Matchability

My HE6 is still a headphone I love to sit back, relax and listen to but only after years of trying to find something that would smooth out that lower treble and warm it up a bit. Good amping and good matching was and still is essential for the HE6. Heck even the old HE4 causes major decision making sessions on what to match it with and how to get it to perform at its best. More often than not most people just opted for the warmer and smoother tones of the HE500 as their Hifiman end game headphone due to its comparative driving ease until the HE400 came out and split the camps into bass heads and audiophiles (crudely speaking).

Luckily the HE400i and HE560 come right out of the box with a much more enticing and engaging personality than before and as such are much easier to match up to a various mix of amps and sources. The HE400i is the more efficient of the two, the shorter right angle 3.5mm terminated cable is indeed a bit of a giveaway that the HE400i was seen as having a lot of portable potential. It is still not the most highly efficient driver at 94db but modern day DAP’s are increasingly powerful and a lot of portable amps are planar ready now at very low prices.

Top Of The Food Chain – The Hifiman EF6

That being said both the HE4o0i and He560 sounded at their absolute finest with power on tap from the Hifiman EF6 using my Oppo HA-1 as the DAC (Sabre32) and pre-amp. I have always enjoyed the warm liquid delivery of the EF6 and is one of the few amps that matches absolutely superbly with the HE6. The HE560 is perhaps the most to benefit from the EF6’s power and tonality sounding controlled, smooth and positively brimming in detail. The EF6 and HE560 match is effortless. The HE460i, though perhaps not needing the power, still has much to gain from the EF6 sounding bolder, brasher and more upfront with excellent low end dynamics. The lusher delivery of the EF6 ensures the treble of the HE400i never gets too tizzy, thin or peaky though doesn’t alter that slight lack of air feeling in top end performance.

Budget King Magni

The higher levels of efficiency though mean amps like the Magni from Schiit also adapted reasonably well to the HE560 but even more so to the HE400i. The slightly more forward, clean and musical signature of the Magni combined with the already forward and slamming signature of the HE400i are a budget audio match par excellence. Sibilance was ever so slightly more present on the Magni and the background wasn’t as black as well as lacking the same level of resolution as the EF6 but then again it costs a fraction of the price and has enough power to put the HE400i through its paces satisfactorily.

The Mid Range Retro Tisbury Challenge One Amp

In my review of the CA-1 last year I remarked that it was a stylish amp that excelled best with detail, speed and clarity and is one of our Top 15 for 2014. Matched with the dynamic Just Audio uDAC24-96 it really tightened up the HE400i vocal presence over the Magni with a far faster and controlled attack and decay without any hint of grain or sibilance. The bass of the HE400i fell back slightly which might not suit some but it added a very clean and detailed dimension to the HE400i. The CA-1 was also the best amp in the range tested to deal with the lack of air in the treble region of the HE400i giving a better sense of headroom with its leaner signature pushing back the bass and mids a bit more than the more forward Magni. Power was there also for the HE400i sitting at around 12 noon on the dial.

The CA-1 combined with the HE560 was on another dimension to the He400i though. It does require a bit more power than the HDE400i but not that much however what you get in return is that gorgeous speed, detail and treble performance just soar over without a hair out of place. Now for modern rock and pop this pairing might sound excessively thin, especially in the bass performance and it does sound a little thinner and a little less liquid than the mighty EF6 but switch it to anything that requires the utmost in nuanced detail even at the lowest sounding level it doesn’t miss a beat. This could possibly be my favorite pairing of all for acoustical works, my Sting collection and that beautiful Pacquito D’Rivera “Portraits of Cuba” album I keep wheeling out for the HE6.

Unplugging the AC

Going portable is now possible with the HE400i, perhaps less so on the HE560 but it is not impossible. My take on the HE560 really is that if you want it to soar and sound at its best then only the highest grade portable solution or desktop is really going to work for it. But these days “there are alternatives” as the good Captain Picard would say.

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The DAP’s

DX90/AK120

Strike off the DX90 and the AK120 Titan though from your list of HE560 matches. Quite apart from the slight amping power deficiency the AK120 dulled that treble sparkle and felt a bit too closed in compared to the glory of the CA-1 and EF6 desktop solutions. The DX90 performed a little better for me with the HE560 in terms of dynamics and bass response but again that delicate treble got a bit brutal and to started to sound a bit too tizzy in comparison to the desktops. Sibilance on some lossy tracks was in abundance. I wasn’t totally surprised.

The DX90 again had the better dynamic range with the HE400i but the previously warm and engaging tonality of the HE400i suddenly felt a lot colder and harsher especially on EDM which surprised me how much the tonality changed. The AK120 was a better match tonally for me with the HE400i with a more natural performance, especially with the treble response which was neither tizzy or peaky and a far more convincing vocal presence and midrange. The bass still slams pretty good but there is a slight lack of body on the AK120 compared to the desktop amps overall.

Shanling M3

What I did enjoy was the pairing with the new M3 DAP from Shanling (review in full end of month) which sounded a lot more natural with the HE560 and had a decent amount of power to fill out the HE560 in terms of headroom and bass response. Vocal presence was excellent with very little sign of unwanted sibilance, good texture and a far more pleasing timbre and tonality than the DX90 and the AK120.

The HE400i paired with the M3 was slightly more efficient allowing me to drop the volume by around 15 – 25% over the HE560. The M3’s smooth but neutral tonal signature did reasonably well with the HE400i but I wasn’t as taken to it tonally as I was with the HE560 pairing. For rock and pop the M3/HE400i top end just sounded a bit harsher than I would have liked or what I am used to with the reviewed desktop pairings. Cymbal work sounded a little over emphasized also distracting unnecessarily from an otherwise good vocal presence.

I wasn’t totally in love with the DAP performance with both the HE560 and the HE400 although the Shanling made a decent fist of it. Both still need a bit more juice to really shine so I went with a few amping choices old and new to see if there was any upswing.

The Portable Amps

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The Powerful Cayin C5

There are some cracking portable amps now that do not cost the earth and can handle planar power. Chief among them at the budget end is the Cayin C5 for me and another of our Top 15 of 2014. Paired with the AK120 and the HE400i it does a great job beefing up the mids and adding an extra sense of dimension to the soundstage. The Cayin brings a lot more “pop” and dynamics to the table strapped to the AK120. This is a sound much more reminiscent of my HE400i desktop amp experience with a thicker bass response and much more convincing and forward midrange. The C5 also paired quite well with the HE560 which gave ample room for the Cayin to show off its imaging prowess and it kept everything in check in terms of peakiness but it lacked the resolution to really let the HE560 treble and detail shine as well as the more expensive amps.

The Resolving Cypher Labs Duet

Switching to the Cypher Labs Duet and the clarity levels jump up by quite a few degrees over the Cayin C5. It has plenty of power in reserve and whilst the Cayin C5 and Duet are ‘even-stevens’ for beefing up the dynamic range and bass response the Duet is far more controlled and clearer in the midrange and treble. The Duet paired exceedingly well with the HE560 with a very sweet and smooth treble response that remained articulate and airy, the trademarks of this headphone. Power on the HE560 sat a little higher on mid gain 11am on the dial.

The Class A Just Audio Aha-120

Perhaps my favorite portable amping match with the HE400i/560 was the Just Audio AHA-120. This is an amp that has been out for some time, a slightly larger than normal class A portable amp from the UK that excels in striking a really nice balance between detail and musicality all wrapped up in a nice analog tonality. It is not as clean as say the Duet and it is not the airiest of amps but the level of detail and width on the HE400i/560 is excellent and it adds a very lovely flowing element to the HE400i and HE560 tonality. Power is a breeze also at around 11am on the dial.

If anything I veered to the HE560 pairing with the Aha-120 as having the better match. That analog sound, excellent detail and flowing type of presentation by the AHA-120 added a touch of beef to the HE560 generally leaner signature. Guthrie Govan’s “Waves” guitar work sounded incredibly natural and almost like it was lifted off vinyl with a tiny touch of grain that only succeeded adding to the retro vibe.

Page 4: Final Thoughts

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About The Author

Editor

Founder & Owner of headfonics.com. I first started reviewing in the late 80s (ouch!). Back then it was albums, rock concerts and interviews with a typewriter for the local rag. Now its desktop/portable and digital 2.1 audio on a rather nice laptop. How time flies.

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  • 24bit

    This is one of the best reviews I’ve ever read. Makes me want to try to grab a set of 400i’s for myself. But, Marcus, those pictures are clearly enhanced with color vibrancy. 😛

    • headfonics

      Mike you just know we clearly put the awesome in color – its our duty 🙂

  • The_Grudge2

    I have the HE 560 and I feel your readers should consider just how well it responds to more current. I finally made the move to having speaker tap cables made by Norne Audio allowing me to run directly from the speaker terminals of my NAD M3. Amazing results, and previous to this I was using a lovely and very competent Yulong A18 to drive the 560s. Yes the 560s can be driven well enough with a decent headphone amp (I used a Schiit Asgard 2 at first, but didn’t like the synergy as well), but if you really want the 560s to show you what dynamics can sound like, you do need some serious current.

    • headfonics

      You are spot on there and that was a common discussion on the HE6 which is why we did the majority of our testing with the Hifiman EF6 which is a class A 5 watt per channel headphone amp and almost perfect for the HE6 and really great with the HE560.

  • The_Grudge2

    I am now actually considering the HE6 as my NAD M3 should do them justice. Great review by the way, I think you did an excellent job at providing balanced feedback. I’ll be making a point of reading around here more. Cheers.

    • headfonics

      Ah cheers thanks for the compliments!

      I find the HE6 to be so much smoother once you get a nice powerful amp with a smooth signature, the top end behaves good and proper but it took ages to find that single amp that worked and in the end thankfully Hifiman did me a favor by releasing the HE6.

      In theory the HE560 should be a lot easier to power but finding your flavor is a game in its own right so glad you found the match for you with the NAD M3.

      I used to have some decent speaker amps about 7 years ago but nothing like that now, not a binding post in sight – scarey!

  • Ryan

    I’m really considering on buying a pair of 400i to listen to my music. I am not a musician, do not play instruments and would rather not use an amp. Would it be plausible to expect amazing sound from the 400i when using with my cell phone? Also, you say that pluging these into a computer makes for a very nice and convenient listening experience. So would using these for music on my computer sound as nicely as they would using an amp? Would using in conjunction with a computer sound much better than with a cell phone or very little?

    Thank-you for your expertise.

    • headfonics

      Well actually plugging these into a DAC/AMP connected to a PC is how I explained it so yes you do need amping to have them sound at their best and most mobile phones will come up short on that account.

      I would suggest though you do not have to break the budget to get the HE400i sounding good with something like a FiiO E09k and E17 package type setup for less than $200.

      For mobile I would grab a FiiO X1 and an E11k as another cheap start up or if your phone is android or iOS the new Oppo HA-2.

      • Ryan

        I’ve been up all night reading reviews for the 400i and viewing videos on youtube for the EF2A amp/dac. I am new to higher-end audiophile equipment as this will be my first setup. A pair of Yamaha EPH-100 has been my way of listening for some time and it’s just not enough anymore.

        When I seen the price of $599 for both the 400i and EF2A I almost purchased out of excitement. Then I quickly realized that it wasn’t a deal but rather retail pricing. With that said, I’m nearly at the point of buying that combo but I’m unsure since the EF2A is dated and prone to defects.

        Having a seperate dac alongside an amp isn’t ideal for my situation. Can you recommend any amp/dac in one piece that would push the 400i at no around $300 or less? The EF2A seems like a good value but for a $500 pair of cans they seem a bit on the cheap side.

  • Dean

    Very good article. It’s exactly what I am looking for. I see you used the Oppo HA-1 for the DAC. Was the HA-1 not a good choice for an amp? From the spec sheet, it looks like the HA-1 has a 2W XLR balanced output and I think you can get a cable upgrade for the headphones (expensive). In your opinion, would this be worth the effort?

    • headfonics

      Dean thanks for dropping by and glad you liked the article. Apologies for the late reply.

      The HA-1 is a fine amp just the EF6 is a beast of an amp – 5W Class A with a nice liquid sound I love with planars.

      No need for cable upgrades, spend the extra and get the Hifiman EF6 amp instead and any clean DAC signal that decodes hi res with a line out and you are good to go.

  • Axel Cortez

    Hi excellent review, right now my setup is very basic I have a Magni 2 Uber amp with HD598 looking to get the DAC that is matched to the Magni from Schiit, and looking for better headphones to relegate my HD598 to travel duties. Is my setup which is very budget limited good form something like HE400i or I’m looking at the wrong cans?

    • headfonics

      Actually the magni is just fine for the HE400i and I owuld grab the matching Modi v2 to go with it for the DAC.

  • szoze

    Thanks for the great review! Do you think Objective 2 amp is a good choice for driving HE-400i. After reading your impressions in the interview I almost feel it would be a great pairing.

    • headfonics

      I do not see why not if you are using a stock 02 as its largely transparent in presentation and the HE400i is not the hardest to drive.

  • FormerHighEndAudiSalesman

    The “tonality” is 8.5 for the HE400i’s and 9.5 for the HE560’s? What is the science behind that evaluation, your guesswork after switching back and forth? So much for using the scientific method. The difference is more like 9.3 vs. 9.2, judging by objective third party measurements. The HE400i’s have the identical technology of the HE560’s, except for minuscule differences in their diaphragms, grills, magnetic circuits, and other components. But remove the smoke and mirrors, and both models are are still simple orthodynamic headphones which produce sound waves via a thin layer of copper between magnets. The HE560’s have slightly different parts, but fidelity-wise there is little difference (even when using empirically-evidenced objective measurements), marketing exaggerations and gimmicks notwithstanding. For several years, I was a high-end audio salesman. I know how things are done in the industry. It is common for manufacturers to mark up their products dozens of times over their true manufacturing costs, not just headphones but preamps, amps, speakers, and everything else audio. I have gotten three manufacturer’s reps to admit this fact to me in private. Manufacturers compensate magazine reviewers for writing rave reviews for their highly profitable but vastly overpriced “high-end” audio products. The unwarranted praise gets perpetuated and propagated by naive blue collar types in so-called audiophile chat rooms. As for amps and DACS, the law of diminishing returns starts at around $300 for the pair. The purpose of this pair is to convert a digital signal from a computer device into an analog signal that is sufficiently loud without detracting from nor adding to the original signal. Solid state amps do the best job at that, as they do not color, distort, mute, and add noises (popping, hissing, clicking, etc.) like tube amps do. As such, a $350 portable JDS Labs O2 solid state amp and Standalone ODAC pairing will achieve 90% to 95% of the audio quality of any $5,000 or even $50,000 setup, marketing spam notwithstanding. A great alternative pairing is the $199 Schiit solid state Magni 2 amp and Modi 2 DAC combo, but they are not portable and you may have to upgrade to the costlier Uber versions of both (another $120 or so) to achieve compatibility with your equipment. High resolution files are a an inaudible gimmick, as proven by objective measurements and self-proclaimed audiophile listening tests, so do not be concerned that your DAC cannot decode their files. Empirical evidence is minimal in the audio industry, which has opened the doors for outlandish manufacturers’ claims that rationalize the ridiculously inflated prices of their laughably overhyped yet ordinary products. Third-party measurements of sensitivity, efficiency, frequency response, distortion, and the like are some of the few characteristics that can be objectively measured — and they empirically evidence every claim made in this post. Everything else is subjective hype and nothing more than marketing pseudoscience intended to reap the biggest profits for the manufacturers and retailers. I reiterate: professional magazine reviewers are compensated for writing rave reviews for overpriced “high-end” components, which are perpetuated and propagated by barely-literate, unsophisticated, naive blue collar types who post “expert” reviews at so-called audiophile websites. What are the educational credentials of the aforementioned magazine and “audiophile” reviewers, again? Remember, in the audio industry, price is rarely proportional to sound quality. If the HE400i’s cost $20,000, the “experts” would be raving about how much better they sound than the “lowly” $3,000 HE1000’s. And yes, there are other criteria that can be used to judge headphones, such as comfort and compatibility, but I am focusing on actual fidelity.

    • Matt MusicJunky

      very interesting perception! So, in your mind, are these HifiMan’s overpriced? I’m curious to hear your take on whether there could be a better headphone at less cost, but doesn’t have the marketing thrills that come out of ‘from-the-gut’ impressions (that are sometimes bought and paid for). I’m in the market for a great open/semi-open set of cans with big soundstage, great bass, and good clarity through the entire spectrum. Is that too much ask?

      • headfonics

        Well its been 2 years since these were reviewed so times flies and all that and even Hifiman are dropping the price of both now in then in a lot of promotions. When they were released I would have said these are the ones but since then the Edition X has come out as well as the Edition X v2 which I absolutely love. They also dropped the price down from $1799 to $1299. Now this costs more naturally than the HE560 and HE400i but the inviting tonal quality is just too good in comparison.

        Of course, that is more cost and not less but it does show how quick things move on. Now if planars are not a must I would highly recommend the DT1770 from Beyer also. It’s closed but has a huge soundstage and a very high-quality bass performance. Price wise now its pretty competitive.

  • mike

    I’m a year into listening to the 400i with my Magni/Modi 2 Uber stack and I don’t think I could be happier. It’s a great matchup, and I feel like I’d have to spend a lot to get a noticeable improvement in sound quality.

    • headfonics

      Its a good choice with the schiit stacks.