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Hifiman HE-500: Contender for world's best headphone?

Hifiman may not have the name recognition of the major headphone manufacturers, but it still manages to make world-class headphones.

I cover a wide range of headphones on this blog, everything from the $40 Deos earbuds to the state-of-the-art Woo Audio WES headphone amplifier ($4,500) and Stax SR-007Mk2 headphones ($2,410). I've written about a lot of great headphones priced between those two extremes.

The Hifiman HE-500 headphones Hifiman

The common thread to all of the headphones I cover here is they all have excellent sound quality, but if there's one thing I know about the audio business, it's that most people don't prioritize sound quality, even when a better sounding product fits within their budget. With headphones, most buyers crave style, and with home electronics, features and convenience usually trump sound quality. That's just the way it is, but if you're looking for great sound, I'm here to help.

I was totally knocked out by the sound of the first Hifiman headphone, the HE-5, and in fact preferred it over all of the much more expensive, and better known high-end headphones, like the Audio Technica ATH-W5000, Denon AH-D7000, Sennheiser HD 800, Grado PS-1000, and Ultrasone Edition 8 I had on hand for direct comparison.

The Hifiman HE-5 ($600) employed a different technology than those other, more expensive headphones. It used planar-magnetic (aka Orthodynamic) technology, which really does sound different than all of the expensive headphones I just referred to. A planar magnetic driver is a large, flat Mylar diaphragm, coated with superthin aluminum, suspended between rows of slender bar magnets. The HE-5's diaphragm is therefore driven over its entire area, which reduces distortion, compared with conventional dynamic headphone drivers that are "driven" by a voice coil on the outer edge of the diaphragm, so the inner portion is more likely to distort.

The HE-5's planar-magnetic driver is somewhat similar to the Stax electrostatic 'phones technology in that way, but the HE-5 doesn't use the bias charging scheme that all electrostatic headphones have, which also means the HE-5 can be used with standard headphone amplifiers. The Stax cannot.

Which brings us to the subject of today's blog, the Hifiman HE-500 ($899). It's a full-size, circumaural (around the ear), open-back headphone, with user-replaceable cables. It's another planar magnetic design from Hifiman, but it's more advanced than the now discontinued HE-5. The new model is also a bigger headphone, with larger drivers, and the ear cups are beautifully finished in high-gloss, dark gray paint. Thanks mostly to the large magnets that are part of the design, the HE-500 is a fairly heavy headphone. It weighs 17.6 ounces (the Sennheiser HD 800 weighs 11.6 ounces). The HE-500's weight is well distributed, so it was fairly comfortable to wear for hours at a time.

Neil Young's stellar 1993 "unplugged" CD sounded gorgeous. The MTV session's vocals, guitars, piano, bass, and drums were sounding especially natural, and a quick return to my HE-5 only made me appreciate the HE-500's sound even more. The HE-5 and Grado RS-1 headphones lost some of the recording's ambient space that I heard from the HE-500. That headphone let me hear more of the recording venue's acoustics.

Daniel Lanois' new band, Black Dub, mixes samples with live-in-the-studio recording sessions to produce kinetic bluesy jams on their new self-titled CD. I loved how the bass and drums' thick rhythms sounded over the HE-500, so I used a few Black Dub tunes to do some comparisons with another great planar magnetic headphone, the Audeze LCD-2. That one's low bass felt more solid and had more impact, but the HE-500's midrange and treble were more detailed and present. The two headphones are different, but I can't say which is better. I used a Musical Fidelity M1 HPA (review to come) and Hifiman EF5 headphone amps for all of my listening tests.

I next checked out Puente Celeste's "Nama," an ultra high-resolution, 176.4-kHz/24-bit DVD-ROM, which I played on my Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player. Puente Celeste hails from Argentina, and I have to say that "Nama" is more soulful, adventurous, and playful than most World Music. And since it's an audiophile record, "Nama" was recorded "live," without dynamic range compression, overdubs, or processing of any kind. The acoustic guitars and vocals were perfect on both headphones, but the hand percussion instruments' snap and contrast were better on the HE-500.

It's an expensive headphone, but there's no way to get this level of sound quality from a pair of $899 speakers. The closest speaker is the $1,995 Magnepan 1.7. Head-Direct sells the HE-500 direct with a 30-day refund policy and a three-year warranty.

The HE-6 ($1,199) is the top-of-the-line Hifiman headphone, and it certainly had superior resolution to the HE-500 and the Audeze LCD-2, but for my taste the HE-500 is more fun to listen to than the HE-6. Resolution isn't the be-all and end-all quality for me, but it might be for you.