HifiMAN HE500 - Review
Disclaimer: A big thank you to Elecromod for loaning me the HE-500!
The HE-500 is the mid-level model of Hifiman's planar magnetic driver series. Price wise it sits directly between the brilliantly fun HE-400 (that I reviewed a few weeks ago) and the flagship HE-6, which is $1000 (or £1000). The model numbering is as confusing as a Nikon DSLR at the moment. If it bothers you just try to think of the HE-6 as an HE-600 (higher first digit is better) and you'll be fine. The HE-6 seems to have been made at a time when Hifiman liked the idea of single digit numbering, but they've since moved to a three digit system. Speaking of the H-6, I hope that Electromod will allow me to play with that one next, although from what I've read it demands some quite powerful amplification. I'm a little worried that I will need something special to drive them to their full potential, so here's hoping I will also get the EF-6 to play with at the same time.
I really like the concept of planar magnetic drivers because of what they seem to do to the lower frequencies. I love bass, but it has to be done well and not just bigger, like so many marketing-driven / fashion headphones do. So far I've experienced two other planar headphones - the Fostex T50rp (+ Mad Dog mod) and the Hifiman HE-400. Both of these headphones are very interesting, especially the latter because it's fun without too much bloat and that seems to be very hard to do with a dynamic driver headphone. For example I listen to the Sennhesier HD600 and I love the tonal balance that it has. With some music I want a little more body however. The HD650 provides that bass body, but it's starting to lose the fight with bloat to my ears. The HE-400 gave me the best of both worlds, so what can the HE-500 bring to the table?...
If I had to pin one word on the HE-500s it would be 'exciting'. There is something about the energy that they exhibit throughout the frequencies, combined with the expansive and precise soundstage, that really hits it out of the park. All planar magnetic headphones that I've heard so far have tried hard to provide a balanced tonality, good clarity and imaging etc. They've all been successful, in one way or another too, but the HE-500 impresses me more than anything else I've heard so far.
I've heard people say that the HE-500's sound is mid-centric and there is truth to that. This is where the majority of the excitement comes from I think, but if that gives the impression that the bass and treble are underwhelming then the statement is way off. Most of the frequency range feels supercharged here, compared to pretty much anything else. It's not that the mid-range is simply louder, there is great clarity and imaging, but all of that isn't much without control and that's the feeling I get from the HE-500. A great sense of poise with instruments and vocals, power with delicate detail. I have to say I'm struggling to put words to why I like this sound so much, but one thing I'm not unsure of is just how impressed I am with this sound.
Bass has less body than the HE-400, but it's just better in every way. Most likely due to there being more magnets in the HE-500 (actually the same amount as the HE-6). The Rendition of the bass is tight, while remaining powerful. It has a really sharp edge and a hard kick that is so very enjoyable. It doesn't invent bass potency where it doesn't exist in the music, it doesn't bloat the upper bass at all and it certainly doesn't affect the mid-range. In fact the mid-range feels super sharp and aggressive, it makes voices sound superbly realistic and clear without any harsh edges. OK the treble deserves it's own paragraph...
I was going to use 'The Makers Theme' track in the 'Darksiders II' Soundtrack (by Jesper Kyd) as a good example of harshness in the treble. I initially thought that the HE-500 was struggling to keep the treble under control. The powerful flute sounds really made me cringe, but after testing it with a bunch of other headphones I have come to realize it's track at fault and not the headphones. I was told to give the HE-500s one hundred hours of burn-in before really judging them. Now I'm never put much stock in this phenomenon before, but after obliging with this period I can honestly say that it makes a considerable difference with the HE-500. At first the treble was noticeably grating and harsh, although it did sound wonderful despite this. After the burn-in period this calmed down a lot, but I'm really glad that it didn't go away too far because it brought with it beautiful detail and was rarely overwhelming ultimately.
Like the HE-400 the HE-500s might be pretty efficient for a planar magnetic, but they require a bit too much power for most portables to be able to drive them unaided. Plugging them into a smartphone directly will leave most enthusiasts pretty underwhelmed in the volume department, even if they aren't completely terrible in quality. The one exception here (as usual) was the iPhone, which got to OK levels at 100%. They aren't too fussy with dedicated amplification however and a portable, battery powered unit will almost certainly give decent results. I used the new Shonyun SH-306A (reviewed last month) and it produced a very decent sound and plenty of power. It sounded especially nice when driven from the Epiphany Acoustics E-DAC (ESS 9023 Sabre DAC) too. Actually the E-DAC alone (running from the Galaxy phone) was able to run the HE-500s directly (no amp). With the phone volume at 100% it gave about another 20-30% volume on top of the phone's volume. This pretty much brought it in line with the iPhone 4's output, but with even better audio quality. I wouldn't recommend this as a permanent solution for the HE-500, but it does work.
Moving up to USB bus powered combined DAC and headphone amplifiers like the Fostex HP-A3 and Ifi iDAC things got even better. Neither of these machines are exactly pocket friendly so I probably wouldn't take them along with a Surface Pro. Then again, the HE-500s are not really portable anyway so these machines are probably the minimum I'd realistically combine them with. I do appreciate being able to move about the house with these amps and a laptop. Considering this convenience I was more than happy with the audio quality on offer. Both machines gave a nice and balanced performance although I did miss a little bass quality compared to higher quality desktop set-ups.
Using the Ifi iDAC with a bunch of other Ifi equipment (five in total) I got stunning results out of the HE-500s. This consisted of an iUSB, Gemini, iDAC, iTube and an iCAN. All these components will set you can over £1000, but they really are worth it, especially from something like the HE-500. These headphones scaled up really nicely here - sounding very smooth and articulate in the treble, electrifying in the mid-range and powerful, yet detailed in the bass.
I've just got done with the Fostex TH600, which is a very similar price here in the UK. Now these two are both excellent headphones that I would thoroughly recommend. The TH600 provides a wonderful bass while keeping the mid-range very clean. The HE-500's bass is close in potency, but the detail and kick is improved. The TH-600 has nothing offensive in the upper ranges, yet it's not destroyed by analytical headphones either. The HE-500 is a little more mid-range focused, which makes for a very exciting sound. Potential downsides to each are slight overemphasis on one end of the spectrum. Treble could be an issue with the HE-500 for some people. Equally the bass of the TH-600's could make some feel that they're on the warm side. It's also worth noting that the HE-500's treble is more of an issue before burn-in. Soundstage is utterly superb on both headphones, but I'd give the HE-500 the edge here and that's understandable because they're open. It seems a little wider and more precise in it's separation of instruments. The TH-600 gets close for a closed back headphone, although the levels of isolation and sound leaking are not brilliant. The comfort award would have to go to the TH-600 because the HE-500 is so heavy.
So, if it was my money, which would I buy? Definitely the HE-500 because of the bass and mid-range qualities. The weight gives me pause. I can just about live with it to achieve this level of sound quality, but I know this will be too much for some people so I advise caution. Even on sound alone I can imagine some people preferring the TH-600 though, so if you've got this money to spend don't just take my word for it, you need to try both out for yourself first. Of course there are other similarly priced headphones around worth taking a look at - like the Beyerdynamic T1, or the Audeze LCD-2. Unfortunately I can't offer any opinions on those just yet.
Here are some individual music tracks and how I felt the HE-500's coped with them. Most tracks were listened to in CD format with lossless compression. All tracks are also available on Spotify, which on the 'premium' service are maximum quality MP3s and I find these perfectly good on quality.
Cake: "The Distance" - I really like these lyrics and the vocals were produced with a great sense of realism, space and clarity.
Cage The Elephant: "Shake Me Down" -There was a superb energy and excitement here. When listening to this song through the HE-500s and comparing it to other headphones it feels like you're listening to it for the first time again.
Skism: "sEXisM - Original Mix" - This track is really great for testing bass potency and boy did it deliver with the HE-500. When amplifier through something decent it produced a wonderfully deep, hard kicking and beautifully taught bass sound.
Eve 6: "Inside Out" - This song sounded really exciting through the HE-500 and the Ifi iCAN combo. The seperation and soundstage were especially impressive and I think that pretty much any genre will get a big benefit from this sound.
Kanye West: "Black Skinhead" - Again the bass response was just awesome here in general, but it makes you realize that the track is overcooking it because it breaks up at times and you can just hear it's not the headphone's or the amplification at fault.
Jesper Kyd: "The Makers Theme" - It feels fitting that I pick another track by Jesper as I used his music for the HE-400 review. This one (from the Darksiders II soundtrack) has some pretty evil flute treble. As much as I love Jesper's music the high notes sound pretty horrible on almost every headphone that i try them on. This set my initial impression of the HE-500 a little unfairly, but they did sound especially bright before I burned them in fully here.
The HE-500s are a solidly built headphone. Like the HE-400 there's very little plastic here, it's mostly metal and leather, although the HE-500s do come with fabric pads in the box too, which is a nice touch. Design wise all Hifiman headphones share a very similar design, more so than any other headphone I can think of. There's nothing really wrong with this, it's great if you get the HE-400, but with the HE-6 (and to a lesser extent, the HE-500) it's possible to feel a little bit short changed on the premium feel front. Other than colour there isn't much to tell the different models apart and for nearly £1000 I confess to expecting a little more.
The weight has been noticeable from the moment I picked up the HE-500. Half a kilogram may not sound like much more than the HE-400 on paper, but it does seem to push it over some ort of line. It's the heaviest headphone that I've tried so far and I certainly wouldn't want anything heavier. Actually I think there's only one of two headphones that weigh more than this. It will be an issue for some people so if you're unsure about this you will need to test them first. Although it bother me from time to time I did manage to forget about in general. It's worth noting that I don't suffer from any kind of back or neck pain/sensitivity though.
OK, so they're heavy, yes that's an issue, but if you can live with that I don't think many people will be disappointed with the HE-500s. To say that I like them would be an understatement, I am properly smitten with this sound and I am very sad to be sending them back. So, is it time for me to save up my pennies for these? Hell yes! Through decent amplification I simply have not heard anything else that matches the excitement levels of these headphones (yet). If you're curious - you just have to try them somehow. I know they're not the easiest product to find and try out, but if you can afford them and you're looking for a new pair I very much recommend them!
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Posted 24th September 2013