The HE-6 invites direct comparison with best headphones you can find, regardless of price or technology—including electrostatic headphones.
Vis-à-vis electrostats, I do think the HE-6’s offer two compelling advantages. First, the HiFiMAN ‘phones handle large scale dynamic swells without any apparent sense of compression or of “running out of steam”—shortcomings I’ve observed from time to time with some electrostatic designs. Second, the HE-6’s can be powered by conventional headphone amps, whereas electrostats seem to work best when used with exotic, purpose-built, high-voltage tube amps that tend to cost a small fortune.
Dollar for dollar, few high-end headphones offer more performance than the HE-6’s do.
I’ve spoken, above, about the HE-6’s superior bass extension and pitch definition, and of their terrific transparency and finesse. To experience all of these qualities in play within one gorgeous track, listen to the Jim Brock Ensemble perform “O Vazio” from the Reference Recording’s Jazz Kaleidoscope [HDCD]. The track opens with a variety of percussion sounds produced by various sizes of gongs, chimes and drums--some high-pitched and quite delicate, others low-pitched and capable of abrupt, sharp-edged transient attacks. Finally, as the track unfolds, an enormous, ultra low-pitched drum is struck, filling the whole soundstage with deep, shuddering columns of air.
The HE-6’s navigate this demanding material with surprising ease and grace, making the chimes and higher-pitched gongs jump and shimmer with the wonderfully realistic sound of metallic instruments being struck and left to resonate in open space, while also capturing the depth, power, and weight of the low frequency instruments. In particular, the HE-6’s captured the fast-rising pressure waves of the bass percussion instruments, so that I could actually feel the pressure gradient change within and around my ears. Few other headphones can reproduce bass pressure waves as realistically as the HE-6’s do.
There are also qualities of effortless suppleness and fluidity in the HE-6’s presentation—qualities I associate with the sheer transient speed of the headphone’s orthodynamic drivers. To appreciate what I mean, let’s look at the track “Nothin’ To Do Blues” as recorded by the Mike Garson Quartet [again from Jazz Kaleidoscope]. The track opens with abouncy, syncopated piano line played by Garson—a line that is quickly taken up by master bassist Brian Bromberg, who keeps pace with Garson note-for-note. In the background, you can hear percussionist Billy Mintz softly keeping time, gently working his brushes on the surface of his snare drum head. Even further in the background you can hear fellow band members start to groove on the lines Garson and Bromberg are crafting, urging the players onward with murmured words of appreciation and encouragement. As the song develops, Garson shifts gears to take an extended solo where the entire tone and tenor of his piano shifts, taking on a faster paced, smoother and more exploratory quality, almost like the sound of water rushing over the twists and turns of a stream bed. Later, Garson pulls back to give Bromberg a turn and he responds with a brilliantly agile, angular bass solo that probes the upper registers of the instrument.
At moments like these in great jazz recordings, where creative energy is on the boil, some headphones try but fail to keep pace with the musicians and the sheer, delicious complexity of the sounds they are producing. But things are different with the HE-6’s in play. Because they have ample reserves of transient speed and timbral control to draw upon, they are able to track with the music, measure-for-measure, note-for-note, and nuance-for-nuance. In other words, the HE-6’s never sound as if they are trying to play “catch up” with the music; instead, they stay in sync with the song, every step of the way.
Finally, let’s look at a fine classical music recording for a great example of two more of the HE-6’s most musically satisfying qualities; namely, its timbral purity and remarkable ability to convey the acoustics of the recording venue. The recording I’ll cite here features cellist Bion Tsang and pianist Anton Wel performing Brahms’ “Four Hungarian Dances for Violoncello and Piano,” Live in Concert [Artek, CD], as recorded at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston.
Right from the opening measures of the Hungarian Dances you can hear in an instant that the cello and piano are being played on an open stage in a concert hall, and with an audience presence. The HE-6’s deftly reproduce the resonances of the instruments’ voices reflecting off the stage surface, the reverb characteristics of the hall, and—between the four dances—the subtle sounds of both the performers and of audience members shifting in their seats. These are the kinds of low-level sonic details that all top-tier headphones can handle well to some degree, but that few can pull off with such enchanting realism.