Those of you who have followed high-end headphone reviews in Playback over the past several years know that we have been very favorably impressed by models we have tried from Audeze and HiFiMAN. Headphones from both companies have demonstrated an ability to deliver top-class performance that rivals—and in some cases surpasses—what upper-tier electrostatic headphones can do, while at the same time offering the twin benefits of (somewhat) lower prices and the ability to be driven by conventional amplifier (whereas electrostats require purpose-built high-voltage amps that are typically very costly). What’s not to like? Well, perhaps a couple of things.
Steep purchase prices: While planar magnetic ‘phones cost significantly less than top-tier electrostats do, costs are relative and planar magnetics typically remain fairly expensive devices. A few specific price comparisons will illustrate my point.
• Electrostatic headphones: The top two Stax electrostats are priced at $5200 (for the flagship SR-009) and $2600 (for the SR-007 Mk II)—prices that qualify both these headphones as luxury purchases by anybody’s standards. Add in the fact that they’ll require purpose-built electrostatic headphone amplifiers and you could be looking at investing thousands more. Any way you slice it, electrostatic headphones are pretty much the Ferraris or Lamborghinis of the headphone universe, meaning that they’re potentially delightful, but decidedly pricey.
• Planar magnetic headphones: The top two planar magnetic headphones on today’s market are priced at $1945 (for the Audeze LCD-3) and $1299 (for the HiFiMAN HE-6)—significantly less expensive than their electrostatic counterparts, but by no means cheap, and possibly too expensive to fit within many music lovers’ budgets. Even the least expensive HiFiMAN planar magnetic model offered to this point, the HE-5LE, sold for a relatively hefty $699.
Stiff amplifier requirements: While planar magnetic ‘phones can, thank goodness, be driven by conventional headphone amplifiers, they’re still not necessarily easy to drive and require very high quality amps to give of their best. HiFiMAN’s flagship HE-6 model, for example, specifies a very low sensitivity rating of 83.5 dB and requires an extremely powerful headphone amp in order to have any realistic chance of sounding its best. Even the most sensitive planar magnetic model I’m aware of, which would be Audeze’s LCD-2 with Revision 2 drivers, carries a pretty modest sensitivity rating of 91 dB.
Distill these observations down to a few basic points and several key conclusions emerge:
• Planar magnetic technology offers tremendous sonic potential.
• Planar magnetic technology is arguably more cost effective than electrostatic technology, but not yet affordable enough to achieve truly widespread acceptance. A significantly cost-reduced planar magnetic headphone would therefore be desirable.
• While planar magnetic headphones have much simpler and more straightforward power requirements that electrostatic headphones do, they still tend to be quite power hungry. An easier-to-driver, higher-sensitivity planar magnetic headphone therefore would be desirable.
Happily, HiFiMAN did the same analysis we just did above, came to same conclusions, and then took meaningful action.
At CES 2012 HiFiMAN introduced its all-new HE-400 planar magnetic headphone that is—get this—priced at a pretty darned manageable $399, and that offers rated sensitivity of 92.5 dB. In short, the HE-400 is the least expensive planar magnetic headphone on today’s market (by a country mile, actually) and it is also one of the two most sensitive planar magnetic ‘phones on the market, meaning it is sufficiently easy to drive that it can be powered directly from an iPod! (Indeed, I’m listening to my review pair of HE-400s through an iPod as I write this article, and the sound isn’t half bad—though I still feel an outboard amp should be used for best sonic results.). The HE-400 represents real progress on several fronts, meaning that planar magnetic technology is now priced within reach for a much broader group of listeners, and with no “I-need-a-whopping-big-amplifier” strings attached. Cool, no?