Over the past several years, growing numbers of serious music lovers have turned to top-tier headphones either as their primary listening devices or as complements to more traditional in-room high-end audio systems. There are more complex factors driving this movement than can be summarized here, but among them are a desire to enjoy high-end sound on a 24/7 basis without disturbing neighbors or family members, and a craving for the powerful, intimate, and profoundly revealing musical presentations that today’s best headphone-based systems afford.
While top-tier headphones aren’t necessarily for everyone, they offer so many compelling benefits that we thought it would make sense to introduce the wider TAS audience to the headphones that in our view represent today’s crème de la crème.
In this survey, we will discuss three types of high-end headphones: dynamic-driver, planar magnetic-driver, and electrostatic headphones. We will review the basic technologies used in each type and then offer mini-reviews of representative top-tier models.
Planar Magnetic-Driver Headphones
HiFiMAN is a Chinese firm that specializes in high-end dynamic and planar-magnetic driver headphones, earphones, and portable high-res music players. HiFiMAN’s flagship HE-6 uses a very- low-mass thin-film diaphragm with gold conductive traces, plus what the company terms a “super efficient magnetic circuit.” The HE-6 enjoys a reputation as a “must-hear” top-end model (arguably one of the three or four best headphones available), but also is recognized as perhaps the most difficult-to-drive headphone on the market. To tap the full performance potential of the HE-6, users must inevitably use very high-powered, high- resolution headphone amplifiers.
The HE-6 offers a neutral tonal balance, exceptional transient speed, extremely high resolution, plus a quality of musical “soulfulness.” The HE-6 comes ever so close to matching the resolution of Audeze’s more expensive LCD3 and does so while offering what some consider even more accurate overall timbre. Remember, though, that the HE-6 is extremely sensitive to and demanding of associated electronics. When pushed by inadequate amps the HE-6 can sound bright, edgy, and ill at ease, but with appropriate amps the headphone’s sonic persona changes, becoming powerful, masterful, engaging, and at times downright majestic. Hint: To ensure “known good” results, try powering the HE-6 with HiFiMAN’s beefy, high-output EF6 amp.