. It is completely black with a gold embossed logo and a gold coloured lock. It really adds value to the product, you feel like these are high-end headphones before you have even opened the box. Inside there is a mock velvet travel pouch for the cans too just for good measure. Again, they look the same as the other models, except slightly weightier and this time with a gloss gunmetal grey finish.
The £300 step from the 400s to the 500s brings with it a wealth of tonality, it’s a smooth sound. The mid-range is exceptional again but the bass is more subtle than the 400s and the soundstage has been widened even further making the imagery vivid and very immersive. The biggest change, which is quite noticeable when directly comparing the two, is how full the sound from the 500s is. When I listened to Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ I could really feel the emotion and tone in Thom’s voice and the slight rumbling at the end of the track felt as if a train was passing through the headphones, it really was remarkably full and engaging.
I would say that the HE-500s are the first headphones in the HiFiMAN range to lean towards the more analogue sound that Dr. Fang set out to achieve.
HE-6 + EF6
I plugged the HE-6s into the Benchmark amp, but I immediately realised that you really need a highly powerful source to run these cans properly. Through the Benchmark they were quiet and I didn’t get the punch that I got when I tried them at the Head-fi meet. So change of plan; I plugged them into the almighty HiFiMAN EF6 amp that had also been loaned to us.
I wrote about the HE-6 last week so I won’t focus too much on them again, I really want to talk about the difference that the EF6 amplifier makes.
The best way to describe it would be that it turns exceptional headphones into a true audiophile experience. Big words I know, but for the £2,200 this system is astounding.
The soundstage seems somewhat never-ending, when listening to Air’s ‘Sexy Boy’ it was actually difficult in picturing the limits. This set-up managed to make a song that I have heard hundreds of times sound so new and different; there were sounds that I had not even noticed on inferior systems.
The vocals on Nina Simone’s version of ‘Feeling Good’ had such depth and tone that it felt as if Nina had plugged her mic straight into my skull and starting singing directly into my brain.
It is important when reviewing to point out any downsides to the products as well as the benefits. I have been wracking my brains a little trying to come up with some cons of the HE-6 + EF6 combination. The only things I could muster was that the sound is so good, once you get a taste for it you will need to put a lot of man hours listening to your entire music collection over. The other downside is that once you try this combo out, there is a potential risk that you could go home and smash your current set-up to bits.
So the real question to answer is did Dr. Fang achieve his goal of achieving a high quality ‘traditional sound’ rather than the ‘modern, digital sound’. The answer is yes. It’s just a shame there are not more manufacturers pushing the boundaries of digital sound like HiFiMAN are doing.
Thanks again to Mark from Electromod for lending us the equipment to test.
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