As Playback readers know, HiFiMAN builds some of the finest full-size planar magnetic headphones on the planet, but with the new RE-262 earphone ($150) the firm is “thinking small” and looking to bring elements of the famous HiFiMAN sound to a new market at a very accessible price. But despite its mid-level price, the RE-262 reflects some of the same kinds of innovative—and distinctly performance oriented—thinking that has influenced HiFiMAN’s higher-end product. Thus, as you’ll see in a moment, the RE-262 isn’t just “another good mid-priced earphone.”
At first glance, HiFiMAN’s mid-priced RE-262 earphone seems like a conventional design—one based on good, solid, straightforward ingredients, but that doesn’t offer spectacular internal components that catch the eye. The RE-262 features an earpiece housing that might be mistaken for molded plastic, but that is actually made of metal and then finished in gloss black. Inside, the RE-262 uses 9mm moving-coil type drivers whose motors feature neodymium magnets. Impedance is a relatively high 150 ohms, while sensitivity is a low-ish 95dB, meaning that the RE-262 can certainly be driven by iPods and the like, though it sounds even better when pushed by robust portable amps.
But take a closer look and you will find that the RE-262 breaks with typical earphone conventions, in that—get this—it comes prewired for use with balanced-output portable or desktop amps, This is a design trend we’ve occasionally encountered with expensive, high-end, full-size headphones, but it is almost unheard of in the world of in-ear ‘phones. In practice, this means the RE-262’s signal cable comes fitted with a balanced 3.5mm mini-jack plug—that is, one with four rather than the expected three conductor sleeves (see photo, above). Why configure an earphone for use with balanced amps? Judging by listening experiences I’ve had with balanced full-size headphones and amps, I’d say the expected sonic benefits include heightened sonic purity, detail, and superior overall driver control.
To be perfectly frank, though, there aren’t all that many balanced-output portable amps on the market just yet (Ray Samuel’s new SR-71B Blackbird is one, and HiFiMAN’s own HM-801 digital music player/amp will be another once the firm’s balanced-output amp modules become available). But obviously HiFiMAN is looking to give the RE-262 a performance-oriented “growth path” for the future. In the here and now, however, most of us own cellphones, digital music players and portable amps that provide traditional unbalanced output jacks, and to accommodate our needs the RE-262 ships with an unbalanced-to-balanced adapter cable.
But HiFiMAN’s innovative thinking doesn’t end with giving the RE-262 capabilities for use with balanced amps, because the firm has also taken a fresh look at ways of achieving an optimal fit—both in terms of sound quality and wearer comfort. Most earphones have a recommended “normal” wearing position, and the RE-262 is no exception. Some earphones, the RE-262 among them, are designed to be worn with their signal cables draping downwards from the wearer’s ears, while others are designed so that cables will be routed up and over the ears (and some models support both approaches). But no matter what cable-routing scheme is used, most good earphones sound and feel their best when three essential conditions are met:
• First, the eartips of the earphones need to achieve a good airtight seal in the wearer’s ear canals in order to achieve powerful full-range sound (a poor seal almost invariably makes for thin, anemic-sounding bass).
• Second, the earpieces/eartips should ideally rest fairly deeply within the wearer’s ear canals (an often overlooked aspect of performance that can spell the difference between rich, vibrant sound and dull, lifeless sound).
• Third, the earpieces/eartips need to offer long-term wearer comfort (even if it makes a great first sonic impression, an earphone that’s uncomfortable is bound to go unused in the longer term).
HiFiMAN took a long, hard look at these requirements and (after much trial-and-error experimentation) came to a highly unorthodox conclusion. Specifically, HiFiMAN determined that while many listeners get good results with RE-262 worn in its “normal” position (earpieces right side up, with signal cables draping downwards), other achieved an optimal fit with the RE-262’s worn (no joke) upside down and with the channels reversed (left earpiece in the right ear and vice versa, with signal cables wrapped up and over the wearer’s ears—see photo).