If you’re into planar-magnetic headphones but thought power requirements and price limitations might put the damper on a purchase, think again. The smart hi-fi men at HiFiMAN have figured out how to deliver the sonic benefits of planar technology—noteworthy reproduction of finer details and spaciousness, for instance—in a high-sensitivity (98dB), low-impedance (22 ohms) can that isn’t power-hungry. In fact, the HE400S is so efficient it can be driven by your smartphone with no external amp required—a rarity among planar headphones.
These cans are also easy to use, and with non-fatiguing sound, easy to love (and at an entry-level price of $299, easy on the wallet, to boot). What’s more, the HE400S is capable of revealing the magic in music in subtle, yet affecting ways. (Examples to come.)
As I moved well past the recommended break-in period (150 hours) and into critical evaluation, the HE400S became my go-to ’phones for both travel and everyday listening, whether it was LPs, digital tracks of variable quality/resolution via Tidal or off my iPhone 6, etc. In fact, I’m listening to them as I write this review (some mellow Brian Eno tracks streamed via Tidal).
HiFiMAN is a relatively new company—founded by Dr. Fang Bian in New York in 2007 and headquartered in the port city of Tianjin, China—that specializes in personal audio players and headphones. Judging from its extensive product lineup from entry-level to reference, and its technological and design innovations, it’s clear HiFiMAN strives to continually develop new offerings for a competitive market—and nowadays headphones are among the hottest tickets around.
Let’s begin with the basics: The HE400S is an open-back headphone with fairly large round ear pads—which not only fit comfortably but allow greater surface area for the planar membranes housed inside them. (I’ll return to a brief description of planar technology and its benefits in a moment.) Weighing just 350 grams—slightly more than ¾ of a pound—they’re much lighter than they may appear to be in the photograph. Aesthetically, they have a slightly clunky look, but their appearance grew on me over time—the way I appreciated the boxy old Volvo I used to drive’s solidity by (and of) design. The “dual” all-black headband features an innovative suspension wherein a smooth, slightly padded, leather-look band rests on your head while a separate, slightly flexible metal band positioned above it provides the (gentle) necessary tension to position the cans. Adjustments are easy to make: Just slide the metal pieces that hold the soft band on either side up or down; small holes mark the options. Being a female with a smaller-to-average-sized noggin, I was pleased to discover that the ’phones fit me fine (set to about the snuggest fit possible). Soft, slightly plush black fabric covers the full-sized ear pads, which are removable. The light silvery, shiny chrome-look finish on the outer part of each can completes the picture. (I ended up with some scratches on the finish of the outer earpiece hinges.) I found the HE400S to be quite comfy, and their near-feather weight makes them ideal for long listening sessions or multi-hour flights.
Accessories are quite basic. There’s a ¼" headphone adapter and a (removable) 1.5-meter cable for the cans with a 3.5mm plug. (You can swap out the cable if desired.) A thoughtfully written, full-color, bilingual owner’s guide is included. A couple of minor quibbles: There’s no travel case, alas. Also, the included cable is covered in a soft, black, woven “fabric” that’s fairly tangle-resistant but prone to slight strain and wear around the connection points to the cans.
Regarding HE400S’ technical design, most TAS readers are familiar with planar-magnetics vis-à-vis dynamic drivers, but just in case, here’s the deal: Planar technology involves a diaphragm of very low mass that has conductive layers distributed throughout its larger (relative to dynamic designs) surface. This allows the diaphragm to be driven by magnetic force more evenly, resulting in lower distortion. From a sonic standpoint, this can translate into enhanced reproduction of subtle musical details in addition to improved soundstaging.
I’ll share some listening examples that describe how I experienced these characteristics and others. Note: Because I wanted to highlight the most approachable aspects of the HE400S, I’ve chosen to focus on the affordable analog and portable digital sources I tried—ones that seemed to suit these mid-fi ’phones—rather than get bogged down with expensive desktop amps. Across both digital and analog sources, in keeping with planar-magnetic sonics, a midrange focus emerged. The HE400S’ treble range is also quite respectable, as it benefits from the lighter mass of the planar diaphragm compared to dynamic drivers.
First: analog sources. With an entry-level focus in mind, I opted for the GEM Dandy PolyTable (reviewed in Issue 260) with a Jelco tonearm and Shelter 201 moving-magnet cartridge. In my review of the petite but powerful PS Audio Sprout integrated (Issue 259), I described how the HE400S’ performance was quite literally startling in its imaging and staging: As I was listening to “I Confess” on the Mobile Fidelity reissue of The English Beat’s LP Special Beat Service, I actually jumped when I heard a layered-in backup vocal that sounded as if it were coming from behind me. How’s that for soundstaging? The sonic presentation was tight as a drum and clean as you please, with piano and Dave Wakeling’s vocals front and center.
On the classical front, Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite on Analogue Productions’ superb RCA Living Stereo LP reissue boasted thrilling climaxes with powerful transient attacks on cymbals and other percussion, which the HE400S delivered with a remarkable sense of realism, and—based on my experience listening to this same LP on systems such as JV’s—noteworthy transparency.
I compared a few tracks on this analog setup with those same tracks streamed via Tidal (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC files). On Tori Amos’ “Past the Mission” from her remastered Under the Pink LP, I picked up occasional subtle echoes of the recording venue behind her Bösendorfer piano, along with twangy guitar accent-riffs that previously hadn’t been as audible. The sense of balance and acoustic space felt coherent, of a piece. The digital version of that same track streamed via Tidal revealed crisp details that seemed to appear from different places within the acoustic. In contrast to the presentation of dynamic ’phones, it felt as though each channel had many more spots of possible sonic origin—a planar design advantage. That repeated guitar twang seemed to have longer decay, but a touch more sweetness, and Tori’s voice had slightly more delicacy and detail. I must say I preferred the vinyl version for its stronger energy and excitement, but then again I do adore analog.
Listening to tracks on my iPhone 6’s native music app naturally wasn’t quite the same-quality sonic experience, though it provided hours of pleasure that remained easy on the ears. I listened with the volume up louder than I ever have before with cans, but that’s a factor of the power planars require. (Nonetheless, it’s still pretty remarkable that a mobile phone can drive planar-magnetic headphones!) I went with guilty-pleasure upbeat pop and experimental stuff. Some standouts included Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”—funky good fun—and Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—compelling in its endless layers of old-school sampling and mixing. The track “Mea Culpa” delivered an astonishing sense of center spatial placement with found-percussion-instrument taps. And on Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move” I heard bits of gentle tambourine shakes I’d never picked up on before, deep in the right channel. The sense of space and easy naturalness was a recurring theme.
Of course, there are some tradeoffs inherent to planar-magnetic cans, similar to those found in loudspeakers of that type, with bass being the primary sticking point. I decided to put the HE400S to the test on some tracks with deeper bass. Listening to “Slow” from Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems on LP revealed some softening in the lower octaves, but the emotional impact of his vocals and of the track in general wasn’t lost. These $299 ’phones might not be the last word in low-end slam and extension, but in many other ways they easily hold their own.
Billed as one of the highest-efficiency planar ’phones on the market, the HE400S is a noteworthy bargain within its category. These lightweight, comfy cans are also realistically priced at $299—among the least expensive planar ’phones to be had. There was a kind of effortlessness to their playback, with a largely neutral presentation that was crisp, clean, and open. Quite often, their dimensionality even resembled loudspeaker-style soundstaging.
These phones would make a great choice either for hi-fi fans on a budget or for audiophiles who are simply after a basic, high-quality, lightweight headphone for go-to convenience or travel.
I enjoyed the overall sense of involvement and envelopment within the music, thanks to a striking degree of realism—noteworthy at this price. The HE400S seemed to have a natural way of elevating even (well recorded) lowest-common-denominator tracks (e.g., mp3s and Red Book) into something a bit finer. Great sounding, and a great value. QED.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Open-back headphones with planar-magnetic drivers
Frequency response: 20Hz–35KHz
Impedance: 22 ohms
Weight: 350 grams