A short time back, I had the opportunity to meet with HIFIMAN’s head guru, Dr. Fang Bian. We went over some of the past problems in creating audio products for a discerning public in the age of digital audio playback devices, low resolution files and where the term “Audiophile” seems to have lost any meaning. I don’t know what the others there with me came away with, but when the meeting was done, I was seriously considering setting off a fire alarm so I could steal one of the headphone sets I’d been shown. But while that happy thought didn’t come to pass, I did have the opportunity of making the HIFIMAN HE-400 headphones a part of my life for a few months — that I will be returning it now we won’t go into.
Now I really enjoyed doing this review of the HE-400 headphones because it was easy. Let me explain. Like most folks, I’ve succumbed to many aspects of the digital age when it comes to music. By that I mean not just that most of library of music now resides on a server or hard drive or solid-state memory, but that I’ve become used to the quality that ensures as well. That’s because the physical means for listening to the music has become earbuds because mobile devices have pretty much taken over when it comes to playing something and listening to it — we’re all busy folks on the go, whatever.
But the downside is that the quality of the music is degraded from the less than stellar earbuds that have become the defacto standard, And even over the ear headphones tend to buy into the whole “digital age” mentality with attempts to look “cool” and not be so concerned with high-end features as they are celebrity endorsements. And as a result of digital mobile devices with audio capabilities having dropped in price — listen here, if the device playing your tunes costs less than $200, who’s going to pay more than that for headphones to listen to that music?
But some will say they are willing to pay more, a whole lot more, if it means that the music being played can be heard with the high-resolution and significance that it is intended to have. And yes that does include pop music, alongside that of classical — and jazz recordings by the way fit in there as well. As does vinyl which, digital bias aside, still has a warmth that warms (sorry pun intended) my heart.
So lets get the physical impression of the HE-400 headphones done first: obviously these are over the ear headphones and they’re large — big cups, none of that medium size styling that has become popular lately. Black and smooth, no extraneous coloring or styling or designer elements — it’s what you hear that counts here, not how they look.
The cups will swivel and angle in the way you imagine — those big cups serve the sensible purpose of surrounding your ears to seal them off from the outside world. When you get headphones this large, they’re more comfortable in general because the cups are large as well. Not that you shouldn’t take a break now and then, but they don’t exhibit any of the annoyance that the medium-sized cups on same-type headphones do.
And while they’re not lightweight, since there’s no amplification module needed (93dB based), they are portable. By definition anyway.
Now as noted earlier, the HE-400 headphones can be powered by mobile devices — smartphones and tablets, and of course laptops. You do not have any idea how good audio can sound coming from a smartphone (or tablet) until you are wearing a quality pair of headphones that are designed for accurate and potent sound reproduction. Of course the GIGO rule — garbage in garbage out — applies: you have to have quality resolution audio files to listen to in the first place, but assuming that you do, the depth of the audio is amazing. Think of it as layers of sound — where the layers each live in their own space and mix together where appropriately. A cheap pair of earbuds just scratches the upper layer so that you hear everything all mushed together. But when you go with a pari of quality headphones, each layer can be discerned as part of a group. This can be especially true of bass which has the potential power ability for overpowering pretty much all that is being heard.
The HE-400 headphones employ 50mm Planar Magnetic drivers and work in conjunction with the open back design of the cups to provide sound that, to me, has a more fluid intensity than others I have had on (no “sharp” edges). Dr. Bian could probably go into all kinds of details as to how the audio waves behave in this context, but when I see a TV I don’t wonder about the process in which the LCD panel was created, I just watch. In the same way when it comes to headphones, you can keep all the tech measurement equipment on “standby” as I’ll be digesting through the process of listening.
So okay I’ve hinted at the “sonic signature” HIFIMAN employs to make these headphones “thumbs up,” and I can’t say “good job” because with the music playing I can’t hear myself talk. Nor want to. I listened to a lot of classical and jazz recordings (the jazz off on vinyl) wearing the HE-400 headphones, and am quite impressed with the clarity of the audio imaging — cool jazz with “warmth” might be a way to describe how vinyl sounds when wearing them, but maybe “mellow” takes care of that sufficiently. Although when an orchestra peaks, it’s far from mellow — but with these headphones you’re not just able to discern the individuality of the instruments being layered together, but enjoy the overall effect without any of psychoacoustic technology interference. And while you can take these out on the go if you want, don’t expect there to be a microphone for yakking it up if a call comes in.
Bottom line: Up to now, I’ve seen no reason to update from my old pair of Sennheiser headphones. The $399 retail HIFIMAN HE-400 headphones provides audio that is distinct without being sharp and well defined without blur. yeah it is converting me. The process in which they get Planar Magnetic drivers to function at the price point is one thing: that they are able to sound so good is another. Once you wear these, try comparing them with that $2 pair of in-ear buds your smartphone came with and weep. Then go back to what is arguably the best headphones in their price range you can get.
- High-efficiency, high-resolution Planar Magnetic Drivers
- Comfortable and durable design
- No hard case
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.