Hifiman HE5 & HE5LE

When you hear the HE5LE, you quickly noticed that the bright sound signature is the first thing that Head-Direct decides to change from the HE5. So, the LE version has a noticeable darker sound signature than the original HE5. When I say “darker”, I don’t mean that the HE5LE is an overly dark phone like the HD650. It’s just that the LE sounds darker next to the original.

Perhaps it’s safe to generalize that the HE5LE is just sweeter sounding on most recordings. The HE5LE is overall a warmer sounding headphone. It has more bottom end and midrange body, translating to a fuller sounding midrange, more body on instruments like trumpets, saxophones, and guitars. Bass have more body on the HE5LE, and also each thump is beefier and stronger when compared to the original. Vocals are weightier, and most Jazz recordings, will sound better on the HE5LE. The treble, though being less pronounced on the HE5LE, actually still resembles a lot of similarity to the original HE5. The color and texture of the treble is so similar that you can tell that the driver comes from the same family as the original.

I think the change introduced on the HE5LE is very welcome. If you listens to a wide variety of genres and recordings and want one headphone that does it best, I think the HE5LE is the better choice. But again, if most of your music are recorded fairly well (Classic rock, classical music, audiophile recordings), then the HE5 may be preferable.

The darker sound of the LE does create some implications. Some said that the LE version is veiled. I can see where they’re coming from. Everytime I put on the original version after listening to the LE, I really get wowed by the impression of transparency given by the original HE5. And when I moved back to the LE, it does sound like there is less transparency. 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.

Clearly, if you are going to lower all that treble energy, this is one of the effect that you’ll get: less transparent sounding. I don’t think that the LE version is the lesser headphone because of this. It’s just that in the LE, you get a different kind of sound presentation, than what you get in the original. If the HE5 strives for transparency, then the HE5LE trades some of that transparency for a warmer and fuller bodied sound.

On classical music, where hot treble is almost never an issue, I prefer the original HE5 by a large margin, as sound is much clearer from top to bottom, and I can hear the instruments better on the HE5. But when you’re talking about Jazz, it’s important to separate Jazz music into two types of recordings: the Real-world Jazz with big names like Davis, Coltrane, Hancock, or Audiophile Jazz like Jazz in the Pawnshop. Audiophile Jazz have very good recording quality that’s often sound warm right out of the recording, and so I actually prefer the original HE5 for these recordings. But the Real-world Jazz often have a dryer recording and inferior in quality to the Audiophile Jazz (what a pity, I know), and for these stuff, I’ll recommend the HE5LE to add some warmth and body.


3/5 - (5 votes)

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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://www.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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