Hifiman HE5 & HE5LE

I’ve had the Hifiman HE5LE for about two weeks now, and so I think it would be appropriate to share what I think of its sound after over 300 hours of burn in.

I only noticed that the burn in smooth out the treble a little after the first 12 hours. I don’t think anything else changed after that. I’ve also been comparing the HE5LE to the original HE5, testing out the clothless grill mod that Fang posted at Head-Fi, and both single ended and balanced amping.

I’ve also written a separate article that covers the physical difference between the HE5 and the HE5LE, which is titled the Hifiman HE5LE First Impression. This article assumes that you have read the first impression article, because this one will only going to talk mostly about sound properties of both headphones.

I truly think that the original HE5 is a great headphone. It really caused a lot sensation when it was released last year, and I really waited eagerly in anticipation of the headphone. When I first received the headphone, I was really impressed by it, and soon I wrote a first impression of the HE5 headphone (sadly the article is now missing somewhere) where I talked how the HE5 has a brilliant and detailed treble, yet it doesn’t lack any bottom end. Back then I’ve tried a few vintage orthodynamic headphones from Fostex and Yamaha, and I thought that the HE5 really brought the orthodynamic game to another level.

To recap, the HE5 has a very brilliant and detailed treble. It’s quite forward and agressive, quite similar to a Grado RS1 in that regard, but it manages to better the Grado in a lot of areas, especially the two areas that the RS1 is really lacking at: soundstage and low bass impact. The HE5 has a strong emphasis on treble, but it was never really a thin sounding headphone. Although not a particularly bassy headphone, the HE5 is always ready to give strong bass punch whenever called for.

On a good set up, and with a good recording, the HE5 is a great headphone, and if not, even awesome-r than a HE5LE. For instance, earlier I was listening to some Rolling Stones, and both headphones does a really great job of translating the music into their own different renditions. The HE5 is brighter and more agressive, the HE5LE darker and more laid-back. They’re equally good, but I did feel that the HE5 does it slightly better than the HE5LE, mainly due to the more forward upper midrange area, and the brighter presentation of the music which mates very well with a non-hot, non-compressed Rock recording. This was out of the balanced Beta22 and the Cambridge DacMagic.

The problem is that modern recordings are often brighter than when Rolling Stones recorded their “Angie” or “Start Me Up”. Classic Rock definitely won’t have this issue, but on the mainstream modern recordings, most people would find that the sound of the original HE5 tires the ears very fast.

A lot of the HE5 owners that I talk to love the sound of their headphones, but they really wish that the treble energy can be tamed down, and they do so by trying out a combination of cables, amplifiers, and source. Of course it’s not easy, because then you’ll have to get a very dark amplifier to balance the treble energy, and I don’t really know of an amplifier that’s dark enough to do that.


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22 Comments

  • Reply May 28, 2010

    Martinz

    FWIR, the original flavor HE-5 is still the right one for me 😀

    • Reply May 29, 2010

      Jose

      Same here. Great read Mike. About balanced driving, that is the next improvement I am looking for in my setup, but I am also afraid about not getting good synergy from the balanced amp I may choose. I have read good impressions about the Little Dot MKVII, which is one of the few options I have for a balanced and affordable setup, but again, I am afraid the sound won't be as good as with the EF5, even if the soundstage and bass improves, the highs is where the HE5 are picky about.

      • Reply May 29, 2010

        Mike

        Hi Jose, though balanced amplification is important, amplifier character is more important. Nothing can replace a good sinergy.

        • Reply May 31, 2010

          Will

          Do you think that Hi-Fi Man will release a balanced version of their EF5?

          • Reply May 31, 2010

            Mike

            Hi Will, I really haven't heard of such plans. It would cost nearly double of the current EF5 though, seeing how you need nearly double the circuitry.

    • Reply May 29, 2010

      Mike

      Your wallet will thank me for that :).

  • Reply May 29, 2010

    Jose

    Hehe, not for long though.

  • Reply May 31, 2010

    Earfonia

    Another great in-depth review!

    I agree with your statement:

    "Yes, the HE5LE does sound less transparent, but by no means is the LE veiled. Because of this change, the LE may also sound less detailed than the original. But the fact is that the only thing that changes is the treble, but detail level remains the same."

    People sometime relates tonal balance with detail, which is not entirely related. It is true that headphones with good, transparent high will sound as they have better detail, but trained ears will notice that some darker sounding headphones can also have excellent detail 🙂

    • Reply May 31, 2010

      Mike

      Very true.

      Cheers. 🙂

  • Reply June 1, 2010

    Alan

    Thanks Mike for the excellent review.

    I had the same reaction as you to the change from the HE-5 to the HE-5LE.

    Since, I use the HE-5LE primarily with ITUNES, your equalizer suggestion is a simple and valuable way to deal with the HE-5LE's more limited treble while preserving its excellent detail.

    I will be interested to see where the HE-6 falls in the trebel-balance continuum.

    • Reply June 1, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Alan. How do you like the effect after adding the EQ on iTunes? Since the EQ is done on the digital domain, its effect is quite smooth.

      If you want, you can also try boosting the 4kHz by 2dB and 8kHz by 1dB and see if you like the extra treble.

  • Reply June 7, 2010

    Andrew

    Excellent review Mike!

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your reviews on the Lehmann BC linear, and the KOSS ESP950 (both of which I do have for two years), and now this very useful comparison of the HE5 and the new LE :)! (although I do read that the HE-6 is coming).

    How does the HE5LE compare with the KOSS ESP950? I understand that both are coming from entirely different types but thought I’d ask since you’ve written a review on the KOSS – and that I’m deciding whether to recable the KOSS and get a STAX amp instead or to start a new venture on orthodynamics. All for the fact that I’ve never heard of ortho’s before, and that everyone seems to favour this over the ‘big’ dynamic players out there.

    Also, speaking of synergy – have you tried (or considered) pairing the HE5LE with the HE5 amplifier?

    Otherwise, an excellent write-up mate :). Greetings from Oz. The prices on any hi-fi gear here has been a joke for so many years :(.

    • Reply June 7, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Andrew. Thanks, and I'm glad you like the review.

      The Koss ESP950 has one of the fastest transients among electrostatics, and I don't think the HE5 or the LE can compete with it yet. I also like the treble and the midrange on the Koss better, as I think it's a perfect blend of detail, clarity, and smoothness. Electrostatics have always maintained a unique sound that you can't get on any other transducer design, and so you won't get that in the HE5s as well.

      Now, the HE5 and the LE would be superior mostly in bass, punch and slam, besides other differences in sound signature. The sound is a bit grainier than the Electrostatics though. Details are also more pronounced on the HE5s.

      I tried the EF5 amplifier after I wrote the review, and I'm truly blown away by the sinergy. If you head to the lounge, you can find me talking about it there: http://headfonia.com/bbpress/topic.php?id=23#

      I might do an EF5 review, but no promises there. 😀 Although I like the EF5 so much, I'm considering to buy it for myself. 😀

      • Reply June 10, 2010

        Andrew

        Thx for the quick reply!

        Sorry if I am hijacking this discussion but – how would you think the EF5 performs with low impedance cans? I'm currently using MS-Pro (and for three years prior to that – the W5000, though now I think it's a little too analytical to the point of being bright).

        Do you consider the amp 'high gain' at all? Because with the Lehmann BCL – it gives me just the right volume range for me to listen to without losing channel balance. Frankly I was disappointed with a lot of amps I've tried in the past (especially stepped attenuators) with the fact that with just a notch or two levels up suddenly brings everything too loud and unlistenable; well at least with low impedance's.

        I've been thinking for quite some time to get back to tubes. I used to have the DOGE6210 with years of tuberolling until I came to appreciate the complete neutrality of the Lehmann BCL.

        Yes, you're right – speed is something that really comes to mind whenever I'm listening with the KOSS. Although I do not primarily use it for music – I've actually been using it for PC gaming for nearly 2 years now, suprisingly enough. To my ears – battery powered (I'm using rechargeables) supply actually sounded better than using the supplied AC.

        Thx for the reply once again mate!

        • Reply June 10, 2010

          Mike

          HI Andrew,
          I had the MS-Pro around when I had the EF5 loaner last week. Honestly I only have a brief memory of the combination, I was listening to mostly the HD800 and the HE5. I don't think the EF5 has problems with low impedance cans. It comes with a low and high impedance setting, and I was using it only at the low setting, which was enough for the HD800 and the HE5.

          The EF5 is not a pure tube design, but it has enough tube smoothness to remind you of a tube sound. I did like the combination of the smoothness and the clarity that I get from the EF5. Soundstage imaging was very good too.

          When I had the Koss a while ago, I never actually used the battery pack. But you have a point, maybe the sound is cleaner through the battery pack.

  • Reply June 23, 2010

    Massi

    Nice review Mike!

    After a few days spent with the HE5-LE I think these cans are very very good, with great dynamics and a fantastic level of detail.

    But I mainly listen to jazz and classical so I can't decide between the old and the new version.

    Unfortunately I don't have to chance to listen to the HE5, so I have to trust your impressions 🙂

    Decisions decisions…

  • Reply August 2, 2010

    Xsajohn

    I agree 100% w your take on the HE5's. I'm very happy with mine. Fwiw – I use a Little Dot MKIV SE + Itunes/Pure Music and I've no trouble with the treble. It's clear but sweet sounding. I think the HE5 wants tubes as a generalization.

    I enjoy your reviews/site – keep up the good work.

    Thanks.

    • Reply August 2, 2010

      Mike

      Thanks! I can imagine that the HE5 will be superb with the LD Mk4 SE. It's been a long time since I heard that amp though, but I still remember how sweet it drove the MS-Pro and AKG K501!

  • Reply March 11, 2011

    treal512

    Mike, have you tried switching the cables on the two HEs? I’ve heard the original HE-5 cable with the HE-5LE headphone makes things very interesting.

    • Reply March 11, 2011

      Anonymous

      Oh yes it does. The original HE-5 with the HE-5 LE cable, and vica
      versa. I think the sound is better balanced when the cables are switched.

  • Reply April 9, 2011

    Zack

    Do these cans leak a significant amount of noise? My audio setup is outside my room so I don’t want my family to be disturbed by my music 😛

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