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Headphones

Can $699 earbuds be worth it?

The Audiophiliac tries on a set of Hifiman RE800 in-ear headphones, and really loves their sound.

Hifiman

I've written about Hifiman's full-size and in-ear headphones many times on this blog; I raved about the highly affordable RE400 In-ears in 2013, and they're available and still a terrific buy. The RE600S also drew raves in 2015 from me. So I was super curious to sample the all-new $699 RE800 earbuds, and find out how they would stack up against one of the pricier in-ear models on the market.

Hifiman RE800 headphones

Hifiman

When I popped the RE800 earbuds in for the first time I had a "show me" attitude. I used my iPhone 6S for most of these early auditions, and the RE800s' transparency was readily apparent, even in the noisy NYC subway. That, and their seriously potent bass was so deep I thought for a second it was the subway train's rumble! The headphones' 9.2mm driver has a slightly higher-than-average impedance of 60 ohms; no worries, my iPhone didn't have any trouble driving it.

The big change from previous Hifiman in-ear designs is the RE800's Topology dynamic driver, which has a "Nano particle coating" applied to its surface.

According to Hifiman's Fang Bian, "The idea behind the new Topology Diaphragm was actually inspired by my Ph.D. thesis that different Nano materials have differing structures and each of those materials has their own properties. Therefore, by carefully controlling the diaphragm surface structure we can yield different results in acoustic performance to a degree previously unobtainable."

We'll see about that! I logged more than a week of listening time with the RE800s plugged into my iPhone 6S, which sounded so good I was in no hurry to see what the RE800 could do with a first class high-res music player, like the new Astell & Kern Kann -- but more on that later in this review.

Elliott Smith's posthumous "New Moon" album's acoustic forays sounded positively intimate, like a demo with just his vocal and guitar in my head. Great to listen to in a dark room, just me and Elliott.

Next, when I listened to composer Angelo Badalamenti's original "Twin Peaks" soundtrack I pitted the RE800s against Shure's highly regarded SE846 in-ear headphones ($999), which have four balanced armature drivers in each earpiece. The SE846 is no slouch, it sounded remarkably spacious, but the score with its at-turns disturbingly dreamy or sexy jazz tunes was more dynamically alive on the RE800s; bass definition was tauter and satisfyingly deep. The SE846s countered with a more "relaxed" sound, and were easier to drive.

Continuing with those two sets of headphones, I treated myself to Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer's recently released "Bach Trios" album, and here the RE800s' superior clarity and sharper image focus were readily apparent. Ma's cello, Thile's mandolin and Meyer's stand-up bass were more palpably present. The instruments were close-miked, but I also heard more studio ambience; I felt like I was in the room with these musicians with the RE800 headphones. The SE846s' tone was a little too full for my taste, and I couldn't hear the studio's ambience as clearly. I used the Astell & Kern Kann music player (review in the works) for the SE846 and RE800 comparisons.

I do have some quibbles about the RE800s' design, starting with the silver plated, crystalline copper cables that aren't user replaceable, so if the cable fails you'll need to return the RE800 to Hifiman for service. I also noticed the earpieces' gold-plated finish is easily scratched, so after just a few weeks the review sample had a few blemishes.

I used the included triple-flange silicone ear tips on the RE800s, and isolation from NYC's noisy subway was well above par. At home, I found the detailed sound held up even with the volume turned way down, which is one way I judge in-ear headphones' quality: Do they still sound great at whisper-quiet volume levels? The RE800s did.

Sonic epiphanies came fast and furious with the Hifiman RE800 earbuds, so yes, they're worth the asking price. If you can't swing the RE800s, no worries, I still strongly recommend the RE400 and RE600 in-ear models.