I remember back in 2001 buying my B&W series 2 5.1 setup full audio system. That was back then the 601/3/cc6 and for kicks the huge ASW1000 subwoofer. Pure solid black leviathan of a gut wrenching mid to hifi home theater driven by one of the better Denon 3 series integrated receivers and an Arcam CD72. It was truly earth shattering coming from then a humble Wharfedale setup.
I though to myself – where on earth can I go from here? It was as if the whole hobby was more about the journey itself rather than the actual item sitting in front of me. Naturally was elated at such an imperious acquisition, but in some respects I was a little deflated. I am going to have spend some serious money now to get any better than what is in front of me. And I was right. That system did me for 8 years and probably another 8 years if I had not emigrated and found the transport bill for my beloved system too hard to stomach forcing me into the saddest sale of my life.
And so once again I find myself in this very same position 10 years later, though thankfully on a much smaller physical scale and presumably not about to emigrate in the any near future. Phew says I because once again I think to myself – where on earth do I go from here? Yes, it’s black once again, yes it’s been described as hifi and yes it somewhat reminds of B&W also.
Or to be precise, the Hifiman HE6 orthodynamic headphone.
Sporting a beautiful piano black gloss finish, weighing in at a reassuringly weighty 502g with a classic no frills sleek design, it is not hard to fathom how far and fast Chinese audio engineering has come in recent years when you realize that the HE6 is seen as one of the top, and in some people minds THE top, headphones currently in the market. It is even more astounding that the headphone rated in the top 3 to 5 by many enthusiasts globally is not even made by one of the more established players in the market such as Sennheiser, Grado or Beyer, but a little known Chinese company, Hifiman. Now I won’t go into the history of Hifiman, thats for another day, but suffice they have come out of nowhere in the last three years, led by the the dynamic Dr. Fang Bian who quickly has established the brand with a number of very high quality DAP’s, amps and of course the HE range of orthodynamic headphones of which the HE6 is at the top of the pile – and rightly so.
The HE6’s calling card is it’s circumaural or full size orthodynamic setup which by all accounts is an inefficient system of magnets requiring a ton of power to wake the whole thing up and as such the HE6 is one of the most power hungry headphones I have ever encountered. Some would even go as far as to say these really should be floor standing speakers in 2 cups such as its ability to suck up power without blowing up to bits. Insert these headphone sinto a regular portable amp at less than 2 watts per channel you are pushing the dial to maximum just to get sound levels up to audible levels and even then the sound is so thin it is not worth it.
This is not a portable headphone in any sense unless the Ibasso PB2 is true to it’s word. It is an extension of your home audio setup, one for the hifi purists and an SQ that will in turn satisfy most hifi purists out there. To my knowledge only the Hifiman EF5 and the Schiit Lyr as dedicated headphone amps can really drive the HE6 to optimal level. But then what is optimal? 30 watts per channel, 50 watts? All indications suggest the HE6 could cause a localized brownout in a quest for the ultimate power setup.
Build and Fit
Packaged in a luxury leather type fitted case Hifiman are making a statement (though they do make the same statement with the HE4/5 also oddly enough); only good headphones get boxes, or so the marketing theory goes and to be fair they are not too far off the mark.
Inside you get the headphones, some handsome terminated spc wiring with xlr connections (a tad heavy but offset by the light cabling finish) and a spare set of connections. The cable is detachable but here I have to be honest I hate the cup connections with a passion. Sorry Fang but please if there is a mark 2 for the HE6 or even the new HE500 porta-HE6 please remove these and switch to mini xlr because they are just far to fiddly for my hands. Also the mere act of screwing them in if you are not careful means you are twisting the cable big time and invariably your going to do some damage to the wiring setup in the plugs. Mine already had grounding issues after one month and had to be resoldered. Ok so no big deal, a 5 minute job but still worth pointing out.
I did mention 502g right? Ok so not the lightest, but then not many headphones have a bunch of magnets in the cups so this is understandable. You want a bit more weight then buy the Audeze LCD-2 and check those Princess Leia buns but overall orthos are not street cans and have to be given the respect and handling they deserve. However for all that weight they sit pretty comfy on the head. For small heads I do think the band could have been a tad tighter and there are one or two QC issues with the finish of the leather but overall they look pretty good.
Sporting velour pads I think perhaps this is where they display their weak spot physically. Overall the velour is comfy and a good fit for me personally but the box comes with one spare and this is where I am puzzled a touch because the base of the spare pad looks a bit messy and could do with a clean up and even dare I say it a change to something better quality. I am not sure if the pads are roll-able but it would be interesting to try. Perhaps in the category of the K240 or K70X size it would be worth a try I guess. Don’t get me wrong, they look good on the outside though and they are comfy.
So what is under the hood?
Sensitivity: 83.5 dB
Headphone Type: Full Size
Weight: 502 grams
Impedance @ 1kHz: 50 Ohms
Cord Length: 9ft
Detachable Cable: Yes
Cord Type: Straight Y
Coupler Size: Large
Ear Coupler Type: Full-Size
Acoustic Seal: Open
So right there you can see at 83.5 dB you are going to need something major to get these cans to sing as they are intended. Roll in the Hifiman EF5 at 2 watts per channel power to combat that concern.
Frequency response suggests a neutral headphone with a slight treble tilt, excellent extension but not as slamming as the Audeze LCD-2 which displays a predominance of low end at a cost of treble shine. Audeze’s flagship excels at low end reproduction, and comes across as a much warmer intimate headphone than the hifi imperious HE6. However give the HE6 some detail orientated genre’s like classical or some fast guitar orientated work, some shredding perhaps, and it is a different story altogether.
Comparing the same with the HD800 would suggest to me that Fang was aiming the HE6 more at Sennheiser rather than Audeze, which is just fine with me. Both the LCD-2 and HE6 side by side would be perfect bed fellows, a ying and yang, a dark and light.
But for this review I am going to stick with the Hifiman EF5 and the Meridian 506 CDP as well as some Flac through the Maverick D1 DAC and EF5 for a comparison. Having had some time with the LCD-2, Audeze’s mean ortho machine at a similar pricing level it seems natural to refer to this once in a while. Though to note the EF5’s true bed fellow is the HE5-LE and rumors of an EF6 with even more juice to match with the HE6 have persisted in the last few months so this may not be the final word in Hifiman power. Certainly with the Schiit Lyr 6 watt per channel tube amp hitting the market the competitors of upped their game considerably.
Now based on initial impressions allow also for at least 50 to 100 hours burn in for it to really open up also with your amp of choice.
So how does this headphone sound after all that data and prep work?
Just brilliant to be honest! The orthodynamic transducer control is supreme with ortho setups with superb control of the diaphragm meaning the bass is tight, deep and controlled without any loss of detail. Running the Meridian 506 CDP through the D1 DAC I can tell you most of my old CD’s just came alive. 80’s CD’s had no right to sound this fresh and dynamic. My old tired Motley Crue albums sounded they were were fresh off the studio floor. Ok so cheated a bit, the Meridian 506 is a true hifi classic and beyond mere mortals but still I am willing to bet any half good CDP with a proper DAC chips is going to benefit with a power amp and the HE6.
These headphones are alarmingly transparent, black as your boot background, smooth without a hint of sibilance that can creep into the HD800 presentation from time to time and respond to tubes like a duck to water. The warm laid back signature of the EF5 is a great match for the HE6’s more neutral or strident sq bringing in a touch of welcome analog warmth from time to time.
The trebles on these headphones are just sublime. Lacking the harshness of the HD800 and completely killing the LCD-2 with its darker presentation and treble roll off the HE6 shows outstanding dexterity in the high end delivering sonic smoothness of the highest order. Those with sensitive ears though need not apply – it you want warmth and roll off then slip on the Audeze LCD-2 but for me you are loosing out on a lot of trip wire fun.
The mids are controversial by all accounts. Those coming into the fray will be immediately attracted to the LCD-2 power in the mids but my wonder if his comes mainly from the huge reserves of mid-bass present and perhaps at a cost in clarity with the stock cables, well at least on my initial impression of the LCD-2, though amping and cable swapping can change the game greatly for the LCD-2. I have simply not had the time to experiment with cabling in the same way as a few of my colleagues have with the LCD-2 so the mids are a toss up for me depending on your flavor. I suspect new comers will be steered to the LCD-2 for sheer power from the mid-bass initially, but for me I crave a little bit of clarity in my mids.
If anything the HE6 bass is perhaps an area where you might be left wanting a tad more. The LCD-2 is king here no doubt but that is not to say the HE6 cannot reach low, very low indeed in terms of frequency extension (some say lower than the LCD-2) but looses a bit of power compared to the thundering slam of the LCD-2 at that mid-bass level that every man, jack and harry just die for. It’s not enough these days to measure how low you can go, you just have to feel it and in that case the LCD-2 is the winner regardless of the technical merits of the HE6.
Sound stage initially was a no-brainer for me, big but not huge but a slight blur in terms of presentation and separation. When you shoot for detail you got to have the imaging dead accurate to accurately convey great detail and just on the odd occasion the HE6 seems a tad off on this. Comparing to the Stax 3030 you have to give it up to the Stax for its laser guided imaging. Against the LCD-2 again it might be a tad off but has a much ‘bigger’ sound stage so forgive it for getting lost once in a while eh?
So what to take away from this?
Whilst not being able to bring to the table the huge sound stage of the HD800 or the warm tones with the humongous slam of the LCD-2 the HE6 for me excels at being able to bridge the gap between the two offering a third way so to speak in enjoying your music. You will enjoy the flexibility it has on detailed orientated music (think prog rock and not just classical), the smooth highs without any hint of sibilance and revel in its scalability the more power you throw at it. With the right setup the HE6 is capable of being a really involving special headphone.