Look further if: you favor light, compact, and relatively easy-to-drive headphones. The HE-5LE is comfortable, but also relatively large and moderately heavy. Look further too if you require a headphone that offers good isolation from external noises (or that does not put much sound into the room when in use). The HE-5LE is an open-back design that lets room noises through, and that can faintly be heard from the outside when it is in operation.
• Tonal Balance: 9.5
• Frequency Extremes: 10
• Clarity: 10
• Dynamics: 9.5 (note: performance in this area is amplifier dependant)
• Comfort/Fit: 9
• Sensitivity: 3
• Value: 10 (the phrase “off the charts” comes to mind)
More so than many headphones, the HE-5LE offers very wide-range frequency response. In practice, this means two things. First, up high, the headphone delivers a full measure of treble detail and easily captures the elusive sense of high frequency “air” surrounding instruments. Second, down low, the headphone is simply fearless with respect to reproducing very low frequency information (pipe organs, the lower reaches of synth bass passages, etc.). Together, these factors along with the HE-5LE’s generally neutral tonal balance give the listener the keen sense that these headphones leave no parts of the audio spectrum unexplored.
But there is more to the HE-5LE than good frequency response, per se. Two other crucially important characteristics are the HE-5LE’s sonic coherency and overall levels of resolution.
Let me say a bit more about the idea of coherency. With some headphones one has the sense that drivers perform particularly well in some frequency bands (which represent sonic “sweet spots”, if you will), but perform less well in others. Often this can be due to subtle textural discontinuities, where drive units sound smooth and finely focused at some frequencies, but perhaps sound rougher (or softer) and less finely focused at other frequencies. But when a headphone exhibits the quality of coherency, as the HE-5LE does, you have the sense that drive units sound almost perfectly consistent from top-to-bottom, with a smooth, sharply focused quality throughout. Coherency, I think, is one of the HiFiMAN’s greatest strengths.
This is also a very high-resolution headphone. When fed with high quality recordings, it is astonishing to hear just how much information the HE-5LE’s can retrieve. To use an optical analogy, the HiFiMAN headphones let you “view” recordings as if through a magnifying glass, so that details that are hinted at by lesser headphones suddenly become clear and explicit, yet still natural sounding. One of the beauties of the HE-5LE is that it conveys a lot of musical information, but never in a forced or overdramatized way.
If your reactions are anything like mine, you’ll find yourself instinctively seeking to compare the HE-5LE’s to competing models roughly twice their price. Surprisingly, the HE-5LE’s not only hold their own in such comparisons, but also actually surpass their more costly counterparts in some important respects. That is a remarkable achievement in light of their price. As my colleague Tom Martin put it after getting a taste of the HE-5LE’s, “I’m not necessarily saying this is the best headphone out there… but it certainly might be.” The HE-5LE is that good.
The only ‘phones I’ve heard that could demonstrably outperform the HE-5LE’s have been ultra-costly electrostatic models driven by four-figure, dedicated tube-type amplifiers, or a tiny handful of dynamic models in the roughly $1500-to-$1700 range that were custom modified so that they could be driven by specialized balanced-output headphone amplifiers. (But note: Even in those cases, the differences I heard might be more attributable to the amplifiers used than to the headphones themselves.).
To experience the richness and beauty of the HE-5LE in action, try putting on the title track from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s well-recorded Come On Come On [SBME Special Mkts.]. First, note the sheer delicacy and purity of Chapin Carpenter’s voice and the way those qualities hold up even when, as happens in the song’s chorus, she chooses to half sing/half whisper the lyrics. Part of what’s impressive about the HE-5LE is the detail levels remain constant, no matter how loud or soft a given passage might be. Next, listen to the backing vocalists, especially on the chorus, where they carry the song’s signature vocal phrase, “Come on come on…” Notice how distinct the individual voices sound, rather than collapsing into a muddled mosh of vocal sounds. Finally, listen closely to the timbres of the backing instruments—especially the piano, and note how pure and harmonically “right” they sound. Some headphones make the fundamentals and harmonics of instruments sound as if they somehow don’t quite belong together, but not so the HE-5LE. It presents instruments with a very desirable kind of “cut-from-whole-cloth” integrity that greatly enhances realism and the listener’s involvement in the music.