When we reviewed it back in 2012, we gave high marks to HiFiMan's HE-400 headphone . Now discounted to $300, that full-size model remains on the market as the company, known for making superior sounding headphones that outperform sleeker-looking headphones from name brands like Beyerdynamic, Bowers & Wilkins and Sennheiser, has released its newly redesigned HE-400i ($500, £360, AU$699).
Like the HE-400, the HE-400i uses thin-film "planar magnetic" flat drivers that produce clearer and more dynamically alive sound than your typical headphone drivers which work like miniature cone or dome speaker drivers.
Comparing the two models, the first thing you'll notice is that the new HE-400i is lighter, weighing in at 370 grams (13.05 ounces) instead of 440 grams (15.5 ounces). HiFiMan has also redesigned the headband with an "improved pressure pattern" and swapped in new set of beveled "hybrid" ear pads made of pleather and velour. Those ear pads not only improve sound quality but comfort as well.
The HE-400i headphones are designed for use at home with a receiver or headphone amplifier , but they can work with portable devices, though you may want a touch more volume.
The one controversial change is to the length of the cord. The HE-400 has a 10-foot cord while this model measures in at almost half the size at 59 inches (1.5m). That's a good thing if you're using a mobile device, but not so good if you're sitting on the couch and are plugged into a home receiver.
The Y-cable attaches to the left and right earcups via gold-plated connectors. The gold not only adds a bit of design flair, but it also enhances long-term electrical performance since gold connectors never corrode. The bulky cable should last longer than skinnier wires, and it's also easy to replace yourself if it ever breaks.
The cable terminates in a gold-plated 3.5mm plug, and HiFiMan offers an extra 6.3mm gold-plated adapter that comes fitted to the cable. No other accessories are included with the headphones, but you can store them in the swanky box they ship in.
We should also point out that this headphone has an open-back design. The upside to that is that you tend to get more open, spacious ("airy") sound with open-back headphones, and that's certainly true of the HE-400i. But the big downside is the headphones leak sound in a big way. In other words, they're audible to anybody sitting close to you, so they aren't appropriate for a densely packed open-office situation like we have here at CNET in New York.
The HE-400i is expensive, but it's an extraordinary headphone. The sound is significantly more transparent and vivid than Bowers & Wilkins' flagship P7 headphones . But the HE-400i's clarity shouldn't be confused with mere brightness or hyped treble -- the headphone just lets you hear more deeply into your music. It's akin to looking through a cleaner window.
As we said, the sound is open and airy. Hans Zimmer's majestic orchestral score for "Man of Steel" projected a bigger more expansive sound over the HE-400i than the P7. Instruments are clearly articulated and easily distinguished from each other. The mid-range is forward yet warm and and the headphones really excelled with albums such as the Punch Brothers' "The Phosphorescent Blues."
The P7 does have more bass weight and power, but the HE-400i's has better-defined bass isn't far behind. LCD Soundsystem's percussive beats driving "On Repeat" had plenty of oomph but lost some of their attack and crispness on the P7.
While the HE-400i is a more efficient (sensitive) headphone than the HE-400, your phone may not have enough juice to play the headphone loud enough. On David Carnoy's iPhone 5S, it was just loud enough with most tracks -- indoors anyway. With Steve Guttenberg's volume maxed out on his iPod Classic, the HE-400i was also barely loud enough. And editor Ty Pendlebury didn't have any major complaints using the headphone with his Samsung Galaxy S4. However Carnoy felt Sony's NW-A17 "Hi-Res" Walkman was a little volume challenged.
We could get a lot more volume out of the HE-400i when it was plugged into FiiO's X3 portable high-resolution music player ($240). Not only that, the HE-400i's sound quality significantly improved.
It's clear the HE-400i is designed for audiophiles, so it only sounds its best mated with an audiophile music player, or at home plugged into an AV receiver or headphone amplifier. The HE-400i's bass oomph, dynamic kick, and overall clarity show significant improvements when plugged into a device that's got a little more juice than your typical smartphone or iPod.
As far as this model vs. the step-down HE-400 goes, the 400i is the superior sounding headphone, with slightly more transparency, better defined bass, and slightly more forward mid-range. It's also the more comfortable and efficient headphone. We can't tell if those incremental advantages are worth an extra $200, but for many people they will be.
If you've always wanted to own a pair of high-end "audiophile" headphones but can't quite justify dropping a grand on a pair, the HiFiMan HE-400i is a good compromise. It's a superb-sounding headphone full-size headphone that features excellent build quality and an improved design that makes it more comfortable to wear than its predecessor.