There’s a lot of discussions about earbud headphones and I get it — mobile devices are hot stuff so anything connecting to them gets a strong play. But the simple fact is that a pair of over-the-ear headphones is always going to be superior for two reasons: comfort and being able to have, at a minimum, a larger driver (i.e, “ear speaker”) for the sound to come out of.
So with that in mind, what makes HIFIMAN’s HE-400S stand out from others in its “weight class.” It’s not the price as there are other headphones retailing at or around $199 (although to be fair, this is the most affordable of HIFIMAN’s line of headphones). Nor is it the design as again there are others that have a silver/black shape with comfortable cups to mold around the ears. It’s those drivers, because HIFIMAN uses a full-size planar magnetic technology.
Now before anyone accusing me of gobbledegook, lets understand what this tech is all about. Basically this consists of a design that employs characteristics found in both dynamic and electrostatic driver design. There’s no voice coil, instead the driver has a thin, mostly flat film that is charged and spread across the diaphragm. So instead of focusing the force on a small part, it’s spread across the diaphragm. This generally requires larger, or more, magnets than a dynamic driver array, and they’re needed on both sides of a diaphragm, which is why a lot of planar magnetic headphones are quite big and heavy.
But as a surprise, the headphones are lighter than expected , being barely more than 12 ounces. Add a gentle pressure from the headband, which is based on HIFIMAN’s more expensive models, along with beveled velour ear cups, and ear fatigue won’t be happening that fast. Plus inside there’s the makings of a more sensitive response (up to 98dB), which is aided by the open-back design. This increased sensitivity is designed with mobile devices in mind (of course it sounds better when the component providing the audio has strong amplification). And it doesn’t hurt that the connecting cable is more hotsy-totsy than most: oxygen-free silver and copper connecting to plug-in 2.5mm connectors. In other words — you are getting more than you paid for when it comes to the physical and internal construction of these headphones.
Now all this means nothing if what you hear is more reminiscent of an old Moody Blues song scratching its way out from an 8-track in a Ford Pinto. Fortunately that’s one end, the bad one, of the spectrum because the sound these headphones emit is at the other sonic end waaay out of sight. If it was the 60’s I’d say “groovy, man” because the bass alone is tight and solid and just a Hershey-bar like smooth color tone-wise. With that working, it’s nothing to say that the midtones and higher frequencies punch their way through with a clarity that makes whatever is being listened to seem closer to “studio” quality. Not that low-end MP3 files are going to give you the shivers, but if the resolution is at least decent to start, it will only be improved when listening with these headphones (or, at least, you’ll hear just how bad the files are and go get higher-rez versions already). I know that I’m probably one of the few who has Mahler on his iPhone, or wears over-the-ears out on the street, but it sure sounds sweet.
HIFIMAN is well known for the quality and “listenability” of their headphones. With the HE-400S not only is this maintained, but the price makes them accessible to an audience who haven’t known what their hearing has been missing. Until now.