The HiFiMAN HE-500 is a very special headphone. In my experience, only the Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla and the Ultrasone Edition 8 offer the broad range of strengths, with minimal drawbacks, that I hear with the HE-500s. Of course, none of these three headphones sound the same. Not only that, but also because all headphones have colorations, you will want to know about the particular sonic signature on offer here before plunking down your hard-earned cash.
A good starting point for getting a sense of the HE-500s is to consider their tonal balance. Basically, the HE-500s deliver a pretty even amount of energy from octave to octave. Those of you who have read a lot of our reviews will know that this is not often the case with headphones, so I consider this a substantial accomplishment.
If the HE-500 deviates from neutrality, it is in two areas. First, there is perhaps a slight rise in the bass region between 40 and 80 Hz. You could argue that the HE-500 simply gets this region right, and I would agree based on comparisons with live music, but certainly the HE-500 is more robust in this region than many headphones. At the same time, let me say that it doesn’t sound bloated or over-ripe, as do some headphones like the Denon AH-D5000. In fact, the HE-500’s bass is about as crisp and well defined as I’ve heard from any headphone.
The second area where the HE-500 isn’t exactly neutral is in the lower treble. There is occasionally some excess sharpness in this region, noticeable especially on sibilants. Again, the HE-500 doesn’t stray far from the mark, and it certainly doesn’t sound bright, but it isn’t perfect either.
Still, overall I have to say the HE-500 simply sounds balanced. Different instruments are presented in the right proportion to one another. Just as importantly, instruments themselves sound correctly balanced as they are played across their respective frequency ranges, something that is more rare than you might think.
Moving beyond frequency balance, the HE-500 does a superb job separating instruments. All too many headphones will muddle a complex mix to a greater or lesser degree. But the HE-500 holds up well, presenting each instrument clearly and yet having the whole sound organic and musical.
The HE-500 handles dynamics with aplomb too. What I particularly appreciated was that power rock came through with natural strength, not exaggerated transients. Some may find the HE-500 a little less lively than they want on percussion; but other than that the HiFiMAN’s dynamic capabilities seem pretty complete and satisfying. Thus, if you feel a need for even for punchier dynamics than these ‘phones deliver, might I politely suggest that you are likely looking for euphonic distortions—not accurate sound.
As you probably suspect from reading the sensitivity comments above, you will need a solid amplifier to get the best dynamic performance from these headphones. I occasionally heard clipping from the CEntrance DAC Mini that I was using, for example, and I think a stronger amp like the Cavalli Liquid Fire or Woo WA22 is merited.
Planar magnetic headphones (and speakers) often have a slight grain to the sound. You just get the sense that signals aren’t completely pure, even though most sonic parameters are handled superbly. But I’m pleased to say that the HE-500 is almost entirely free of this effect. Individual notes sound completely clean and the resulting naturalness moves your focus from the sound to the music.
If there’s an issue with the HE-500 it comes across as a slightly hooded sound in the mids and, perhaps related to this, an occasional sense of resonance in the lower midrange. You might well not notice this outright, but rather hear it as a slightly over-damped character as transients decay. If you are familiar with live music, you will know that as sounds reverberate through the concert hall, they get lower and lower in level. This same process of decay happens as the instrument itself resonates. The HE-500 doesn’t perfectly capture these microdynamics. This is perhaps where the HiFiMAN HE-6 has an advantage.
Because it is easier to talk about errors from the absolute sound than to repeatedly say “it sounds like music”, let me re-emphasize that the HE-500 primarily layers strength upon strength. It sounds balanced, powerful and nuanced. Its limitations are small and can potentially be addressed with careful source and amplifier selection.
Alison Krauss’ “Maybe” from Forget About It [Rounder] has some bass drum whacks that, heard over the HE-500, combine depth, power and definition that is rare even in the best stereo systems at any price. If fact, if you frequent symphonic concerts you may already know that the powerful sound of low-pitched percussion instruments is one that most stereo systems simply cannot deliver. The HE-500, however, gets big bass drums about as right as a headphone can.