HiFiMAN has been at the forefront of planar magnetic headphone technology for many years. Several of its headphones have been featured prominently here in Hi-Fi+ by our own Chris Martens. Recently HiFiMAN and its creative leader, Dr. Fang Bian, have been competing tooth and nail with a handful of other top-rated manufacturers in the high end arena and to say they can hold their own is an understatement. The company’s current flagship HE1000’s are without question one of the top headphones at any price in the market today. While it is exciting to see how far up the sonic mountain these top of the line products can reach, for most headphone aficionado’s these prices are prohibitive. Enter the HE400S. Priced at an affordable £249/$299, these comfortable and easy to drive new headphones are just the ticket to get a taste of champagne on a sparkling water budget.
When it comes to government spending there is some question to how effective trickle down theories have been. However, in the headphone world, they work very well thank you. The HE400S benefits from many of the innovations created for the HE1000’s and Edition X high end headphones. Notably, drivers drivers are derived from the latest planar technology, which allows a faster moving low-mass diaphragm that achieves a frequency response to 35kHz at only 22 ohms. This means a modest amp can drive the HE400S. A modest amp? Like a smartphone? Yes! A smartphone is more than capable of driving them to reasonable levels, without the headphones being sonically compromised. You can leave the stack at home. The HE400S are also very light, coming in at a modest 350g. The full-sized, fully adjustable ear cups allow for hours of comfortable listening and the headband takes its cue from the aforementioned HE1000’s in design and function allowing you to customize the fit as needed.
If all this is similar to the higher end model, what is missing? Premium materials for one thing. They also do not offer the nanometer thick membrane for the driver found in the company’s top designs. However, lessons learned in making high-end headphones like the HE1000 influenced the HE400S’ tech significantly, albeit in a more utilitarian way. While the HE400s sports less expensive materials, nothing subtracts from the listening experience. It is not cheaply built either; solid aluminium for the headband frame and a nice quality artificial leather for the comfortable headband. The ear pads are also a man made material. I found them well made and comfortable for long listening sessions. I did not experience that hot sweaty feeling you get from material that may be soft but does not breathe well. The user guide says HiFiMAN spent many hours in the development of these detachable and replaceable pads, and it is clear the time was well spent. The outer ring is an attractive matted silver finish on aluminium. The entire physical presentation is clean and well finished and reflects the high build quality expected from a top brand.
The HE400S also differs from its close cousin, the HE-400i, by offering lower impedance (22 ohms vs 35 ohms), less weight (by 20g), and higher efficiency (98dB vs. 93dB). Essentially, the newer HE400S are designed for the on the go listener who wants the speed and clarity of planar magnetics without bringing a stack of amps along for the ride. No harm that they cost a lot less than their cousins!
Upon receipt of the headphones I noticed the manual recommended 150 hours of break in. I plugged them into my Simaudio Moon Neo 430 HA reference headphone amplifier, fired up Roon server, and then went on the road for a week of business travel. Upon my return, I started off with the Moon Neo amp plugging into the single ended 6.35mm jack and fired up a long time favorite, ‘Take It Easy’ from The Eagles Greatest Hits [CD Elektra NY, NY. 1976]. I was immediately struck by the directness of the attack on the opening guitar strumming on the steel strings, which was appropriately bright and clean. The soundstage of this multi singer track was broad and displayed the breadth of the stage and the correct and identifiable positioning of the artists. The bass guitar providing the low end momentum had authority and mass without being overly boomy. The banjo was crisp and had the twang as expected. This was a good start to the evening. A top amp can reveal shortcomings in a low end headphone. The HE400S scaled nicely and offered an excellent presentation well beyond a typical modestly priced headphone.
Turning to tubes I switched to my Cary SLI-80 Ultimate Mod amp in triode mode. This amp is switchable between Triode and Ultralinear modes. I have it upgraded with VCaps, Hexfreds, and Vishay resistors, along with a selection of Golden Lion and Northern Electric tubes. When you switch to headphones from speakers the amp provides the full tube circuit with a resistor to step down the power to appropriate levels. I queued up Sting’s ‘Send Your Love’ from the Sacred Love album [A&M Records, SACD Santa Monica, CA. 2003]. Using my Denon DVD-5900 as the transport, this was an excellent opportunity to see what the HE400S could do. My first impression was ‘clean’; there was no grain between notes, and clarity between notes and instruments. Castanets were crisp and concise. Drums and conga were perfectly defined and correctly placed across the stage. The impact of the hand on the drum head had the correct character of contact. There was a terrific sense of soundstage, too. I have listened to many headphones with £1,000+ price tags that felt closed in. The depth and scale was there with the HE400S. Combined with that clarity, the HE400S made an impressive showing and before I knew it I had listened to the entire disc. At the end of the day, I love music more than I like to review gear, and sometimes when a piece of gear overachieves, you just get lost in the moment.
It is gratifying to find a lower cost headphone that is able to hold its own when plugged into aspirational components. Both the Cary and the Simaudio Moon gear would be among the top picks within their respective categories with prices to match. In these first listening sessions, the HE400S played its part in the high quality delivery of music. In each session the HE400S was able deliver the clarity and scale worthy of the top-end gear throughout the chain. This ability to scale when paired with higher quality gear is something that I do not find often and for me it is a highly desirable trait in any piece of gear. Few of us can just go out and buy a new rig from front to back in one go. We need gear that can either hold its own as we upgrade, or be able to participate fully in whatever chain we have built over time with our hard earned money. The HE400S provide impressive results without breaking the bank. Add to that the comfort factor for long listening sessions and I could certainly spend many an enjoyable afternoon deep into my music.
It was time to get portable. Next up was the highly regarded Questyle QP1R Digital Audio Player (DAP). The QP1R offers a full Class A current mode amplification system and the ability to play PCM or DSD while on the go. It also offers three gain levels to adapt from sensitive in ear monitors to larger less efficient full sized headphones. It is also the best sound quality regardless of price I have heard for a portable player. I plugged in the 3.5mm cable and selected Disturbed’s album Immortalized and the bands haunting rendition of ‘The Sound of Silence’ [HDTracks 24/48 AIFF Reprise Records 2015]. David Draiman’s deep baritone opens backed by a piano played behind him in a larger room. The echo and decay of the piano’s notes were clear with clean decay never smearing or washing out. You receive the sense of scale from the large room. As the strings began to come in you could easily distinguish each section. Cymbals shimmered brightly then faded off appropriately to nothing. (Did I mention these headphones go to 35 KHz?) As the volume rose and more instruments come in, each maintained its own place as they accompanied David’s surging vocals. Tympani provide a powerful end to this amazing interpretation of the Simon and Garfunkel classic.
A couple of observations. First, the available volume was more than I would ever want to listen to for any prolonged period. The Questyle DAP offered plenty of power for the HS400S. Even at the low gain setting, there was plenty of power for comfortable listening levels. At high gain and at near full power it was very loud but not distorted or of poor quality. Second, the pairing had excellent synergy and would make a remarkably portable rig. However, I would also surmise the sonic quality exceeds most listener’s current rigs today, and the total cost of the DAP and headphones is in the £1,000 mark. Certainly not throwaway money, but nothing like the price of the top priced DAP’s and headphones people travel with today. I have travelled with similar sized top of the line headphones and amps, and this presentation definitely can hold its own against much higher priced fare.
My final listening session came with with the most expected pairing, the HE400S and my iPhone 6S+. Leading the playlist was ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ from Seal’s album 7 [iTunes AIFF 16/44.1 Warner Bros. 2008]. Having just heard the HE400S paired with top level high-end gear, it was interesting to listen to this more utilitarian pairing. First, the quality of the HE400S revealed the shortcomings of the iPhone as a DAP. It was outclassed by the Questyle by a wide margin. The key is that the clarity and transparency of the HiFiMAN planar magnetic technology proved revealing to the lesser sonic quality of the Apple device as a source. Not that it was bad, but there were edges to the presentation that the other gear was able to remove or not introduce into the song. The soundstage in particular was more closed in and there was a brightness to the sonics that would indicate a lower quality DAC providing the conversion back to analogue.
High quality equipment has the benefit of offering a great presentation or the downside of revealing lesser quality along the chain. There was no challenge with volume. I was operating at about 70% of maximum and had no desire to push it higher. HiFiMAN’s claim of efficiency and amenable impedance were easily supported by this listening session. To be fair, the presentation was easily as good as any I have heard when sourcing from an iPhone. Plus, the iPhone is designed to do far more than simply source music. Yet from a music delivery perspective it was the weak link alongside the £240 HE400S. Given its ability to scale with state of the art gear and its ability to be driven with no compromise in volume on something as ubiquitous as a smart phone it has proven to be an effective performer in any audio setting. Given its reasonable price point we may have a new value-based headphone champion. It is called the HiFiMAN HE400S, and I suggest you try it as soon as you can. Highly recommended!
Type: Circumaural, open-back, planar magnetic headphone
Drivers: Full-range, low-mass, planar magnetic drivers
Frequency response: 20Hz–35kHz
Impedance: 22 Ohms nominal
Cable: Detachable 1.5m
Price: £249, $299
Manufactured by: HiFiMAN
Tel: +1 201 443 4626