To appreciate how refined the HE-5LE’s bass can be, listen to Christian McBride’s “Night Train” from Getting’ To It [Verve]. The song, performed on solo acoustic bass, features alternating lines played with a shuffle feel and played first in pizzicato and then arco style. The result is a veritable showcase of almost every imaginable sound and voicing of which an acoustic bass is capable. Through it all, the HE-5LE not only captures the basic timbral and textural distinctions between one musical phrase and the next, but also conveys the inherent size, weight, warmth, and power of McBride’s bass with a kind of “you-are-there” realism. The HiFiMAN’s quality of coherency, as mentioned above, really comes into play here, so that you don’t so much think in terms of hearing “great hi-fi,” but instead feel tempted to listen more intently and intimately—as you would to a live performance.
Finally to enjoy the sonic sophistication and versatility of the HE-5LE, check out Patricia Barber on the classic tune “My Girl” from A Distortion of Love [Island Records]. Note, for example, the powerful and distinctively elastic feel of the bass lines and the soaring arc of Barber’s vocal lines above. Through the HiFiMAN ‘phones, the sound of reverberations from Barber’s voice seems to perfectly complement and even extend the vocal lines, themselves. Then, for a real treat, pay close attention to the sharp, pointed textures of the jazz guitar solo and the almost eerily liquid tone the guitarist manages to achieve. Where some headphones get flustered as the textural complexity of music increases, the HE-5LE’s almost seem to relish textural challenges (which they pass with flying colors).
To give readers some idea of where the HE-5LE fits within the broader price/performance spectrum, I compared the HiFiMAN headphones to two sets of excellent Sennheiser headphones I had on hand: the Sennheiser HD650 and the flagship Sennheiser HD800.
HiFiMAN HE-5LE vs. Sennheiser HD650 ($600)
• The Sennheiser HD650 is roughly $100 less expensive than the HE-5LE.
• The HD650 is more compact than the HE-5LE and therefore somewhat more comfortable, though some listeners might prefer the HE-5LE’s significantly larger earcups.
• The HD650 is easier to drive than the HE-5LE, which suggests to me that it could potentially be used successfully with a broader range of amplifiers (though both headphones require good amplifiers to give of their best).
• The HD650 is backed by Sennheiser’s time proven customer support organization, which implies that many years from now spare parts for the HD650 will continue to be available, should you ever need them. As a relatively new company, HiFiMAN’s long-term customer support capabilities are as yet unproven.
• The HD650 offers a lively and articulate sound, and offers decent low frequency response. Relative the HD-5LE, however, the HD650 gives the impression of a somewhat more midrange-forward presentation with slightly truncated response at the frequency extremes.
• Relative to the HD650, the HE-5LE offers superior extension at both high and low frequency extremes (but especially noticeable in the bass region), higher levels of resolution, and a more focused and coherent presentation overall. If your headphone amp is up to the task, the fact is that the HiFiMAN ‘phones offer much greater performance upside than the HD650s do.
HiFiMAN HE-5LE vs. Sennheiser HD800 ($1595)
• The Sennheiser HD800 costs a whopping $896 more than the HE-5LE.
• The HD800 is essentially a hand made product, and it shows; while apparent build quality on the HE-5LE is fine, the HD800 more nearly reminds me of a Swiss watch.
• The HD800 is easier to drive than the HE-5LE, though again both headphones require high quality amplifiers for optimal performance.
• The same comments I made about Sennheiser’s customer support organization apply here, too.
• The HD800s are, as you might expect, a much closer match for the HE-5LE’s than the HD650s are, and there are some notable similarities between the two. Both headphones offer a dynamically expressive sound with good measure of midrange detail. In back-to-back listening sessions through the same amp and using the same musical selections, however, several important distinctions became apparent between the Sennheiser and HiFiMAN ‘phones.
• First, the HE-5LE enjoys a subtle but clear-cut edge over the HD800 in terms of upper midrange/treble clarity and smoothness. By comparison, the HD800 sounds rougher and less well controlled up high, occasionally imparting a “spitty” or overtly “splashy” quality on sibilant “S” sounds.
• Second, the HiFiMAN sounds more harmonically coherent and all-of-one-piece on many instruments—qualities most easily heard on female voices, plucked guitars, bowed violins, and the like. In contrast, there seem to be very small yet audible textural discontinuities that keep the HD800s from snapping into sharp focus the way the HE-5LE does.
• Third, the HE-5LE offers slightly better low frequency extension and drive than the HD800, though both are markedly better than most competing headphones in this respect.
• Although the comparison is a very close one, I would say the HE-5LE is the stronger performer overall, which is impressive when you consider how good the HD800 is to begin with (many listeners rightly regard as a benchmark product).