Review written by Chrono
Ah, yes, yet another iteration of HiFiMAN’s classic HE400 headphone.
Back when it originally released, the HiFiMAN HE400 was a very well-received headphone that retailed at the mid-range price of $399.99. In the decade since then, its design has seen several revisions and has served as the blueprint for many of HiFiMAN’s offerings like the HE400i or the DROP edition HE4XX . This latest “SE” edition, though, sees the HE400 release with many of the improvements it’s gained over the years, and it’s available at its lowest MSRP, yet: $149.99.
Sources and Music Used in Listening Tests
The Amplifier/DACs used in this review were the SPL Phonitor XE (with built-in DAC), Grace Design SDAC + A90, and the JDS Labs Element II connected via USB to my desktop computer. For the listening tests I used music from a wide variety of genres including Rock, Jazz, Classical, Acoustic, Hip-Hop, and latin. I played tracks from my own FLAC library as well as from Qobuz streaming service played via Roon (exclusive mode).
Well, there really isn’t much to say here, as the unboxing experience with HE400SE is a very simple one: you slide off the top lid and you are greeted by the HE400SE and a 3.5mm to dual 3.5mm cable with a ¼” adapter.
Now, HiFiMAN has a reputation for--regardless of price range--including rather poor cables alongside its headphones, and the HE400SE is unfortunately no exception. In fact, I think that the stock cable included with this iteration may just be the worst one yet, and that’s no easy task. It’s an extremely microphonic cable that’s uncomfortable to use since it aggressively holds its shape, and its durability seems poor; I would definitely advise buying a replacement for it immediately after purchasing the headphones.
Build & Comfort
HiFiMAN ‘s build quality and product lifespan is something that’s been put into question several times in the past. That being said, though, I’ve never personally run into issues with any of their headphones, including previous editions of the HE400. Structurally, the HE400SE is sporting the new headband and yoke that were introduced with the Deva, as opposed to the previous designs used on the HE400. This, I think, is a major upgrade as the new yokes are now one solid piece of metal, compared to the previous two-piece version that could occasionally have its hinges loosen over time. Additionally, the headband piece feels a lot more rigid and durable than that of previous models.
By virtue of new materials used on the pads, as well as the new headband, the HE400SE sees considerable comfort upgrades over its predecessors and I find it to be one of the more comfortable HiFiMAN headphones available. I was originally skeptical of the blocky-looking new headband, but it’s actually quite comfortable, with adequate clamp force and surprisingly good weight distribution. Additionally, the pads used on the HE400SE are now using a more felt or velour-like material for the inside of the pads. For those with facial hair they’ll still be more on the itchy side, but it’s an improvement over what felt like bathing-suit material in the Sundara.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the design changes made to the HE400. Of course, I can’t test for driver longevity, but structurally it’s now a more rigid-feeling and comfortable headphone than it was in its original form.
The HE400SE is--like most HiFiMAN headphones--utilizing a planar-magnetic transducer, and it’s using the original HE400i’s double-sided magnet array. One new addition in this SE is that of HiFiMAN’s “Stealth” magnets, which have been included to reduce interference as sound waves pass through the magnets.
Despite going through countless revisions, the HE400-style headphones’s sound signature has pretty much remained a constant, and out-of-the-box I think these have always offered one of the more enjoyable and balanced frequency responses.
In brief, I would describe the HE400SE’s tonal balance as one that leans towards what I personally consider to be “neutral”-sounding, with linear bass and mid responses, as well as a mostly-even treble range. Naturally, because it’s using a planar-magnetic transducer, it also offers the unique characteristics that are associated with this kind of driver, such as the rapid transients and immediate leading-edge.
Technically, it displays the excellent attributes that planar magnetic headphones usually have when reproducing low tones. This includes outstanding bass extension, which provides more sub-bass depth and rumble than even some of the better-extending dynamic headphones in this price bracket, as well remarkable precision and nimbleness. However, when it comes to the overall bass level, it isn’t particularly high on the HE400SE and I feel like it could have used a little more presence.
Under 120hz, it lacks a bass shelf, which makes it a bit lean in the really low registers. Of course, this can be greatly amended if using an amp with a bass boost toggle, or if using EQ. Though for some users who are not able to utilize either of those solutions, the bass response on the HE400Se will lack the low-end fullness they desire.
The midrange tuning on the HE400SE is excellent. It’s linear throughout, with clean fundamental tones, and very good presence in the upper midrange. The only quirk here is that--like seemingly all HiFiMAN headphones I’ve tried--there is a dip between 1-2Khz of about 3dB. It’s definitely not something I’d note as being overly detrimental, but in my listening experience this slightly reduces the bite of brass instruments, and particularly when listening to rock music it sounds to me as though electric guitars are a tiny bit muted; which I think is what keeps it just that last step from sounding as organic as a, for example, the HD560S in the mids.
I think the treble range is for the most part pretty good on the HE400SE. It’s not warm, but it’s not bright either, and I think that overall it’s set at a level that will be comfortable for the majority of listeners. Additionally, whilst it may not do so as much as I’d like, the HE400SE does extend nicely into the upper treble with good air qualities above 10K; properly representing all the harmonics and overtones in that region.
The only thing I want to point out here is something that I’ve heard on prior iterations of the HE400SE, and that is a very mild peak or bump at around 7Khz. Mind you this doesn’t make the HE400SE particularly sibilant or harsh, but it does add this odd “grittiness” to the treble region that I think keeps it from sounding as resolving or as clean as it could.
At its $149.99 price tag, the HE400SE provides really good performance when it comes to detail retrieval and overall image clarity. The bass region in particular feels very well-defined and nuanced, likely due to the fact that it’s using a planar-magnetic transducer. As for the rest of its frequency range, the HE400SE does an adequate job at providing a stable and cohesive image of the music. The only critique from me is that without EQ, that grittiness I mentioned earlier from the 7Khz peak really keeps it from being as clean as it should be in the treble region. Though, otherwise, I think that in this price range the performance offered here is tough to beat, and for internal resolution it gets very close to the HD560S.
Soundstage, Imaging, and Layering
The HE400SE actually has one of the more spacious and open-sounding presentations in its price bracket. For soundstage width it’s roughly on par with the HD560S and is able to convey a better sense of distance than something like the HD600 or HD 650 . Additionally, it’s got exceptional layering capabilities, with all instrument and vocal lines being clearly distinguished from each other, allowing you to more easily peer into the music. Where I do find that the HE400SE performs somewhat poorly is in its imaging, as it lacks the degree of precision that you get with HD560S or DT990 Pro . The center image is a little weak, and whilst I think that this is perfectly fine for music listening, it definitely makes it hard for me to recommend as an open-back gaming solution.
Again, this is a category where I didn’t find the HE400SE to provide particularly noteworthy performance. In the upper registers it does have some tactility, which adds some articulation to things like the pluck of acoustic guitar strings or piano keystrokes. However, it really feels lacking when it comes to delivering a satisfying, defined impact in the low-end. This is not that uncommon amongst planar magnetic headphones, so the HE400SE was definitely no surprise here. So, if you are looking for a headphone that provides a better sense of punch and slam I would look at something like the HD6-series headphones, the HD560S, the HD58X, or the DT990 Pro.
I think that the HE400SE’s already a great-sounding headphone with its stock tuning, but as with all other headphones, I like to add a touch of EQ. On the HE400SE I like to add a bass shelf under 85hz to give the subbass region a bit more presence. I also increase the energy at around 1.5Khz to give electric guitars specifically a bit more substance. Lastly, I cool down 7Khz to soften up the treble and clear the grittiness I mentioned previously. If you’d like to try out my EQ for the HE400SE, these are the settings I used:
- Low shelf at 85hz, +4dB Q of 0.7
- Peak at 1500hz, -2dB Q of 1.41
- Peak at 7000hz, -3dB Q of 2
For nearly a decade, the HE400-style headphones HiFiMAN has released have been a go-to for audiophiles. They’ve always provided solid performance for their price, and with the HE400SE’s new $149.99 price point, I believe it represents one of the best-values available in the market for over-ear headphones. I think that this is a pretty good entry point for both people just getting into high-end audio, or listeners who have yet to try out a planar magnetic headphone. Without a doubt, the HE400SE--with its reliable sound signature and structural upgrades--gets a strong recommendation from me.