Are these the best headphones for vocals? no, are they a fantastic headphone that shine in some areas and good at most… YES these are.
Some times you get what you pay for and sometimes you don’t. In fact, I’d say more often than not you don’t. However, if you’ve been following us at TLR Technology then you would know that we’ve been highlighting quite the opposite. We have reviewed IEM, on-ear headphones, headphones for on the go all of which punch way above their price. The HE4XX follows that trend. If you’re looking for a pair of fantastic Planar Magnetic headphones at a price that won’t make your eyes water, read our full review below.
The HE4XX are Planar Magnetic headphones made by Hifiman in partnership with Drop.com (formerly Mass Drop.com) and sold (new) exclusively on Drop.com.
What Are Planar Magnetic Headphones
If you’re new to higher-end audio let me take a very quick second to explain what planar magnetic headphones are. Headphones as most people know them use what are called dynamic drivers. Dynamic drivers typically have a cone shape and are driven using a magnet mounted in the center rear of the speaker. This design is prone to distortion when the volume is loud or the song that is playing requires very rapid speaker driver movement. This is because the (magnet) motor is at the center of the speaker so it moves accurately while the outer edges, further away beginning to delay. This creates a wave-like motion that causes distortion.
Planar magnetic headphones solve this problem by removing the motor structure from the center of the speaker driver and spreading it across the surface of the driver/woofer. This causes the speaker driver to move evenly therefore drastically reducing distortion even at extreme volumes. Another benefit of the Planar magnetic design is the speed at which the speaker driver can move to reproduce sound, which helps in the reproduction of higher frequencies. Planar headphones also typically excel in the bass frequencies as the entire speaker diver is powered allowing the speaker driver to move large volumes of air easily.
Important Note: Planar Magnetic headphones normally excel at bass and treble reproduction simply by design. Even at loud volumes. The trade-off is Planar Magnetic headphones usually require more power when compared to classic Dynamic Driver headphones. Also worth note: Planar headphones are extremely open back, so every sound that you can hear will be heard by people around you. If you need headphones that block out sound or are quiet and won’t disturb others around you look else where.
Now let’s get into the review. Drop.com has been selling the HE4XX for well over a year now at the price of $180, and by all accounts, they are worth MORE than the asking price. The Hifiman HE4XX is said the be one of if not the best introduction to the wold of Planar Magnetic headphones and I’ll say it again, provides a better value than the asking price. Then Drop.com did something a bit unexpected.
They lowered the price to $130
Headphones that were praised for the sound that is remarkably close to their $1,300 brothers, Headphones that were praised for being one of the best ways to get into Planar Magnetic headphone technology became cheaper.
The question I had… do they live up to the hype.
The Burn-In Is Real
Like the Grado Sr80e, the HE4XX sounded pretty poo right out the box. I noticed after a few minutes the sound of the Grado changed. I know some people will say that I just got used to the sound. Personally don’t think that is what happened. Grado like other manufactures will burn in (play) their top of the line flagship models for at least a hundred hours before they are boxed and shipped. The time, cost and manpower involved to do this should put to rest the fact (despite the lack of scientific evidence) that burn-in does something. In the case of the Grado, it was like an on/ off switch. It was poo, and suddenly the sound changed for the better. The Hifiman HE4XX takes WAY longer than a few minutes.
I took the HE4XX out of the box and gave them a listen. Honestly I was seriously unimpressed. I thought something was wrong with them. I read horror stories about earlier Hifiman headphones with all kinds of quality control issues BUT I also read that most of those issues were things of the past. Still in the back of my mind, I really thought that I had received a bum set.
The short story is I hadn’t. The first thing that you need to know is that planar magnetic headphones will sound different, especially if you have listened to only dynamic drivers in the past. It doesn’t sound like they are from another planet or something like that, but the change in the sound profile can make some songs both better or worst than expected. This is true about any good headphone though. So… If the first song you listen too doesn’t sound good, try are few others.
The Burn-in Is Real
Next, the HE4XX took a LONG time to break in. I let them play overnight and the next full day of work. I’d listen to them when I passed by or if I was at my desk, but I didn’t notice a huge difference until they had played for about 24 hours. In my case, I normally use a Monoprice Liquid Spark. However, I tested them on a Schiit Audio Magni 3 just to see how they would sound on that amp. I really think that extra power did something to help with the break/ burn-in. After I did that the sound was better and I could get the same volume level at 12 o’clock on the Liquid spark that I was getting at 2 o’clock on the exact same amp only moments before. It’s like they woke up. Either way, I’m not complaining.
Fit And Finish
The next thing that I want to talk about is the fit and finish. The HE4XX or should I say Hifiman wasn’t known for its build quality. This, for the most part, is a thing of the past. I feel pretty confident in recommending them as far as the build quality goes. The headband is fairly well padded and hasn’t been uncomfortable even with extended listening sessions.
The earpads are Focus-A pads. They are synthetic leather type material on the outsides, which is soft to the touch. The inner area that contacts your head is soft valor. This doesn’t bother me and removes the warm sensation that you could get after awhile with leather style earpads. What might bother some people is the valor section picks up lint and hair like a magnet.
Another thing is the ear pads have a wedge-style shape. The front of the ear pads is narrower when compared to the rear. This is to better direct the sound into the ear vs against the ear. The last thing to mention is that multiple companies make replacement ear pads in various materials. Some of them can affect the sound signature, but if the Focus-A pads aren’t your style you have choices. Overall I have no problems wearing the HE4XX for hours gaming or listening to music.
Oh The Cable
The last thing about the build is the wire that is included. It is meh at best. It’s not so bad that I wouldn’t use it but it could be better. The cable is really rubbery, you can tell the wire inside the rubber jacket wants to twist. The larger problem for some is the thickness and length. (insert inappropriate that’s what she said joke here). The cable is a bit thick and the rubber jacket makes it annoying as a portable cable. The short length can make it hard for desk use. The good thing is the cable is detachable and easily replaceable. Personally, I still use the included cable but I’m reminded of its short length when I’m sitting at my desk and attempt to turn around. A problem I don’t have with some other headphone cables.
Sound, Ahhh YEAH. This is what you came for. The sound stage is wide, not so wide that I sound like I’m listening to a concert in a field, but it sounds the way I feel it should. I can clearly hear sounds all around me that feel just out of arms reach. When it comes to imaging I can clearly hear the placement of instruments in songs like Strive by Amber Rubarth. The separation is precise and the sound of each instrument is clean and accurate.
When it comes to tonality or tuning, I mentioned it before. Planar tend to shine in the lower end due to the driver being power uniformly across its surface. Another byproduct of the design also means that it has a quick response when tones are played in rapid succession. In other words the low frequency are present and quick but not over powering at all, with that said by design you can add stupid amounts of bass with an equalizer and not get the distortion that is typical of traditional dynamic drivers.
Huge Open Back Drivers
Mid range frequencies are present but not up front. I would say the HE4XX have a very, very slight “V” shape to the sound. Mids are slightly recessed when compared to the lower and higher frequencies. Don’t think that I’m saying that the HE4XX sound bad or don’t have mid range, but when you compare it something like a Grado or Sennheiser they aren’t as in your face. When it comes to the actually sound I find the mids to be accurate and full bodied. Instruments sound fantastic, and vocals are good as well. Are these the best headphones for vocals? no, are they a fantastic headphone that shine in some areas and good at most… YES these are.
Onto the Highs, again this is a area that Planar excel by design. Higher frequencies are produced by short rapid movements/vibrations of the driver. The Planar design (powering the complete driver/diaphragm) allows for very fast movement, but more than that is the design allows control of that same fast movement. In simple terms not only can the HE4XX reproduce frequencies above that of human hearing, it can do it cleanly.
But Can They Game
The simple answer to can they game is a resounding yes. The strong lower range is perfect for the rumble of engines or blast of grenades blowing up around you. The sound stage allows sounds like foot steps to be projected at a distance. The fantastic imaging allows the projected sound to be placed precisely especially when used with Dolby Atmos or DTS X for headphones. Lastly, they are comfortable, really comfortable for extended periods of time.
At the original price of $180 the Hifiman were a fantastic deal. At the new lower price of $130 they really are a no brainier. The HE4XX are the perfect step into the world of planar magnetic headphones. If I’m being really upfront about it, the HE4XX could be the only set of Planar headphones that you’ll ever need. Just to bring everything full circle, I started the review saying that sometimes you get more than you pay for. This is 100% facts when it comes to the HE4XX planar headphones, It has been one of the best $130 I’ve spent in Hifi audio.