Hifiman HE-4: The Lightest Modern Orthodynamic Yet

hifiman_he4_02

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.

The newer cables that come with the HE-4 and the HE-500 use molded connectors. But the HE-4 cable is even better than the HE-500 in build quality, as it uses a soft nylon sleeving.

 

Included with the HE-4 also is a TRRS mini plug cable. Quite interesting, as it works normally on some standard 3.5 TRS female (Audinst), but not on some portable players like the HM-601 and the Fostex HP-P1.

 

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.

A view of the HE-4 driver.

And this is the side that faces your ears.

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).

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

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

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  • Earfonia

    Thanks for the review and summary of the Hifiman Orthos :)
    You said HE-4 is lukewarm for classical orchestra. Do you mind to elaborate more about how HE-4 performs on classical orchestra? Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      Hi Bram,
      Perhaps two simple reason is that
      - The bass impact is not powerful enough for symphonies (i.e Mahler,
      Beethoven, Gerswhin).
      - Soundstage projection not very good

      • Earfonia

        Ok got it, thanks!

  • Mampus

    Mild V-shaped? Interesting! :D

  • Katun

    Great job! I love your reviews!

    I will agree with what you have said about the HE-500 vs the HE-4. I find the HE-4 a lot thinner and dryer than my HE-500. It almost reminds me of when I compared my HD650 to my DT880. Almost the exact same outcome. The sound of the HE-500 is just more “there”. It has more meat to it, and is thicker overall. The mids are absolutely stunning as well, while the HE-4 is not quite up to par. I’m just wondering if the HE-4′s cable would do well on the HE-500, or if it was meant to take the stock Canare.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Katun, my HE-500 is out on a loan, but when it’s back I’ll try swapping the cables. Or perhaps you can do that since you own both headphones, and tell us. :)

      • Katun

        Out on a loan eh? Who said you’ll get it back? ;)

        I would, but I’m suspecting the results to be pretty minimal, and I’m no good at detecting and explaining those subtle changes. The only way I could probably manage, is to have two HE-4′s and two HE-500′s; each with a different cable so I could swap really quickly. I’m not good for remembering all the specific details of sound, which is the reason I have to drill a sound into my head, and then rapidly switch to my comparing headphone. Doing that makes the differences clear.

        I’m sure we can all wait for a more professional view.

        • Anonymous

          Lol, thanks for the honesty.

          I tried swapping a few different cables for the HE-500 and the LCD-2 and find the stock cable to be the best in terms of overall sound. So in that sense I think the manufacturers of these high end headphones are definitely not skimping over the cables and have included the character of the cable in the overall sound tuning.

          Of course if people feel that they want more treble or detail then they can “upgrade” to silver, or copper if they want more body, but in the process the balance in the sound would be shifted.

          If you really want me to do the cable comparison to the HE-500 prompt me in a couple of days? I should have the headphone back by then. It’s just that I always send out gears to friends so I can share the sound.

          • Katun

            Oh, don’t worry, that won’t be necessary. I’m actually going to sell my HE-4 after I complete my comparison, and will obviously sell it with the stock cable. If the HE-4 cable was reported as going great with the HE-500, I would try it out and possibly keep it while selling the Canare with the HE-4. But I’m assuming that the Canare is the best match for the HE-500 as far as stock HiFiMAN cables go. Besides, I’m already addicted on the sound, so I guess there is no reason to alter it, but that’s assuming there would be a notable change.

            See, I find the treble already perfect, as is the balance. I will admit that the cable is quite stiff, but I really don’t mind; it’s a minor quibble. The HE-4′s was excellent, but then again, probably wouldn’t be as good of a match to the HE-500.

            • Anonymous

              Alright then.

              Anyway if you like the mids on the HE-500 try getting a Dared MP-5 tube amp and driving the headphone through its speaker taps. I did that set up on a last meet and everybody loved it. The Dared is a cheap entry level tube amp.

          • Tim

            Look forward into the comparison Mike!
            A bit curious whether the snappy and agile HE-4 in combination with the HE-500 canare cable would bring best of both worlds.

            • Anonymous

              Here it is:

              Briefly:
              AD2000: mid centric, thick mids, thin low bass and treble
              HE-500: more linear tonal balance from top to bottom, no midrange “bump”
              like the AD2000. Sweeter sound, warmer, better mid clarity.

              Frankly the HE-500 is much more enjoyable than the AD2000, even when I’m
              driving the AD2000 from the Zana Deux. I’ve taken the HE-500 to 3-4
              different meets and it’s always a crowd favorite, even only driving it
              with the Fiio E11 amp. Many agrees that this is the best Hifiman
              headphone yet.

          • Katun

            Hey Mike,

            I actually have been experimenting with the HE-4 cable on the HE-500 a lot recently. Overall, the HE-4 cable is definitely brighter than the Canare cable. For a second there, I didn’t know which cable I liked better. But ultimately, I like the stock Canare better, due to fuller mids and a more balanced and smooth sound.

            Cheers!

            • Anonymous

              Nice,
              I like the Canare cable for the same reason as well. I think after a
              while your ears adjust to the treble levels and the additional
              brightness becomes irrelevant and then I start to feel that I want that
              nice midrange and low body back.

  • Donunus

    are these brighter sounding than the he6? That would not be good. I’m listening to the he-6 now out of the speaker taps of my old audiolab 8000A integrated amp and it is clean, detailed, dynamic, lacking in cuppy colorations yet tuned irritatingly bright in the lower treble. These he6 are amazing when equalized but i don’t like having to equalize high end cans :)

    • Anonymous

      No I don’t think they are brighter than the HE-6. The tonal response is
      a bit different on these, and I do know what you mean by the lower
      treble on the HE-6.

  • Ron

    Could these be driven by the Yulong U100?

    • Anonymous

      Ah, I need to check, but the Yulong U100 is out at the moment.

      Although if the Audinst HUD MX-1 can drive it fine, then it’s probably
      is safe to assume that the Yulong can, since the Yulong is more powerful.

  • laxman

    Between the He-4 and He-500, which has a warmer sound signature?

    • Anonymous

      HE-500.

  • Philimonmon

    You say the HE-4 does not need as powerful an amp as HE-6, but I was wondering if this is because you tried the HE-4 on a powerful speaker amp and found no benefits, or if because you found a decent headphone amp seemingly adequate. Would you please let me know how you came to that conclusion? I’ve read remarks on theoretically the HE-4 should be very difficult to drive (speaker amp type stuff) because it requires more power to make its single magnet configuration to work well. Also, I’ve only read one person’s comments who has actually tried the HE-4 on a powerful amp, and they said it was basically a night and day difference in terms of dynamics/energy (this was on a Lyr).

    • Anonymous

      Interesting. I haven’t tried the HE-4 on a speaker amp, as I found the
      Audinst HUD-MX1 to do a good job driving it.

      I will give it a try and see what the result is.

      • Philimonmon

        Thanks a lot headfonia. By the way – I wish all reviews had so many relevant side-by-side comparisons as you have done with the HE-4/5/5le/6/HD650/Grado/AKG, etc (I am missing more when you include the opinions you gave in the comments section). Thank you – very helpful. 

        I don’t know if you mind, but here is the post regarding HE-4 and LDMK3 vs Lyr :
        http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/522157/hifiman-he-4-impressions-thread/330#post_7399218

        • Anonymous

          Hi,
          Normally when an amplifier is not powerful enough, you either run into
          two problems:
          - Loudness level limitations, related to the voltage swing capability of
          the amplifier.
          - Distortions on the sound, due to the current output capability of the
          amplifier.

          In this sense the Audinst HUD-MX1 ran into neither, and so I concluded
          that it has enough power to drive the HE-4.

          As for the Little Dot Mk3 and Lyr comparison, I think what happens is a
          reflection of the amplifier’s characteristics. The LD Mk4 is a smooth
          and laid back amplifier that doesn’t have too much impact and PRaT. I am
          assuming that the LD Mk3 is somewhat similar.
          The Lyr sounds more like a solid state than a tube, and it is very
          impactful and punchy in character. This is *probably* what causes the
          impression that the LD MK3 can’t drive the HE-4 adequately.

          I will give the HE-4 a try with the speaker amp, but hearing the HE-4
          out of the Audinst, I am quite certain that the Audinst is powerful
          enough to drive it. I’ve witnessed a lot of under-amping phenomenon and
          the HE-4 and the Audinst pairing doesn’t display any of the issues
          normally present with under amping.

          Of course I am not suggesting that everyone go out and buy an Audinst to
          pair with their HE-4s. What I am suggesting is that if a simple entry
          level DAC/Amp box can drive it just fine, then the majority of desktop
          amplifiers out there would do a good job of driving the HE-4.

          • Philimonmon

            I kind of suspected that from that person’s LDMK3 and Lyr comparison, but I can’t be sure because I haven’t seen anyone else tell tale of HE-4 and very powerful amps. 

            I don’t know if you’ve seen this, and if it is even accurate but here is a table with recommended wattage for each of the HIFIMAN orthos. As you can see it recommends the HE-4 as requiring atleast 2WPC of power. This may just be a made up number to sell HIFIMAN’s own amps, which claim to do 2WPC without saying at what ohm though…:
            http://www.6moons.com/audioreviews/hifiman4/1.html

            • Anonymous

              Well two watts per channel is a maximum output rating. Normal listening volumes will still be at the milliwatts. Anyway I am sorry for not having the time to test the HE-4 on a speaker amp. I will do so later today and update you.

            • Anonymous

              Hi Phil,
              I have compared the HE-4 on three amps (from least to most powerful):
              - Fostex HP-P1 portable DAC/Amp
              - Burson HA-160D
              - Dared MP5 hybrid tube speaker amp (from speaker out)

              I didn’t notice a sign of under amping with all three. However the HE-4
              does take on the character of the amplifier behind it. The Fostex was
              flat and neutral, the Burson with its typical punchy bass section and
              good PRaT, and the Dared was silky smooth on the mids with a nice bump
              on the midbass.

              The HE-4 does sound best overall on the Dared though. But this is mostly
              the same as with dynamic headphones as well. The HD650, for instance,
              responds well to a power increase and when you plug it to a speaker amp,
              you really feel that the large headroom gives a very smooth power delivery.

              Hope that answers your question.

      • P. J.

        Hello Mike. I have tried HE-4 with a speaker amp (Azur 350A) and didn’t like the result. The 45W 8Ω amp is too powerful and the volume knob was at its minimum so it was hard to do any proper volume adjusting. The amp was also grainy compared to my very accurate Auditor. It was however warmer and more musical but designated headphone tube amps are again better. I’ve come to conclusion HE-4 does not require speaker amplifier.

        kindest regards, Peter

      • P. J.

        Hello Mike. I have tried HE-4 with a speaker amp (Azur 350A) and didn’t like the result. The 45W 8Ω amp is too powerful and the volume knob was at its minimum so it was hard to do any proper volume adjusting. The amp was also grainy compared to my very accurate Auditor. It was however warmer and more musical but designated headphone tube amps are again better. I’ve come to conclusion HE-4 does not require speaker amplifier.

        kindest regards, Peter

        • Anonymous

          Thanks, Peter.

          The HE-4 was quite nice with my small Dared hybrid tube amp, none of the
          grain that often is audible from solid state amps. But I also think that
          you don’t need speaker amps for these.

          • P. J.

            Mike hi, its hard to admit I was wrong when I said my speaker amp isn’t good enough for HE-4. Here are my latest impressions: 

            Couple days ago I have tried HE-4 with a speaker amp again. Connected to Ref-5 it sounds amazing. It didn’t convince me with a speaker amp shortly after I got it but now its seems its well settled. The difference is noticeable. Bigger soundstage, tighter and more impactfull bass and very dynamical now. It sounded very good from the Auditor but the cheap speaker amp makes it sound more lively, more energetic. I have gotten HE-300 two days ago but it doesn’t get much head time. 

            • Anonymous

              Yes these orthodynamic Hifimans seem to improve very well, especially on bass impact and dynamics with a speaker amp. Just stay with relatively low power to keep the noise level down.

            • Anonymous

              Yes these orthodynamic Hifimans seem to improve very well, especially on bass impact and dynamics with a speaker amp. Just stay with relatively low power to keep the noise level down.

  • Earfonia

    Mike, just a simple question, from all the 5 Ortho models mentioned here, if you have to choose one for your own personal music listening, which one you choose?

    • Anonymous

      The HE500 would be my choice for now.

  • Katun

    For the user that mentioned if the HE-4 was good with the Canare, I’ll mention that it cannot save it’s brightness. I would say the HE-4 cable does more to the HE-500 than the Canare with the HE-4. If you want that “snap” and also retain the lushness and smoothness , then try pairing the HE-4 cable with the HE-500. I will admit, for a minute there (and for a few songs) the HE-4 cable sounded more natural than the Canare and much less colored. But in the end, I find it takes away too much from the mids and overall smoothness. I’ll test some more later, as my HE-500 is burning in right now (probably around 75 hours). I’ll mention some stuff as well about the two when I’m finished with my HE-500 vs HE-4 comparison.

  • Serge

    Mike, do you think the Fiio E11 would have enough power to drive the HE-4?

    • Anonymous

      Yes, I think it should run fine from the E11.

  • Lxyn14

    Hi, what tube amp would you recommend most for the HE4? Would the EF5 be a good one?

  • http://jimramk.tumblr.com JRK

    Any idea if the iBasso D-Zero would match up alright to this?

    • Anonymous

      Hi,
      I tried it with the Hifiman HE-500 and while the D-Zero can drive it pretty loud, I don’t think the power and the dynamics were happening. With the HE-4 it may be okay though, since the HE-4 is easier to drive than the HE-500.
      Sorry I can’t quite check it directly for you since my friend borrowed the D-Zero.

  • Monsterevo

    Could the Mav Audio Dac1 work well with these headphones?

    • http://twitter.com/Lieven_V Lieven V

      Hi Monsterevo,

      I’m sorry but I seriously doubt it. The amp section in the D1 is the least good thing of the combo. And in my opinion there are better dac’s out there as well. Only thing I use the D1 for is as pre-amp for my speaker system even after changing all the opamps and playing with different tubes

      • Monsterevo

        Well thanks, I was kind of expecting an answer like that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/handy.oe Handy Oe

    hi mike,
    will the hifiman he500 run nicely on fostex hp-p1?? what do you think is the best amp to run this headphone
    thanks

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Handy,
      No I think you need a more powerful desktop amp for the HE500