Positive Feedback ISSUE 55
HE6 Planar-Magnetic Headphones
as reviewed by Will Wright
My attention has recently by drawn to the new breed of high end headphones showing up in the market. As with many other audio products of late, the headphone market has been moving upscale and several first rate products have evolved. I have tried, with mixed results, to acquire review samples of some of the more well-known brands. And so, having heard good things about the Hifiman HE5-LE 'phones, I contacted the company through its US website and requested a review sample. The Hifiman representative who responded to my request pointed out that the HE5-LE had already had quite a bit of press coverage and suggested that I try out a new model just coming on the market, the HE6. The HE6, he informed me, was similar in technology to the HE5-LE. Though not sure what I was getting myself into, I agreed to his suggestion and arranged to have a review sample delivered to my home.
Although I requested a press kit, no other useful information was provided to me regarding this new model. Checking the Hifiman US website, which appears to actually be provided by Head Direct, proved unhelpful, as the HE6 was not even listed. When, via email, I pointed this out to the rep, he responded that the model was so new that they hadn't had time to add it to the site. Initially, I assumed that the HE6 was an intermediate model in the Hifiman line and was subsequently surprised to learn through advertisements in the audio press that it was the new flagship.
Within short order, a box arrived on my front step. This product makes a bold first impression implying serious intent. It is contained in its own custom enclosure with a shaped foam interior and an exterior of a very sexy feeling almost leather like rubber. The 'phones themselves are exquisite looking, with large open back ear cups closed with black mesh and beautifully finished in what looks like piano black lacquer but is likely something a bit more durable. The wide, comfortable headband is leather and the fit 'n' finish of all components is first rate. The user is required to connect the cloth covered cable attached to each ear cup with gold fittings which then Ys into a single cable with a quarter inch plug at its end. No owner's manual or other literature was included but a small package containing what looks like part of the intended cable attachment system was. Unfortunately, I didn't find it readily apparent what role these parts were expected to play and attached the cable without using them.
Because of the quality look and feel of this product I could not wait for a test drive and immediately rounded up a selection of discs before plugging the 'phones in and settling back for a good listen. To my initial surprise, the sound was restricted and unbalanced, with little bass or treble and a flat sound, in a word, unlistenable. My assumption was that the planar-magnetic membranes needed some break-in. This company is doing itself an injustice by not providing adequate documentation to eliminate guesswork for its customers. To test my theory, I dug up my copy of the Purist Audio Design System Enhancer disc, put it on repeat and let it run for a micro-fortnight or so. As hoped, this completely transformed the headphone's presentation.
I've always been a fan of the band Little Feat, fronted by Lowell George. I have all the bands LPs and, when digital versions were eventually made available, I bought those as well. Unfortunately, the CDs suffer from poor transfer from analog to digital and are hugely disappointing. I seldom if ever listen to them. So, when a friend recently loaned me his copies of Japanese CD pressings of the albums, I was thrilled. Sadly, now out of print, the Japanese versions sought to properly reproduce the music as well as the artwork, duplicating the original labels and sleeves. The sound is excellent. Being very familiar with the bands catalog, I felt it would be an excellent test of the resolving power of the HE6 headphones. Indeed, the hardest part was to stop listening. Once I was caught up in the boogie factor, I was swept away and remembered with difficulty that I was supposed to be doing a critical evaluation.
These 'phones have an excellent tonal balance that does not over or under emphasize any particular frequency range of the music. They exhibit the same traits heard in a good planar-magnetic speaker system. There are no noticeable peaks or valleys in the response and no overhang or resonance. The vocals come through with excellent articulation, making it easy to follow the lyrics. Treble extension is also excellent, lacking any tizz or sizzle. Sibilants are portrayed with clarity and without hiss. I detected no grain in the treble unless it was in the recording, which wasn't a problem with the Japanese pressed Little Feat discs.
Next, I turned to the band Weather Report, selecting first their 1977 album Heavy Weather. Much of what is here has been, on and off, a mainstay of Jazz radio for a long time. The first cut "Birdland" starts with a bass line that, I assume, is synthesizer based, as I have not heard a bass guitar or other instrument with a sound like this. Later bass is taken over by a more conventional sounding presentation. Throughout this album and many others, bass articulation was superb. In terms of bass reproduction, the sound was well balanced, with excellent clarity. However, it did not sound as though bass extension went as far as I have heard from some other transducers. It is hard to criticize the performance here, but I would not describe the sound as warm. It seems fair to point out that source components may have been a factor in bass reproduction. I was using an Outlaw Audio Receivers headphone output to drive the HE6s. Though certainly not lean, bass performance was cool rather than ballsy. Given the overall superb articulation; I didn't see it as a problem.
To further explore the bass performance and to hear what the HE6s could do with well recorded piano, I turned to the 24 karat gold limited edition Analogue Productions release of the Duke Ellington and Ray Brown album This Ones For Blanton originally recorded in 1972 and re-released by AP. Wow! This is a superb release of this recording and the HE6 let you hear every nuance. Brown's standup bass had the expected resonance but without the 'phones adding any of their own. Such clarity! It was easy to hear Brown's fingers on the strings, yet with a beautiful balance to the sound of his bass. I still did not feel that the HE6 fully reproduced the lowest octave but the sound was so fine I didn't miss it at all. And the piano sound was to die for. Many people believe that the piano is a very telling test of music reproduction. If so, the HE6 passed with flying colors.
Next I cued up my Mobile Fidelity Ultriadisc II copy of Getz/Gilberto and played "The Girl From Ipanema". This is easily one of the best Mo-Fi discs I have heard. The bass on this disc is warm and fat and sounded that way through the HE6s. Vocals were intimate and the sax sound was burnished and fuzzy, just as it should be. The subtle brush and cymbal work was all finesse with a clearly metallic sound.
I've saved one of my favorite things about these headphones for last. Though soundstaging is really not quite the right term to use when describing headphones because they all essentially put the sound inside your head, the HE6s presentation was unique in my experience. I suspect that the performance in this area is due to the ear cups of these headphones. Rather than sitting on the outer ear, the HE6 ear cups are large and go around the outer ear, instead of smashing them flat against your head. This gives the presentation the closest thing I've heard to the experience of listening to speakers in an acoustic space. The effect is altogether more natural sounding than any on ear or in ear 'phones I've tried. You also don't get the physical discomfort of smashed ears during extended listening. The in your head sound is more spacious as if your head is inside a sphere of sound rather than collapsed inside. Imaging is excellent and gives as real a sense of the acoustic space as I've heard from headphones.
Pros and Cons
Though I consider the HE6 a first rate product, I was frustrated by the lack of documentation available. I actually postponed publishing this review hoping to come up with information about construction details and even a photograph. Eventually, I did a Google search and grabbed a picture off the web. As recently as yesterday I went to the website and there is still no HE6 product listed. I have no explanation for this lack of info. The other thing that a Google search disclosed was that these phones are readily available for sale. But as to their performance, the only real criticism I can find is the lack of the absolute lowest bass extension and since they excel at everything else, this is easy to forgive. Unless you are a pipe organ enthusiast, I can't imagine it being an issue.
It is fair to ask what place a set of $1200 headphones has in an mp3 world. Interestingly, as other high end audio categories climb to stratospheric pricing, most of the reference quality headphones can still be had for under $2000. If I were referring to a set of interconnects or a power cord at this price, many, if not most, audiophiles wouldn't bat an eye. Sadly, we are becoming accustomed to hearing about $40,000 speaker cables and $250,000 flea powered tube amps. I love to read about some of these products and what makes them exceptional but I could never justify spending that much. On the other hand, $1200 might still be within my grasp. This is one category where state of the art is still within reach. The Hifiman HE6 is beautiful to behold as well as listen to. I give these headphones my unreserved recommendation, but as always, you should hear them for yourself and make your own choices. Will Wright