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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Having been thoroughly impressed with some of the more recent HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphones, namely the Ananda and the Arya , I’ve become increasingly interested to hear what a top of the line flagship from the same company could do. I was never able to get into the HE1000 line of headphones - mostly because of the sheer size of the cups - but now that I’ve had a bit more experience with that style, the technical ability of this type of headphone has had my attention. With the recognition that currently the Susvara is their top planar flagship, the HE1000se (HEKse) is actually the newest HiFiMAN offering that takes both the ‘stealth magnet’ innovation from the Susvara and the latest ultra-thin diaphragm development, and implements them in the somewhat lighter, oval-shaped style of the rest of their high end line. The HEKse is also considerably easier to drive, and so while the HEKse isn’t the most expensive HiFiMAN planar, it may perhaps be the most interesting, and the most technologically advanced.
This review primarily focuses on the degree to which the differences between the lower end models and the HEKse are noticeable, and ultimately to determine if it’s worth saving for. I’ve also been paying close attention to how well the HEKse does in comparison to some other high end planars I’ve enjoyed such as the Audeze LCD4, and the Rosson Audio RAD-0.
Driver Type - Planar Magnetic
Design - Over-Ear (Circumaural)
Sensitivity - 96 DB
Impedance - 35 Ohms
Cables - 3.5mm Single Ended, 6.35mm Single Ended, XLR 4-pin Balanced
Connectors - 3.5mm
Weight - 439 G
Price - $3499
For the HEKse I’ve been listening to a lot more music with cellos, violins, and other orchestral instruments, but I’ve also been going through the whole Bill Frisell catalogue on Tidal, which has some decent recordings. I’ve also listened to my usual grouping of instrument-focused jazz tracks from Michael Wollny, Tingval Trio, and Julian Lage, as well as some vocal standouts from Alexis Cole, Stacey Kent. In particular I’ve been really enjoying the recent album from Laurent Coulondre titled “Michel on my mind”. For heavier material it’s been a lot of Periphery, and of course, the latest Tool tracks.
Design, Build & Comfort
The HEKse uses the same design shape as its predecessor (and the HE1000 V2). As much as I find this cup shape to be less than ideal, given its massive size, it has to be said that I don’t mind it as much as I thought - at least after my initial hesitancy.
While still slightly on the heavy side at over 400g, the HEKse does reasonably well for comfort, and actually I find it to be better than the Arya, in spite of the slight weight increase. This is helped by the improvements to the headband, and for some reason the clamping on the side of the top of my head I felt from the Arya isn’t as noticeable with the HEKse. At the same time, the design of the headpiece system is still not at all my preference. The sliding side pieces to the headband don’t feel particularly secure, and when they are set in an optimal position for the cups on my ears, half the headphone reaches my jaw. This is an odd experience, but on the whole not the worst, and it’s still an improvement over just about every other headphone I’ve experienced at this price - except for maybe the Meze Empyrean.
The build quality is also an improvement over the Arya, which felt cheap by comparison, however I’m personally not a big fan of the wood inlay. Sleek but sturdy is a good design choice to aim for, and HiFiMAN continues to miss that target. Still, the window shade grille and yoke system feels much more sturdy than the lower end models and that’s a very good thing. While they haven’t had a great track record for build and quality control, it’s clear that HiFiMAN has made some effort to make the HEKse feel premium, even though that effort won’t fully satisfy those of us who want it to feel as good as it sounds. This is still a far cry from the build quality of the Audeze LCD4 - but maybe that’s how you keep the weight down.
On that subject, HiFiMAN have somehow managed to use a double sided magnet structure without making the headphone unbearably heavy, and that’s a very good thing in my opinion. Supposedly the HEKse also uses what HiFiMAN have dubbed the “stealth magnet” that was implemented in the Susvara. The idea here is that the magnet shape is designed in such a way that it minimizes interference (wave diffraction) with the sound being produced. This appears to be done by rounding the edges of the magnets, reducing the overall area that could break up the wave. This makes me wonder if there’s any other magnetic ‘drive’ trade-off necessary to achieve such a design, and if this means gaining a benefit in detail at the cost of speed (or some other technical category). In any case, this is so far only the second implementation of this idea, and if the HEKse and Susvara demonstrate a successful proof of concept in the performance department, I can see it being implemented throughout the rest of the line.
Coming from the Arya, my expectation for the HEKse was that it would yield a slight increase in performance at most, and that the point of this headphone is primarily to be a ‘premium’ Arya. Part of this expectation comes from some reports of this headphone being less distinguishable from the Arya than the Arya is from the Ananda. That expectation was wildly inaccurate.
Detail Retrieval - 9.9/10
I was impressed with the Arya’s technical ability, but the HEKse is clearly a categorical step up in terms of detail retrieval. I’ve come to learn that not everyone notices detail improvements, or at least not right away, and so the best way I can describe the difference is that the HEKse represents instrument texture with more clarity and distinction than the Arya does. This is especially noticeable in the treble, and for instruments like trumpets, violins, or anything acoustic where there is a lot of textural nuance in the recording. These elements come through on the HEKse better than almost anything I’ve ever heard. In fact I’ll go as far as to say this is the best detail retrieval for high frequencies I’ve heard, and it does for treble what the LCD4 does for bass.
Speed & Dynamics - 9/10
The HEKse has what I can only describe as a ‘softer’ presentation, which is a departure from their older models like the HE-500 and HE-6. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a fast headphone. In fact, the HEKse is surprisingly fast, to the point where it can catch you off guard a bit. The same goes for its dynamics. For some tracks it feels like it doesn’t hit with much authority, but then for other tracks it slams surprisingly hard. My guess is that if the track in question makes use of certain frequencies in the mid and sub-bass, it’s more likely to give that satisfying rumble. Moreover, the microdynamics are also quite good. Nuances for the slightest incremental volume intervals in the mix come through more distinctly than what something like the Ananda is able to do.
Stage & Imaging - 9.8/10
Just like the Arya, the HEKse has a very spacious stage, possibly even more spacious. My favorite quality of the Arya was that it provides a lot of depth information, and the HEKse does that while also throwing wider and more distinctly to the sides - rather than more in front of me like the Arya. In that sense the HEKse is similar to the HD800s. Structural definition for the images is also unsurprisingly excellent, and instrument separation is some of the best I’ve heard. I find that planars tend to do a better job at this when compared to dynamics, and only the Utopia has really been able to demonstrate the same ability. If anyone has an opportunity to try the HEKse, make sure to listen to the new Tool track “Chocolate Chip Trip” - this is easily one of the craziest and most visceral experiences of soundstage and imagining prowess I’ve ever come across. Curiously, the images on the HEKse are also quite large, and in particular they’re a lot taller than on most headphones. This could be due to the cup size/shape as well.
Timbre - 8.5/10
This is an interesting one. The HEKse is one of the most resolving and highly detailed planars I’ve heard, and because of that, the planar timbre comes across a bit more strongly. Those who love that natural ZMF tone won’t be as into this. But on the plus side, the HEKse doesn’t exhibit any of the dryness I had always associated with HiFiMAN planars in the past, and that’s a welcome improvement. I had said that while both the Ananda and the Arya have improved in this area over predecessors, it wasn’t fully gone, but with the HEKse my feeling is that it is gone entirely.
This measurement was done using the MiniDSP EARS rig, which should not be compared to other systems and is not to be taken as an industry standard measurement system. This is the HEQ compensation, which is a target curve similar to that of the Harman target
Tonality and frequency response is where the HEKse stumbles a bit in my opinion. In general it’s closer to a diffuse field target than a typical consumer curve, and I can normally get on board with this type of tuning. However there are two issues in the treble that throw things off. The first is that there’s a noticeable peak at around 6khz. This adds a bit of shimmer for certain instruments, but importantly it throws off the tonality for snare drum hits. I had the same problem with the original HD800, and a lot of people who found that unpleasant will likely have an issue with this as well. Keep in mind that the MiniDSP EARS rig used here has a tendency to show a 4.5khz peak on just about every headphone, so that elevation is not as extreme in reality. But this fact also means the 6khz peak is emphasized a bit more than is shown on the graph, and this is responsible for some shrillness for many recordings - even the high quality ones. My instinct is that an elevation here works well for certain types of classical music, but throws things off for just about everything else.
The second problem is that the region above 10khz is overemphasized. It’s not as extreme as what’s going on with the LCD4, and the tonal balance isn’t thrown off as much because the lower treble energy is still very present with the HEKse. But I find that this causes a similar problem I had with the LCD4, where the tonal focus for cymbal hits is less distinct in favor of the splash/sizzle/sparkle qualities that reach 12-13khz. So for this reason I bring the ‘air’ region down by a few dB to bring it in line with how I naturally hear cymbals.
Thankfully there’s absolutely no sibilance with the HEKse, and this is illustrated by the lack of a peak at 8.5khz, which is often where consonant sounds can be the most unpleasant. But for some reason I prefer a tuning to that region that has a very consistent rise at 8.5khz, and then another consistent drop towards 10khz, similar to what’s going on with the Ananda - kind of like a smooth yet consistent gradual peak. In fact, I still strongly believe that the Ananda has the best and most realistic overall tuning of all HiFiMAN products to date, especially in the 8.5khz consonant region. So I simply applied an EQ that gets the HEKse’s frequency response extremely close to that of the Ananda, and I find it to be a substantial improvement.
Interestingly, when you do this (this one was easy to EQ), you do lose a little bit of the stage. So it could very well be the case that the HEkse is deliberately tuned the way that it is to achieve a bigger sense of space. However, I find that it’s not a trade-off I prefer, because it creates this effect where certain instruments that should be focused in one spot are somehow spaced out and pulled apart in ways they shouldn’t be. Applying the moderate EQ reducing 6khz, 12.5khz, and boosting 8.5khz slightly to get the frequency response closer to that of the Ananda focuses those instruments together to be more appropriately placed for a more cohesive presentation.
Of course, the bass is well extended and I quite enjoy the slight midrange emphasis, but these areas simply sound amazing, and I have absolutely no complaints there. Those who prefer the Harman target may want to elevate the bass slightly below 100hz.
My last point about the HEKse’s tonality is that I get the feeling this headphone cheats a bit. Its performance is so incredibly good in terms of detail retrieval that it gets away with not being as appropriately tuned for genres that aren’t classical and orchestral music. If the detail wasn’t as good as it is, some of the shrillness may be more annoying than it actually is, and I can see the first listen of this headphone being very enjoyable for many even without EQ.
- Score - 8.5/10 for classical music, 6/10 for everything else.
HiFiMAN Arya - The HEKse and the Arya sound very different from one another. The Arya has a more agreeable tonality, and while it also takes a bit of EQ, it has overall better tonal balance to my ears for accurately representing instruments. It still has a bit of a 5khz peak that can be reduced to improve snare drum representation, and there’s a slight bump around 9khz that emphasizes consonant edges that can be reduced, but not much else beyond that. Thankfully the HEKse does outperform the Arya in terms of technical ability by a noticeable margin. Both in terms of detail retrieval and overall stage width, the HEKse is more surgical and precise, and it has that extremely addictive texture representation to it that few other headphones can do. With EQ, the HEKse is clearly the better headphone, and if you are comfortable making a few adjustments, its technical ability is enough to make it worth it.
HiFiMAN Ananda - The Ananda also uses a newer, thinner diaphragm - like the HEKse - and it’s currently my sub $1000 benchmark headphone. For tonality, I haven’t found anything I like better than the Ananda, but the HEKse outperforms it by a wide margin in terms of microdynamics, detail, stage and imaging. The Ananda doesn’t have nearly the same depth capabilities or what some describe as ‘blackness of background’. The HEKse also has quite a bit more ‘air’ up top, which is an extremely addicting quality, and the Ananda has neither the frequency response nor the detail capability to compete.
Audeze LCD4 - In many ways the HEKse is a counterpart to the LCD4. For technical ability, the HEKse does in the treble what the LCD4 does for the bass, each representing the pinnacle of detail retrieval capabilities for their respective specialization frequency ranges. Of course, the LCD4 also does quite well in the treble - it’s just not as noticeable due to the somewhat incoherent tonal balance. Still, without EQ I think many would prefer the default tonality of the LCD4 for its more agreeable presentation across a wider range of genres - even though the HEKse is more cohesive for tonal balance specifically for classical and orchestral music. This is an interesting one to come to a conclusion on, but if I had to choose between the two I would go with the HEKse. It hits the mark on more performant categories that matter to me (a more lifelike and spacious stage), and is about equal in the rest. I do give the LCD4 the edge in terms of speed, slightly, and perhaps more substantially in terms of dynamic slam and impact in the bass, but I think the more lifelike stage of the HEKse is worth the trade off. And of course, the HEKse is far more comfortable for longer sessions.
Rosson Audio RAD-0 - The RAD-0 is just a hair shy of the detail retrieval capabilities of the HEKse and the LCD4, but it’s very close, and the RAD-0’s tonal balance without EQ is more appropriate for instrument representation than both of them. The HEKse wins out more noticeably on stage space, depth imaging, and treble detail - and the HEKse is also more comfortable given its considerably lower weight. But for those looking for a warmer presentation, the RAD-0 may be the better choice. In some ways these two complement each other, even with my EQ applied to the HEKse that brings instrumental focus together a bit, and switching between the two is quite enjoyable.
The HEKse is undeniably a detail monster, and its performant qualities make up for its stumbles in terms of tonality and frequency response. It’s a distinct step up from the performance of the Arya, even if the Arya has a more agreeable tonality for a wider range of genres.
When you consider how this headphone is positioned against the LCD4, it’s like they’re two sides of the same coin: one focuses on bass detail, and the other one on treble detail. Both are flawed, and require a bit of EQ, but both are also so incredibly detailed in their respective specialties that they do warrant the empirical questions audiophiles often ask one another. The phrase “but have you heard the LCD4?” can comfortably now also include or be countered with “but have you heard the HEKse?”. We can only hope that one day someone comes out with a headphone that achieves the best aspects of both.
For those of us willing to EQ a bit, this is a welcome alternative to the LCD4 - at a much lower weight - and it gets my thorough recommendation. For those who are unwilling to EQ, this one might be a pass unless you’re specifically listening to classical and orchestral music.
You can check out my video review here: