Over the past year or so we’ve seen the arrival of a new uber-class of high-end headphones such as the Beyerdynamics T1 Tesla, the Grado PS1000, and the Sennheiser HD800s. These are all great ‘phones, but one catch is that all three cost well over a thousand dollars—a price point that may place these models beyond reach for some listeners. But what if someone made a technically innovative headphone that could go toe-to-toe with these acknowledged class leaders, but for a bit less than half the price? Well, someone—in this case, the firm HiFiMAN—has done just that with an impressive product called the HE-5LE Planar Magnetic Headphone ($699). $699 is not, of course, “chump change,” but for this the level of performance on offer in the HE-5LE it is an undeniable bargain.
HiFiMAN is a Chinese firm headed by a gentleman named Fang Bian, who is a high-end headphone enthusiast extraordinaire. Accordingly his company makes a range of performance-oriented headphones and headphone-related products, including the HE-5LE’s, various headphone amplifiers, specialty headphone cables, several very cool high-end personal digital music players, and a range of in-ear headphones. In this country, HiFiMAN products are sold through a related distribution company called Head Direct (www.head-direct.com).
Most of today’s top-tier headphones use ultra-high quality piston-type drivers, where a traditional voice coil powers a circular (often cone or dome-shaped) diaphragm. This is a time-proven approach and one that can give superb results. Still, some might argue that one weakness of traditional dynamic drivers is that the voice-coil motor is attached to the diaphragm only near its rim, so that driving forces can not—for obvious reasons—act upon the entire surface area of the diaphragm.
In the HE-5LE, HiFiMAN tackles this issue head on by using a planar magnetic (or so-called “orthodynamic”) driver that is conceptually similar to the planar magnetic drivers used in Magnepan’s famous Magneplanar loudspeakers—but that is of course executed on a much smaller scale. In an orthodynamic driver, the diaphragm is a thin, light membrane whose entire surface is covered with a conductive coating whose “conductors” are arranged in a specific pattern. The conductive driver membrane is in turn suspended near an array of magnets arranged so that, when an audio signal is fed to the driver, the entire diaphragm surface is alternately pulled toward or pushed away from the magnet array. In theory, the benefits of this approach are twofold. First, the diaphragm can be very light and responsive (lighter than the voice coil/diaphragm assembly of a traditional dynamic driver). Second, driving forces act over the entire working surface of the diaphragm, potentially offering more precise control with greater freedom from unintended resonance or vibration.
Is there a catch to the orthodynamic approach? Apart from the cost and complexity entailed in building orthodynamic drivers, one drawback is that planar magnetic drivers tend to be less sensitive than dynamic drivers. HiFiMAN addresses this fact forthrightly, stating that, “potential customers have to be aware that the HE-5LE is not easy to drive. It will not be used on most portable devices such as an iPod. Customers need to have a decent headphone amplifier with a powerful output to drive the HE-5LE to get its full potential.” But assuming you power planar magnetic headphones with an appropriate amp, performance potential is very high. For our listening tests, we used HiFiMAN’s own recommended EF-5 tube-powered headphone amp ($399).
Interestingly, the HE-5LE is not the first orthodynamic headphone that HiFiMAN has made. Instead, it is the direct successor to the firm’s earlier HE-5 model. According to HiFiMAN, differences include a “driver coating (that) has been made thinner with the aim of improving bass frequencies, while driver cups are now made of plastic with a hexagon mesh.” The signal cable is a removable design with gold-plated, threaded connectors, so that users can experiment with cable upgrades, if they wish. On paper, the HE-5LE certainly sounds promising, but what is it like in real life? Let me simply say it is one of the finest headphones I’ve heard at any price, and a remarkable performer for the money.
Consider this headphone if: you want to explore true top-tier headphone sound quality at a price that falls comfortably below $1000. The HE-5LE offers balanced and effortlessly extended frequency response, with an exceptional degree of sonic transparency and detail. Unlike some ‘phones that convey an aura of detail but at the expense of an artificial layer of treble “sheen,” the HE-5LE offers resolution without unpleasant artifacts that detract from the music.