For the China-based headphone specialists at HiFiMAN, the firm’s new HE‑400i and HE‑560 planar magnetic headphones represent great leaps forward (with apologies to the late Chairman Mao), each in its own way. I say this because both models show, in terms of build quality, sound quality, packaging, documentation, and overall presentation, that they are the products of a rapidly maturing maker of world class headphones—a manufacturer that is a force to be reckoned with in today’s high‑end headphone marketplace.
Readers may recall that HiFiMAN’s more costly HE‑560 model (£660), as reviewed in Hi‑Fi+ issue 117, is a very ambitious design whose mission is to fill the rather large sonic ‘shoes’ of its predecessor, the widely admired HE‑500 model (favourably reviewed by Hi‑Fi+ in issue 83). But by design, the HE‑560 also aims to deliver sufficiently high levels of sound quality that it might also be considered a viable alternative to the firm’s excellent but very difficult-to-drive flagship HE‑6 headphone.
The new HE‑400i (£375), for its part, has a similarly challenging mission. Specifically, its goal is to replace HiFiMAN’s affordable and popular entry-level HE‑400 planar magnetic headphone, while at the same time raising the bar for outright sonic performance vis‑à‑vis other headphones in its price class.
In creating the HE‑400i, HiFiMAN sought to leverage the core strengths of the original HE‑400, while improving upon its design in several key respects. In particular, HiFiMAN wanted to approve the ergonomics, adjustability, and comfort factor of the HE‑400i, while reducing it weight. Further, the firm wanted to preserve—or if possible to improve upon—the already relatively high sensitivity of the original HE‑400. Next, HiFiMAN wanted the HE‑400i to improve upon the sound quality of the original HE‑400 with an eye towards giving the new model more accurate and more neutral voicing overall. Last but not least, HiFiMAN sought to improve dramatically the HE‑400i’s product packaging, documentation, and appearance, while preserving a still very affordable selling price.
All around, the HE‑400i offers the best packaging and documentation of any HiFiMAN product to date. The HE‑400i’s arrived in a classy-looking leatherette-clad presentation box (the stitching on which looks lovely), fitted with a hinged, flip‑open lid. As with the HE‑560, the HE‑400i case provides dense foam padding with precision-cut openings for the headphones and their detachable signal cables, plus warranty cards and an Owner’s Guide. Then, as a tasteful yet eye-catching detail touch, there is a small, gold-coloured ‘HE-400’ logo embossed on the outside of the case. Stated simply, the HE‑400i’s packaging pushes some serious ‘pride-of-ownership’ buttons (something that could never have been said of HiFiMAN’s earlier-generation packaging).
Once removed from its case, the HE‑400i looks sleek with its metallic smoky grey Mylar-finished ear cups, black trim, and the same elegant and highly functional frame and headband strap design first introduced on the HE‑560. Credit for this new frame and headband architecture goes to the gifted industrial designer Carol Catalano, who has been working with HiFiMAN on headphone design improvements for some time. The new frame is not only lighter than the old one, but features a leaf spring-like outer frame from which is suspended a super-comfortable and easily adjustable headband strap that distributes the headphone’s weight more evenly on the wearer’s head. The result is a headphone that simply feels better to wear for longer periods of time and that can give a comfortable fit for a wider range of users.
One other worthwhile improvement—as on the HE‑560—is a set of beveled leatherette (‘pleather’) and velour-covered FocusPad ear pads that are deliberately thicker on the rear edge than on the front. This design places extra padding where it is needed most—namely, just behind the listener’s ear—while allowing a thinner profile in front of the ears, where the width of the wearer’s head is typically at a maximum. In keeping with HiFiMAN tradition, the HE‑400i is an open-back design with large, capacious ear cups that surround but typically do not touch the edges of user’s ears (a feature those with larger ears will surely appreciate). The HE‑400i weighs 370 grams, as compared to the 440‑gram HE‑400.
HiFiMAN offers no direct commentary to explain how the HE‑400i’s planar magnetic drivers differ from those in the original HE‑400, but the drivers are indeed different as denoted by the fact that the HE‑400i claims slightly higher sensitivity (93dB) as compared to the HE‑400’s 92.5 dB. Quoted frequency response for both models is an identical 20Hz-35kHz, but listening tests quickly reveal that the HE‑400i sounds considerably different to—and noticeably more neutral and better balanced than—the HE‑400.
By design, the HE‑400i is the easiest to drive of all HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphones, meaning that it can give acceptable if not great results when pushed by iPads or smartphones (though when using such devices, users should expect to run very high gain settings to achieve reasonable volume levels). At bottom, though, the best way to tap the HE‑400i’s full potential is still to use a good desktop or portable headphone amplifier.
During my listening tests I compared the HE‑400i to various planar magnetic headphones including HiFiMAN’s HE‑560 and the original HE‑400 (with Rev 2 drivers), the Audeze LCD‑3 (reviewed in issue 93), and the Oppo PM‑1 (reviewed in issues 115 and 116). Most of my comparisons focused on evaluating the HE‑400i vis‑à‑vis its HiFiMAN stable mates. Headphone amp/DACs used with the HE‑400i included the Aurender V1000 Flow (blog pending), the iFi Micro iDSD (reviewed in issue 119), the Oppo HA‑1 (also reviewed in issue 119), and the Moon by Simaudio 430HA (blog pending). Sources included lossless PCM, DXD, and DSD digital audio files played through a Windows 8/JRiver-based music server.
One of the easiest and best ways for me to describe the sound of the HE‑400i would be to tell you that it sounds remarkably similar to HiFiMAN’s HE‑560, but with slightly less resolution, just slightly less upper treble energy, and with considerably higher sensitivity. Moreover, a word that recurs in my listening notes and that always springs to mind whenever I think about the HE‑400i is this one: balance. Unlike many headphones that have a pronounced sonic flavour or clearly identifiable colourations, the HE‑400i has—as does the HE‑560i—the desirable and almost chameleon-like quality of conveying the sonic signature of whatever recording might be in play, while imposing little in the way of ‘editorial commentary’ of its own.
Put on something big, bold, brash, and bass heavy (for example, Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ from the Epic-label album of the same name) and that’s precisely how the HE‑400i will sound. But, put on something that is subtler, more nuanced, and rich in both vocal and instrumental details (Anne Bisson’s Portraits and Perfumes, for instance),and the HE‑400i will shift gears, so to speak, to become a master of delicacy and finesse, with tonal balance that is admirably neutral. Again, the HE‑400i conveys the contents, tonalities, and general ‘vibe’ of recordings without filtering or re‑shaping them to any significant degree.
Given the striking similarities between the HE‑400i and the HE‑560, a question inevitably arises: Is the HE‑400i essentially the equal of the HE‑560? The answer is that it is not, although it is very similar in many ways and the sonic differences that do exist are perhaps smaller than one might expect. Thus, while the HE‑400i cannot do all the things the HE‑560 can, it is never embarrassed in the company of its bigger brother. Listen to the two models side‑by‑side and you might draw several important conclusions.
First, in terms of overall tonal balance, it is immediately obvious that the HE‑400i and HE‑560 are cut from similar sonic ‘cloth’. While there are small voicing differences, they are minor enough that you have to work to discern them. After careful listening, I found the HE‑400i offered just a smidgeon more mid‑bass energy than the HE‑560, and ever so slightly less overtly extended extreme upper treble response. This latter characteristic can, on some musical material, make the HE‑400i’s sound seem a touch more midrange-forward than the HE‑560’s, although I think this is more an illusion than the actual reality of things.
Second, there is the matter of resolution of fine low-level sonic details. The HE‑400i is an excellent performer in this respect—especially in comparison to other headphones in its price range, but at the end of the day the HE‑560 is better still. Thus, I think most listeners would be satisfied if not delighted by the resolving powers of the HE‑400i, because even in direct comparison to theHE‑560 the HE‑400i rarely sounds ‘veiled’ or ‘softly focused’,but rather comes across as being a little more forgiving of imperfect recordings than its sibling.
Third, by dint of its 3dB higher sensitivity, the HE‑400i is noticeably easier to drive than the HE‑560 is. In real‑world practice, this means the HE‑400i can and does work perfectly well with moderately powered (and typically moderately priced) amplifiers that might not offer quite enough ‘oomph’ for the more demanding HE‑560.
Relative to the original HE‑400, the HE‑400i truly does represent a great leap forward. While the HE‑400 was and still is a very good headphone, there is no getting around the fact that it delivered, by design, a warmer-than-neutral sound—a sound driven by the HE‑400’s voicing curve, which offered a moderate dollop of bass emphasis coupled with smooth but somewhat subdued highs. By comparison, the new HE‑400i comes much closer to matching the accuracy and neutrality standard of the HE‑560, and also serves up considerably more resolution into the bargain.
A test track that shows off the HE‑400i’s many strengths (and one that has become a favourite for use in evaluating audio components) is the Hoff Ensemble’s enchanting ‘Blågutten’ from Quiet Winter Night [2L, DXD, 24/352.8 download]. The song captures the soaring, melancholy voice of a trumpet, a keening guitar, and a piquant piano set against both high and low percussion in a richly resonant recording space. The HE‑400i’s prodigious and well-controlled low end does full (and powerful) justice to the low percussion, while the headphone’s vibrant, articulate, and evocative midrange makes the most of the commingled voices of the trumpet, guitar, and piano. In particular, the HiFiMAN does a wonderful job of suggesting the realistic dynamics and overall ‘action’ of the piano in play—always reminding the listener that piano’s are, after all, a form of percussion instrument. Up high, the HE-400i covers high percussion with a fine combination of delicacy and sharply focused articulacy, never becoming edgy, but never lapsing into an overly soft or diffuse-sounding presentation. Finally, the HE-400i captures all, or very nearly all, of the small, typically high frequency reverberant details that give the recording a sense of context and of place. In short, the HE-400i’s sound is rich, deep, sophisticated, and downright masterful in a way few (if any) other headphone’s at its price can match.
If I sound enthusiastic about the HE-400i, that’s because I am. Perhaps the best way I can share that enthusiasm is through a brief anecdote.
One day an information technology specialist needed to work in my office, and when he saw the equipment I had on hand he asked if I could demonstrate some serious high-end headphones. I played for him a range of fine headphones, in which the HE-400i was by far the least costly. The listener started with the more expensive models and came to the HE-400i last, and as he listened he just shook his head and begin to smile. Once the track ended, he looked up and said, “You know, even without considering its price, I like that HE‑400i an awful lot both on the basis of its sound quality and ergonomics. But once you do factor price into the equation, choosing the HE-400i becomes a complete no-brainer.” I really couldn’t have put it any better than that.
Type: Circumaural, open-back planar magnetic headphones
Driver complement: Single-sided planar magnetic drivers.
Frequency response: 20Hz – 35kHz
Impedance: 35 Ohms
Sensitivity: 93 dB
Accessories: Leatherette presentation case with precision-cut, form fitting internal padding, detachable and user replaceable screw-on type signal cables, User’s Guide.
Price: £360, or $499 in the US
UK Distributor: Electromod
Tel: +44 (0)1494 956558