True confession: I’m a great admirer of the most recent crop of planar magnetic headphone designs from firms such as Audeze and HiFiMAN. What attracts me to planar magnetic designs is the fact that they offer many of the benefits of electrostatic ‘phones (sonic transparency, openness, excellent transient speed and definition, etc.), while also providing some of the key strengths of traditional dynamic-driver headphones (e.g., robust dynamics, powerful and well-defined bass, and the ability to be driven by conventional amplifiers). The only drawback I can see is that planar magnetic headphones have, as a rule, tended to be quite power hungry and relatively pricey—until now.
At CES 2012 HiFiMAN surprised the headphone universe by announcing its new HE-400 planar magnetic headphone priced at $399, making it the least costly planar magnetic headphone on today’s market. When you consider that competing planar magnetic models typically sell for hundreds more, and sometimes for whole multiples of the HE-400’s price, you can begin to appreciate what a quantum leap forward in cost reduction the HE-400 truly represents.
Better still, the HE-400 is quite easy to drive and offers rated sensitivity of 92.5 dB—a figure that, while not astoundingly high in an absolute sense, is sufficient to make this HiFiMAN one of the (if not the) most sensitive planar magnetic headphones available. Indeed, HiFiMAN says the HE-400 is so amplifier friendly that it can even be powered directly from an iPod (something no sane person would attempt to do with any other planar magnetic ‘phone).
All of this sounds great on paper (er, in pixels), yet some important questions remain. First, are the HE-400’s able to retain some if not most of the positive sonic qualities that have earned critical acclaim for their more expensive HiFiMAN brethren? Second, are the HE-400’s fully competitive with the best dynamic driver-equipped headphones now available in their price class. In short, are HiFiMAN’s efforts to build a cost-reduced planar magnetic headphone a success? We’ll tackle each of these questions in this review.
Drivers: Until now, HiFiMAN’s HE-5LE headphone ($699) was the firm’s least expensive planar magnetic model. One might well ask, then, how HiFiMAN suddenly was able to produce a planar magnetic model that sells for hundreds less. The answer involves important changes in the manufacturing process used to build the HE-400s.
Up to this point, the planar magnetic drivers in all HiFiMAN headphones have required a high degree of hand assembly and tweaking during the manufacturing process. Or the HE-400, however, HiFiMAN made a concerted effort to design a planar magnetic driver that could be mass produced using automated assembly equipment. As a result, labor costs involved in building the HE-400 are significantly reduced, and the cost savings are passed through to the customer in the form of a dramatically lower price.
At CES 2012 I spoke with HiFiMAN President Dr. Fang Bian and asked him if the technical advancements that led to the HE-400 might also allow mass produced versions of the company’s higher end designs. He slowly shook his head and said, with a wry smile, “No, because we have certain performance goals for our top-end models that can only be met with hand-built drivers such as those used in the HE-500 ($899) or HE-6 ($1299). So, I don’t foresee that those models could ever be machine made.”
Still, HiFiMAN says, the performance tradeoffs involved in the machine-made HE-400 drivers are modest, while the price advantages are substantial. As evidence of this, the firm quotes following basic specifications for the HE-400:
• Impedance: 35 Ohms
• Sensitivity: 92.5 dB/mW (much higher than any other HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphone and—so far as we are aware—the highest of any planar magnetic design now on the market)
• Frequency Response: 20Hz – 35kHz
• All HiFiMAN planar magnetic phones are open-back models that share a common, molded thermoplastic housing. Unlike the other HiFiMAN ‘phones, which are finished in various shades of black or dark gray, the HE-400 adds a touch of color; it is finished in a deep, gloss Cobalt blue that (to my eyes) is very attractive.
• The HE-400 features the same basic headband design as other HiFiMAN ‘phones and comes with a leather (or leather-like?) headband pad. Our only complaint with the design is that it could use a broader range of vertical adjustment. For some listeners (and I’m one of them) there is simply no way to avoid having the ear cups ride slightly too low on your ears. Mercifully, the headphone is relatively light: 14.5 oz. (or 440 grams, for those of you who prefer the metric system).
• Most previous HiFiMAN ‘phones have come fitted with plush velour ear pads, but the HE-400 comes standard with leather (or, again, leather-like?) ear pads.
• The HE-400s, like all HiFiMAN ‘phones, come with a detachable signal cable that connects to the headphone ear cups via screw-on fittings. The cable features high-quality wire sourced from the Japanese firm Canare, though it uses a different (and presumably less expensive) grade of wire than is used in cables for some of the higher-end HiFiMAN models. Termination is via a standard ¼-inch phone jack plug.