HiFiMAN HE-5, HE-5LE, HE-6, and HE500 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Just a year and a half ago I walked into the CanJam area of RMAF, and right smack-dab in the middle was Fang Bian, head of Head Direct and the HiFiMAN brand of headphone gadgetry. Fang always has something new going on; I wondered what it would be this time. He smiled, stood, and cheerfully greeted me, then pointed towards center-stage on one of his tables.

"Would you like to hear my new planar magnetic headphones?"

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought.

The New Cans Appear
I had seen the threads on Head-Fi where fans spent countless hours modifying old Orthodynamic headphones. Hopeful comments are often made in these threads of the great sound and potential for someone, somewhere to go into production and bring planar magnetic headphones back into their rightful glory. I wondered if this was it.

(Please see “How Planar Magnetic Headphones Work” article to get a complete run-down on the operating principle of this type of headphone.)

I wasn’t terribly impressed by the sound at the time, but I wasn’t terribly disappointed either. It’s pretty remarkable to start producing a headphone and driver from scratch with a virtually unused technology and end up with something that sounds pretty good on the first try. I thanked Fang for the listening session, and told him I was encouraged by what I heard and that I hoped he’d continue to work on it. Boy did he ever!

In rapid succession over the last year and a half, HiFiMAN has introduced numerous models of planar Magnetic headphone. In this article I will review the: HE-5; HE-5LE; HE-6; and HE-500. There is also an HE-4 with single-sided magnetic driver, but I was unable to lay ears on it.

All HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphones are full-size, circumaural (around the ear), open-back headphones. All have very similar external construction with changes of materials over the course of time. The changes to the planar magnetic drivers inside these cans have been more dramatic than the external differences model to model, and the sound of these headphones has been moving ever closer to what I would consider the yummy center.

The HiFiMAN HE-5 (discontinued, $600)
Introduced in 2009 at the RMAF show, this headphone made a really big splash in among headphone aficionados. It has aluminum conductors on the diaphragm and symmetrical magnet geometry. It delivered bass like no other can previously heard, but it had its failings too, as many found it too bright, and the wooden design tended to develop cracks after a while.

In my listening, I too found the highs somewhat over-emphasized delivering a “zingy” sound. Coupled with the strong and well-extended bass, I heard the mid-range as too withdrawn and disconnected to deliver a full and rich listening experience.

The HiFiMAN HE-5LE ($699)
To address the issues found with the HE-5, the HE-5LE was introduced in April 2010. Changes were made to reduce the treble response with an asymmetrical magnet configuration reducing the field strength on one side of the diaphragm. The earpieces were changed to a synthetic material to get rid of the cracking problem with wooden cups. The response from enthusiasts was … well, enthusiastic.

I remember my first listening sessions with these headphones, and thinking Fang Bian was certainly heading in the right direction. In listening now, I continue to feel they’re very good; some of the zingyness still remains as an artificial sounding sheen on cymbals and strings but it’s much better than the previous HE-5. I also find the upper-mid-range remains a bit too withdrawn. Nonetheless, these headphones remain available at this writing, and I think they’re competitive at the price-point.

HiFiMAN HE-6 ($1,199)
In June of the same year, HiFiMAN released the HE-6. In deep piano black, this headphone sported a new diaphragm with gold traces, and significantly increased field strength with stronger magnets back in a symmetrical configuration. Howerver, it has very low efficiency, almost needing a small speaker power amp (5Watt to 20Watt) to drive them. When I first measured the HE-6 I ran into amplifier clipping problems using a HeadRoom Balanced Desktop in single-ended mode during the 100dB SPL distortion test. Switching to balanced mode to double the effective drive voltage solved the problem, but buyers should be forewarned that the amp used on these cans must be able to swing significant voltage.

I found the HE-6 to have an improved upper mid-range, delivering a somewhat more full-bodied sound than its predecessors. Unfortunately for me, the tizzyness of the HE-5 returned with the HE-6, and I found them a little too bright for extended sessions. I'll add though, that many find these headphones fabulous when match carefully with very good amps.

HiFiMAN HE-500 ($899)
Ahhhh … balance! Fang Bian has pushed my buttons with the HE-500, which is significantly more coherent sounding throughout. With these cans, HiFiMAN has retained the strong magnets and field symmetry of the HE-6; gone back to an aluminum conductor; and added special treatments to the diaphragm.

Still slightly too fast, but now with a tamer treble, everything seems better integrated into a marvelously well-balanced presentation. The music blooms clear and whole. With the other HE Series cans I found a clear preference for the Audez’e LCD-2 and it’s juicy, liquid smoothness. The LDC-2, however, has a somewhat laid back treble response, and comparing it to the HE-500 I feel like I’m missing some information in the highs with the Audeze cans. I now have the blessed quandary of selecting between two very fine headphones as I listen to my tunes, and have no clear favorite at the moment. I’ll keep working on it though … with great pleasure. (It’s probably worth noting here that my tastes run toward the laid back side, but still find the LCD-2 a bit lacking in treble response. )

Now some notes ...

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COMMENTS
Gatepc's picture

Hi I was wondering which you prefer for mostly female vocals/piano music the LCD 2s or the HE-500 also are the HE-500 more efficient then the HE-6?

Thanks

Tyll Hertsens's picture
.... kinda depends on the day and the recording, I suppose.

Yes, the HE-500 is significantly more sensitive than the HE-6.

ysyung's picture

Nice review, waiting for the shipment of 500. cheers

PMM's picture

...that you'd recommend both sets, Tyll -- and yet I very much get where you're coming from, too. The more things HiFiMAN and Audez'e put out into the world, the more I respect and admire both companies. Woe unto those of us who will only be able to choose one, because they're both excitingly good.

(I think this was a really nice write-up, by the way. Your experiences and insights and top-flight measurements click right together.)

yuriv's picture

It's interesting that for you, the ideal response falls somewhere between the HE500 and the LCD-2. The measurements show both of them with the treble shelved down after you subtract the ID HRTF compensation curve. That's useful information when reading the frequency response graphs in your measurements. In this case, accurate, natural sound doesn't show up as flat in your data. I'm assuming, of course, that your preference is for the most realistic reproduction--high fidelity, for real.

Have you ever wondered what the head simulator's response would be if you put it in front of great speakers in a well-treated room, maybe a system that has a reasonably flat response at the listening position with a measurement mic? It might already be available for the HMS II.3 if the speaker is directly in front or 30 degrees to either side. That information would also be useful and would add more context to your measurements. But maybe that's the subject of a future article.

On the flip side, what would a pair of cans sound like if it had a perfectly flat response on the head simulator after ID compensation? Could they be horribly bright? Or maybe not--I don't know how loud you like to listen to your music. It could depend on that too.

As usual, great info!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
... to see an HRTF for two speakers 30 degrees to either side of the head ... but Head Acoustics doesn't have one.

If a headphone were to measure perfectly flat on the system with the ID compensations, I do think they'd sound bright.

xnor's picture
Me too, for quite some time now. :P (But if those speakers measured flat at 30° it would still sound a bit to bright/lacking body.)
dalethorn's picture

It was amusing to consider the reaction to all those new models in HiFiMan's lineup. Years ago(!) Gordon Holt was reviewing a new transmission-line speaker for Irving Fried, and after much tedium and sweat, Fried would come over and tweak the speakers to correct some flaw that Holt detected, lest it wind up in the review. Matter of fact, that process repeated itself several times over before the review was finalized. I believe they were both in the Philly area then, otherwise those tweaks may have become separate versions with much longer development cycles.

LFF's picture

I also agree with you that the LCD-2 and the HE-500 bracket the sweet spot for perfect sound. My preference is slightly more for the HE-500 though and I do miss hearing them. Although a tad bright, they still sound mighty good and are in a class of their own when compared to most other headphones.

If anything, I feel both headphones have shown what orthodynamics can do and the future definitely looks good for these types of headphones.

Once again, good video and looking forward to more!

audiolover's picture

Tyll - What's your opinion of electrostatic headphones and how they compare to planar magnetic ones?

The HE-6 are my favorite non-electrostatic headphones, but they are inferior to my Stax SR-007.

My advice to people looking for headphones is to get a high-end Stax setup if they can afford it and be done with it. Even the best non-stats setups still can't match it in my experience. I tried the HE-6, LCD-2, HD800, and T1 with the best amps (Beta 22, GS-X) and couldn't reach or surpass the overall sound quality of the Stax even with setups that cost a similar amount to the Stax setup.

I think non-stats are getting closer with the latest batch mentioned above, but they're still not there, and Stax supposedly just moved further ahead with the SR-009 (haven't had a chance to listen to it yet).

Just wondering what you think, since I haven't seen anything about electrostatics from you.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Unfortunately, my experience is primarily with dynamic headphones. I've heard Stax, Orphius, Koss 950 of course, but not had long experience with them. I'm trying to get through a lot of dynamic cans at the moment as they are the ones most of the population are interested in, but I will get around to reviewing e-stats eventually.

Whether e-states are superior is another question. I've certainly been dissatisfied with some I've heard, but I'm also well aware of many who's opinion I trust who are in that camp firmly. No doubt it will be a pleasure to play with them in the future.

audiolover's picture

I'm very much curious to hear your impressions when you evaluate electrostatics.

Obviously, not all stats are superior to all dynamics. I would go straight to the SR-007 (or the SR-009 - haven't heard these yet). Those headphones are clearly better overall (in my opinion) than all dynamics and planar magnetics that I tried.

It's just that even the best non-stats have at least some annoying weaknesses. I think this is why people never seem to be quite happy with any single one, so they buy multiple ones and keep experimenting without ever being satisfied. The top Stax don't suffer from this problem in my view - I can't point to an annoying weakness that makes me want to listen to one of the dynamics and planar magnetics instead.

donunus's picture

I'm listening to the he6 right now out of an old audiolab integrated amplifier's speaker terminals and they sound pretty darned good except for the brightness. I really want to try the he500 now

Tyll Hertsens's picture
... to the dark side, my friend.
donunus's picture

Ive actually already been liking the darker sound for a while. Unless you meant the "dark side of the fuzz" LOL I still remember that from GoRedwings19 a while back on headfi hehehe

sharklordy's picture

Hi there, do you prefer the t1 or he500 overall?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
... they're both a bit bright for my tastes --- I think I'd go for the LCD-2 --- but if I had to choose I think I'd go with the HE-500. The T1 has a bit too much "tizz" to me.
Beagle's picture

I have the HE-5LE. I'm convinced that these are the first headphones to truly deserve the "veil" and "midrange suckout" descriptors. They sound like loudspeakers that have a large tarpaulin thrown over them. Music goes back instead of forward, especially in the midrange. Listening to these (after coming off something like the DT1350 or the ATH-AD900) is akin to having cotton shoved into your ears. Live music just does not sound like this, unless you happen to be in the bathroom or outside having a smoke.

I did get a custom cable made for them (which has just arrived). I'll see if it has any positive effect. And no, I'm not shelling out another $900 for the HE-500.

dleblanc343's picture

Wow am I ever excited, gonna be getting HE-500's from the rep in 10 days for DIRT cheap! I'm so glad I'm working at the best hifi shop in my area, because at 19 I'd never dream of paying over 600$ on a headphone!

:D

Mizukitsu's picture

so is the Hifiman HE-500 just as good as the HD800?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Better in some ways, worse in others. This article might help.

http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/comparing-world-class-headphones

Mizukitsu's picture

cause i have the HD800, but i really can't stand the build quality on mine. its so horrible. im going to send it back so they can look on it, what you is saying about the bass really make me want the HE500. but anyway thanks for the response ^^

kixxit's picture

I have the Burson HA-160D/DAC and the Schiit Lyr. The Burson just doesn't seem to play well with the HE-500. The combo seems dry. The Lyr on the other hand, seems to work wonders with the right music, and falls flat with the "wrong" music. I'm looking for an amp that will potentially add some kick and tighten up the bass of the HE-500's. To my ears, the bass is a bit weak and loose. Is there anything out there with more juice than the Lyr for under $1k? After the comparison with the Burson it would seem tubes are the way to go but I honestly have no preference for tube vs solid state - I just want the best possible sound out of my HE-500's. For reference, I've been comparing both amps with the Denon HA-D7000's. The Burson works better with the Denons. Thanks!

Cris's picture

Hi,
Very interesting review and comments!
I have read that Audiolab M-DAC is not a high-end product but quite a good DAC. Does anyone has experience with the built-in headphone amplifier? Would this amplifier be sufficient for HE-500?
KR,
Cris

phllyd's picture

Any plans to review the HE-300 and HE-400?

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