Being an audiophile can be full of contradictions if you’re on a tight budget. You want to enjoy the fidelity but have to settle on prestige, and people in the know tend look down on that. It’s an unfair distinction but the HiFiMAN HE400S Planar Magnetic Headphones are so good that they’ll help you fake it until you make it, and maybe enough that you may just stick with them for a little while.
The HE400S are headphones that many should consider as they climb the hi-fi ladder. They’re easy to grow accustomed to as the details and overall feel provide versatility for everyday usage and occasional serious listening. Imagining yourself relaxing in the living room with a glass of gin on a quiet evening — just you, your reclining chair, and the remastered recording of Abbey Road.
The HE400S look slick in an open-back design, with large over-ear pads for comfort and to help create a large surface for the planar membranes. The rest of the body is crafted for reduced weight and maximum comfort in a dual-suspension construction, the inner band is a slightly-padded leatherette piece that rests on your head, while an outer thin metal band right above it holds everything together and can be lightly adjusted. The overall appearance is somewhat classic and chunky, deliberately showing off the exterior grille and silver trim; contrasted by the headbands for a clean, airy look that won’t offend.
Included accessories on the other hand are basic, so expect nothing more than a removeable 3-foot long 3.5mm auxiliary cable and 0.25-inch adapter from HiFiMAN in this package. Hoping for a carrying case? Nope. Just a full-color manual but that’s about it, but that shouldn’t matter too much if you keep your headphones at home or in an organized backpack.
On the technical side, the HE400S are engineered for low-impedance (22 ohms) higher sensitivity at 98dB, and 20Hz-35KHz frequency response. But it’s mostly down to Planar magnetic technology, which utilizes a flat a conductor pattern and dual-sided multilayer driver diaphragms. The result is reduced distortion, believable midrange detail, and is more efficient for power usage. Some of the better headphones to incorporate the unique transducers and it really helps the HE400S sound better than they actually cost, at least within reason.
I was pleasantly surprised when I first heard the HE400S, because while they look nice they can’t completely elude their entry level ambitions. And I’m fine with that because they have a soundstage that you’d expect to pay a hundred more for, the song A Girl Like You from Edwyn Collins convinced me of this as vocals came through in the front and the rockabilly melody properly layered near the sides.
The same can generally be said to a lesser degree when we move from the PC to a smartphone, by itself the HE400S retains good deal of the crispness but we also picked up traces of echoes that weren’t present before — its mildly distracting at first unless you have a portable DAC like the Oppo HA-2. But the HE400S are never harsh on the ears and accommodates most genres, albums like Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Green Day’s Dookie, to even Life is…Too Short by Too Short are presented as originally intended. Dialed-in clarity of planar-magnetic cans is inherent but deeper bass is less of a priority as a compromise, the low-end effects are softened as a byproduct of keeping distortion controlled while still being able to work on mobile devices.
The HiFiMAN HE400S Planar Magnetic Headphones are a superb introduction to the brand. No, these aren’t the thousand dollar cups that audiophiles will lord over, but they offer nicely balanced sound on a novice budget. However, the competition is equally tough among comparable adversaries such as the Oppo PM-3, Fostex TH-500RP, or Audeze Sine — but the HE400S certainly hold their own.