Nothing quite like walking into an AV Show (Hong Kong 2018) and seeing a brand new headphone on display about 24 hours before it is publicly announced. And that is exactly what happened when I saw the HE6SE on a stand at the Hifiman booth last year.
What the heck is that? As if by magic, the then sales director Andy Regan and Fang just waltzed around the corner with all the info in their hands (and heads) and we got talking.
The SE Line
The SE line has already been in development before the launch of the HE6SE but the roll-out has been quite fast. Now you can select from the HE1000SE, the HE5SE, and the HE6SE.
Both the HE5SE and the HE6SE came out around the same time but at vastly different price points. The HE5SE is a homage to the original woody HE5 that kick-started Hifiman’s planar line up before the HE6 and the HE6SE is based off the legendary HE6.
The HE6 I have here is one of the first production run models back when it had a discounted $999 launch price, ($1299 SRP). This is the 4-screw model and the one Fang readily admits is the most inefficient of any of his planar headphone production runs, (gold trace equals high resistance).
My interest was piqued. Comparing both now and then and see what has changed should be fun. However, we are throwing in a curveball with the Chord Electronics TToby 100W stereo power amplifier. Because if there is one thing the old HE6 loves more than anything, and that is power. So, I wonder how things have changed with the $1799 HE6SE?
We should start by saying the driver inside the open-back circumaural HE6SE is the same planar magnetic driver from the last production run of the older HE6. Unsurprisingly, both are 83.5 SPL and 50Ω in their efficiency and impedance ratings though I have feeling from my chat with Fang in March 2017 that the original 4-screw first run might have been slightly higher than 50Ω.
Why is this driver so inefficient? Well, apart from being a double magnet symmetrical configuration and using a thicker diaphragm than today’s thinner single-sided planar builds, the shared driver also uses extremely thin gold voice coil traces.
Gold is very resistant to oxidization and can be applied very thinly indeed. However, gold is very dense and has high levels of resistance, hence, a high field strength and some strong magnets were used to ensure the driver could be driven properly.
When I say properly, the HE6, (alongside the LCD-2 to some degree) pretty much stung the industry into designing and launching new headphone amps with a lot more power. Creations such as the 5W balanced Schiit Mjolnir and Hifiman’s own Class-A EF6, (also 5W into 50Ω), soon followed, specifically in response to the tiresome clipping complaints HE6 owners had on weaker amps.
The HE6 ideally needs 2W-5W into that 50Ω load to sound optimal. These headphone amps met that on a nominal level. However, the real hardcore guys soon realized that the HE6 could suck up a lot more power and potentially could sound even better when connected to speaker amp binding posts.
Recognizing this potential, Hifiman responded by launching the HE-adapter. This tiny resistor-based design in a box allows you to connect speaker cables from a speaker amp into it rear and output a headphone ready signal to the front via a 4-pin XLR balanced connection.
By headphone ready, I pretty much mean anything below 90dB SPL if you decide to connect something like the 100W TToby to the connector. By headphone ready, we also mean some form of pre-amping to a mono or stereo power amp is required to control the volume on a power amp.
That little adaptor now comes inside the HE6SE box as a stock accessory which opens up pretty much any power or high-powered headphone amp for driving the HE6SE out of the box.
The bulk of the changes on the HE6SE focus on the external housing and form factor. Hifiman has transplanted their new headband and gimbal design from the likes of the Ananda and the Jade II onto the HE6SE. This is a mix of spring steel, aluminum alloy, and protein leather with a matte black and anodized silver finish.
Gone is the piano glossy finish of the HE6 and gone are the swivel pivots from the older HE6. In truth, the build does feel sturdier than the original design but you have to balance that with the loss of the pivot lateral movement of the original HE6 cups. That means a more rigid frame, a notchy headband adjustment, and slightly less flexibility on the ear fitting.
The new leather strap adjuster, however, is more comfortable than the original thinnish headband strap with sliders. The new strap does a much better job dissipating vertical pressure on your head compared to the narrow contact points on the older HE6. It also looks less likely to chip and fray on the stitching which my 9-year-old HE6 suffers from.
The double magnet driver design is fairly weighty but thankfully the new form factor and materials have shaved some weight off the HE6SE compared to the older HE6. The HE6 weighs in at 502g compared to the HE^SE which is now 480g. That is substantially lower than the Rosson Audio Design RAD-0 which weighs in at over 600g, the LCD-4 at 600g, and the Final D8000 at 523g.
Connectors & Cable
Another big and very welcome change on the HE6SE is the replacement of the coaxial screw connectors from the old HE6 with a new dual-entry 3.5mm jack system with a 10-degree angle on the base of the cups.
I will be straight up and tell you that I hated that recessed coaxial screw-lock system on the older HE series units. So much potential for killing the internal wiring when trying to safely screw in the connectors. Moving to the 3.5mm system (via a short stint with 2.5mm sockets) makes life so much easier for connecting the cables on the new HE6SE.
New stock cable
The cable seems to have had an overhaul since the HE6 also though it is consistent with the cables used on their newest high-end releases. Thankfully, Hifiman has included both balanced and unbalanced options in the box along with the HE-Adaptor for connecting to speaker amps.
Unlike the higher-end SE models and the older HE6 you only get one 1.8m cable with the HE6SE as opposed to two. You do, however, get an adaptor which allows the single cable to become a dual-use balanced 4-pin XLR or convert to an unbalanced 6.3mm connection. All plugs are good quality Neutrik off-the-shelf builds.
The cable wire is now consistent with those that come with the HE1000SE and the previous V1 and V2. Gone are the older OCC (single crystal copper) builds and in comes the newer single crystalline copper and silver materials as well as the new flexible tubing jacket that I still think is quite quirky looking. Thankfully the tubing is not to transparent now with a slightly smokier finish to the jacket.
Comfort & Fit
Even accounting for the lack of lateral cup movement with the new rigid design, the HE6SE is much more comfortable and secure than the older HE6. There are a few specific reasons for that.
The first is the slight weight reduction from the original’s 502g down to 480g. Every little bit helps eh? The second is the introduction of the newer leather strap adjustment system. Not only does it have a much wider contact point on the scalp but it also much better at dissipating pressure than the older thinner headband of the HE6.
The third is the strap and notch sizing system which works a lot better for smaller heads than the more limited older HE6 sliders. I often felt the HE6 was ever so marginally long on my head, even on the shortest setting.
The final reason is the new ‘FocusPads’ Hifiman has used on the HE6SE replacing the thinner, (and cheaper looking) velour/leather pads of the original HE6. They are much deeper than the original pads with a more comfortable mix of pleather, fabric, and memory foam. They are also wedged to the rear to deliver a slightly better seal and enhanced comfort.
As before, they are detachable and you do get an additional set of pads that are 100% velour as opposed to the hybrid alternative. The velour is comfy but I still prefer the feel and secure fit of the wedged hybrid pads. The locking system for taking off and putting on the pads is far less fraught with danger than the older pads that’s for sure.
Accessories & Packaging
I have no complaints about the packaging. Certainly, it is more professional and durable looking than the original Hifiman HE6 latch box which started to flake a lot down through the years. The new latch box looks far tidier with more premium materials so it should last a lot longer.
But for those that have been long-time Hifiman customers, you will notice that the box is more or less the same one that was used on the HE400i when it first came out. That was a $499 headphone so a bit of recycling but it is still a very good case. I have been noticing that Hifiman headphones at that level now come in a more basic but still tidy looking retail cardboard box with satin lining. The more expensive headphones are now getting the latch boxes.
Inside, you get the new 1.8m cable with a 4-pin XLR termination as well as the XLR to 6.35mm short piggy-tail adaptor. You also get the additional velour pads and a nice little manual with the story behind the HE6SE. I believe you also get a soft black carry pouch though this sample did not come with one.
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