“You are going to need a bigger amp”. Now looking around at my loveable Mjolnir and Hifiman EF6 SS amps that didn’t inspire any fiscal and aural confidence but nevertheless those were the ringing ‘Scheideresque’ type words when Hifiman just announced the all new planar flagship, the HE1000. I was not about to go all ‘Quint’ on this review either and start recanting Spanish Ladies as the HE1000 munched all the way through my previously durable amps with rather limp results. If I needed a better amp I better get one otherwise I would have this nagging feeling I may not have done any justice on a running commentary of the HE1000’s performance. So $4000 later and one Studio 6 tube amp installed I feel I am finally ready to talk about the HE1000. My bank manager on the other hand does not wish to have this conversation raised again for quite some time. He would rather I learn to sing.
With Price Comes Opportunity
A $3000 planar headphone is indeed rarefied air in an audio box and it was perhaps unsurprising that Hifiman would make a dash for the planar flagship throne. The JPS Labs Abyss has created a yawning gap between the LCD-3 from Audeze, the previous ‘planar of planars’, (at least in pricing), to its own rather unobtanium enriched pedestal of $5k. Do not even get me started on the new Sennheiser Orpheus MK2 at $55k. Such price gaps, over time, become opportunities. Technology does not stand still and neither does the competition. Audiophiles now accept that in some cases, a higher priced headphone can indeed sound a lot better than a cheaper one with the right setup and worse with the wrong setup. Not all mind you, but the odd one or two can go a long way to convincing you that maybe opening the wallet one more time is worth it.
I can’t see Dr. Fang Bian open up a chorus of “Show me the way to go home” but he was grateful enough to shed some light on why now for the HE1000 and why at $3000:
I don’t care so much about the buzz, but I do care about business. I dared to price the HE1000 at $3k because for a few reasons. One, I was confident in its sound quality, and comfort compared to what was already in the market. Two, it was an expensive product to develop taking years on the driver alone. And lastly, if we priced it lower, I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand. Given the new introductions from other brands, I feel our pricing at $3k was correct and even makes HE1000 a good value.
Until a few weeks ago I might have debated with him on what new introductions he meant but the Audeze LCD-4 put paid to that and yes there is the Abyss and not to mention the myriad of high end Stax out there every bit as expensive if not more. It’s not the price that gets anyone going, it’s the conditioning of the mind that a planar should be that price. That is a process only the market can decide and so far it has worked out pretty well for Hifiman.
But you still need a pitch, you still need a story behind the sound, and a reason for why things are the way they are. You won’t convert everyone but the context is important. The HE1000 is not just a reshaping or replacement of the HE-6 and nor is it the evolution of what was started with the recently redesigned HE400, HE400i and HE560. Those cans, though no less enjoyable, belong to both a different era and a different target market.
The Good Doctor
Someone politely inquired a year or two ago what exactly Fang is a Doctor off. Well he is a Doctor of Nano-Technologies and it is precisely that knowledge that has driven him to design a planar headphone with what seems to be the first blended use of nano tech inside a headphone. Now before you go all 7 of 9 on me this is not some living breathing series of mechanical devices assimilating in a cup but rather it is being touted as the world’s first diaphragm in nanometer thickness.
Planar headphones suffer from weight problems and are the equivalent of a John Goodman method acting role. Its credible, its actually very good indeed, but damn that weight. If anything, outside of power, planars just plain suck as being lightweight. Even the small, portable class PM-3 from Oppo, the lightest yet, is still a hefty 320g which is much heavier than the Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 by almost 100g and they are classed as full size dynamic cans. On the flip side the LCD-2 and LCD-3 are over 500g. That is very noticeable on your noggin and if you are not used to it, say HD800/K812 level of light and breezy, it will come as a shock moving to planars.
The Nano Tech
However thin and light is not going to justify the price or in reality produce an awesome sound in its own right. You need something a lot more. As Fang was quite keen to mention to me:
HE1000 is the beginning to apply nano tech research into headphone design. There are so many unique features we applied to the HE1000: asymmetrical ear cup, new magnet arrangement, window shade grill, etc. These designs are the key to unlocking the best sound quality potential of nano material.
It’s the nano-material combined with the some of these design changes that mark out the HE1000 as unique from not just other Hifiman headphones but from most of the entire planar range out in the market right now.
You want light, that video pretty much captures how light the diaphragm actually is (regardless of what you think of Queen). Not only light and low in mass, but apparently tight, really durable and designed to produce a very high quality fast sounding dynamic response compared to regular planar diaphragms.
A New Magnet design
The second big change is the magnet design which Fang hinted in his chat with me earlier. All Planars need magnets, that’s a given fact for now and a contributing factor to the weight equation. Now what Hifiman have done with the HE1000 is supposedly address regular planar magnet design refractions and reflections. Most use single sided planar designs to get around the reflection issue and produce a completely open sound. JPS Labs did that with the Abyss, and Hifiman also used this single sided design (on one side of the diaphragm only) on the HE400 and HE560 to great effect. So the workaround is common at all levels of the most recent planar headphones. Audeze attacked it with the Fazor technology to produce a more open sound also in their latest LCD revisions.
For the HE1000 though it is all change. Back we go to dual sided but this time it’s in a non-symmetrical little and large array of magnets. The little is on the ear side of the diaphragm and the large is on the outside. With this design Hifiman claim reflections are minimized in such a way that you should in theory get a much cleaner, true to life sound free of the usual problems associated with planar magnet designs.
The Window Shade Design
The final piece in this redesign jigsaw is the ‘Window Shade’ design on the outside of the cups. Again to combat second reflections its unique design it put together primarily to give the headphone an open a sound as possible for planar technology and free from distortions and vibration. Imaging and soundstage have never been the key strengths of planar technology even on the flagships so anything that tightens this area up considerably is a welcome innovation in my book.
There was a lot of wild guessing as to what the HE1000 was when the pictures first came out – was it planar or electrostatic? Of course now we know it’s an all-out planar with quite an extensive reworking of planar technology. In fact, the design you see today started out 7 years ago.
In truth the design itself is part evolution, part modernisation but there is a definite if evolved consistency from the Jade to the HE1000 in spirit and more than a nod to the HE90 from Sennheiser. At the heart of the HE1000 it is really all about weight distribution and comfort. The cups are huge, Jade huge but surprisingly light. They are neither rounded like the HE-6, K812 nor are they angled or ‘D-shaped’ (as I call it) like the HD800. They are more in line with the HD600/HE90 long oval cup shape and are probably the biggest circumaural I have tried to date outside of the Orpheus last year.
480g in planar world is competitive, especially so when you consider that the HE1000 from headband to gimbals and outer grills are crafted from metals rather than plastics. The majority of the weight is in fact housed in the cups rather than the headband or supporting gimbals but it doesn’t drag down on your head like the old HE6 or HE500. Much like the HE400i and HE560 the HE1000 uses the new headband system which distributes weight far more evenly than the old traditional headband. The headband strap is made of a higher quality suede material than the more mundane non vented materials of the lower tier units and it certainly is no lacking in comfort and durability. The metal used on the headband reminds me of the nickel alloy used on ALO Audio 2015 RX portable amp. It looks slightly aged and retro rather than bang up to date cool steel you normally see. I think it’s a nice touch actually and blends well with the wood toned cups.
If there is one area of concern it is the oiled wood veneer finish of those cups. I know wood and Hifiman are not the best of buddies with a few aborted attempts for one reason or another. It just doesn’t seem to be a material that Hifiman enjoys working with on a production level but at $3k, beautiful as it looks from afar, the HE1000 wood veneer does have its sore points with not all of them looking finished flush as they should do when up close.
Normally we call this growing pains and the Edition X seems more in keeping with the safer plastics or metals of which Hifiman does a great job on. It is nit-picking but it is a $3k can so you do not get out of jail with a free pass and I would have preferred either real wood or perhaps a steel casing rather than the veneer personally. That being said the tonal match is perfect with the retro alloy headband so I can see why they chose that design path aesthetically.
The pads follow the same format as the Focus pads of the HE400i and HE560 but the leather and comfort levels are on a far higher level. There is a noticeable difference in the quality levels of the leather in the HE1000 pads; much softer to the touch on your head. These bevelled ear pads are called the Ultra Pads by Hifiman and measure from 15mm to 25mm in overall thickness. Not as deep as the Audeze pads or the MrSpeakers Prime pads but they are comfortable indeed.
You can wear these for hours without issue and the combination of velour and leather offers a nice balance between seal and heat dissipation. A few have started already to look at modding the pads since they are detachable with outright replacements for those that fit and adding some foam layers and creating further angles to place the drivers more towards the user’s ears to further tighten up imaging. Its par for the course, heck even the Focus pads came out of a successful modding exercise.
What You get
Surprisingly the HE1000 package, fittingly color coded it may be, did not take my breath away. It didn’t feel like a whole step up from say the HE-560 box in terms of visual impact. It follows the design cues from all the new Hifiman Gen 2 cans apart from the HE400s and I guess you could debate that it brings harmony to the HE line but that’s stretching it. I have to admit I am yearning for a travel case more in tune with the Audeze pelican-style unit at least as an option for a $3k headphone. The manual is a nice touch, not many companies see fit for manual to go along with a headphone but it does a nice job of setting the background story to the development and tech of the HE1000.
Inside you also get an array of cables including an unbalanced TRS cable terminated 3m cable and a balanced 4 pin XLR output terminated 3m cable Both cables now come with the new 2.5mm stereo/mono plugs for attaching to the dual entry cups of the HE1000 itself. Technically this is the first one I got without the coaxial cables of the previous models however the HE400S was the first review in which I privately celebrated the end of the agony. The new 2.5m jacks are so easy to push in and out and are a very welcome relief from endless screwing in and out before use.
The third and final cable is a shorter portable 1.5m cable (terminated with a 3.5mm TRS plug) which I think I remember getting one similar one with the HE400 Gen 1 but not honestly sure. That is a tip to the confidence within Hifiman that the HE1000 can perform with strong line outs from DAP’s and headphone jacks from good portable amps which the previous flagship, the HE6, could not achieve. Though in no way a portable class headphone it does seem Hifiman believes that the HE1000 can indeed be driven by portable gear of a certain calibre.