The release of a dynamic headphone from a planar specialist. It has been done before but to a different standard and in a different period of growth for Hifiman. Back in 2011, it was the HE300, which was crafted in the likeness of their first generation design such as the HE4 and HE5-LE. At the time, the HE300 seemed a moderate and interesting sideline to the main planar business with its mid-centric signature, fullish quick bass and slightly rolled high end. It didn’t take off quite in the same way as say the planars but I am not sure if that was ever the intention. I enjoyed it for what it was and I called it an “almost mobile headphone” back in the day when Hifiman was rocking out nuclear powered inefficient headphones.
Things change, yes they do. Now you have efficient planar cans to take the place of the HE300 in terms of the full circumaural experience and the HE400S does a pretty fine job at $299. Where to go? The one gap left that the likes of Audeze and Oppo have been fast to target is now the on-ear experience and this is where Hifiman have come up with a new headphone, the Edition S and yes, once again we go back to the dynamic experience for $249, their cheapest headphone yet.
What Is The Pitch?
Dynamic? Check. Unusual? No. Open or closed? Now what about having both at the same time? Well now, that is the big pitch. The Edition S sits in Hifiman’s new Premium range of audio gear and is both an open and closed back on-ear headphone design through the clever use of detachable logo caps on the outside of each cup. With the caps attached the Edition S is in closed mode and with the caps off it becomes an open on-ear headphone. In effect, this is two headphone signatures for the price of one. Now whether or not the caps will produce a “true” closed headphone sound in terms of combating reflections and resonance quirks we shall see but the idea is admirable and at the very least you do have options and a degree of isolation should you need it.
Further to this unique pitch Hifiman have kept the Edition S incredibly efficient for portable use with an 18-ohm rating and 113dB sensitivity as well as building in a foldable design making it the most aggressive attempt yet by Hifiman to really go for the ‘pick up and play’ audiophiles who want something on the go that can play well with portable devices. Throw in an inline mic and playback control and you get the gist pretty quick about who the Edition S might appeal to.
The Edition S is a portable sized large on-ear foldable design headphone with a single entry cable setup. Materials are mostly matte finished solid plastics with some inner metal joints at the gimbal/foldaway areas and synthetic leather padding in the central part of the headband for comfort. Pressure points are to the top of the head and to the side around your ears and feels well balanced with good clamping pressure.
The cup design is more attuned to the contours of a typical ear shape, so instead of being round like a DT1350 or rectangular like the HP-50 from Nad it has a cut away towards the bottom of an otherwise rounded rectangular shape. This is intended to follow the contours of your outer ear for a better fit and for my money it does exactly that with my regular sized ears. So whilst they are technically classed as on ear they do in fact go over my ears making them a very well designed and snug circumaural. Now your ears may not fit as well as mine but credit to Hifiman for coming up with this clever arrangement.
Fit & Seal
Pads are a new Focus pad designed to follow the same contours as the cups and they feel more or less the same as the original focus pads on the HE400i and HE560 in terms of weight and comfort. Note they are a semi-porous design so even in closed mode there is a touch of leakage from them, they do not isolate as completely as some pure closed units such as the HP-50 or the PM-3 from Oppo. The depth of the new pads is not quite as deep as the Oppo pads so the odd time I can feel my ears touching in the plastic grill protecting the dynamic driver. The pads are detachable though and whilst I have yet to see any alternative pad designs for sale I would hope to see more closed leather pad options just as an isolating alternative in the near future. There could be a case for a nice piece of modding here depending on your tastes with some damping materials on the back of that grill in the meantime.
Open and Closed
The cup covers are held together by a magnetic back plate so it’s a pretty straightforward lift and pull back motion to remove the plates and convert the Edition S into an open design headphone. Once done isolation is near zero with only the leather parts of the Focus pads adding a degree of wind noise protection. Putting the plates back on is a no brainer with the magnetic plates to convert it into a closed headphone, takes about 1 second each side and they simply snap back in.
It is not the most isolating of experiences though in its closed format. Yes, it’s not as wide open when the plates are off but it is not as isolating as its competitors. It does a fair job but there is still considerable leakage in part due to the slightly porous nature of the pads materials and I would presume also the lack of depth and deadening in behind the detachable plates to absorb and reflect external sounds. It is a compromise of sorts, almost semi-open and not completely closed.
The OFC cable is 1.2m in length and constructed of a fairly memory retentive free rubber coating and possessing excellent strain relief at both ends. This primarily portable cable is terminated with 3.5mm jacks at both ends with a straight gold plated 3.5mm jack for inserting into the Edition S and a right angled jack for use with your player of choice. Hifiman have also included a gold plated quarter jack convertor for desktop use. It also comes complete with a collar clip and an in-line remote control and mic for use with most smartphone platforms. Kudos to Hifiman for not sticking the Edition S with double entry or proprietary connectors. This leaves you free to try out any cable you want with a 3.5mm termination and there are quite a few out there.
Hifiman have also included an airline port adaptor with the Edition S as well as a rather nice portable semi-hard round zippered case. The Edition S fits perfectly into this case when folded. The case also has a metal clip on the top allowing you to tag it onto a backpack or case of some description to keep it secure if space is a premium inside your case. It is the first time I have seen Hifiman build a specific carry case for their headphones of this nature so thankfully no more 3rd Party cases good as they are.
The tonal difference between open and closed is not what I expected at all. With the plates on you do get more of a closed in quality with a neutral and relatively balanced presentation but with a slight focus more on the mid-range and treble over any hard hitting bass performance. Clean and clear is how I would define it with a little bit of zip and sparkle in the top end. It doesn’t have the thickest note and bass is just neutral at best but it has a very good turn of speed, with good articulation and decent definition.
Vocal presence is a mixed bag with female vocals from the likes of Ellie Goulding with her breathless high pitched style sounding a touch harsh and sibilant but on the other hand more soulful vocal sets like Katharine McPhee and Hillary Scott sounding more refined and controlled.
Overall the closed Edition S has a fairly coherent if slightly intimate soundstage that has a bit more depth than width but nothing inconsistent with a closed headphone sound. It has the edge in clarity and definition over the open variant but sounds a bit more brittle and unforgiving in return especially in the lower treble.
Take the plates off and things get a bit warmer and a bit more musical sounding. Oddly mid-bass gets a bit of a boost and treble sounds a bit more relaxed but still present. I had expected really everything to sound maybe a little airier and even brighter with the plates off but that’s not really the case. It’s not quite a u-shaped presentation but going in that direction.
Bass extension between the two is still the same and both do not have the strongest sub-bass presence so the open back variant is going to sound the heavier and fuller of the two with that mid-bass elevation but the closed version has the slightly better low-end clarity and articulation.
Treble on both is still a little thin and splashy to sound totally accurate but it is not as pronounced on the open version as it is on the closed with a slightly more relaxed feel to it. Male vocals on the open version sound a bit more convincing than female vocals which suffer a little from grain especially higher pitched vocals creeping close to the upper midrange/lower treble.
It sounds far more natural than the closed variant and more spacious to boot yet it never loses its strengths, namely an excellent mid-range and vocal presence. Instrumental timbre sounds more natural with the plates off also. I would not go as far as to say it is the dynamic variant to the HE400S but it does have some of that smooth mid-range quality that I quite like from the HE400s.
The Edition S is rated at 18 ohms and has a sensitivity of 118dB meaning it won’t take much by way of power to get these to run perfectly adequately and certainly more efficient than anything Hifiman has to offer right now. That being said it does scale a little and it does sound better with a bit more quality juice and it does react to differing source sounds a little.
For instance, my BB Passport, weak as it is, did a decent job powering the Edition S but it lacked the dynamics and resolution of the X7/AM2 combo which had the better power and DAC. In turn using the Edition S with the X7 as a pure source and plugging it into a desktop solution such as the efficient Sustain84 produced a richer sound than the X7 alone but not enough to justify plunking down $1k for the marginal gains. Those with quality DAP’s or portable amps already to hand should be able to extract every last ounce of ability from the Edition S but do not discount the budget DAP’s, it may simply come down to tonal matching in many respects.
The duality of signatures of the Edition S will largely dictate what type of source and amping you will pair it with. That closed neutral sound with the caps on sounds more fluids and realistic with a natural or warm sounding source/amp. The main body of this review was done with the X7/AM2 DAP and module combo which I felt gave the best balance between power, musicality and detail out of all of the mid-range DAPs we paired with.
DAPs such as the budget FiiO M3 or the classic Colorfly C4 matched very well indeed with the Edition S. The C4 offered a lot more detail and a more neutral performance than the warmer but more forgiving M3, but if you are on a budget the Edition X/M3 is quite a nice little combo open or closed. It’s not top end resolution but I like how it smooths out the treble performance a little in the Edition S closed format.
Alien Gold Edition
A very nice compromise between budget and tonal quality is the Shozy Alien Gold Edition which is noise free on this setup, makes great use of the space and staging afford to it by the Edition S, especially in open format and has a deliciously smooth tonality. The Gold Edition Alien is also a great match for the closed format if you feel the signature is otherwise a bit thin on other sources. Vocal performance is stronger on this pairing sounding slightly more forward and natural sounding than the sharper N5 from Cayin and the FiiO X5ii.
The Cayin N5 performed better with the softer warmer open format than the more neutral and cooler closed variation. The hard edge in the N5 attack didn’t pair well with the thinner lower treble of the Edition S and gave off a little too much sharpness for my liking. The X5ii took the middle ground between the Alien and the N5 with a more balanced and neutral presentation and if you are looking for an all-rounder at this price range the X5ii is the most useful barometer of all the mentioned DAPs.
My own personal take is that the on-ear portable headphone scene has been dying a slow death at the hands of IEMs and custom monitors these last few years but in the last 12 months a few delightful new portable cans have come out that would suggest it’s not a moribund category namely the Oppo PM-3, Audeze SINE and slightly earlier than that was the highly credible Nad HP50.
Now sadly I do not have the SINE with me yet, Mike did the review on that one and sent it back to Audeze but I did happen to have the always popular DT770 32 ohm edition to hand which I thought would be nice to throw into the mix paired with the FiiO X7 and AM2 module.
Both of these headphones are dynamics headphones. The closed 32 ohm Nad HP50 is a little larger in form factor than the 18-ohm Edition S due to its inability to fold but it does have the advantage of the cup being able to swivel flat which the Edition S cannot do. The Nad HP50 also has as a large cup diameter but it’s decidedly more on-ear than the Edition S so it presses on the outer ear whereas the S is really a small circumaural and largely avoids pressing on the ears. Both are comfortable and lightweight with good pressure distribution and similar clamping ability. The pads on the Nad though are denser and less porous than the Edition S pads and thus the HP50 isolates a whole lot more.
Both are relatively easy to drive but the edge goes to the NAD by about 5-6 steps on the X7 low gain digital volume. Tonally they are quite different. Both units are reasonably balanced but the NAD sounds much thicker and fuller sounding across the board in comparison to the thinner sounding Edition S in closed mode or open mode. In open mode the vocals lack the power and texture of the HP50, sounding relatively recessed in comparison and suffering from a bit more sibilance. The HP50s attack is a little softer than the Edition S though, so whilst it rumbles with a bit more authority the Edition S sounds a little cleaner, a little brighter and offering a touch more clarity especially in the lower midrange with bass and rhythm guitar work.
I would take the Nad for vocals and a slightly more accurate sounding lower treble performance particularly on weaker amps. However, if I need a little bit more articulation and a cleaner presentation I would opt for the Edition S.
The PM-3 is a planar on-ear portable headphone rated at 26 ohms and 102dB and costs $150 more than the Edition S coming in at $399. Like the NAD it has swivel flat cups but it cannot be folded like the Edition S. However, the Oppo PM-3 is a huge step up in build quality sporting mainly metals over plastics though using pleather over leather for the headphone padding and earpads. Both offer detachable ear pads though the PM-3 right now has a more extensive range of pads you can use to effect sound than the Edition S so that may change.
The PM-3 is a good deal heavier though than the Edition S as a result by 72g and you can feel that weight in your hand. Isolation is far superior though on the PM-3 due to the more porous nature of the Edition S focus type pads and whilst the Edition S is a genuine circumaural experience the pads they somehow lack the long term comfort of the plush on ear pads of the PM-3.
Tonally the PM-3 falls somewhere in between the Nad and the Edition S being thicker sounding than the Edition S but cleaner and more articulate than the HP50. It has the best of both worlds in that respect and does perform at a slightly higher level than either. It is reasonably balanced like the two dynamic headphones but it sounds a bit more accurate than either particularly instrumental timbre which is just spot on for me. Vocal performance is also thicker and more powerful than either the closed or open version of the S.
The Edition S does have a more spacious sound though than the PM-3 and, particularly with the open setup, doesn’t sound as walled in with a more present treble and reach. It also sounds a little quicker overall than the PM-3 with a cleaner attack. Finger tapping on the Edition S has a bit more snap and pop than the PM-3 softer sound.
Beyer DT770 (32 ohm)
A fully closed and circumaural experience and my favorite version of the DT770 from Beyer. It is not as portable, cannot fold like any of the previously mentioned headphones but it’s cheap (though harder to find now) and easy to drive and possesses all the wonderful DT770 traits and then some. If you want full on portability pick the Edition S, it will fit in your bag easily unlike the bigger DT770 but otherwise, both will run easily enough off smartphones, DAPs, and portable amps. It also isolates brilliantly and is the comfiest of the lot, but then again I would expect that given the size of the cups.
This is the headphone for audiophiles who like a bit of bass but not overwhelming levels. It is positively musical sounding but darker and less balanced than the Edition S. This is the one to get for EDM, hard hitting rock, rap and R’n’B yet don’t be surprised if you get sucked into the detail which it provides effortlessly. Lower treble is a touch thinner than the rest of the DT770 presentation so it doesn’t quite have an all-around natural signature but it’s pretty darn close.
The Edition S keep things a bit more balanced and flatter with a brighter more spacious sounding signature than the darker DT770, particularly with the warmer open setup without the caps. It doesn’t have the same bass weight and sub bass rumble as the DT770 with a bit more mid-bass focus when open and a greater emphasis on definition when closed. The DT770 has the thicker note compared to the clean and clear Edition S but has a touch less sparkle and treble presence. Vocals are full sounding though slightly back in the mix on the DT770 due to the impressive weight and texture of the bass response whereas the Edition S has a thinner vocal but slightly more forward sounding when closed.
Hifiman never seem to be afraid of trying new things and the Edition S is a classic example of Hifiman doing something with a little twist. The open and closed pitch is an eye catcher though it’s not quite a pure open and closed experience for me and strangely the open mid-bass is more elevated than when closed which I did not expect. People will have their favorite version of the Edition S. Some will enjoy the closed version more for its tighter bass control and better definition whilst others might find the top end a bit too thin and bright. Others will love the warmer more mid-bass elevated open signature with greater space but with a slightly softer and less control bass response and a vocal presence, though more natural, just a little bit more laid back.
It has some competition though in the $249 category with quite a few slightly below and above all vying for the portable crown so I would like to see Hifiman look into differing kinds of plates and pads to increase the level of seal for the closed version and perhaps some increased damping in some plate variants just to see what a darker signature might sound like.
Matching wise it is efficient and easy to drive, the easiest yet from Hifiman. Pairing with a smartphone will get you admirable results but a step up in power and DAC quality will produce better dynamics and resolution. My tip is to pair with a natural sounding DAP or an efficient desktop amp depending on where you want to take this with you. Isolation is not great so I can’t say this is the most effective headphone in the market for blocking out background noise, again plates and pads are a factor.
Overall the Edition S is a very interesting dynamic headphone from Hifiman and quite unlike anything they have done before. It does take time to grow on you but it’s an efficient pickup and play headphone with good performance for most users. Does it merit $249? I think $199 would seal the deal personally but it is competitive nevertheless and with those plates I could see a small DIY culture grow around the Edition S which would be pretty cool.
Driver Technology: Dynamic Driver 50mm
FQ Response: 15Hz-22kHz
Impedance: 18 ohm