HiFiMAN has been making DAPs since about 2009, but they’d always been hulking slabs of audio gear. The HM-801, while smaller than the iPod+amp stacks that were the norm then, was still a 4.5×3 inches and an inch thick, not the most pocketable of DAPs. Even the HM-602, which followed, wasn’t that much smaller. But despite the immensity of the DAPs, they were still relatively popular because they filled a niche within the high-end portable market—they were powerful dedicated DAPs that sounded, and still sound, fantastic. But, with the release of the HM-801’s equally large successor, Fang Bian also released something for the more sane market: the much smaller HM-700. But make no mistake, the diminutive HM-700 isn’t anything to scoff at; it even comes with a balanced output. In fact, it’s been good enough to make me hush my desires for the Fiio X5 I used a couple months ago.
The HM-700 comes in a very nice-looking magnetic flap box, reminiscent of many IEM boxes. Inside is the DAP and either a balanced RE-400 or RE-600. That’s right, for the $250/$500 price of admission, the HM-700 already comes with a fantastic pair of IEMs. Right off the bat, the HM-700 seems to be a smoking value when compared to the other DAPs in its price range. Also included are a sport armband case, extra screen protectors, a micro USB cable, a balanced to unbalanced adapter for the IEMs, tips for the IEMs, and an interesting adapter that contains both a TRRS plug and a micro USB plug, which allows for the RE-400/RE-600 to be used balanced on any device that has a micro USB input.
The HM-700 has 32GB of onboard storage and is unfortunately not expandable, but in all honesty, trying to navigate even 32GB of music was kind of annoying with the HM-700’s UI. It’s very basic (but, I guess, at least it’s never frozen on me unlike a number of other DAPs I’ve used) but easy to get used to once you get a handle on the controls. Out of habit, I’ve pressed the middle multiple times, hoping to make a selection, but alas, the selection button is the right arrow. While I’m pointing out my niggles, I’m really upset the screen used is basically unusable when there’s any sun outside due to both the low resolution display and the glass covering the screen.
Oh, and I’m not the biggest fan of the headphone jack on the side, but since I’ve always used the right angled balanced to unbalanced adapter with my unbalanced headphones, it hasn’t been too problematic for me. But onto the good about the HM700’s non-audio qualities, and there’s a lot. For starters, it’s downright beautiful as far as DAPs go. As glare-inducing as the glass screen is, it, especially the beveled edge at the bottom, adds an upscale air to the DAP. As does the interesting copper-colored volume and hold buttons. The back is plastic, but the sides are made of a zinc alloy, which is a nice premium-feeling touch. The HM-700 definitely feels like a step above most other DAPs, but I wish HiFiMAN could have made the entire DAP the same zinc alloy.
So how does it sound?
The HM-700’s sound signature is a bit of a departure from what I’m used to. My main listening system is an EHHA, which is ever so slightly on the warm side with the tubes I’m using, and a Gamma2, which is also rather warm-sounding. While the HM-700 never approaches a cold sound signature, it’s the closest thing I’ve heard to an “energetic” sound signature from a DAP. Its soundstage isn’t the biggest because of its relatively forward sound signature. It has a pretty good amount of detail, which is likely the result of its slightly bright sound signature. That’s not to say it sounds thin—in fact, I’ve never found it to lack bass in the slightest. If anything, it provides enough in both power and sound signature to provide a sense of control to almost rival the much more expensive Fiio X5.
Overall, while I struggle to call the HM-700 neutral, it doesn’t have any glaring faults with the sound, unless you want a huge soundstage, which the HM-700 won’t augment. Power isn’t exactly the HM-700’s forte, which is expected considering its size. For kicks, I tried plugging my 600ohm AKG K240 Sextetts into them. At max volume, I get to a comfortable listening level, but not all that much control. It’s definitely not performing at its peak, but it’s really not all that unexpected. Though I did find an interesting pairing that worked; the Sennheiser HD650 was surprisingly good with the HM-700. It was most definitely not being driven to its potential, but the sound signatures made for a very nice synergy. It also drives my ZMF T50RP to decent levels, but again, it’s not the same as putting them through a dedicated amplifier. The HM-700 wasn’t created to drive all sorts of headphones; it was created to pair with a balanced IEM, and that it does fantastically. If power is what you want, let me direct you to their more expensive DAPs…
I originally planned on just talking about the synergy between the HM700 and balanced RE-600, which is breathtaking, but the RE-600 impressed me so much single ended that I feel it deserves a review of its own, especially since it’s gotten such little attention.
The RE-600 basically looks like a glossy black RE-400, which doesn’t exactly sell its $399 price. I asked Fang why the RE-600 uses the same housing as the RE-400, and he replied with something along the lines of, “Because it’s comfortable and works well.” That was more than enough for me; the RE-600 is the first IEM I’ve been able to wear to sleep because of its diminutive size and decent isolation (enough to block a snoring roommate). I appreciate Fang’s “if it works, don’t fix it” approach to the RE-600. The cable after the Y-split is sheathed, but retains some memory. It cable is not exactly on the same level as the Shure SE535 or Ultimate Ears UE900, but it seems durable.
I should preface the sound portion by talking about my preferences, since after the $300 mark, the differences become less technical and more preferential. The ideal pair of headphones for me, at least at the time of the review (my preferences admittedly change), would be a HiFiMAN HE-500 with less grating upper mids. Warm, enveloping sound is more my preference than absolute neutrality, which is why I’m such a fan of the RE-600. They’re not the most technically impressive, but they do something that not even the Shure SE846 and AKG K3003i could do for me: make me forget about analyzing music and surround me with it instead.
The treble is slightly laid back, but more forward than the Sennheiser HD650. It has just enough detail to keep me satisfied, but there are some slight timbre issues. There’s a slight recession in the lower treble that makes some instruments, like clarinets, sound kind of like they have a mute on. The midrange is intimate, but not overly so, like I felt the HD650 was at times. But I did like the RE272’s midrange just a little bit more due to its better transition between mids and treble.
The bass is nicely balanced, and goes quite deep, but it probably won’t satisfy the most devoted of bassheads. I hate to compare them to a full-sized headphone, but they’re the closest thing I’ve heard to an IEM version of the Sennheiser HD600, but less forward in midrange in exchange for a little more liquidity in the midrange. The soundstage is pretty good; it had nice depth, but the width could be a little better. Fang’s goal for the RE-600 was to make it as flat as possible, and I think he was pretty successful at creating both a flat and musical signature. In fact, the only thing that I could possibly complain about the RE-600 is the lower treble. Otherwise, they’re the most pleasing IEMs I’ve ever tried, regardless of price. They don’t sound the most realistic though, so don’t expect these to be a reference IEM. But running them balanced through the HM-700 takes them one step closer.
Synergy is an often-forgotten aspect of building an audio system, but in fact, it can be the key part of solving a problem with a piece of gear. For example, my above impressions of the RE-600 are with it paired with my Audio-GD SA-31, which is a great amplifier; I’ve never wanted more power with it in the house. But it’s on the warm side, with slightly laid back treble. Combining that with the RE-600 made for a less than ideal combination. The SA-31 augmented my problems with the lower treble and warmed it up just a little too much. However, if you’ve paid attention to the HM-700 review, you’ll notice that the HM-700 and RE-600 have complimenting deviations from neutral. As if by magic, the sound signature straightens out.
Instruments no longer sound slightly muted, vocals are forward, but not grating, and oh goodness the bass. It’s kind of disappointing to think this tiny DAP drives the RE-600 better than my desk-eating SA-31. But the balanced amplification plays a slight, but noticeable difference. Plugging the RE-600 into the adapter leads to a thinner, less controlled sound. Bass doesn’t have the same definition, mids are a little honky, and the treble starts to sound a little muted again. I do want to emphasize the differences are slight; going from unbalanced to balanced doesn’t necessarily remove a veil, but more of a scrim. All things considered, I probably wouldn’t miss the difference on a subway, but in situations like right now, as I’m sitting alone in my room, the difference is enough for me to wish I had more balanced IEMs to try.
What I love most about the HM-700 and RE-600 combo is that it’s not necessarily meant to impress at first listen. Yes, the SE846 is spectacular in many ways, especially because its bass is out of this world for an IEM but it just didn’t mesh with me in the same way the RE-600/HM-700 does. It’s not the “best” IEM by any objective standard, but it just does something so right for me (not unlike the ZMF T50RP) that I actually look forward to walking to my classes. Whenever I use them, I go back to when I was younger and first heard a pair of genuinely good headphones; I wasn’t versed in the lingo enough to accurately dissect the sound. All I knew how to do was enjoy the music.
Thanks to Dr. Fang Bian and Peter Hoagland for the opportunity to review such a fine setup!
Frequency response: 20Hz-20KHz
S/N: 91 dB
Max output: 50mW(1.35V @36 Ohm)
Dimensions: 49mm x105mm x12mm
(1.9X4.1X0.5 Inch) WXHXD
Weight: 82g (2.9 Oz)
On-board ash memory: 32GB
Battery life: 15 hours
Acceptable music formats: WAV, MP3, APE, FLAC(16Bit)
3.5mm mini plug
Mini adapter for regular earphone jack
Frequency Response: 15Hz-22KHz
Impedance: 16 Ohms
Sensitivity: 102 dB/mW
Weight: 0.48Oz (13.7g)