For the past several years the Chinese personal audio electronics and headphone specialist HiFiMAN has been making waves with its broad family of high performance headphones, almost all of which use planar magnetic driver technologies. Until recently, the upper end of HiFiMAN’s headphone range consisted of the flagship HE-6 (which is superb, but exceedingly difficult to drive), the HE-500 (which won extremely high praise from Editor Alan Sircom in Hi-Fi+ issue 83), and the HE-400 (which was reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 91, and which is regarded as one of the most affordable and easiest to drive of all planar magnetic headphones presently available). With all these critically acclaimed products to its credit, you might think HiFiMAN would sit back and rest on its laurels, but that simply is not the HiFiMAN way. Instead, company President Dr. Fang Bian believes that continuous product improvement should be the order of the day.
Accordingly, HiFiMAN gathered extensive feedback on its headphones, carefully noted specific areas where customers had suggested possible enhancements, and then set about a thorough revamp of its headphone product line. The first evidence of this effort has come in the form of two new headphones: the £700 HE-560, which is the subject of this review, followed by the HE-400i (which we will cover in a later review). One key question that immediately springs to mind is this: if you already made a highly respected and commercially successful headphone such as the HE-500, what exactly would you change in a follow-on model?
HiFiMAN set four goals for the HE-560. First, acknowledging that its earlier HE-series headphones were considered heavy and lacking in range of adjustment and other creature comforts, HiFiMAN set out to make the HE-560 lighter and more comfortable than its predecessors. Second, understanding that planar magnetic headphones tend, as a rule, to be power hungry, HiFiMAN stipulated that the HE-560 should be at least as sensitive as the original HE-500 (and far more sensitive than HE-6). Third, HiFiMAN wanted the HE-560 to serve as a best-of-two-worlds design, one that combined the balance and ineffable musical ‘rightness’ of the HE-500 with the more tightly focused and ultimately more revealing sonic character of the HE-6. Fourth, HiFiMAN sought to improve its product packaging, documentation, and overall fit and finish, while also maintaining a sensible and accessible selling price. Obviously, these goals represent a formidable ‘wish list’, so that my intent in this review is to see just how well HiFiMAN executed its own product development plan.
Improvements in packaging, documentation, and fit and finish became apparent the moment the HE-560s arrived. The headphones ship in an attractive wood presentation box with a slide open, metal clad lid. Within, one finds dense foam padding with precision-cut openings for the headphones and their detachable signal cables, plus warranty cards, a ‘stay in touch’ card with pertinent HiFiMAN contact information, and an Owner’s Guide. Compared to the early days of HiFiMAN, the sheer professionalism of the HE-560’s product packaging has improved by leaps and bounds.
Once the headphone is lifted from its padded case, it rapidly becomes apparent that the HE-560 is much lighter than its predecessors, which in practice makes a big difference in terms of reducing listener fatigue. Next, a cursory inspection reveals that the HE-560’s frame, headband pad/strap assembly, ear cups, and ear cup yokes have been completely redesigned, with the net result that the HE-560 is more adjustable and far more comfortable to wear than earlier generation HE-series headphones. Adding to the comfort factor is a set of detachable, beveled ‘pleather’ and velour covered ear pads; the new pads snap-fit into the HE-560 ear cup housings and can be manoeuvred into alternate positions to suit users’ preferences. Finally, fit and finish have improved; in particular, the ear cup housings, which are made of a sturdy moulded thermoplastic material and are wrapped with roughly 1mm-thick trim rings of oiled teakwood veneer that look and feel great.
Most importantly, though, the HE-560 sports an all-new driver assembly described by HiFiMAN as a “single-sided planar magnetic driver (that) provides superior soundstage and spatial imaging.” The term ‘single-sided’ refers to the fact that the HE-560 driver provides a magnet array on only one side (the outboard side) of the driver diaphragm—the train of thought being that it is best to have as few physical obstructions as possible between the ‘ear side’of the diaphragm and the wearer’s ears. Other planar magnetic headphone makers (for example, Audeze) offer double-sided or so-called “push-pull” planar magnetic drivers, arguing that this topology inherently does a better job of balancing the electromagnetic forces acting on the driver diaphragm. While arguments can be made for both approaches, we have heard designs of both types work very well, so that the ultimate proof must—as always—be found in the listening.
The new driver is also said to provide increased efficiency (90dB/mW) to make the headphone easier to drive. Thus, the HE-560’s rated sensitivity falls somewhere in the middle of the pack relative to today’s other top planar magnetic headphones, as you can see from the list below:
HiFiMAN HE-6, 83.5 dB/mW,
Abyss AB-1266, 85 dB/mW,
HiFiMAN HE-500, 89 dB/mW,
HifiMAN HE-560, 90 dB/mW,
HiMAN HE-400i, 93 dB/mW,
Audeze LCD-3, 93 dB/mW, and
Oppo PM-1, 102 dB/mW.
While I would not go so far as to say the HE-560 is ‘easy to drive’, it is certainly less power hungry than the HiFiMAN HE-6 and might even be a smidgeon easier to drive than the HE-500 (although the practical difference between the HE-560 and the HE-500 is negligible and, subjectively, does not always seem to go in the HE-560’s favour). Either way, plan on using a high quality and reasonably high output desktop or portable headphone amplifier to hear the HE-560 at its best.
During my listening tests I compared the HE-560 to a number of competing planar magnetic designs including HiFiMAN’s original HE-6 and HE-500 headphones (reviewed in issue 83), Audeze’s LCD-3 (reviewed in issue 93) and Oppo’s PM-1 planar magnetic headphones (reviewed in issues 115 and 116). Amp/DACs used with the HE-560s included the AURALiC Gemini 2000 (reviewed in issue 116), the Chord Electronics Hugo (reviewed in issue 111), the iFi Micro iDSD (review pending), and the Peachtree Audio nova 220SE (reviewed in this issue).
Listening tests revealed that the HE-560i retains a good measure of the finely judged balance of the original HE-500, but with plainly superior high and low frequency extension, somewhat better resolution across the board, and crisper, more finely carved reproduction of transient sounds. With this said, I should point out that the HE-560’s full capabilities were not completely in evidence straight from the box; instead, continued use and extended run-in time gradually enabled the headphone to open up, so that it became more tonally and texturally complex and complete sounding, more three-dimensional, and significantly more transparent over time.
Now that the HE-560s are (mostly) broken-in, one of the things that most impresses me about them is the sheer density of musical information they convey, yet without crossing the line into a cold, impersonal, analytical sound. For an example, I listened to the 2L recording of the Hoff Ensemble’s track ‘Blågutten’ from Quiet Winter Night [2L, DXD file]. On this exquisite track, the HE-560 invites listeners to savour several interwoven musical elements at once: the deep yet very taut sound of low percussion, the rich and multi-layered sonorities of an acoustic bass, the pulse of mid-pitched percussion instruments, and the lilting and almost dreamlike voice of a piano. But the real centres of attention are the soaring, penetrating, and yet never overbearing voices of Mathias Eick’s trumpet and Borge Petersen-Overleir’s guitar as they trade ethereal solo lines. My point is that on well-recorded tracks the HE-560 invites you indulge in the richness of each instrument’s voice, yet without taking the you to a place where preoccupation with detail for its own sake overwhelms the sheer beauty of the broader musical tapestry.
By comparison, the Audeze LCD-3, HiFiMAN HE-500, and Oppo PM-1 (with revised ear pads), each of which is very good in its own right, tended to give a somewhat more midrange-centric rendition of the track, which was lovely in its way yet lost some of the intricate upper midrange and treble information that’s present and downplayed (to a degree) some of the deep bass information at hand. By comparison, the HE-560’s presentation offered more energy at both frequency extremes (particularly in terms of low bass impact and focus) plus excellent resolution and transient speed, in the process providing an arguably more intricate, informative, and engaging musical experience. (In fairness, I should point out that my reference Audeze LCD-3 headphones had not yet been upgraded with the firm’s latest Fazor technology, which is said to significantly enhance the LCD-3’s upper midrange/treble balance and transparency.). In turn, the voicing of the HE-560 is actually somewhat similar to that of HiFiMAN’s flagship HE-6, but in an easier-to-drive package with even greater low-end authority and, I think, superior upper midrange and treble articulacy. Given that the HE-560 sells for less than the HE-6 and is considerably more comfortable, I think it might well be the better headphone overall.
Are there drawbacks to the HE-560? I can think of perhaps two. First, the HE-560 does present what some will interpret as a bright (perhaps overly bright?) sound that will not suit every taste. Those who favour a somewhat darker, warmer, and possibly more relaxed presentation might find other options—such as the Audeze LCD-2 or Oppo PM-1 fitted with its original (warmer sounding) standard ear pads—more pleasing. Second, the HE-560, though easier to drive than the HE-6, is still a relatively demanding beast to drive. Users who want comparable sonic refinement but in an easier-to-drive headphone would do well to look at Oppo’s 102dB-sensitive PM-1 (or the firm’s new, cost reduced PM-2 model).
Overall, I found myself favourably impressed with HiFiMAN’s HE-560 and so, too, were many of the readers and listeners who heard the HE-560 at the Hi-Fi+ demonstration room at the National Audio Show 2014 at Whittlebury Hall. There, as well as in my listening room, the HE-560 proved to be a do-all high-end headphone that offered the right levels of performance at the right price, along with compelling levels of adjustability and comfort. Given these virtues, the HE-560 has earned a place in my select group of reference headphones and, once you audition them, you just might choose to make them one of your references, too.
Type: Circumaural, open-back planar magnetic headphones
Driver complement: Single-sided planar magnetic drivers.
Frequency response: 15Hz – 50kHz
Impedance: 50 Ohms
Accessories: Wood presentation case with precision-cut, form fitting internal padding, detachable and user replaceable screw-on type signal cables, User’s Guide.
Price: £700, $899
UK Distributor: High-End Workshop
Tel: +44 (0)1494 752171