HiFiMAN HE-400 & HE-500 Headphones and EF-5 Amplifier
High-End Cans that Can and Do!
I’d been wanting to hear designer Dr. Fang Bian’s HiFiMAN planar-magnetic headphones ever since reading many positive things about them on the internet for the past year or so. HiFiMAN was founded in 2007 and offers a full line of headphones and headphone amplifiers. As it happens, the models that I’ll be evaluating here, the HE-400 and the HE-500 are relatively new models that offer improvements over the previous HE-4 and HE-5LE headphones. This review will also cover my impressions of the HiFiMAN EF-5 tube hybrid analogue headphone amplifier.
Well, there are many very good reasons why a music lover would prefer headphones to speakers and headphones actually have some technical advantages over their much larger counterparts. First of all, although many high-end headphone models including the HE-400 and HE-500 phones are open-back designs that do let some of their sound out into the room (and conversely allow the listener to hear sounds from their surrounding environment), the escaping sound is much lower in level than that from any speakers and not nearly as disturbing to others in the room or house. If you’ve got the headphones cranking and are zoning out in your own private soundscape, odds are that those in the next room won’t even notice… so headphones are fantastic for late-night listening.
The one very important and fundamental difference between headphones and speakers is that headphones are binaural while speakers are not. What this means is that when listening to headphones your left ear hears only the left-channel sounds and the right ear hears only the right-channel sounds. The channels don’t mix together as they do with speakers. The fact that quality headphones have extremely low levels of distortion, and their sound quality is immune to degradation by room acoustic problems (unlike speakers) means that headphones can offer a wide-bandwidth, low-distortion sound that cannot be easily matched by any loudspeaker system. And their sonic properties remain the same regardless of what room you’re in plus you’re always in the sweet spot!
Many detractors of headphones point to their confining mechanical apparatus and their unusual soundstaging properties. I will say that most headphones I’ve tried are fairly comfortable but in the hot summer months they get sweaty and although they are comfortable they are not as comfortable as wearing nothing on your head at all.
With headphones, due to their binaural nature the entire soundstage is literally in your head. The center image is in the center with other sounds coming from the left or right. This type of imaging can sound quite expansive but it normally does not replicate the experience of the performers being on a stage in front of you. Some headphones set their drivers on an angle in order to better emulate the effect of speakers. While this does work to some extent it is not 100 percent effective because with speakers you are always dealing with room acoustics and the fact that the left speaker sound makes it around to the right ear (and vice-versa) with a slight time delay that allows us to locate the origin of the various sounds and instruments. With headphones these sonic cues are not present so while the sound of headphones may be more clear and resolving, the soundstage is not as natural as that of speakers. Regardless of that, if you really want to hear every tiny detail present on your recordings headphones will deliver the all-important musical nuances like no other.
Okay, so here’s the good and the bad of HiFiMAN’s planar headphones. Think of a planar driver like a pair of small Magnepan planar-magnetic speakers strapped around your head. Of course the headphones are much lighter but they are still on the bulky side for headphones. But HiFiMAN uses a very thin diaphragm bonded to a conducting element surrounded by magnetic structures on both sides. Their push-pull configuration allows precise control over the diaphragm and in fact, almost all of the Magnepan planar speaker models have the magnets on only one side of the diaphragm, which spans a much larger area and is much more difficult to control. Compared to the drivers on conventional headphones, the HiFiMAN drivers are much larger in diaphragm area and I believe this is one reason why they generate such deep, dynamic and articulate bass.
Both the HE-400 and HE-500 have magnetic structures on both sides of the lightweight diaphragm. The HE-500 uses special cryogenically treated aluminum as its conductive element and it seems to me that the cryogenic process results in an extremely smooth and grainless quality that lends welcome ease to the musical presentation.
Although the ear pads on these phones are rather plush and comfortable they felt a bit clunky on my head just due to their size and weight. The HE-400s weigh in at about 14 ounces and the HE-500’s come in at over 17 ounces so they are not featherweight cans by any stretch.
Also, HiFiMAN does not angle its rather large drivers so the soundstage is truly inside one’s head although it can be rather expansive seeming to extend to the far left and right. But the true payoff here is the amazingly high level of sonic purity, nuance, and musicality these cans provide. We’ll get to that soon.
You’d think that set up would be extremely simple with headphones being that one does not have to deal with large amplifiers and hose-like speaker cables or room acoustics and you’d be half right. But the thing with headphones of this quality is that their extreme resolution (and I’m not speaking of any brightness or harshness only their pure resolving power) makes amplifier and cable choices all the more critical. In fact, when using one of my favorite bang-for-the-buck interconnects, the SignalCable Analog Two’s, I discovered that I could easily discern which ends should be the inputs and which should be the outputs… in other words the cable’s directional orientation was apparent. In one direction it was smooth and musical and in the other it was coarser and brighter. I didn’t discover this until I was playing around with different interconnects and I intentionally swapped the Analog Two’s back in the reverse direction. I had heard that a cable’s orientation makes a sonic difference in the past but never have I actually heard the effects to this degree.
When I played my Witches’ Brew on vinyl, the first time I listened the cable orientation was wrong and although it sounded very good in many respects, when the horns came blaring in during the orchestral crescendos the sound became a bit shrill and unnatural. At the time I suspected that the HiFiMAN EF-5 amplifier was being pushed so hard that the soundstage was collapsing or distorting. But later on, when I found out that I had the interconnects backwards in earlier listening, I replayed Danse Macabre and the other tracks on Witches’ Brew [RCA LSC-2225] and found the sound to be excellent—with the blaring trombones ringing out convincingly, just as they should, so it was not any fault of the EF-5 amplifier after all.
At any rate, I used three different sources during my evaluation and three different headphone amps. The sources were my IBM Lenovo laptop computer with the J. River Media Jukebox 14 media player, a Pioneer CD player, and my Michell Orbe SE turntable with Wilson Benesch arm and Benz-Micro Ebony L cartridge and the Ray Samuels F117 Nighthawk phono stage. For headphone amps I used the headphones straight into my laptop with very good results for both model headphones, and later I did a comparison between the NuForce Icon HD USB headphone amp and the HiFiMAN EF-5 tube-hybrid headphone amp. I also listened briefly to my G&W headphone amp and although it sounded very good and very dynamic its sound had a bit of solid-state dryness. I didn’t use the G&W amp long because it was ultimately outclassed by the HiFiMAN and NuForce headphone amps.
As if all of the above was not enough, I later swapped the headphone cables from the HE-400 to the HE-500 just to see what would happen. In the final analysis, I did feel that the folks at HiFiMAN had paired the correct cable with the appropriate headphones, but more on that later.
The Proof is in the Listening!
I have to say it’s a real treat listening to headphones of this quality—so much so that my planned 1-hour sessions turned into 3+ hour sessions. Once I was so relaxed that in the middle of a session I dozed off for around 20 minutes or so and then listened for another hour or so after I awoke.
Okay, to begin with the HE-400’s and HE-500’s have a lot in common like their spacious imagery, clarity and dynamic range not to mention their superb bass reproduction. That said their personalities diverge a bit in the midrange, but mainly in the lower treble, where the HE-400 is more prominent. The HE-500 is a bit more natural and pure in the all-important midrange and just as extended in the high frequencies but is more laid back in the upper midrange and lower treble. This makes the HE-400 a tad more aggressive sounding and as such, a bit more spectacular sounding on first listen especially where percussion and cymbals are involved.
But here’s where things get tricky. I’ve always found it easier to get a less-bright speaker to sound brighter than it is to get a brighter transducer to sound less bright. And in the case of these headphones I had deliberately used the SignalCable Analog Two interconnects because I’ve found them to be very even tempered and not as bright as other cables in my cable stable.
So in this instance I’d have to say that there are more potential options to get the HE-500’s to sound “brighter” (as they did with other interconnects) by using brighter cables or brighter-sounding components than there would be to tune the HE-400’s to sound less bright. And as it is, the HE-400 comes with a mellower Canare copper-wire cable compared to the silver-clad copper cable that comes with the HE-500. When I swapped the two cords the results were that the HE-400’s became overly bright while the HE-500’s still had a very agreeable and musical balance (the bass also hit a bit harder on the HE-500’s with the copper cord and I’m sure some people would enjoy this combo immensely). The HE-500’s do come with extra metal screw-on fittings for those who would like to experiment with rolling their own cable. Alternately I believe both cables are listed for purchase on HiFiMAN’s website. I should also mention that strangely the silver-copper cable is jacketed in a clear plastic that transmits a mechanical rubbing noise to the headphones whenever the cable rubs against something including the listener’s body. With music playing this didn’t seem to be a problem.
The headphone experience is intriguing indeed. With the HiFiMAN phones I could hear notes stop and start like never before. I could hear the subtle vibrato on Rodrigo’s guitar strings on Rodrigo y Gabriela’s Live in Japan CD [ATO0062 88088-21638-2] and I could follow every word of the individual vocal harmonies on songs like Ingrid Michaelson’s “Maybe,” from her Everybody CD (Cabin Records CB24-12). I truly heard subtle musical nuances that are all but impossible to notice with loudspeakers.
I hear some audiophiles complain that headphones don’t give enough weight and slam in the bass and I think that is true of many headphones but not of these HiFiMAN models that are actually better in the bass (more linear and extended) than most full-range speakers in my experience. Indeed, when playing Danse Macabre from Witches’ Brew I could easily hear the trains’ subsonic rumbling through the subway under Royal Albert Hall as this powerful symphonic work was recorded. In fact I can discern it better with the HiFiMAN headphones than I can with my large VMPS RM40 speakers that are only 3dB down at 24 cycles.
But the best part about Witches’ Brew is the music and both the HE-400 and HE-500’s did a fabulous job of strutting their stuff on this very powerful crescendo-laden album with the HE-400’s showing a bit more energy and shimmer on cymbals and the triangle hits. But not only were the crescendos spectacular, the slower passages with individual instruments playing like violins and woodwinds displayed a rare transparency and authenticity of sound that frankly must be experienced to be believed. In addition, on the Columbia Masterworks LP record of Igor Stravinsky Conducts 1961 [Columbia MS 6272], both the bass drum and kettle drums were presented with a fullness and energy that was striking. I could feel the weight of the hammers falling on the drums. It’s hard to do better even with the best loudspeakers available because again, room acoustics can wreak havoc on deep bass reproduction.
But with both the HiFiMAN headphones bass runs on the double-bass were spot-on in power and naturalness of timbre. A good example of this was on Hugh Laurie’s Whinin’ Boy from Let Them Talk [Warner Bros. R2527497]. It was cool to hear the bow clearly hit the wood body of the instrument as well.
Vocal works were equally stunning on these headphones on both male and female vocals. My best example of this comes from Johnny Cash’s “Down There By the Train” from his CASH LP record [American 9 45520-1]. I have to tell you that Johnny’s sonorous voice is excellent on this record and he hits such a wide range of dynamics from a whisper to a roar that is difficult for many audio systems to reproduce without some breakup or harshness. I can attest that the HE-500 headphones
handled the softest to the loudest orations splendidly with no apparent breakup or harshness of any kind. This was a treat for me because I could tell how well my Benz Ebony cartridge was tracking the record especially without the turntable and arm being subjected to mechanically induced vibrations and airborne feedback.
One of the other great highlights of this CASH record is how musical and natural Johnny’s acoustic guitar sounds. It was very gratifying and I could even hear the notes echo in the wood body of the guitar, so resolving are these headphones.
Regarding the HiFiMAN EF-5 headphone amplifier with outboard power supply, I found it to be very competent and sweet sounding when driving either headset with its single Chinese 12AU7 gold-pin input tube. The EF-5 has the tube input feeding a solid-state output stage and the tube seems to impart a bit of sweetness and smoothness. It has more than enough power to drive the HE-400’s and HE-500’s to louder levels than I would dare to listen to for more than a brief moment. The HE-400’s are technically the more efficient model by a few dB’s but in practice this only seemed to translate to around one more click of the amplifier’s volume control for equal loudness from the HE-500’s, and my Lenovo laptop was able to drive either phones with satisfactory results. It is likely that the HE-400 may be a better match for some lower powered portable devices.
Since the EF-5 has analog-only inputs I connected it to the tape-record outputs of my VTL TL-2.5 tube preamp which bypasses all its active circuitry but allowed me to select either my laptop, turntable, or CD player as the source. So the signal was only passing through the preamp’s selector switch and one extra pair of SignalCable Analog Two interconnects without the VTL being powered up.
When I used the laptop as my source I could run it directly into the NuForce Icon HD USB headphone amp, which, if anything, sounded just as musical and perhaps a touch more detailed. But this was a very close comparison and I could live happily with either headphone amp. If your only source is a computer then the Icon HD makes a lot of sense. NuForce also has a more expensive version of this model called the Icon HDP, which adds a Toslink optical and RCA S/PDIF inputs to the USB feature, which is great if you only use digital sources. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that HiFiMAN likewise offers their EF-2A USB tube-hybrid headphone amp although I did not have the opportunity to test it.
I absolutely loved doing my evaluation of the HiFiMAN HE-400 and HE-500 headphones and their EF-5 tube-hybrid headphone amplifier. As I mentioned, the HiFiMAN headphones are on the heavy side but are still comfortable enough for those long relaxing listening sessions.
The HE-400’s are a bit more efficient than the HE-500 headphones and are somewhat more prominent in the lower treble region but are not by any means harsh or biting. The HE-500’s presentation is more laid back; the midrange is just glorious and the bass is the best I’ve heard from any headphones in both extension and articulation. Both of these headphones can compete with the best loudspeakers I’ve heard. Their soundstaging is not as natural as it is with speakers, but their ability to portray subtle musical nuances is unequaled by any speakers in my experience. I will admit that I prefer these HiFiMAN headphone models to that of my former Stax SR-404 Earspeakers and the SRM-006t tube headphone amp/energizer that I owned previously. My feeling is that the HiFiMAN headphones are more musical and have more dynamic slam, especially in the bass.
The EF-5 tube-hybrid headphone amplifier worked very well in my system and lent a bit of tube magic to the presentation without obfuscating detail. If you’re looking for a very nice sounding headphone amplifier with analog RCA inputs only, the EF-5 is an excellent buy at its suggested retail price of only $499.
I believe I’ll be keeping these HiFiMan products here at the Alles’ Palace for quite some time.
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