Hifiman HE-5 First Impression

2010 is here, and so is the Hifiman HE-5 orthodynamic headphones. I was really excited about this headphone, having read so many good things about it. I knew that in a matter of seconds, I’ll know if all the hype surrounding the HE-5 is true. From the first moment that the HE-5 was released to the market, it was pitted against heavyweights such as the HD800. Is this the real deal? Can a Hifiman orthodynamic really go against Sennheiser’s flagship?

The HE-5 may really be Hifiman’s entry to the elite high end club. Before the release of the HE-5, as well as the Audez’e orthos, orthodynamics were limited to mostly vintage Yamahas, Sansuis, Fostex, and a few others. When Hifiman released a modern orthodynamic cans, everyone got excited and wanted to see how it performs to today’s best in dynamics and electrostatics. This headphone was build not for the general consumer. It was clearly designed and built to be marketed to audiophiles.

You know, I didn’t even bother checking the little details or the build quality of the headphone. I only had one objective, to hear what music sounded like through the HE-5. I quickly attached the removable cable to the headphones, and immediately plugged it in to the Grace M902 amplifier.

You know a great headphone from the first moment you put it on. The HE-5 is one of them.

Straight out of the box, I was wowed. The HE-5 is very, very detailed. The detail and the clarity of the HE-5 really grows on me as I listen to this headphone. Compared to the lower end electrostats, such as the Stax SR-202 and the Koss ESP-950 that I reviewed a while ago, the electrostats still win on that ridiculously effortless sound, but I don’t think the SR-202s are as as detailed and as extended as the HE-5. Likewise the Koss ESP-950, but then I was reviewing the ESP-950 with the severely limited E-90 energizer.hifiman_he5_1

What’s more? The soundstage is very impressive. Compared to the K701, for instance, the soundstage in the HE-5 is much more three dimensional. Instrument separation is more real, positioning is better, and the depth in the soundstage is more easily perceived. I would say that the HE-5′s soundstage is exceptional and is above average.

No great headphones are ever complete without good bass. In this case, the HE-5 is just as awesome with bass. You get a real punchy bass that I don’t remember ever hearing from either the recent two electrostatics I reviewed, the SR-202 and the Koss ESP-950. The bass on the HE-5 is clean, controlled, and well extended.

I know that by know, you are all dying to hear how the HE-5 compares to the HD800 and everything else out there. For instance, how does the detail compare to the HD800? Indeed the HE-5 is very detailed. I don’t remember the HD800 ever giving me an impression of this much detail. But does that mean that the HE-5 is more detailed than the HD800? By now you probably know that sometimes a headphone is voiced in such a way that helps to enhance apparent detail. Is the HE-5 one of them? I will give it another listen before I will tell you what I think on this issue. Anyway this is still a first impression review, and so we got to talk about other things like build quality and ergonomics. :)

There are some things that Hifiman did right with the HE-5, but also some things that I think should be improved, at least ergonomics wise. The wood housing is certainly one thing they did right. Though it comes out nicer in the photos than it actually looks in real life, it’s still a nice looking wood housing. Even my wife complimented the look of the HE-5. The diameter of the housing is roughly a little smaller than the AKG K701, though the HE-5 is much heavier than the K701 and still heavier than the HD800. I don’t consider the weight as much as a problem. Perhaps its the very thick leather headband doing its work. One thing that I can’t seem to get is good fitment of the pads. Shaped in big circular shape, the feel is similar to the pads on the AKG K701, though the K701 is not exactly circular. I can never get a good fit of the AKG K701′s pads, but at least the pads are very comfortable. Not so with the HE-5. In addition to the non ergonomic doughnut shaped pads, the material is also a little rough. Definitely a far departure from the smooth microfiber pads that I’ve been used to in the HD800.

The steel joints that attach the headband to the housing actually feels very sturdy, far sturdier than the stuff we find on Grados. Only time can tell for sure though. The removable cable comes with a mini coaxial shaped connector that holds the cable very securely due to the screwed in locking mechanism. The cable itself is not that great, they are a bit stiff, and the build doesn’t inspire high quality. But you know what? Hifiman knows that probably 50% of its owners are going to experiment with aftermarket cables, and so they included extra connectors in the box! That is the most awesome gesture a headphone manufacturer can do for its customers. Balanced cabling, here I come!

I really want to start typing some HE-5 vs HD800 impression right here and right now, but I feel it’s best if I take more time to listen to these. Plus, I still want to see if there are any changes as more hours are put on the HE-5. The HE-5 is certainly a contender that will remain in discussion for much part of 2010, and more. I personally cannot wait to hear it balanced from the Beta22. Anyway, my initial impression is very favorable. But more comparison with other headphones are definitely in the future, both to dynamics and to electrostatics. For now, I want to see how the Hifiman compares not only to the HD800, but also to the Beyerdynamic T1 (when it arrives). At least I can promise you that the HD800 comparison should not be too far behind.


GOOD:
Great in almost all aspects. Detail, soundstage, bass, transparancy.

NO GOOD: May sound a little dry sometimes. Need a powerful amplifier that can generate plenty of current.

  • a_tumiwa

    it`s nice to see a company release an orthodynamics headphone nowadays, i myself already tired hunting Fostex T50 which rumor said the sound quality is not as good as HE-5 but the price is higher

  • dw1narso

    Mike, to really test the resolution, I think you must use 24bit/96KHz materials…(easily downloadable from sites selling HD audio, but you must have 24/96 bit perfect USB/DAC to play) , 16bit/44KHz as on CD would not be enough… OR… find a vinyl system :)

  • dw1narso

    BTW, what a strange connector that is used to connect the cable to the driver housing…. that looks looks like connector is that used for Gigahertz satelite or radio trasmission…

  • manaox

    Heard a couple of pairs on a couple of rigs in December. These things honestly change face a good deal more then the HD800 in my opinion on different rigs. On top dollar rigs, it could be slow, sweet, and syrupy with strong smooth bass; or fast, dry, and highly detailed with tight fast bass. With woo gear WA22 and PS with princess Sophia, it was even plain unimpressive. Its really hard to get a handle it seems on what these are capable of. They are darn comfortable too.

  • Mike

    Heheheh I’ve been listening to the HD800 and the HE-5 on the balanced Beta22 and the TL51XZ. The HE-5 is indeed sweet. Looking forward to publishing the HD800 and HE-5 comparison.

  • Shahrose

    manaox: I completely agree. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much difficulty reviewing a headphone. The HE-5 sound different every time I change upstream components, to the point that it’s difficult to pin down their inherent sound signature. A simple change in transport made them sound liquidy smooth while a different DAC made them clear and bright almost to the point of sibilance. This is a good sign in my books since this is a sign of high transparency in a transducer.

  • Ramsey

    These are really good man… before i only had the HD515s but these are no comparison lol. I am in the UK so got the ef5 and he5 combo from the UK dealer: http://www.ampcity.co.uk … Didnt realise beofre that this place even existed lol but the price looked ok and so took the plunge. Only had it for a week or so and using it with a DacMagic but still sounds amaaazing, cant wait to finish burning them in… anyone kno of a better DAC to pair it with?

  • saravuth

    Hi Mike,

    Are there any aftermarket cable that can add more warn sound to my HE-5?
    I have 3 choices
    1. HE-6 Cable
    2. HE-500 Cable
    3. DIY Cable (Please suggest cable brand and model)
    Which one you prefer?
    Thanks,

    • saravuth

      Are there any aftermarket cable that can add more warn sound to my HE-5?
      ^
      ^
      ^
      Sorry mike, I mean warm not warn :P

    • Anonymous

      The HE-500 cable should work best to add warmth and low end body.

      • saravuth

        Thanks Mike

        • Anonymous

          Actually I haven’t tried using it with the HE-5, but I was just deriving from my observation on how the Canare cable changes the sound on different headphones.