Next came the delightful HiFiMAN Express HM-601 Slim portable 24/96 USB DAC/high-resolution music player ($199-$249, depending on configuration). The HM-101 offers about the same footprint as an iPod (though it is slightly thicker), and it combines the functions of a high-res DAC and a relatively high-output headphone amplifier in one neat package. HM-601s are offered with either 4GB or 8GB of memory on Flash memory onboard, but storage capacity can be expanded by inserting an up to 32GB SD card in the HM-601’s SD card slot. Most importantly, the HM-601 sounds good (very good, actually) and—get this—it is capable of powering HiFiMAN’s most sensitive planar magnetic headphones (the new HE-400’s described below) with dynamic headroom to spare.
Third, and representing perhaps the biggest news of all, we have the all-new HiFiMAN HE-400 planar magnetic headphones ($399), which are the least expensive planar magnetic ‘phones on the market (by a country mile) and among the most sensitive (92.5 dB) and easy to drive. Up to this point, the least expensive HiFiMAN planar magnetic model sold for $699, with prices climbing upward from there. How was HiFiMAN able to pull off such a low price for the HE-400? Company founder Dr. Fang Bian explained that the higher-end HiFiMAN planar magnetic models use drivers that require a significant amount of hand assembly, but that with the HE-400 he and the HiFiMAN engineering team had made some changes that allowed the drivers to be mass produced via automated machinery. The result is arguably one of the very best and most revealing sub-$400 headphones on the market, and one that is unexpectedly easy to drive. In fact, says Dr. Bian, it is possible to drive the HE-400 directly from an iPod (something that would never be feasible with HiFiMAN’s higher-end planar magnetic ‘phones). The HE-400 has slightly more prominent bass than other HiFiMAN models, while retaining much of the clarity, openness, and definition that make the upper-end HiFiMAN ‘phones so much fun to use. Interestingly, the HE-400 is finished in a dark, sumptuous cobalt blue—a break from HiFiMAN’s traditional silver/grey/black color themes; it looks terrific.
Last but not least, we have the full production version of HiFiMAN’s pure class A EF-6 headphone amplifier ($1499). I am a fan of HiFiMAN’s flagship HE-6 planar magnetic headphone, but would be the first to concede that it is hard (OK, very hard) to drive properly. The real intent behind the EF-6 was not only to offer a top-tier headphone amplifier at a reasonable (though by no means cheap) price, but also to provide a HiFiMAN amp that could properly power the HE-6 headphones with ample dynamic reserves. In short, the EF-6 is intended as an amp that is ready, willing, and able to make the mighty (but mighty hard-to-drive) HE-6 headphone really stand up and “sing.” Watch for a Playback review of the EF-6 in the not too distant future.
Last Fall, at CEDIA 2011, Klipsch showed a pre-production prototype of its first-ever active, noise cancelling headphone, called the Mode M40 ($349.99). Now, the Mode M40 is currently available. Several things struck me about the Mode M40. First, it preserves the wide-range, dynamically vigorous sound that is the hallmark of Klipsch’s popular Reference-series loudspeakers. Second, the M40’s active noise cancellation circuit seems to work well without being overly ham-fisted or riding roughshod over the music. Third, the M40 is arguable the prettiest and most sleek headphone that Klipsch has yet produced. Finally, beneath its sleek exterior, the M40 exhibits the kind of “strong-like-bull” durability that should enable it to stand up to even the most rigorous day-to day use. Credit, here, goes to the incredible tough, durable material from which the M40’s headband and earcups are made. I saw a Klipsch rep almost brutally twist the headband of the M40 into a gnarled pretzel, only to release the headband, which promptly sprang back into its original shape—apparently none the worse for wear. Impressive.