HiFiMan HE-500 ($699)
HiFiMan HE-400 ($399)
Ask any group of audiophiles what kind of speakers they have, and I guarantee you at least one and probably several will answer “Magnepan.” Why do audiophiles so love this relatively obscure brand? No, not (just) because it’s obscure. They love Magnepans because of the incredible detail, soundstaging, and natural timbre of their planar magnetic drivers. For the same reason, headphone enthusiasts are embracing planar magnetic headphones.
Instead of a cone or dome diaphragm, planar magnetic drivers use flat diaphragms made from polyester or mylar film. The film is suspended between two perforated sheets of metal that have magnets attached. Conductive traces are laid onto the film to form what is in essence a voice coil, similar in function to the ones found in conventional speakers. When the electrical signal from an amplifier passes through the traces, the diaphragm moves back and forth. Because the diaphragm is so thin, it can move quickly enough to reproduce high frequencies, yet the diaphragm’s size allows it to move sufficient volumes of air to reproduce fairly low frequencies.
Planar magnetic (or orthodynamic) drivers have been used in headphones for decades; S+V reader Bruce Erwin recently told me he’s still using the Yamaha HP-1 planar headphones he bought in the 1970s. Yet thanks to the resurgence of interest in headphones, planar magnetics are enjoying their own resurgence, most notably because of two brands: Audez’e and HiFiMan. At the recent CES, HiFiMan introduced their least expensive planar magnetic headphone: the HE-400, priced at just $399. HiFiMan founder Fang Bian said that the HE-400’s was made possible by his company’s recent efforts at mass production of the planar magnetic drivers.
The big downside of planar magnetic drivers in headphones is that they’re inefficient. Most planar magnetics require greater power than a smartphone or MP3 player can muster, so they’re mostly reserved for home use. However, Bian said that the HE-400 is adequately sensitive to be driven by a typical smartphone.
When S+V web editor Michael Berk, contributing tech editor Geoff Morrison, and I heard the HE-400 at the CES press event, it was obvious to all of us that we’d soon be reviewing them. But we also happened to have a sample of the next-priciest model in the line, the HE-500, sitting around waiting for someone to do something with it. So we decided to run both headphones by our listening panel, put them through our lab testing regimen, then review ’em both together.
Like the HE-300 featured in our recent mega-review of mid-priced audiophile headphones, the HE-400 and HE-500 aren’t the kinds of headphones you’ll see celebrities wearing around their necks while sashaying down a red carpet. They’re big and relatively heavy: 15.5 ounces for the HE-400, 17.7 ounces for the HE-500. In both cases, the planar drivers mount on a large plastic frame: a blue one for the HE-400, a graphite-colored one for the HE-500. They’re both open-backed designs, so they leak a lot of sound into your surroundings and provide almost no isolation from external sounds.
Both come with velour carrying bags, and the HE-500 comes with a hardshell storage case. Both have stiff, detachable 10-foot cables. (HiFiMan recently began supplying a silver-colored twisted cable with the HE-500; our sample has the older version.) Both can be wired for balanced use, in which each driver has a separate ground connection, through the use of a special cable (this also requires either a dedicated balanced-output heaphone amp or the balanced amp module for HiFiMan’s HM-801 portable music player.
So besides the price, what’s the difference? The drivers are different, for one thing. Plus, according to Bian, the HE-500 is tuned for a polite sound associated with British loudspeakers like B&W, while the HE-400 has a zippier, more American sound associated with brands like JBL. Those are his descriptions, not mine, so if you own these speakers and are offended by such characterizations, call Bian at his home in China and take it up with him.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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