Review written by @Fc-Construct
Review unit on loan from headphones.com
HiFiMan is no stranger to the headphone world. They are possibly the largest brand when it comes to planar headphones, with products covering the entire price range. One of their latest offerings is the entry level $150 HE400se, not to be confused with their other HE400 variants. With this model, the “se” stands for “stealth edition” where the magnets that drive the planar driver are supposedly acoustically transparent to allow for sound waves to pass through the magnet without any interference.
The technology behind these headphones is an interesting discussion but I can’t say I care too much about it on a practical level. How it sounds like is what I’m concerned with. The last HiFiMan model I heard was the HE1000V2 a couple years ago at a demo. This will be my first full length review of a planar headphone which should be a nice level set moving forward with hopefully minimal preconceived notions.
What’s in the Box?
The build quality of these headphones is what I would call half-and-half. The headband is made of a faux leather that’s pleasant to the touch and a nice foam with good resistance and rebound characteristics. It has solid metal yokes attached to cheap plastic earcups. The yokes have 8 steps of adjustments and should fit all but the biggest heads. These yokes are sturdy, but I can’t say the same for the earcups. The part where the metal yokes connect looks to be like a probable failure point. These earcups can swivel both vertically and horizontally to fit a variety of heads. While it does seem a loose on the vertical axis, the horizontal adjustments have a good resistance. On the back of the cups is another cheap plastic cover to protect the drivers.
The ear pads have a similarly pleasant faux leather on the outside and perforated on the inside. The foam padding is soft and comfortable. But on the surface where it touches your skin is a felt-like material that once again, feels kinda cheap. Realistically, you won’t notice it but the contrast in materials all around is a little odd. What’s not acceptable is this cable. It’s horrendously stiff with an awful case of cable noise. It’s like barbed wire without the barbs. At very least, it’s detachable if you want to swap it out. To be fair, despite all my complaints the HE400se is admittedly functional. Still, even at $150 I’m sure HiFiMan could’ve done a better job with the build overall so I’m chalking this up to them trying to nudge buyers towards the much better built Sundara.
The HE400se are pretty comfortable. Clamp force isn’t too tight but not loose either. I do get the common problem of headband soreness after an hour or two. A larger headband to spread out the pressure would probably be better as the HE400se is a little the heavy side.
The sound of the HE400se can be simply described as a neutral headphone with entry level technical performance. There is a bit of peak in the mid treble that makes it seemingly bright and off-sounding to me. If you’re looking to buy the HE400se to try some sort of “planar magic”, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. There’s nothing particularly special about its sound outside of being well tuned. One thing to note is that you will need a desktop amp or a very beefy portable one. It needs more power than the Sennheiser HD6X0 series and it definitely sounds better when given adequate power.Measurement of the HiFiMan HE400se on an industry standard GRAS 43AG measurement rig. The dotted black line is represents the Harman target, a reference frequency response developed using consumer preferences. The blue line is how the headphone in question measures. Effectively, this shows how significantly the headphone’s frequency response deviates from the target. Note however that the target is highly smoothed and strict adherence to the Harman target is not necessary for a headphone to sound good.
The bass of the HE400se is flat with the typical minor subbass roll-off around the 40 Hz mark. Despite not having a bass boost as suggested by the Harman target, I don’t find the HE400se to be anemic or overly lacking in bass quantity. There’s enough here to fill out the body of bassier instruments like the floor toms.
The bass quality is the more interesting topic. When it comes to planar headphones, there’s often talk about planar bass. This generally refers to the idea that planar headphones are known for having a sense of speed and articulation to its sound. Whatever it is, the bass of the HE400se doesn’t sound too far off from a regular dynamic driver. The primarily difference is that the decay of bass notes are just a little too quick. While the attack is tight, it isn’t particularly fast and has a slight bluntedness to it. These characteristics are most noticeable with the drums as you listen to how the snare, kick, and toms are rendered. That said, this doesn’t necessarily make the HE400se’s bass bad. The amount of control it has here is quite commendable. Though it may not have amazing resolution, it rarely ever gets bogged down or congested even in busy tracks.
Like the bass, the lower mids of the HE400se are basically flat. Nothing much to be said here. Like many HiFiMan headphones, the pinna gain (upper mids) of the HE400se only start to rise after the 2 kHz mark. Generally speaking, a rise starting after 1 kHz is more in line with the ideal pinna gain in headphone target curves. I find that this has the effect of giving the tonality of the upper mids a forward slant to it instead of a fuller, smoother tone. As such, the upper mids can come off as slightly dry. My guess is that the upper harmonics are effectively backloaded unto the 3 – 4 kHz region. Vocals and electric guitars show this off the best. I’m not complaining though. I do like the mids of the HE400se as it has a lot of clarity here.
The treble of the HE400se is good if unremarkable for the most part. One pain point is a small mid-treble peak around 7 kHz. This peak does occasionally make it sharp and sibilant but not too much of a concern. My real complaint is that this peak has the effect of making the hats/cymbals sound tizzy, especially when combined with the “dryness” of the HE400se’s timbre. These notes don’t sound complete; the crisp initial attack and subsequent shimmer are masked as the peak emphasizes the middle part notes where the hats/cymbals rings outs. It can sometimes come off as a little incoherent on certain recordings as notes start to blend into each other in a cheap, thrashy sort of way. This makes the HE400se’s treble seem brighter than it really is.
The technical performance of the HE400se is what I’d consider the new baseline for so-called “audiophile” headphones. That title previously belonged to the Sennheiser HD6X0 lineup (granted, I have not heard the new HD560S). Compared to headphones below this baseline, the HE400se’s resolution, clarity, instrument separation, and dynamism is a step above. That said, it is a baseline. The HE400se definitely won’t be blowing anyone away with its performance if you’ve already had something better. What is impressive is the price that this performance comes in at.
Of note is the soundstage of the HE400se. I like it. It feels open and provides plenty of space for instruments to play around in. There’s good width to it and more importantly, it has a small helping of depth that really adds another dimension to the sense of stage. The HE400se’s imaging does a good job in allowing instruments to layer three dimensionally on top of each other without fighting on the same 2D plane. It helps the HE400se to have solid instrument separation and clarity especially when coupled with good note definition. While resolution isn’t particularly outstanding, detail retrieval on the HE400se is surprisingly pretty good. Tiny individual musical passages that languish in the background tend to get uncovered and highlighted.
Comparison to the Sennheiser HD600:
The ubiquity and performance of the HD6X0 series headphones make them a great comparator for any headphone and it’s no exception here. Price wise, they aren’t too far off the HE400se. Used HD600s can be had <$200 while new HD6XXs go for $200-220 on (Mass)Drop. I’ve long considered these HD6X0 headphones one of the best values you can get in personal audio especially if you go the used route. But with the release of the cheaper still HE400se, they just might topple that throne.Starting from the bass, it’s hard to say which I prefer. The HD600’s subbass doesn’t extend as far and it is slightly sluggish with less finesse and clarity. However, it does have a more natural tone and oomph with a minor elevation over the HE400se. Mids are mellower and more organic on the HD600 without the dryness of the HE400se. The HD600’s mids are able to make the tone of every instrument play nicely with each other with no one outstanding instrument. As for the treble, I’ll have to give it a tie here. The HE400se has a greater brilliance and airiness that lightens up the sound, but the tizzy hats/cymbals do stick out like a sore thumb. The HD600 sounds comparatively deadened in this region but make up for it by being inoffensive and balanced. In summary, the HE400se has better clarity but weaker timbre.
Where the HE400se pulls ahead of the HD600 is in its staging. The openness of its presentation is a breath of fresh air compared to the HD600’s closed in, 3-blob sound. The added width and depth of the soundstage on the HE400se makes it more comfortable to listen to as it brings along greater instrument separation and layering. The HD600 would definitely benefit from the staging the HE400se has. Instruments on the HD600, particularly in the bass/lower mids, can sometimes sound like they’re a little congested. I think greater treble brilliance the HE400se has helps offset this issue.
Resolution and nuance on both headphones are fairly similar to each other, with the HD600 taking an edge. I do think the HE400se wins out on detail retrieval since my perception of that quality is enhanced by better staging. Dynamic ability is also pretty much on par on both. While they’re a solid step up from anything below the aforementioned performance baseline, neither are truly outstanding.
Personally, I’d take either on a given day. I really do like the HE400se greater clarity and staging despite its minor tuning flaws. But if I had to pick one to keep, I’d go the HD600. The importance of having a reference dynamic driver in my collection cannot be stated loudly enough.
Should You Buy It?
Yes, with an asterisk. If you’re just looking to get into the hobby with a tight budget, there’s practically no other option for the price. Take the $50 – 70 you’d save with the HE400se over the HD560S/HD6XX and put that towards an IEM like the MoonDrop Aria and an amp. From a pure sound quality perspective, the HE400se is highly competitive with any entry level set or even a bit beyond. If you’ve never heard a good dynamic driver headphone before, you’ll likely not even notice some of the HE400se’s minor timbral issues.
Where the asterisk comes into play is that I think most people who do end up with the HE400se will look to sidegrade/upgrade relatively soon. The HE400se is good enough that it gives a nice glimpse into the world of truly better sound quality. But I was a little unsatisfied with the HE400se, like I could almost feel that there is something better to be had going a step up. Frankly, I’m pretty sure this is a ploy from HiFiMan to get people to buy the Sundara, especially when you consider the awful cable and cheap build on the HE400se. And while I don’t think the HD6X0 is necessarily a strict upgrade from the HE400se, it’s worth considering if you have the budget. The better build and more agreeable timbre may be worth it for some.
At the end of the day, while the HE400se may be compromised in some ways, perhaps the greatest testament to its sound quality is that it’s able to finally provide an alternative to the HD6X0 for audiophiles just beginning their long journey. Just make sure you get an amp for whichever you choose.