Costing little, the HE0se magnetic planar headphones from HIFIMAN wow Noel Keywood.
I’ll use planar magnetic headphones if I can. Have a pair of well used Oppo PM Is sitting in front of me at this moment and Audezes are always a lovely review experience. So good to receive a pair of planar magnetics from Hi Pi Man (China) – if almost disturbing that their new HE400se is quoted as $ on their website. Whoaa! How much?
As my Oppo PMIs are in decline it seems, I had to listen to the HE400se just in case they could possibly be good enough to act as a replacement at one-tenth the cost. Unrealistic and it won’t happen, but comparisons were interesting; these are impressive ‘phones.
Conventional (dynamic) headphones – which most are – sound itsy-bitsy: bass boof here, midrange there and treble somewhere else. Just like a typical multi-way box loudspeaker.When well engineered they offer great sound – but planars are more cohesive: everything ties together better, rather than jumping in or out in disparate fashion.
A planar drive unit comprises a thin, light mylar film onto which is bonded an electrical track through which the music current passes. It sits between magnets – vibrating in sympathy with the music as a result. It’s another form of electric motor – a planar one. Clever stuff, nicely showcased to the world in 1972 by Wharfedale with their Isodynamic headphones, now in the Victoria & Albert museum (London).The drawback was low sensitivity back then: they had to be connected to an amplifier’s loudspeaker outputs!
Low sensitivity is still an issue with magnetic planars. Hi Pi Man state the HE400se is reasonably sensitive at “90dB”.Which doesn’t say much. Playing‘Gimme Shelter’ I had to add + lOdB of gain to get them to match the volume of my Oppos.And that’s big. Not only is the ‘400se low impedance at 25 Ohms, drawing more current than dynamic phones (300 Ohms/40 Ohms), but they need high volume (voltage) as well. Likely because there are magnets on one side only, making the motor relatively weak.
HiFiMan call this “single- ended”, trying to invoke the aura of quality attached to single-ended amplifiers, but in fact singlesided would be a more suitable description. Double-sided drivers are more linear (less distortion) and of higher sensitivity, making them superior. But cost is an issue here.
These ‘phones would likely be unsuitable for my iPhone I IX Pro if it had a headphone socket – but it does not. Portable players can handle such a load, so in real life the low impedance and sensitivity of the HE400se isn’t likely to be an issue. Best not used with an old, weak ‘phone though. Since these are open backed phones they’re not ideal for use in busy places because of noise leakage so portable players aren’t likely to be used in any case.Their planar drivers need and deserve quality drive from a mains powered headphone amplifier, although the 2V available from DAPs (Digital Audio Players) is sufficient.
I admired both build quality and finish.Although simple in basic construction the HE400se looks good and feels it.Weight is low-ish at 387gms on our scales, cables and plugs adding 44gms.The ear pads are large diameter so don’t pinch the pinna. I found them more comfortable than most ‘phones and quite cool too.The pads just need a twist to come off, exposing the planar drive unit – it all looks surprisingly simple.The earpieces are handed L and R, and each has its own 3.5mm stereo jack socket, making balanced connection possible and easy to arrange – no 2.5mm mini-plugs here, nor rare types. A 150cm (5ft) long cable is supplied, terminated by a 3.5mm stereo jack at the source end, using a right-angle plug. An adaptor to fit a trad. l/4in (6.3mm) socket is supplied. And that is all: there’s no carrying case, alternative lead etc.
For musical drive I used an Audiolab M-DAC+ fed by Audirvana+ music player software running on a Mac, reading CD, hi-res and DSD files. Spinning through standard Rock fare I know well the HE400se gave a smooth and cohesive sound just as expected – right up to the mark for a magnetic planar design. The word here is “svelte”.These ‘phones deliver smoothness, an “all-of-a-piece” sound rather than bits pasted together.The only exception was a slight treble hiss I heard immediately with songs having strong sibilance, such as Willy de Ville’s Spanish Harlem (CD) that is laced with it when he’s up close to the microphone. But since my Oppos were becoming a tad too warm I felt this wasn’t totally out of place. Measurement later confirmed a peak at 12kHz, explaining what I was hearing.
The other issue was a lighter patina to bass: deep bass is there but not so strong. Other headphones commonly give a bit more low down – especially closed-back designs – but for me this is not a deal breaker. With bass heavy tracks such as Daft Punk’s Giorgio by Moroder (24/88.2) the synthesised bass line was dynamically restrained, where other ‘phones and speakers make it prominent.With Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams (24/96) the bass line was there but Mick Fleetwood’s drums lacked weight and dynamic resolution. Nice, rather than powerful.The Oppo PM Is had massive power and punch by way of contrast.
It was across the mid-band that these ‘phones sounded good, clear and concise with vocals, even with old, muzzy recordings such as Gerry Rafferty’s Times Caught Up With You (CD), that these ‘phones made sense of; the balance was bright but clean. With Lascia chi’io pianga, from Handel’s Love and Madness (DSD64) Johannette Zomer’s voice soared in a lovely clear space between my ears, free from the warmth of closed back phones and the slight implausibility of dynamic drivers. Airy, if with quite strong highs.
Consistently, the HE400se was insightful, detailed and revealing. Better, they had the lovely smoothness of magnetic planars. What you lose at the low price though is bass power and dynamic thrust: down at the low end they were in nice balance but a little anaemic, shall I say. All the same, I enjoyed their insight and found them easy to live with, great with vocals across both classical and Rock.
Magnetic planar headphones for $ – there has to be a catch. And there is one: low sensitivity and limited bass dynamics.Those are the bad bits. The good bits however are superb smoothness in true magnetic planar fashion, a very insightful and clean sound that is a delight.Add in lovely build and finish and the HE400ses are well worth hearing I feel. I enjoyed them.
Frequency response of the HE400se was smooth our response analysis shows (no HRTF correction), with the usual roll down above 1 kHz to compensate for hearing characteristics. This result is much like that from Audeze and Oppo planar phones, except there is a little more midband output around 3kHz and a distinct treble peak around 12kHz. Also, there is slightly less low bass (below 50Hz).
As a load the HE400se was purely resistive, all the way to 20kHz, measuring 29 Ohms – a low value. Sensitivity measured a low 71 dB with a true ImW input (0.16V), inadequate for a portable player or phone with 0.3V out maximum. However, most now deliver 2V and this is enough, 90dB (loud) being achieved from IV in. However, more than 2V would be needed for lOOdB (extremely loud). The HE400se is insensitive against most else.
The HE400Se measured well in frequency response, but they are very insensitive. NK
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