To appreciate both the strengths and limitations of the HE-400, a track that proves very revealing is the title movement of Robert Paterson’s “Freya’s Tears,” as performed by the Clock wise duet [American Music Recordings]—a duet consisting of harp and violin. The supple, seductive quality of the HE-400’s midrange is much in evidence as the harp and violin trade ethereal and at times fast-paced lines. Indeed, the voicing of the HE-400 gives this track a warm but also softly focused quality that makes it seem even more dreamlike than it ordinarily might. At times, you hear the harp as if it is mic’d from distance away, while the violin, whose tonality is sweet and delicate to begin with becomes sweeter still. Yet at the same time those familiar with this lovely recording will note that a certain something is missing through the HiFiMANs. Specifically, the crisp leading-edge transient sounds of the harp being plucked seem “rounded off” to a degree, while the upper harmonics of the violin seem recessed. Most of all, the sense of terrific treble openness and high frequency “air” that should be present are almost missing in action. The enchanting qualities of the track are a tribute to the expressiveness of the HE-400 design, but the missing air and top-end openness are indicators of its limitations.
Yet another good illustration of the HE-400’s core sound in action can be had by listening to the track “Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa” from eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell’s Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones [Nonesuch]. The depth, power, and agility of the HE-400’s bass are put to good use by Dave Holland’s lovely and inventive bass grooves on this track. More than many bassists, Holland has a delightful ability to imbue his playing with certain qualities that give his bass a singing and almost human vocal quality—a quality rendered quite effectively by the HE-400. Similarly, Frisell’s winding, intertwining guitar themes take on a nearly preternatural sweetness and warmth as captured through the HiFiMAN ‘phones. Specifically, the HE-400 capture a distinctively “organic” quality in Frisell’s playing that many headphones miss. But once again, tradeoffs can also be heard. Normally, this track should have an open, airy quality with numerous small but significant treble textures and details in evidence—particularly from Elvin Jones’ brushwork and cymbals. But through the HE-400 those treble element are pulled well back in the mix—enough so that the track takes a noticeably warmer, darker cast than it otherwise might have. It isn’t a case where treble details are swallowed up in their entirety; rather, it’s a case where they are present but recessed, making the recording sound as if it had been made in a somewhat over-dampened recording space (which isn’t the case).
The good news is that the HE-400’s balance can make the many excessively bright recordings on the market sound not only tolerable but enjoyable. The catch, however, is that really good recordings seem partly present (in the bass and midrange), but partly not (in the upper midrange and treble regions).
Consider this headphone if:
• You want the least expensive planar magnetic headphone on the market—one whose bass and midrange will remind you of the sound of considerably more expensive headphones.
• You want a planar magnetic headphone that is well and truly easy to drive. This may be the only planar magnetic model around that you could, in a pinch, power directly from an iPod.
Look further if:
• You consider neutral tonal balance a prime requirement in your headphones of choice. The overall balance of the HE-400 is skewed somewhat, so that bass and mids are prominent, but upper mids and highs are pulled back in the mix.
Rating relative to comparably priced headphones:
• Tonal Balance: 7
• Frequency Extremes: 9 (bass)/6 (treble)
• Clarity: 7.5 (would be higher if tonal balance were more nearly neutral)
• Dynamics: 8
• Comfort Fit: 8 (HiFiMAN needs to address the issue of ear cups potentially riding too low on some listeners’ ears. This should be an easy fix.)
• Sensitivity: 9 (this headphone offers the highest sensitivity of any planar magnetic design we’ve tested)
• Value: 8 (again, would be higher if tonal balance were more nearly neutral)
HiFiMAN’s HE-400 represents a strong, credible effort to build a planar magnetic headphone that is affordably priced easy to drive. In terms of bass and midrange performance the HE-400 gives listeners a significant taste of what planar magnetic magic is all about. The only drawback is that tonal balance is not as neutral as in the top-tier HiFiMAN ‘phones, meaning that the HE-400 misses the terrific upper midrange/treble openness for which its more costly siblings are known.