People keep asking me what my favorite headphone is, or what one I would keep if I had only one and for the last 3 years I have said to them it is the Hifiman HE6. The HE6 and I have been through a lot of growing up and maturing in the headphone world from constantly upgrading amps for more power to looking at which cable will give me the most finesse for hooking it up.
It also started a small Hifiman headphone exploration that ended up with practically every Hifiman planar, for good or bad, on my rack. The last one to escape my attention though was the HE-500. I even managed to get the HE-5 before the HE-500.
For some reason, it always eluded me until a few months ago when I received the HE560 for review low and behold one week later I got the HE500 in a local trade with a guy who was hot after all things Audio Technica. It is perfect timing really because the HE560 is now replacing the HE500 in Hifiman’s lineup along with its fiscally smaller sibling the HE400i and they have just announced their new flagship planer at CES 2015 – the HE1000 so lots of changes.
Now I just adore the HE400 and a few of my local group members have nothing but positive words to say about the HE400’s sound signature. In my review of the HE400 in Feb 2013, I mentioned that for me it was a real departure from the previous house sound of the Hifiman planar series and combined with the unique blue color, improved efficiency and satisfying bass response you could almost argue that it was Hifiman’s most consumer-driven model yet. It still does the rounds today in our local groups and price wise you can grab it on Amazon for a very tempting $299.
Some fans aiming for the top end also picked the HE500 over the HE6 due to its open, smooth and transparent sound that a lot of people preferred to the sometimes brighter and more strident HE6. It is also a headphone that does not require a nuclear power plant to power it up to adequate levels unlike the HE6. It doesn’t have the consumer signature of the HE400 and costs around $200 bucks more but a lot see it as a bit of a bargain of sonic excellence when paired with the right source and my impressions of the HE500 are largely consistent with that opinion.
Now whilst you could argue that the HE560 is more or less a direct replacement for the HE500 the same assertion is not so clear for the HE400i replacing the HE400.
In fact during a few email discussions back and forth with the team at Hifiman I did mention it would have been better calling the HE400i the HE460 simply because the relationship in terms of design, technology and even tonality bears a closer resemblance to the new direction of the HE560 than the older HE400.
Comparing the HE400 to the HE400i as a direct replacement is basically the wrong assertion and those wondering why $499 and not $399 and ‘why this and that’ are simply looking at the title of the headphone and not beyond. That is a shame because the HE400i is a compelling headphone in its own right and whether or not it has a signature that “beats” the HE400 is based on purely numerical semantics of an errant product title. So be warned I am not going to compare this with the HE400 as a replacement but rather see it as a sibling of the HE560 which retails at $899 with a nod to the ‘spirit’ of the HE400.
What you get
Everything about these two headphones, both in the box and out of the box, screams upgrade on the previous series. The boxes previously were stylish enough on the HE500, though the HE400 ended up in a rather muted cardboard box rather than the previous black latch boxes. T
he HE400i box is more in keeping with the older Hifiman case albeit with a more modern faux leather finish in black and silver and little nylon ribbon lifter instead of the older gold-colored metal latch. If you have had HE series black boxes from the older series then you will know that they were prone to flaking and decay considerably over the years so I am pleased that the new HE400i box seems more durable and less likely to fade as the months and years pass by.
The HE560 box is an even more impressive design with a dark wood finished enclosure and a silver/grey metal top lid. It is one of the nicest decorative boxes I have seen to date. I would still place the Oppo PM-1 wooden finished box a bit higher in terms of overall quality of finish though and it is not as functional as the Beyerdynamic T1 case but it is a heavy upgrade on the older black box used by the HE500. The lid is a slide format lid rather than the HE400i lift lid type and cuts a very low profile, almost seamless, with the rest of the box in the closed position.
Both the inside of the HE400i box and HE560 box though are the exact same in terms of foam cutout design. Both have a slightly different layout than the older HE series black boxes with specific areas now for the cable to be housed in the middle rather than on the outside and a slightly more elaborate foam design for housing the headphone itself. It feels more secure than the older insert although slightly trickier to pack up and unpack than before due to the slightly more complex foam layering.
Both the HE400i and HE560 come with similar looking cables finished in the usual gold plated coax connectors that screw in to the base of the headphone cups. Both cables are composed of a crystalline’ copper / silver composite cable with black fabric sleeving but both are terminated slightly differently. The HE400i is terminated with a right angled gold plated 3.5mm plug and comes with a quarter jack adaptor also gold plated. The HE560 though comes with a quarter jack termination only. I can only assume the HE400i’s 3.5mm termination is a gentle nod to the fact Hifiman see the HE400i as slightly more mobile and efficient than the HE560 and possibly could be used with modern day DAP’s with good amping. The efficiency rating of the HE400i is classed at 94db over the 90db of the HE560 so there is some credence in that. However I get a feeling most people will still end up using the HE400i as their main desktop headphone rather than commute extensively given the fact the HE400i is an open back planar can much like the HE560 and may still need some juice to sound its best.
The HE400i cable is also a bit shorter at 1.5meters in length overall compared to the HE560’s 2m in length. Again if the nod is towards being more mobile than the 1.5m cable is going to be handy but if most opt for desktop the 1.5m might feel a little too short for comfort. Ultimately it depends on how far you are from your source but 1.5m is traditionally a sweet spot for me for cable length when using with portable devices. Both cables also have a little tube wrap half way down the outside of the cable I presume for insulation against microphonics when moving around and using them at the same time. I can feel there is going to be some debate though if the cable is long enough for both headphones but if you are sitting down and listening the length should be just enough – just!
The Connector Debate
I do think it is time to consider moving from the coax cable connectors to something more user friendly such as mini-XLR or the MMCX Shure type connectors. I have never been a fan of these type of connections, being both fiddly and prone to stressing the solder on the wires if you twist from below the screw and not the screw itself. Normally I see coax on the back of a TV or for satellite technology in broadcasting and if you read my previous reviews you will know that I am not a fan of them. That being said the latest pictures of the new HE-1000 flagship do point to the possibility that there will be a new type of connector used, possibly 3.5mm possibly not, but it does looks like it from the CES 2015 pictures at the time of writing.
The New Look
Both the HE560 and the HE400i represent a significant transformation in terms of physical styling, form factor, weight and comfort. Out of the box the cups have that classic style of Hifiman but from the gimbals up and including the headband the HE560 and HE400i share a brand new design. The HE400i still has those nice resin plastic cups of the previous HE series but this time less piano black and more of a smoky chrome finish which does a very nice color shifting shimmer in good lighting. The HE560 though have a mix of matte plastic and ebony wood veneer finish. Those that remember the HE5 or owned one will probably think this is a good move. There was an early batch release with some solid Teak wood used, but like the HE5, there were some concerns on the long term viability so the return to plastic and a wood veneer seemed the sensible choice in the long run.
Some of the previous discussions on the HE series of planars have centered on one of two major points and that being weight and fit. The previous HE-6 and HE500 are fairly heavy headphones in comparison to modern day dynamic headphones though slightly lighter than the planar range from Audeze. Oppo really made a mark in terms of planar size and weight with the PM-1 coming in much lighter than all previous planar cans on the market at a pleasing 395g, or just over 200g lighter than the LCD-2 from Audeze and just over 100G lighter than the older HE-500 model. Well both the HE400i and HE560 weigh in at only 370g and 365g respectively making them among the lightest full size planar cans on the market today. That is a hefty reduction in weight from the previous models in the HE range, namely the HE-500 and even the HE400.
Balance of Pressure
Not only are they significantly lighter but the whole new design of these headphones means the distribution of weight is much better thought out and more balanced than the previous range. One thing I have always noted about the HE6 and to a lesser extent on the HE5/500/5 LE is the weight balance felt more on the side and top of the ears pressing downwards making them ever so slightly uncomfortable for my head for longer periods of listening. The HE560 and HE400’s lighter weight and redesign means that the clamping is less downwards and more ‘side to side’ which is a lot more comfortable. The inner headband strap also helps displace a little of that unwanted side pressure also unlike the older single headband of the say the HE6 which even at the smallest head size adjustment setting always felt perhaps a little too big or loose for me. I can honestly say there is practically zero movement with the HE400i and HE560 on my head properly adjusted and in use.
The New Pads
Both headphones are now sporting the new ‘Focus Pad’ designs. Those who have been following the development of Hifiman pads will know this is about revision three in the pad design to my best recollection. You first had the velour pads with the rather iffy snap on system that always broke. Then you had a much more durable pleather option that I think I bought about 3 pairs of them in my time and still use to this day on the HE6. The Focus Pads actually drew heavily from the original Jergpad modification which was (and still is) a mix of the pleather and velour wrapped into one single pad. A lot of people swore by it as the right mix of open spaciousness of the velour and the slightly darker harder hitting tonality of the pleather pads and there are 112 pages as of writing today on the Jergpad modification on head-fi alone which is just mind boggling.
Well, Jerg must have done something very right because Hifiman’s new pads, the Focus pads are pretty much in keeping with the Jergpad spirit with a pleather exterior, a velour foam interior and a pleather stitched internal ring. The attaching mechanism on the back is still from version 2 of the pleather pads which is relatively easy to get on and off. The resulting Focus Pad is a very comfortable fit with only the odd discomfort if the edge of the pleather runs on the ear but once in place this rarely happens. There is considerably less heat also which is a problem with my pleather on the HE6. Combine this with the better angling of the cups, pressure distribution and lesser weight of the headphone itself makes the HE400i and HE560 comfort experience way higher than the older HE series such as the HE500.
Just to note there are another set of Focus pads, called the Focus A pads which came with some pre-ordered HE560 cans but now sold as standard by Hifiman. The main difference being on the Focus-A inner ring having a mesh fabric finish rather than the stitched pleather finish of the regular Focus Pad. Sadly I cannot tell you how they differ sound wise but forum users will swear that it is more linear and less energetic than the Focus pads.