It’s been quite a journey since we followed Hifiman’s entry to the headphone market with the Hifiman HE-5 headphones. Unless you’ve personally owned all the different models, you’re probably not so sure on what makes each of them different? Therefore I would like to start with a short recap of each headphones’ character.
- Hifiman HE-5
When it was first released, the HE-5 gives an unbelievable level of clarity rarely heard on other headphones that day. It is a bright sounding headphone, and one of the brightest sounding cans I’ve ever reviewed as it boosts a large part of the mid and lower treble, the part that attacks your eardrums’ sensitive nerves directly. The sound was very fast paced, articulate, forward, and with an awesome level of bass impact. When me and the guys heard it then, we concluded that the HE-5 was the Rock headphone that finally eclipsed the mighty Grado RS-1 in terms of technicalities. A friend of mine who listens to hard rock still lives with his HE-5 headphone, refusing to upgrade even after auditioning the newer Hifimans. The attack and the energy of the HE-5 is just perfect for fast rock, but a lot of people would find the HE-5 to be too bright and too aggressive for their music.
- Hifiman HE-5LE
The LE version of the HE-5 shows that Hifiman is listening to people’s inputs that the HE-5 is simply too bright sounding. In an attempt to correct that, Hifiman tuned the HE-5LE to be significantly darker sounding than the HE-5. In fact, it is still the darkest sounding Hifiman headphone in the line up. The HE-5LE, in an attempt to make the sound less piercing, tones down the treble attack to far lower levels than the HE-5. It was good and balanced, but people yearned for something of an in-between as they miss the nice treble sparkle that brings instruments alive like on the HE-5. It was still not a mellow or laid back headphone, but somehow the attack and the snap is lost, and although it’s good for blues or classic rock, it doesn’t translate the energy of modern progressive rock bands very well.
- Hifiman HE-6
Hifiman then introduced the flagship model, which brings the sound quality up to a different level than the HE-5 and the HE-5LE. They also have been listening to people’s inputs, and so the HE-6 returns with a treble that’s far better in quality than the original HE-5, yet at more friendly levels. Indeed, the HE-6 probably has one of the sweetest, unfatiguing, and clear treble I’ve heard. Tonality wise, the HE-6 is less dark than the HE-5LE, but not as bright as the HE-5. It requires a speaker amp to drive right, but when it does, it really sings. The HE-6 also has a good attack and snap, something that was missing from the HE-5LE. In overall, this is Hifiman’s best attempt in balancing different aspects of the sound.
- Hifiman HE-500
Hifiman then released another model which is supposed to be a lighter to drive HE-6. Indeed the HE-500 is lighter to drive, as the Fiio E11 portable amp can drive it with a pretty good authority. However, the HE-500 brings another card to the table and that is the midrange. Though it mimics the HE-6’s tone and timbre, the HE-500 had a midrange that really shines, far sweeter than the HE-6’s. It’s still quite a forward headphone, but a little mellower in the treble than the HE-6, and overall warmer and more likable in tonality. The attack is not as good as the HE-6, and so it’s better suited for moderate paced songs, stuff like Jazz, Blues, Vocals, Indie Pop, and such.
And now we are left with the lowest entry in the group, the Hifiman HE-4. Same housing, mostly the same looks, just slightly lighter driver that makes the HE-4 a very light headphone to drive compared to all the other models in the line up. It’s an interesting attempt, indeed, as the HE-4 is priced to be the entry level model in the line up, at a price point that will sway people currently owning or considering an upgrade to the typical $300-$400 top dynamic models. But of course, everybody is wondering, at that kind of a price point, what’s going to happen to the sound quality? It’s not quite the HE-500 or HE-6 level, but it can be quite comparable to the HE-5 and HE-5LE.
GENERAL IMPRESSIONS ON THE SOUND
Sound signature wise, the HE-4 is the first Hifiman that tries to pull off a V-shaped frequency curve. It’s a mild V-shape, but compared to all the other Hifimans, the HE-4 is tonally the most V-shaped. It’s not quite monitoring thin on the mids ala Beyer DT880, but it’s noticeably thin especially on the lower mids when compared to the last few Hifiman headphones I’ve reviewed. What you get instead is a good sparkly treble that peaks roughly in the mid treble area, a good presence on the vocals around the lower treble, and a decent body on the bass to keeps the balance in check. The lighter magnets on the HE-4 gives you a lighter bass impact than all the other bigger brothers but it does score good on the comfort factor. The HE-4 is noticeably lighter, more like a dynamic headphone light than the typical 400 grams modern orthodynamic headphones. I don’t know what they did to the drivers, but the HE-4 is definitely less high end sounding than the HE-500 or the HE-6, but you still get all the good transients and articulation typical of orthodynamics. The bass are fast and tight, the articulation level good, you great clarity from top to bottom (hello, Sennheiser HD650), and all around a great performer except on the soundstage, which is always a weak point for planars and Hifiman headphones.
The pace and the energy is a bit above the mellower HE-500 and the darker HE-5LE, quite close to the HE-6 though below the HE-5. It keeps a good pace with John Mayer, Maroon 5, Kings of Leon, but even with faster stuff like Linkin Park, Incubus, Paramore or Muse, and it’s still great for classic Rock stuff like Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses or Bon Jovi. And somehow with these Rock/Alternative genres, I am not missing the mids as much, as the vocals remain very present (surprise surprise!), and the clear treble keeps the instruments sounding very alive. If there is one thing I’m missing, it is the bass punch and impact that’s not as strong as I’d like it to be for these music. Yes, I know some headphones are not meant to be a basshead cans, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The PRaT factor is actually great on the HE-4, it’s just that I feel the bass punch should be at around 8 on a scale of 10, but at the moment it’s just hitting the scale on a 7. One of those “if only…” things.
With the mild V-shaped curve of the HE-4, it would seem logical that I would be longing for the HE-500’s mids, but the strange thing is that the overall voicing of the HE-4 is quite good just by itself. I’d still push the HE-500 as the number one meet headphone. There is less wow factor, but the HE-4 is still a great headphone by itself. The voicing just works and the overall sound is clear and enjoyable, without going too HE-5 like. I even played Mumford and Sons, a band that I thought the HE-500 will do much better on, but discovered that the HE-4 is just as enjoyable. The mild V-shaped tonal balance of the HE-4 is actually something that I’ve only witnessed being pulled off so successfully on this headphone. Somehow, they have done such a good job in making this headphone sound good with anything I put it on, from Linkin Park to Michael Buble to Daft Punk to The Social Network Soundtrack, and even some New Age/Meditation Guitar & Sitar music from Ancient Future.
At times, the leaner sounding HE-4 is quite refreshing over the warmer and sweeter HE-500. You know those times when you’ve had too much Caramel Frappuccinos and feels like having a glass of cold ice water? Well, the HE-4 is like that, next to the HE-500. So, despite not having that special mids, the combination of faster pace, better snap, and a more engaging sound on the HE-4 keeps it to be an enjoyable headphone to listen to.
Certainly the HE-4 brings a new option to the $300-$500 open headphone scene, previously revolving mostly around the top tier dynamics from Sennheiser, Beyerdynamics, AKG, Grado, and Audio Technica. It certainly is more lively and musical than the Beyerdynamic DT880 and the AKG K701, somewhat closer to the energy of the Grado but with a better articulation level in the bass and an overall bigger sound. Compared to the dark and polarizing Sennheiser HD650, the HE-4 is more nimble, making it a better pairing for the majority of medium to fast music we have today, though the HD650 is still smoother, more refined, and scales up better. Against the Audio Technicas (AD1000PRM or AD2000), the HE-4 is less refined and is less smooth, but the sound signature again strikes a better match with the majority of mainstream Rock/Alternative/Pop/Electronic. Although the Dynamics have a certain coloration and presentation style that remains unique and irreplaceable, the HE-4 may be the best all rounder I’ve seen on this price tag, with classical/orchestral pieces being the only genre that the HE-4 is quite lukewarm on.
EASY TO DRIVE FACTOR
Talking about drivability, the HE-4 runs very well from an entry level DAC/Amp box like the Audinst HUD-MX1. It’s not quite portable level though, as the JDSLabs Cmoy and the Ipod Classic output both distorts heavily at low volume (the HE-4’s efficiency is still quite low at 86dB). So, at the moment I can’t quite say if the HE-4 will run well from the typical portable amp like RSA SR-71A or the Just Audio AHA-120, and so it’s better to stay safe and stick with the powerful portables such as the ALO Rx Mk2, the RSA SR-71B, or the Ibasso PB-2. I’ve only tested the PB-2 with the HE-4, but the ALO Rx and the RSA SR-71B should be powerful enough for the HE-4. Otherwise, looking at the size of the HE-4, it’s probably best to stick with desktop set ups, though you don’t need super beefy desktop amps to drive this headphone (the Audinst HUD-MX1 runs off the USB bus power and is op-amp based, and it drives the HE-4 just fine).
The easy to drive factor combined with the all around lively sound means that the HE-4 will be the headphone that I’ll take with the HE-500 for the local meets. The HE-6 still properly retains the flagship status, but the need of a speaker amp means that it’s not very appealing for the majority of the headphone crowd. Besides, on the last meet, I set up both the HE-6 and the HE-500 on the same speaker amp (Dared MP-5), and the vote is quite unanimous going for the HE-500. If Hifiman is willing to price the HE-4 it a bit lower at $400, I believe this will be a very strong contender at the mid-fi headphone scene.
If you are going to audition the HE-4, I ask you not to listen too hard to analyze the sound, where it does well and where the faults are. I know headphone enthusiasts, especially the review reading kind often falls into that mistake far too often. It may sound unimpressive at first, especially if you’ve been auditioning your friends’ HE-6 or LCD-2 or worst yet, the Stax Omega 2. The wow factor may be quite low at first, but playing more than 20 different albums over the course of this review, I was quite surprised to see how the HE-4 makes a good presentation for any sort of music.
Gears used for review:
Headphones: Hifiman HE-4, Hifiman HE-500, Hifiman HE-6
Source/Amplifiers: Audinst HUD-MX1, Fostex HP-P1, Hifiman HM-601/602, Ibasso PB-2, JDSLabs Cmoy, Ipod Classic 120GB.
Also mentioned: Fiio E11, Just Audio AHA-120, RSA SR-71B, ALO Rx Mk2, Portable Amps