It’s hard not to be a great admirer of the most recent crop of planar magnetic headphones. They offer many of the benefits of electrostatic headphones (sonic transparency, openness, excellent transient speed and definition, etc.), while providing some of the key strengths of traditional dynamic-driver headphones (robust dynamics, powerful and well-defined bass, and the ability to be driven by conventional amplifiers). The only drawback I can see is that planar magnetic headphones have, as a rule, tended to be power hungry and pricey – until now.
HiFiMAN’s new HE-400 open-backed planar magnetic headphone is the least costly planar magnetic headphone on today’s market, and with a rated sensitivity of 92.5 dB and 35 ohm impedance this is one of the (if not the) most sensitive planar magnetic headphones available. Indeed, HiFiMAN says the HE-400 is so amplifier friendly that it can even be powered directly from an iPod (something no sane person would attempt to do with any other planar magnetic ‘phone).
The lowered cost is as a result of Dr. Fang Bian of HiFiMAN making a concerted effort to design a planar magnetic driver that could be mass produced using automated assembly equipment. Unfortunately, the same design elements do not ‘scale’, so higher-performance planar magnetic headphones will likely always require hand-built drivers, and will always be priced at a premium.
Unlike the other HiFiMAN headphones, which are finished in various shades of black or dark gray, the HE-400 is finished in a deep cobalt blue gloss. It features the same basic headband design as other HiFiMAN ‘phones and comes with a leather (or leather-like?) headband pad, which could use a broader range of vertical adjustment. For some listeners (and I’m one of them) there is simply no way to avoid having the ear cups ride slightly too low on your ears. Mercifully, the headphone is relatively light, at just 440 grams. Most previous HiFiMAN headphones come fitted with plush velour pads, but the HE-400 is supplied with leather (or, again, leather-like?) ear pads. A detachable signal cable that connects to the headphone ear cups via HiFiMAN’s screw-on fittings is standard. The cable features high-quality wire sourced from the Japanese firm Canare, though it uses a different (and presumably less expensive) grade of wire than is used in cables for some of the higher-end HiFiMAN models. Termination is via a standard ¼-inch phone jack plug, but a 3.5mm adaptor (and a natty drawstring bag) are supplied in the packaging.
At first flush, I was slightly concerned because the HE-400 had a noticeably darker, warmer character than any of the other HiFiMAN models, and it also showed a judicious touch of upper midrange/treble roll-off relative to its siblings. One could most definitely hear the lack of upper midrange and treble power and clarity because tracks that had been warm and responsive throughout the entire range in other headphones, suddenly seemed much darker through the original HE-400, and felt like they lacked snap of listening to live music. This contrasted with the more neutral balance of the bigger models, although some have voiced the objection that these headphones – especially the HE-6 – are too bright for their own good.
Obviously this filtered back to the good Dr. Fang, because a Revision 2 driver was quick to emerge. The most noticeable change when listening through the HE-400s with Rev 2 drivers is a welcome boost in upper midrange and treble energy—a boost that greatly improves the headphone’s overall accuracy and neutrality. Not only do the new drivers help to define the upper register voices of most instruments much more clearly (especially when the instruments play in overlapping pitch ranges), but they also help provide an additional shot of dynamic energy to musical tracks as a whole.
Second Opinion: Comments from Garrett Whitten, Webmaster of The Absolute Sound
I am a very big fan of both country and bluegrass music and some of my favorite test tracks come from the album Alison Krauss & Union Station – Live [Rounder]. I’ve found that the instruments used to create bluegrass music often play in similar pitch ranges so that the real definition and soul comes from hearing and appreciating subtle differences in timbres and voicing characteristics between the instruments. I felt the original HE-400 revealed musical timbres well over some parts of the audio spectrum (namely, the lower midrange and bass regions), but less well in others (specifically, the upper midrange and treble regions). For example, the original HE-400 had no trouble reproducing the unique thump of the upright bass but often lost definition when both the banjo and Dobro played simultaneously (something which, if you know your bluegrass, happens often). With the Rev 2 drivers in the play, the HE-400 sound much more clearly defined on simultaneous banjo/Dobro passages, so that the smooth, blossoming notes from the Dobro were easily distinguishable from the staccato plucks and rolls of the banjo.
Now the HE-400 was much more energetic and really brought the music to life. I’d liken the sonic difference to the difference you might experience when switching between a four-barrel carb and a two-barrel carb on a well-tuned V8 engine.
HiFiMAN’s Revision 2 version of the HE-400 takes what was already an exceedingly easy-to-drive planar magnetic headphone to the next level sonically. Specifically, the new drivers transform the dark and moody tone of the original HE-400, giving the headphone a much more neutrally balanced, audiophile-friendly frequency response curve. On top of the revised drivers, HiFiMAN has also upgraded the metal supports for the Rev 2 headphone’s ear cups as well as its signal cable termination plug layout. Both changes add style and increased functionality to the HE-400.
If you want the least expensive planar magnetic headphone on the market—one whose bass and midrange will remind you of the sound of considerably more expensive headphones, or you want a planar magnetic headphone that is well and truly easy to drive. This may be the only planar magnetic model around that you could, in a pinch, power directly from an iPod, the HE-400 is really the only option. Highly recommended.
HiFiMAN HE-400 planar magnetic headphone with Revision 2 Drivers
Accessories: Fabric drawstring-type carrying bag, 3.5mm mini-plug to ¼” phone plug adapter.
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 35 kHz
Sensitivity: 92.5 dB
Impedance: 35 Ohms
Tel: +44(0)1494 752171