January 21, 2019

Review: HiFiman HE400S open headphones

A man sits down in his most comfortable chair beside a crackling fireplace. He pours two fingers of expensive scotch, lights a cuban cigar, then flips on his state of the art tube amplifier, giving it a good couple minutes to warm up before kicking back and listening to his favorite Jazz Fusion ensemble record on his forty thousand dollar sound system.

If you would have asked me to define an audiophile, the above scene would have popped in my head. Someone with near unlimited disposable income and ready to pour it all into his hobby. As of a few weeks ago, that image has completely changed.

I’ve found a way to get an amazing audiophile experience without the forty thousand dollar investment. For 300 bucks, you can get the best sounding headphones I’ve ever heard.

While I’ve never had a chance to listen to truly expensive headphones in the $1000-$55,000 range – Yes, you can buy $55,000 dollar headphones — I’ve listened to a lot of headphones under 600 dollars, and the HE400S headphones from HiFiman easily stand out from that pack. They really sound that good. You can close your eyes and imagine you’re that guy sitting by the fireplace, though scotch and cigars are not included.

If great sound quality is the only factor you’re looking at when choosing headphones, and your budget is $300, you can stop reading this review right now. Go buy the HE400S. I don’t think it’ll be easy to find better sounding headphones under $600.

However, these headphones aren’t perfect, and they’re not for everyone. First thing you need to know is that these headphones are open backed, which means that unlike most headphones, they let sound flow freely out of the ear-cups for a more natural sound, but they also ensure that people sitting nearby will hear a tinny version of your music, even at lower volumes. Open headphones, by design, also let you hear everything going on around you, so they’re not great for loud environments. These are not headphones for walking around, or for listening in places where you need to be quiet. I did try them in my office, and while none of my coworkers were able to hear my music, your mileage may vary, and I wouldn’t recommend these as a first choice for work headphones. These are headphones you listen to in quiet environments, or in places where a lack of sound isolation comes in handy. I know that knocks out three quarters of headphone use situations, so like I said, these headphones are not for everybody. But if you’re like me, and want to hear every little finger pick of a guitar vibrate in your ear, these are a solid choice.

These headphones are Planar Magnetic, which is completely different from the dynamic driver technology most other headphones in this price range use. I don’t fully understand the technical differences, but the company claims that this technology results in better sound quality. I don’t know if it was the Planar technology that made these headphones sound way better, but they definitely did way sound better — So let’s call that a win for Planar Magnetics.

Most high-end headphones and definitely most Planar Magnetic headphones are really power hungry and need a powerful amplifier to be driven properly. That’s where the HE400S really stands out from it’s more expensive rivals. The S stands for sensitive, and these headphones are very sensitive. I was able to listen to my music straight from my phone and laptop at loud volumes without any amplifier, though I did have to crank up the volume a couple notches louder than for my other headphones. I normally listen to music at around 40-50% maximum volume, and with these headphones, I found myself at around 70% of maximum to get the same volume levels. If you normally listen to music at ear blistering levels, you might want to get a headphone amp for these. For everyone else, the should sound great with almost any player you can throw at them.

The HE400S’ are also among the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever tried. The ear cups are massive, and after a few minutes of enjoying music, I forget I’m even wearing them.

A big issue I had with these headphones was the build quality. They don’t feel nearly as solid as other headphones in this price range, they’re incredibly light and plastick-ey. While I know that their lightness contributes to their comfort, I would have preferred a slightly more solid feeling headphone. The review unit I was sent still looks in pristine condition, but I can’t help but feel like I need to baby them more than my other headphones. I feel like a drop on a hard floor might be the end of them. Since I really only use them to listen at home, when sitting or lying down, it’s not a huge issue, but definitely worth mentioning.

The cable that came with these headphones is thick, chunky and feels super heavy duty. That’s both a positive and a negative. I’m not worried about the cable’s longevity (unlike the headphones themselves), but they are so thick that they don’t bend or have the flexibility I’m used to. There were times when I found the thick cable getting in the way, or twisting in awkward ways. This did nothing to affect the comfort, but it did annoy me at times. Not enough to get me to replace them with third party cables, though.

To summarize, these headphones sound awesome. Really really awesome. I just wish as much time and thought had been put into their physical design as their sound profile. I know that Hifiman doesn’t want to canabalize sales of their more expensive headphones — while 300 dollar headphones aren’t cheap by most people’s standards, these are actually Hifiman’s entry level headphones, their line includes premium models that go for as much as $3000. I see the incentive to get people hooked on great sound, and then encourage them to upgrade to more expensive (and more solidly built) models. The engineers at Hifiman did everything they could to keep costs as low as possible without compromising sound — and they really succeeded. But maybe they could have charged a little more for a slightly better build quality.