HiFiMAN HE-5, HE-5LE, HE-6, and HE500 Planar Magnetic Headphones

This story originally appeared at InnerFidelity.com

Just a year and a half ago I walked into the CanJam area of RMAF, and right smack-dab in the middle was Fang Bian, head of Head Direct and the HiFiMAN brand of headphone gadgetry. Fang always has something new going on; I wondered what it would be this time. He smiled, stood, and cheerfully greeted me, then pointed towards center-stage on one of his tables.

"Would you like to hear my new planar magnetic headphones?"

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought.

The New Cans Appear
I had seen the threads on Head-Fi where fans spent countless hours modifying old Orthodynamic headphones. Hopeful comments are often made in these threads of the great sound and potential for someone, somewhere to go into production and bring planar magnetic headphones back into their rightful glory. I wondered if this was it.

(Please see “How Planar Magnetic Headphones Work” article to get a complete run-down on the operating principle of this type of headphone.)

I wasn’t terribly impressed by the sound at the time, but I wasn’t terribly disappointed either. It’s pretty remarkable to start producing a headphone and driver from scratch with a virtually unused technology and end up with something that sounds pretty good on the first try. I thanked Fang for the listening session, and told him I was encouraged by what I heard and that I hoped he’d continue to work on it. Boy did he ever!

In rapid succession over the last year and a half, HiFiMAN has introduced numerous models of planar Magnetic headphone. In this article I will review the: HE-5; HE-5LE; HE-6; and HE-500. There is also an HE-4 with single-sided magnetic driver, but I was unable to lay ears on it.

All HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphones are full-size, circumaural (around the ear), open-back headphones. All have very similar external construction with changes of materials over the course of time. The changes to the planar magnetic drivers inside these cans have been more dramatic than the external differences model to model, and the sound of these headphones has been moving ever closer to what I would consider the yummy center.

The HiFiMAN HE-5 (discontinued, $600)
Introduced in 2009 at the RMAF show, this headphone made a really big splash in among headphone aficionados. It has aluminum conductors on the diaphragm and symmetrical magnet geometry. It delivered bass like no other can previously heard, but it had its failings too, as many found it too bright, and the wooden design tended to develop cracks after a while.

In my listening, I too found the highs somewhat over-emphasized delivering a “zingy” sound. Coupled with the strong and well-extended bass, I heard the mid-range as too withdrawn and disconnected to deliver a full and rich listening experience.

The HiFiMAN HE-5LE ($699)
To address the issues found with the HE-5, the HE-5LE was introduced in April 2010. Changes were made to reduce the treble response with an asymmetrical magnet configuration reducing the field strength on one side of the diaphragm. The earpieces were changed to a synthetic material to get rid of the cracking problem with wooden cups. The response from enthusiasts was … well, enthusiastic.

I remember my first listening sessions with these headphones, and thinking Fang Bian was certainly heading in the right direction. In listening now, I continue to feel they’re very good; some of the zingyness still remains as an artificial sounding sheen on cymbals and strings but it’s much better than the previous HE-5. I also find the upper-mid-range remains a bit too withdrawn. Nonetheless, these headphones remain available at this writing, and I think they’re competitive at the price-point.

HiFiMAN HE-6 ($1,199)
In June of the same year, HiFiMAN released the HE-6. In deep piano black, this headphone sported a new diaphragm with gold traces, and significantly increased field strength with stronger magnets back in a symmetrical configuration. Howerver, it has very low efficiency, almost needing a small speaker power amp (5Watt to 20Watt) to drive them. When I first measured the HE-6 I ran into amplifier clipping problems using a HeadRoom Balanced Desktop in single-ended mode during the 100dB SPL distortion test. Switching to balanced mode to double the effective drive voltage solved the problem, but buyers should be forewarned that the amp used on these cans must be able to swing significant voltage.

I found the HE-6 to have an improved upper mid-range, delivering a somewhat more full-bodied sound than its predecessors. Unfortunately for me, the tizzyness of the HE-5 returned with the HE-6, and I found them a little too bright for extended sessions. I'll add though, that many find these headphones fabulous when match carefully with very good amps.

HiFiMAN HE-500 ($899)
Ahhhh … balance! Fang Bian has pushed my buttons with the HE-500, which is significantly more coherent sounding throughout. With these cans, HiFiMAN has retained the strong magnets and field symmetry of the HE-6; gone back to an aluminum conductor; and added special treatments to the diaphragm.

Still slightly too fast, but now with a tamer treble, everything seems better integrated into a marvelously well-balanced presentation. The music blooms clear and whole. With the other HE Series cans I found a clear preference for the Audez’e LCD-2 and it’s juicy, liquid smoothness. The LDC-2, however, has a somewhat laid back treble response, and comparing it to the HE-500 I feel like I’m missing some information in the highs with the Audeze cans. I now have the blessed quandary of selecting between two very fine headphones as I listen to my tunes, and have no clear favorite at the moment. I’ll keep working on it though … with great pleasure. (It’s probably worth noting here that my tastes run toward the laid back side, but still find the LCD-2 a bit lacking in treble response. )

Now some notes ...