I first became aware of HiFiMAN roughly eleven years ago, when I sought to review one of the firm’s earliest planar magnetic headphones. However, in the course of reaching out to the firm I learned that even earlier on HiFiMAN had once made a full-range electrostatic headphone called the Jade. At the time I discovered the Jade was no longer in production, but I soon found that it enjoyed an almost reverent cult following among high-end headphone enthusiasts. In fact, one of my happiest memories of that time period was attending a CanJam event where I met up with the great personal audio electronics pioneer Ray Samuels (of Ray Samuels Audio fame); Samuels handed me his personal pair of HiFiMAN Jades and said, with a sly smile, “Here, try these out; you need to hear them.”
Singing sweetly when driven by a Samuels designed electrostatic amp, the Jades indeed proved to be something special. They offered the transient speed and transparency for which fine electrostatic headphones are famous, but without even a trace of the subtly edgy and analytical quality that makes some electrostatic headphones a sonic mixed blessing. On the contrary, the Jades had a certain mellifluous and full-bodied character that made them wonderfully musical and easy to enjoy. The only catch was that the Jade had essentially become ‘unobtanium’; HiFiMAN wasn’t making any more Jades and the lucky few—like Ray Samuels—who owned Jades had zero interest in parting with them. Ah, well, I suppose it is human nature to yearn for things we cannot have …or can we?
Let’s fast-forward to late 2018 and to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) event held each Fall in Denver, Colorado. At that show, in the CanJam personal audio exhibit area, the HiFiMAN stand featured something many enthusiasts had dreamed of: namely a brand new electrostatic headphone called the Jade II and a matching electrostatic amplifier. The headphone and amplifier are potentially available as separate products, but HiFiMAN prefers to bundle the products as a specially priced, turnkey Jade II electrostatic headphone system ($2499 or £2499). The Jade II system is the subject of this review.
The Jade II is an open back electrostatic headphone that looks like an updated version of the original Jade, but with more refined finishes and a distinctive iridescent blue-green diaphragm visible behind the headphone’s open-mesh anodes (or stators). The Jade II’s teardrop-shaped ear cups are finished in satin black, as is its top headband frame. Beneath the frame there is a simple but effective height-adjustable leather headband strap. The Jade II ear pads feature leather (or leather-like?) outer coverings, but with comfortable fabric inner surfaces and touch surfaces capable of wicking away perspiration. Following recent design trends, the Jade II headphone frame allows its ear cup to swivel in the vertical axis, but not the horizontal axis. Apparently, the train of thought is there is sufficient flex in the frame to accommodate horizontal positioning adjustments, while the elimination of horizontal pivots improves that overall strength of the frame.
HiFiMAN does not go into great depth on the technologies used in the Jade II, but describes the headphone as having a, “housing (made) from ABS and a steel frame composed of a stainless-steel honeycomb mesh for the anode casing.” Expanding on this last statement, the product manual adds that, “The Honeycomb mesh can protect the headphone from airflow vibrations assuring that the sound reproduction remains true and accurate.”
On the inside, the Jade II uses an ultra low-mass diaphragm less than 0.001mm thick and that is coated with nano-particles said to provide, “an extreme high frequency response and an excellent musical reproduction ability.” Completing the picture is a nanometre-thick dust cover designed to prevent, “dust and other pollutants settling, thus avoiding ensuing distortion caused by electrostatic dust.” The overall design goal, says HiFiMAN, was to create a headphone capable of delivering “highly resolving audio” along with extremely extended high-frequency response with soundstages said to be dramatically open and expansive compared to a traditional ‘moving coil’ type headphone.
The Jade II electrostatic amplifier is a balanced output, solid-state design, which comes as a surprise given that HiFiMAN’s previous Shangri-La and Shangri-La Jr electrostatic amplifiers were both valve-powered units. Compared to those two mega-amps, however, the Jade II amplifier is considerably lighter, more compact, and sports an elegant and attractive minimalist industrial design created by HiFiMAN’s Boston, Massachusetts-based US design team. The amplifier chassis, states the manual, is formed from “aviation grade aluminium alloy” finished in satin black.
HiFiMAN says the Jade II circuit uses a Texas Instruments OPA2107AO high-precision dual op amp “for signal pre-amplification”. In turn, discrete Cascode MOSFET devices power the amplifier’s balanced output stage. HiFiMAN emphasizes that the amplifier uses a high voltage power supply that features an independent power supply regulator. What is more, HiFiMAN paid particular attention to the amplifier’s PCB layout, which was developed, says the manufacturer, with an eye toward reducing “interference hum” thus enabling “a more transparent sound”.
The amplifier provides two stereo pairs of analogue audio inputs—one single-ended (via RCA jacks) and the other balanced (via 3-pin XLR connectors). Also on the rear panel is an IEC power inlet socket and an AC 115V/230V power input selector switch. The Jade II amplifier’s front panel sports a large power switch, a bright power light, two 5-pin Stax-type electrostatic headphone output jacks, a simple push-button input selector switch, and a moderately large, 21-step rotary volume control. In practice, the amplifier proved extremely easy to use while generating a commendably modest amount of heat.
For my listening tests, I was able to compare the Jade II electrostatic headphone with the substantially more expensive MrSpeakers VOCE electrostatic headphone. I was also able to compare the Jade II electrostatic amplifier with my reference iFi Audio Pro iCAN headphone amplifier driving an iFi Pro iESL electrostatic headphone adapter. In short, I compared both electrostatic headphones as driven by both electrostatic amplifiers, which proved illuminating. Here’s what I learned.
The Jade II follows much in the sonic footsteps of the original Jade, in that it offers a carefully judged combination of transient speed, transparency, exceptional midrange purity, superb spatial characteristics, and an inviting quality of natural, organic warmth. If you were hoping for a headphone that emphasizes bleeding-edge, razor sharp transient definition and sub-microscopic levels of detail retrieval, then the Jade II might not be your cup of tea—not because it does not possess those qualities in reasonable measure, but because it does not make them the centrepieces of its musical presentation. So, the Jade II is not about creating hi-fi-centric shock and awe experiences, but more about conveying the vibrant tonal and textural richness of well-recorded music, while also capturing the always-engaging dynamic shadings that help bring music alive. Also, more so than many top-tier headphones, the Jade II provides large, spacious soundstage envelopes that help keep the music from sounding as if it is trapped inside the listener’s head. Several musical illustrations will perhaps help to show what I mean.
On ‘Zapateados’ from Pepe Romero’s Flamenco [K2HD, 16/44.1], the Jade II presents Romero’s exquisite flamenco guitar, recorded in a richly resonant natural acoustic space, juxtaposed against the striking handclaps and foot and toe taps of an expert flamenco dancer. Many transducers—loudspeakers and headphones alike—turn this track into a hi-fi-centric extravaganza, which sadly redirects the listener’s attention away from musical event and toward a narrowly focused preoccupation with sound quality. The Jade II, however, is different. Yes, it captures textural and transient sounds with exemplary clarity, yet it also captures the varied and subtle dynamic moods and the spatial cues that are so vital to conveying the ‘you-are-there’ sense of being present at the original performance.
On this same track the MrSpeakers VOCE offers superior upper midrange and treble extension on the rapid-fire guitar passages and the sounds of the reverberant recording venue. The VOCE also delivers slightly more taut and better-defined bass on the dancer’s powerful, percussive foot stamps. With this said, though, I found the Jade II able to hold its own with the far more costly VOCE in terms of conveying the overall feel of the performance. What is more, the Jade II’s natural organic warmth attracts and holds the listener’s attention in a deeply engaging way.
On Mark O’Connor’s Fanfare for the Volunteer [Mercurio, London Philharmonic, Sony Masterworks, 16/44.1], the Jade II does a fine job of capturing the gravitas and sonority of the orchestra’s instruments—especially brass instruments and low percussion. The tricky part about rendering brass instruments effectively is finding the balance point between the natural ‘bite’ of the attack of the horns and the rich, burnished, harmonic ‘glow’ of their sustained voices—a balance point the Jade II found time and again. Similarly, the difficulty with reproducing low percussion instruments is capturing their weight, depth, and dynamic power while at the same time preserving vital textural, transient, and pitch information. Again, the Jade II did a fine job of finding the right balance point, where the headphone’s slightly warmer than neutral tonal balance helped give low percussion the dynamic wallop it should have. Perhaps the best part of all involved O’Connor’s solo violin passage, where the Jade II caught both the incisiveness and the sweet, lilting tonality of the violin.
On Fanfare the MrSpeaker VOCE showed again its superior upper midrange and treble extension, its greater bass purity and power, and its admittedly superior resolution. Even so, the Jade II offered enough of those qualities to be musically competitive with the VOCE, although the more than twice as costly VOCE is undeniably the superior headphone overall.
Finally, on Anne Bisson’s rendition of Pink Floyd’s classic ‘Us and Them’ [Portraits and Perfumes, Camilio, 16/44.1] the Jade II did something wonderful with Bisson’s voice; namely, it captured Bisson’s breathy delicacy, her slightly off-kilter inflections, and her uncanny ability to underscore the dark humor implicit in the song’s lyrics. In contrast, the MrSpeakers VOCE offered greater extension and resolution, but at the expense of imparting very faint traces of glare on the edges of Bisson’s voice. Once again, the inherent musicality of the Jade II shone through.
In comparing the Jade II electrostatic amp to the iFi Pro iCAN/Pro iESL combo, I found the HiFiMAN amp nearly equaled the iFi combo on most material, though the iFi was arguably quieter, more resolving, and substantially more flexible. Given that the iFi combo is more than twice as expensive as the Jade II amplifier, though, I think all might agree the HiFiMAN amplifier offers terrific value for money.
What about caveats? Some of you will have discovered an online review declaring the Jade II system is a “dangerous” product capable of shocking its users. Frankly, I’m going to call that review erroneous to the point of almost irrational hysteria. I’ve used the Jade II system—and many other electrostatic headphone systems—for hours on end in both humid and dry conditions with zero problems. My opinion is that about the only way you could hurt yourself with the Jade II system would be to take it with you into the shower, bathtub, or swimming pool—something no music lover in his or her right mind would ever attempt. Enough said.
While the Jade II system is not in the strictest sense a ‘state of the art’ product in the way that HiFiMAN’s Shangri-La Jr or Shangri-La systems are (or in the way that MrSpeakers VOCE or Stax’s SR-009S headphones are), the Jade II package offers such heaping helps of the qualities most listeners seek in electrostatic systems that it qualifies as an unequivocal success. For many listeners, the Jade II system offers so much musical insight and enjoyment for such a sensible price that it may well represent all the electrostatic headphone system many listeners will ever need or want.
- HiFiMAN Jade II electrostatic headphone system
- Jade II electrostatic headphone
- Type: Open-back electrostatic headphone
- Driver Complement: Single full-range electrostatic driver with <0.001mm thick diaphragm and Nano-material coatings, thin metal mesh stators, and nano-material dust covers.
- Frequency Response: 7Hz–90kHz
- Bias voltage: 550V–650V
- Weight: 365 grams (12.9 oz.)
- Price: (The Jade II electrostatic headphone is included in the Jade II system, but is also available separately for $1399 US or £1249 UK)
- Jade II electrostatic amplifier
- Amplifier dimensions: 116 × 270 × 276 mm (4.6″ × 10.6″ × 10.9″)
- Amplifier Weight: 6.5 kg (14.3 lb.)
- Price: (The Jade II electrostatic amplifier is included in the Jade II system, but is also available separately for $1599 US or £1299 UK)
- Jade II bundled electrostatic headphone system price: $2499 or £2499 UK
+1 (201) 443-4626