TOTL Headphones
Mike Piskor 2014

The TOTL Guide – 12 Flagship Headphones Compared

Hifiman HE-560: Capability Incarnate

If you have experience in the HiFi headphone world, you should know that Hifiman’s original HE-500 Planar headphone is considered one of the most well-rounded headphones ever designed. Rightly so, it was truly a remarkable deal in terms of price to performance.

I do not believe the HE-560 is a natural upgrade from the original sound signature of the HE-560, however, I do consider it technically and sonically superior. I’m not wild about the tone of this headphone, but I do regard it as very good.

Typically, Planar headphones are uncomfortable and I’d originally loved Hifiman’s simple Grado-Esque style headband…so why fix what isn’t broken? The HE-560 sports a radical headband redesign that I absolutely hate with the fury of 10,000 nuclear blasts.

The headband and comfort qualities are a significant downgrade to me. Purely subjective, but I found these headphones to offer the most painful clamping pressure of all headphones in this report.

Hifiman-HE560

 

Summary

With regard to sonic qualities, the HE-560 is a dry and neutral beast with plentiful bass, exceptional midrange clarity, and what I feel to be overly reserved treble by comparison to the gut-wrenchingly beautiful treble the Hifiman HE-500 and HE-6 offer. There simply isn’t much going on up top and I find it incredibly annoying and out of place.

Treble

Now, that doesn’t speak to the clarity the treble offers…which is fairly good. It just means the defining factor of what I considered Hifiman’s best feature in the past models was completely removed and replaced with a more natural and emotionless treble. In terms of sheer quantity, there simply isn’t enough of it to do the Hifiman name justice and it conflicts with how much has been offered in previous models.

Bass & Vocals

I find the bass and vocal experience, as well as overall stereo imaging to be nicely improved over the past renditions of the HE-series headphones. The HE-560 certainly sounds superior with dynamics and separation, qualities not at all well regarded in the Hifiman headphones.

The low end seems very smooth and plentiful, very focused, and extremely well controlled with a more natural and colorless appeal to tonality and coloration. The upper midrange pushes a gentle metallic and bright sheen to it that I find vividly engaging and well suited…shockingly…for genres like fusion guitar and metal.

When it comes down to it, I found the overall sound signature offered through the HE-560 to be the most well suited to enjoy fast-paced guitar riffs and tracks void of vocals in general. The more forward sound signature in some other more clear headphones like the Oppo PM-1 are simply too intimate and too forward for me to consider useful and musical with these genres.

The HE-560 is somewhat similar to the T1 with regard to how relaxed and distant the presentation is portrayed. I cannot quite put my finger on why, as I have spent weeks trying to figure this out with no success, but the sum of the HE-560 equates to a sound signature that I personally feel to masterfully exploit rock, metal and fusion guitar genres. No complaints here, when was the last time you heard of an expensive headphone masterfully handling metal guitar?

Side-Step

It upsets me greatly that Hifiman didn’t provide a natural progression from the HE-500 into the HE-560, it is more of a side step with noticeable improvements of course but the HE-500 still retains a generally superior sound signature to me, despite not being as spacious or clear as the HE-560.

With that in mind, I would still recommend the HE-560 depending on their preferences, the headphone offers a natural tone that is absent in the HE-500’s more metallic and cold tone that I found to be tonally stunning. The HE-560 is no doubt a fantastic purchase at the $700 or so price tier, however, it is not quite worthy of inclusion in the Summit level headphone tier. In terms of price to performance, the HE-560 is an even better deal than the original HE-500 so there is no question this headphone is my pick for the best all-around headphone in Hifiman’s lineup.

The Most Interesting Comparisons

HE-560 vs Beyerdynamic T1

These headphones sound very similar to each other and share a similar shape to their sound staging and imaging properties. Both have a dry and natural tone, however, the T1 exudes more sheen and treble quantity with noticeably more sibilance potential.

The bass response in the HE-560 is noticeably smoother and capable of more control, however, the T1 offers less kick and slam, less impact, and driving force with regard to the low end. Both headphones share similar placement of the entire spectrum, something a bit more distance and not at all intimate, however still not lacking or with an overly distant feel to where everything appears out of the sonic curtain. I consider these headphones blood brothers and absolute equals.

HE-560 vs Oppo PM-1

I’ve found the PM-1 to offer a more clean sound signature in the treble and the midrange, but only just. I don’t think the HE-560 is that far behind and considering the HE-560 is priced at hundreds of dollars cheaper, it is very obvious which headphone is the better deal all around.

The PM-1 bass quality lacks cleanliness that can compete with the smoother and softer low end of the HE-560, switching up between the two instantly showcases the HE-560’s superiority in clarity and purity on the low end.

However, the PM-1 is significantly more comfortable, more efficient, and much more well rounded. No doubt that the PM-1 chalks up a superior definition in the mid-range and treble response, both of which are qualities that sound muted and overly reserved on the HE-560.

I’d never thought I’d get to say a Hifiman bested another headphone in sound staging qualities, but there is no question the HE-560 is the technically superior headphone with regard to all stereo imaging properties, the PM-1s sound closed in, claustrophobic and severely lacking width.

HE-560 vs Alpha Dog

This is where things got really interesting for me, I’ve found the Alpha Dog to house a much more pure midrange and treble response when their vents are fully closed. With vents open, the Alpha Dog plucks away the rich solidity they offer when their vents are closed, becoming a much thinner, all be it more spacious sounding headphone.

The Alpha Dog swept away all the texture awards, leaving the HE-560 in the dust with regard to coloration and tone of every area of the frequency response. The Alpha Dog is also noticeably more spacious and airy, more effortless, and more well defined, offering a more musical and fun tone with gentle coloration to most areas of the presentation, which is something the HE-560 greatly lacks with his more natural and neutral sound signature.

Rig Recommendations

This was the hardest headphone in this report to recommend a proper rig for. Due to the reserved treble and smooth bass, I’ve failed at finding an amplifier that was able to accentuate the sound qualities of this headphone correctly.

I’ve found that my Oppo HA-1 seemed the most well suited for the task but lacked a mirrored smoothness on the low end to do this headphone justice. Seek an amplifier known for buttery smooth bass response and a neutral sound signature to help bring out the natural sound signature of the HE-560. Avoid U-shaped sound signatures in your amp or source at all costs.

Hifiman-HE6

Hifiman HE-6: The Treble Master

I have a love/hate relationship with Hifiman’s HE-6 Planar Headphone. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I want to strangle it.

Summary

Generally, I find myself enjoying the headphone and instantly becoming depressed when switching up with another headphone in this report with regard to the treble. At the end of the day, the HE-6 offers the most intense, thrilling, and vividly engaging upper end on any headphone I have ever heard.

Treble

Sure, the headphone is easily one of the most power-hungry headphones in existence, but with great power comes great responsibility…no doubt Hifiman created a beautiful treble monster. Bright, lively, clear, and incredibly sparkled are but mere words to toss around in an attempt to properly chronicle the HE-6’s uppermost areas.

The general tone of the treble offered is saturated in a blue and icy coloration, but don’t take that in a negative light, the treble in my opinion simply shells out the best overall tone and coloration available. Anti-sibilant by comparison to their biggest rival the Audeze LCD3, which sounds audible more muted and hissy, more prone to sibilance.

Having so many flagships nearby to compare with really paints a picture and it only becomes evident that the Sennheiser HD800 with absolute pristine track quality and rig pairing is capable of achieving similarly stunning treble…an occasional experience on the Sennheiser and one that is omnipresent on the Hifiman.

Body

The HE-6 sound signature is one of a very weighted feel, blaring at times as if the physical body of the sound coming at you is barreling down upon your head. This is oddly contrasting to the actual physical definition of the sound signature itself, which isn’t nearly as solid sounding as the Stax 007.

I find the experience on this headphone to conflict with what I generally would have wanted it to be if I had tuned it: the overall lack of physical definition and blurred edging to vocals and instruments forces a seemingly off-balance sense to the heavily weighted sound signature.

Impact on this headphone is simply too severe for me, too sharp and punchy for me to enjoy moderate to fast-paced tracks. Speed equates to a total loss of control. However, with that in mind, the HE-6 performs exceptionally well with slow-paced tracks in Jazz and Big Band style genres.

Bass

The bass experience is powerful with excellent and interesting texture. Where Audeze is pure, Hifiman’s bass tends to be more weighted, solid, and firm. Very to my liking when properly fed nuclear blasts equivalent of voltage…without that excessive power ( 4watts is a starting point ) the HE-6 becomes a useless headphone.

Something totally unable to be powered by any portable amplifier and to require what I consider absolutely crazy levels of voltage just to power to shoulder shrug worthy levels is the very definition of taking audio a step backward in time.

The HE-6 to me exemplifies a colossal leap backward in progress made in the HiFi world: it is simply too damned inefficient. Although, sufficient wattage does equate to the bass and treble quality truly rivaling that of the HD800. The problem here is that hardly and USB Dacs offer enough power to push this headphone to heavenly quality: a good HE-6 rig will cost you almost as much as a Stax rig will.

In my opinion, this headphone is incredible in both sonic clarity potential…but costs too much to boost it to those stellar levels and ultimately making this headphone one of the worst deals in the headphone world. For similar complete rig pricing ( the cost of headphone, USB DAC, or Source and the Amplifier needed ) a good HE-6 rig can easily reach in excess of $3000US.

Overall Tone

The overall tone of this headphone is potently darkened in the background and when combined with the bright treble and very dark and firm bass response, the sonic imaging properties feel embossed and of a very dynamic origin.

Stereo imaging properties are all poor compared to most other headphones in this report. Hifiman was never known for even passable sound staging properties.

The Most Interesting Comparisons

HE-6 vs Audeze LCD3 Fazor

The treble on the HE-6 eats the LCD3 for breakfast in every way imaginable. Where the Audeze is flat, dry, and actually sibilant at times, the Hifiman is bright and vivid while showcasing noticeably less hiss and sibilance on notoriously sibilant tracks. I don’t enjoy the tone of either headphone, but I consistently find myself enjoying the raw musicality the HE-6 can aspire to when properly fed its fill of voltage.

The LCD3 Fazor is more natural, less colored and the HE-6 is brighter with a darker background. Undoubtedly, the HE-6 fails miserably with regard to all imaging properties, it simply cannot compare to the juicy and lush stage depth the Audeze headphones offer. With the new Fazor enhancements in the Audeze lineup came some improvements in the sound staging department as well..making the fight over superior stereo imaging properties that much harder for the HE-6 to even begin to dream of comparing to.

I feel the LCD3 midrange and bass to offer more purity and clarity, however, the HE-6 upper mids and treble as mentioned absolutely destroy the Audeze unmercifully. The LCD3 is more mid-forward and in your face, the HE-6 is noticeably more laid back and relaxed.

HE-6 vs Sennheiser HD800

Obviously, the HD800 will sound bigger and more spacious no matter what rig you use. Sadly enough for HD800 owners, a well-fed HE-6 is somewhat comparable to the HD800 in clarity across the board, however again that “great” HE-6 rig will cost you near 1/3 more over the price of what a great HD800 rig will set you back.

My Oppo HA-1 Dac with the HD800 costs around $2600 total and sounds phenomenal, truly amazing, and worth every penny. No extra amping needed, the HA-1 and many similar USB Dacs have enough power output driving force to feed the HD800 nicely.

A HE-6 rig that can compare to that would cost at least the price of a great amplifier more, I’d not settle for any speaker amp since most of them in my experience in the sub $500 aren’t even close to as clear as most summit level USB Dacs…so, in turn, you would need a Summit level source AND a Summit level amp to get a truly great sound out of the HE-6 rig.

Boiled down and once you achieve this dream HE-6 rig, it is certainly exceptionally awesome and pretty much on par with the clarity, tone, and texture potential of the HD800…all be it always much smaller sounding and significantly more claustrophobic…and also not nearly as comfortable as the HD800.

HE-6 vs Beyerdynamic T1

Comparing these two headphones results in a noticeable and omnipresent haze over the entire T1 response, by comparison, the HE-6 is unquestionably more clear while offering a higher fidelity experience.

However, the HE-6 signature is far too harsh in terms of weightiness to fairly compare with the T1, which is a headphone that has a much softer approach to the experience. The tone of the T1 is brighter with a much more apparent background coloration, very monitor in tone and texture, almost metallic and smokey, whereas the HE-6 is jet black and void of texture.

Both headphones have a bright treble response, but once again the HE-6 trumps the competition in clarity, quantity, and texture with minimal effort. The HE-6 is capable of serious bass quantity and properly fed will stay in control no matter what, the T1 however loses control much faster than the HE-6. Both retain a similar physical locale to the experience that is a bit distant, but not overly so. I would not call either engaging in the sense of forwardness.

Rig Recommendations

The Schiit Lyr and a great USB dac are a great starting rig for the HE-6. Seek immense power output upwards of 6watts and avoid U-shaped signature in both source and amp. Any amplifier known for exceptional treble is going to pair immensely well with this headphone. Sources with exceptional bass response are almost required.

Treble mastery is also a general requirement for me, so I would recommend fully that you shop around for the sources and amplifiers known for offering the best treble imaginable. Go big or go home, anything less makes the HE-6 shoulder shrug worthy, so feed it the best you can get and don’t skimp anywhere. Sound staging properties aren’t at all important, just make sure stage depth and dynamics are good with whatever source and amp you opt for.

Burn-In & AKG K812
Audeze LCD3 & LCD-XC
Beyerdynamic T1 & Fostex TH600/900
Hifiman HE-560 & HE-6
Jhaudio JH16 Pro & MrSpeakers Alpha Dog
Oppo PM1 & Sennheiser HD800
Stax 007 & Our Verdict

Click on the page below for here the JH16 Pro FreqPhase & the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog

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