Those of you who have followed Playback’s coverage of HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphones on AVguide.com know that we hold the firm and its products in high regard. The HiFiMAN HE-5LE ($699) is without a doubt one of the market’s performance leaders at it price point, while the even more formidable HE-6 ($1199) is one of the finest headphones we’ve yet heard at any price. Still, my experience has been that HiFiMAN ‘phones aren’t for everyone and one of the main reasons why is that they are quite power hungry and—by the manufacturer’s own admission—difficult to drive.
To hang some pertinent numbers on that observation, let me point out that the rated sensitivity of the HE-5LE is a low 87.5 dB/mW, while the sensitivity of the HE-6 is an even lower 83.5 dB/mW. To put that latter figure in perspective, consider the fact that—unlike any other headphones we’ve tested thus far—the HE-6’s come with a special adapter cable that allows users to power the headphones directly from the speaker taps of a power amplifier or integrated amplifier (hey, don’t laugh ‘til you’ve tried it; this approach, which would probably fry most headphones, actually sounds terrific with the HE-6). My point is that while previous HiFiMAN offerings have sounded great, they have also required very careful selection of associated electronics for best results.
HiFiMAN’s Dr. Fang Bian is well aware that the power requirements of his firm’s headphones represent an obstacle for some prospective customers, and with this thought firmly in mind he set out to create a model that combined elements of the HE-5LE and HE-6 designs, yet that would be easier to drive than either of them. The result was a headphone prototype first shown at CES 2011 this past January (at the time called the “HE-6p”), which has since evolved into a finished product called the HE-500 ($899). Based on the time I’ve spent with the HE-500 so far, I think it may prove to be the HiFiMAN model that high-end enthusiasts ultimately find easiest to embrace and for all kinds of good reasons. Allow me to explain.
For starters, the rated sensitivity of the HE-500 is 89 dB/mW, a figure that is 1.5 dB higher than the HE-5LE’s rating and a whopping 5.5 dB higher than the HE-6’s. While it might not seem very significant on paper (er, pixels), that step up in sensitivity makes a big difference in terms of real-world usability and amplifier friendliness. While no one in his or her right mind would call the HE-500 a “high sensitivity” headphone, it no longer falls in the “difficult to drive” category, which is a worthwhile step forward.
But an even more significant advancement involves the HE-500’s sound, which falls at a mid-point on the performance spectrum between the HE-5LE and the HE-6. It’s tempting to think of the three headphones as being “good/better/best” models, but I think an alternate and equally plausible interpretation is that the HE-500 may be—for many listeners’ tastes—the “just right” model in the middle. Here’s why I offer this observation. The HE-5LE is a very revealing headphone, but one that also has a very slightly mellow or laid back character (one that a lot of listeners find quite appealing). The HE-6, in contrast, offers a well-and-truly ultra-revealing sound that I, for one, just love, but that some listeners perceive as crossing into the realm of excess brightness and/or “too much information.” (And frankly, the HE-6 can sound bright when it’s driven by inadequate amplifiers, which doesn’t help matters.). What’s so cool about the sound of the HE-500 is that it falls at a point that is roughly two-thirds of the way from the sound of the HE-5LE toward the sound of the HE-6. Let me tell you that that particular point on the performance spectrum makes a very, very fine place to land—a place where you are able to enjoy tons of detail and musical information, yet without excess brightness (amplifier-induced or otherwise) or the perception that you are learning things about the inner workings of good-but-not-great recordings that you’d really rather not know.