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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
HiFiMAN and headphone.com go way back. We carried Dr Fang Bian’s first products like the Yuin earbuds and Head-Direct earphones long before HiFiMAN got into the world of headphone manufacturing in 2009 - and even before Dr. Bian was officially a doctor!
Since then, Fang has developed numerous proprietary advancements in planar magnetic headphone design culminating in some of the top headphones in the industry. His HiFiMAN company's biggest specialty has become building excellent full-size planar cans priced at every point on the scale from the truly ridiculous bargain-for-the buck HE400S ($299) to the far-from-ludicrously priced HE 1000 model at $3,000, which actually may be a total bargain in its own right.
The HiFiMAN Edition X represents their pinnacle portable headphone engineered to partner directly with high-end DAPs like the Astell&Kern or FiiO devices or with smartphones playing excellent high-resolution music files.
The Edition X sound quality is indeed excellent straight from portable players and it gets clean, loud volume levels from any smartphone or tablet with no amp required. The Edition X performance is surprisingly close to the category-leading resolution of the similarly open-back HiFiMAN HE 1000 flagship model with which it also shares cosmetic similarities like extra-large earpads and the nifty ‘window shade’ louvered slats framing the outer earcups.
The build materials, however, are quite different with the upscale HE 1000 employing high-grade aluminum, real wood, and genuine leather while the Edition X uses largely synthetic, less expensive materials for the majority of its construction. The Edition X build quality seems decently solid but slightly plastic-y and unspectacular overall, a trait it perhaps shares with some other super high-end ‘hand-tooled’ artisan headphones like the top Grado ‘GS’ designs, for example.
Comparatively, the minor sonic chinks in the Edition X armor are likely found in the upper treble ranges where it tends to be thinner and certainly less refined than its pricey big brother. It also lacks the perfectly smooth balance and lush musical body heard in the HE 1000 with a less spacious, more compressed sense of dimension.
Overall, we’d say the soundstage image of the Edition X is a hair more upfront and in-your-face versus the superbly laid-back, gracefully layered sound of the HE 1000, which does require a dedicated amp for acceptable performance. Sans amplification, we could barely get the HE 1000 up to good volume levels with some smartphones, and even when we could get it loud enough, the HE 1000 sounded rather lifeless and dynamically flat without a headphone amp properly driving it to its full sound quality potential. The Edition X suffered no such limited volume, dynamics or sound issues and was just about tonally correct either with or without a portable amp along for the ride.
Stacked against its most likely direct competitor, the Audeze LCD-XC, another full-size planar magnetic headphone also designed for extreme high-end mobile listening, the two constructions are markedly different with the Audeze offering a closed-back earcup against the open earcups of the HiFiMAN. Between the two, we felt the Audeze had more robust and punchy presentation with a stronger bass response underpinning its clear, forward midranges and liquid extension into the upper highs.
The Edition X has slightly less resolved highs but a more deep, spacious soundstage image which is as to be expected from its airy, fully open earcups. The portability and foldability factor leans towards the large but ergonomic HiFiMAN which is notably lighter than the weighty Audeze cans. Unlike the open-back HiFiMAN Edition X, the lovely tonewood sealed-back earcups of the Audeze LCD-XC do deliver significant ambient noise blocking ability, meaning they can be effectively used in cubicles, offices and shared spaces without incurring blank stares and shaking heads of disbelief from coworkers or non-copacetic spouses.
When measured against the also sealed-back Mr Speaker Ether C headphone built in San Diego, the choice between the Ether C and HiFIMAN Edition X becomes something of a toss-up. Both are quite comfy cans, but the cutting-edge construction advancements of the Mr Speakers headphone render it the most comfortable of almost any full-size headphone on the market. Acoustically, we hear the Edition X as being vaguely similar to the presentation of the Ether C with the Edition X perhaps being a tad smoother and more unified overall versus the livelier tonality and slightly forward midranges of the Ether C soundscape. It’s a tough call between these two that may boil down to the debate between an open vs closed earcup application.
Which brings us to the final, but critical design feature of the HiFiMAN Edition X. Given the X’s extremely high efficiency specifically engineered to partner up with portable players of all sorts, the non-isolating open-back earcup construction oddly limits its usefulness in varied listening environments, and may even be a deal-breaker for those mobile audiophiles needing audio privacy for their portable headphone experience.
Of course, it’s well known that sound quality is typically improved and more ‘open-sounding’ with open earcup headphones, but top makers like Audeze and Mr Speakers have attacked that limitation and produced closed-back headphones that illustrate that ‘closed-back earcup’ does not necessarily mean ‘closed-in sound.’
However, if ambient isolation is not a big factor in your decision or if you’re just seeking truly killer headphones that will work superbly anywhere you plug them into, the HiFiMAN Edition X are another big feather in the cap of the rapidly expanding HiFiMAN headphone enterprise.