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HE-5LE | HD800
: On build quality, HifiMan of course cannot yet compete with the far bigger engineering and manufacturing resources of a Sennheiser. The HD800's custom metal work is altogether classier. Given the price discrepancy, this seems a fair tradeoff. The Sennheiser's ear cups are also bigger. They encircle your pink bits with room to spare while the HE-5LE's are tighter. I find neither company's textured black velour pads as friendly as Audio-Technica's smooth leatherette on the W5000 Raffinato. The Japanese cans are far easier cleaned of sweat, skin oil and don't become fierce Velcro magnets for hair and particles. Here Audio-Technica shows beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, HiFiMan and AKG a clean set of heels. Grado's foam cups are downright primitive once you pay GS-1000 rates. To keep any of the velour guys clean takes something like sticky tape sooner than later. Were it me, I'd convert all of them to Raffinato pads.

Sonically, the German and Chinese headphones are oil and water. Listeners falling hard for one will be extremely polarized to the other. Let me invoke two speakers I've reviewed to make the point, the Gallo Ref 3.5 and Zu Essence or Druid precursor. Listeners disaffected by perceived über detail enjoy the meatier Zu house sound which particularly with the Druid clearly lacked top-end air and harmonic resolution and with the Essence ultimate upper midrange detail. Those thrilled by mbl-type sonics however call the Zus dark and opaque and prefer the Gallos. A similar hot/cold dichotomy plays out with these headphones. The Sennheisers render needle-like transients very much like fierce hail on a thin tin roof. The planars turn this to mellow rain on straw batting. The difference is unambiguous and significant. Alas, huddling beneath those two roofs as it were quickly cancels out the other. That's key.

Each presentation is sufficiently balanced and virtuous to stand its own ground. The shock of direct A/Bs quickly settles. Going to the planars, opaque and muted becomes a more natural softness. Going back makes the Sennheisers at first tizzy and strident. Then the same submersion in an alternate reality occurs again and stridency turns to immediacy, airiness and speed.

Regardless of personal allegiances to either flavor, the Sennheisers soundstage more spectacular. Shy of the discontinued AKG K-1000s which I still own, the HD800 rule that category (I haven't heard Beyer's T1 yet to perhaps reassess this ranking). With the HD800s, ambient retrieval is higher, separation within the headstage more acute than the magnetostats. Curiously, if we laid those aspects at the feet of higher rise times for the dynamic drivers, we'd expect comparatively less precise attacks from the film diaphragms. Yet a quick reach for any decent Flamenco recording with lightning-fast guitar arpeggios and dancers's foot stomps shows that the HE-5LE isn't lacking. It doesn't incur a reduction in rhythmic precision or timing. The difference lives in the area of incision power or attack force - the degree to which percussive events register as tiny pin pricks. The Sennheisers are pricklier. An obvious upshot of all this is that Pop and Rock played back at high levels will be rather more pleasant with the Chinese.

When it comes to tone textures, my vote goes to the planars. Fanciers of direct-heated triode amps who use them in the most linear zone of their power band appreciate the particular difference which such circuits tend to make over most all transistor equivalents. The HE-5LE does something similar regardless of whether any actual valves are in its signal path. Where the Sennheisers are sparkling but cool, resolved like summer sun at high noon and unforgiving, the planars evoke more half-shadow distinctions later in the day. They are smoother, softer and mellower. You could simply say that they love cello and leave it at that.

How about bass? For remixed Qawwali vocals in a club setting, Gaudi's makeover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Dub Qawwali is an excellent option. If you're not in the mood for full-length traditional Sabri Bros. qawwali, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's contemporary setting for Punjabi songs on Charkha is another. Gaudi tastefully seasons his remixes with typical club beats. Those tend to occur not in the real low bass but mid to upper bass. There impact is most vital which is why they're often referred to as slam beats.

Unexpectedly again, the stretched film pounded harder than the dynamic piston jobs. While the Sennheisers were arguably cleaner and more precise, the HE-5LE were the shamelessly greater fun. Don't apply the standard prejudice of 'Maggies can't rock'. These aren't in-room panels that must pressurize cubits of air. They fire directly into small ear-canal cavities. For that duty, HifiMan's cans are as youthfully vigorous as their name implies. It's not exactly intuitive to think of planars as party animals but when the HE-5LE is played at appropriate levels—loud—it's a real rocker.

HE-5LE | AT W5000
: The planar's softer attacks and subliminally more distanced behavior remained in evidence. While the Raffinato are gentler 'phones than the truthier more linear HD800s—I view them SET-ish and the Yamamoto HA-02 headphone amp as their ultimate mate—they too bested the magnetostats on articulation.

A good visual is drawing with a fine pencil. Both Sennheisers and Audio-Technicas used a finer lead point. The difference between them was that the Sennheisers applied more pressure from pencil to paper.

The HE-5LE meanwhile used both a broader tip and softer lead. That quality after all wasn't relative but absolute. It reaffirmed itself on the Grado PS-1000 and AKG K-702. Clearly how the planars launch their sound waves is fundamentally different and as such also audibly distinct and immediately noted.

Though achieved by different means—the W5000s have a midrange-centric tonal balance—the Chinese and Japanese designs accomplished a similar celebration of textural tone beauty. In generalized terms, both would appeal to valve lovers.

HE-5LE | AKG K702
: These two designs were more evenly matched than the earlier comparisons. Wondering why, the only overlap I saw were their equally power-hungry natures which might be responsible for stepped-back immediacy.

How Woo has calibrated gain for the high-power K1000 and low-power 6.3mm ports on the Model 5 amp, I barely had to touch the volume control when switching between these cans. With the Sennheisers and particularly Audio-Technicas, I had to lower their volume.

The AKG-702 are the most neutral headphones in my collection. The sonic overlap with the HR-5LEs confirmed that in matters of tonal balance or top-to-bottom evenness, they appear similarly flat to the ear. Those looking for voiced excitement or contouring won't find it here. Common to both designs was that they wanted to be played louder than the other two.

HE-5LE | Grado PS-1000
: In my headfi harem, the Grados are the least visited. They're sonically not as refined or elegant as the HD800 and Raffinato and functionally too basic to play on the luxury turf their pricing puts them on. They also seem somewhat of a one-trick pony. Because Rock-type fare barely factors on my diet, the Grados barely factor either.

While I'm thus no real enthusiast, I do readily admit that for low-down welly, the Grados are a great tool and the HE-5LE was quite close.

Another area of similarity was a certain tonal fatness. This I alluded to earlier for the magnetostats. In the Grados, I detected some kinship. This did not operate on a level as sophisticated or refined as the HD800s and Raffinatos inhabit for their particular strengths. Instead it most reminded me more of a classic Vandersteen meat 'n' potatoes sound like an older Model 2ce.

HifiMan EF5 vs. Meier Audio Corda Concerto: To push the HE-5LE as deeply into hi-rez as they're willing to go, Jan Meier's Concerto amplifier might seem like a good choice. It won't alter the overall gestalt but its ultra-low noise floor does maximize what the Chinese planars can resolve at lower playback levels. The Concerto also offered ample gain for happy hour and beyond.

Ideal however—and this could be foregone conclusion coming from the same stable—was the matching HifiMan amp. Whether the lone 12AU7 is its secret weapon becomes academic. Unlike my iDecco's, it can't be bypassed. But everything we expect from good valve circuits was in evidence, particularly once I'd rolled in a premium Full Music. Color temperatures rose, tonal hues deepened and that sense of 3D palpability so prized by tube fanciers increased noticeably. In parallel, general intensity improved to more approximate (but not equal) the presentation of my other earspeakers.

I had already noticed this filling out on my bedside table where the EF5 broke in feeding the in-ear Jays Q-Jays. Lacking the low-end moxy and fully grounded tonal balance of far bigger on-ear drivers, those completely private headphones—I use them while my wife sleeps right next to me—never sounded as rich and full before. Unlike valve outputs which tend to not deliver current like transistors do, the EF5 cleverly runs its valve only for voltage gain. The hybrid combination of valve tone and transistor drive seems perfectly tuned to the sonic potential and basic needs of the HE-5LE.

With the Woo Model 5 my best tube headphone amp; and with prior comparisons between various transistor amps having clearly established the Corda's rating; I didn't need further tests to measure the HifiMan amp. Its particular combination of from-within pressure and richly textured timbres translated the same to my other headphones. None of them betrayed the least background noise, often a concern with pure tube circuits. To these ears and into this planar load, the HifiMan EF5 beat the mighty Woo. I guess higher current output was responsible.

Conclusion: HifiMan's revised HE-5LE has real potential to upset the ranking status quo of top-class headphones. On build quality, it already equals the—admittedly grossly overpriced—Grado PS-1000 for half the money. That it cannot yet out-luxuriate established giants like Sennheiser and Audio-Technica is self-explanatory. It's sonically already as linear as AKG's K702 and in matters of bass weight and slam, ahead of the Sennheiser HD800. Then it adds a peculiar richness of tone which none of the competition quite matches. If that sounds like a slam dunk, not quite. Where the HE-5LE still under performs is raw resolution. Compared to its competition, it presently inserts a virtual grill cloth over its driver. Besides slightly muting transient edge, it reduces air and undermines full holography by sounding dimensionally flatter and less developed. If the designers can find a way to remove the resultant distance incurred by this resistance or veiling, there'll be a small coup d'état in this sector.

As is, this unusual planar headphone must be listened to louder than others to approach their detail. On the practical side and as a more power-hungry design, it recalls the gain requirements of AKG's K-1000. Cleverly, the inexpensive stable mate amplifier has gain and drive up the Yangtse to get the best from it. As a mere Gen2 effort, the HifiMan HE-5LE is astonishingly accomplished. You expect that from Apple and their iPad with the first generation. I did not expect it from this newcomer. Mellower comfort listeners will call it perfect already. Given the competition's best, I'm personally still hoping for sharper overall focus, heightened resolution, more dimensional sculpting and a wake up call that occurs sooner on the SPL meter. That said, these products are a big surprise. The competition better take note!
Postscript. Shortly after my review published, Fang Bian wrote in: "About the veiling which you reported, my engineer and I came up with a solution after a telephone meet last night. Please read the following link." The fix—for those only who concur with my criticisms of course—is the removal of the thin cloth grill attached to the inside of the honeycomb cover. With a very thin-bladed jewelry screw driver, gently unseat the inner ring which affixes the perf cover to the frame. The ring is held in place by four tiny protrusions. Be sure to not deform the ring too much so it won't break while you snap it out.

Once the cover is free, peel off the cloth cover, then put everything back. The four ring catches must meet their corresponding recesses to snap back. Naturally, this mini surgery also removes a dust barrier which protected the Mylar diaphragm. What the long-term effects might be isn't known. I can only tell you that sonically, it's far from subtle.

Naturally, the only frequencies affected are those actually damped by the cloth - the treble. Astonishingly, it's not even the forward but backward radiation of the film's HF energy that's altered (originally absorbed/damped, now left to pass). Why should air moving away from your ears improve airiness? I can only speculate that the damping of that part of the rear wave to which the cloth isn't transparent also impinges on the free development of its front wave. Experiments with Franck Tchang resonators and his peculiar but effective approach to harmonic liberation have taught me that the biggest enemy to complete overtone restoration is overdamping. Damping the rear wave of the tiniest diaphragm flutters also damps the full development of the frontal output.

Perhaps. The explanation I leave to the engineers. The results certainly take no guess work. While cosmetics do take a hit—you'll see exactly what the final photo shows which is now barely obscured by the open honeycomb pattern—those fine decay trails and reverberations that were previously obscured (killed by damping as it were) are now released. This has nothing whatsoever to do with becoming sizzly or sharp. It's all about the restored breath of life. Things which previously felt somewhat flat, reined in and muted open up. Recorded ambience deepens and with it, spaciousness. If you're careful with the removal of the cloth, it's easy enough to put back. Try and see what you prefer. To my ears, nude is definitely the way forward - and not just by a few marginal inches but significantly. Perhaps HifiMan will come up with a solution that accomplishes this whilst retaining the previous dust barrier function? I would experiment with a thinner dust cloth on the outside and inside and/or perhaps a more open perforation pattern of the honeycomb cover. Actually, a central hole in the cloth to match the hole of the felt star absorber worked out perfectly for me and also looked better than fully nude.
Tim de Paravicini of E.A.R. with HE-5LE

Fang Bian responded
: "The first prototype was made without grill cloth. It has been used for more than four years without any problems."

Postscript II: Fang Bian next dispatched the silver cable of the original HE-5. Would that shift the tuning yet deeper into sharper attacks and more dimensional soundstaging to catch up with the Sennheiser HD800 and beyerdynamic T1 which I'd acquired in the meantime? I first had to pull out the stems of the terminations so their screws would freely turn. The assemblies on both channels were jammed and connecting the silver wire with such locked screws would have twisted it terribly. I got things unstuck with two pliers but QC in China really should have noticed and fixed that before shipping it out.

The braided silver wire which then splits into twisted leads significantly altered my subjective impression on speed and immediacy. A remaining sense of 'compression' or 'resistance' was lifted successfully, albeit traded for a bit of sibilance which the copper leash didn't suffer. Swapping in my recabled HD800 and T1 showed that the silver HE-5LE with the hole-y cloth cover had in fact very much narrowed the previous gap. Retained were the somewhat mellower transients. The Sennheiser still was pricklier, it and the Tesla still more resolved. But, the foot-on-brake sensation of the original HE-5LE was clearly gone. Poof.

Did I think the silver wire an unequivocal success? On my all-valve Woo Model 5 amp, I preferred it to the copper wire. On the leaner faster Meier Audio Corda Concerto, I found it somewhat too zippy. Clearly orthodynamic bliss is a result of much persnickety tuning. I believe that by punching a strategic center hole into the cloth cover as I did above while experimenting with a perhaps silver-plated copper leash (or a deliberate copper/silver stranded mix or perhaps a different gauge of silver), HifiMan could fully optimize this design without diminishing its core virtues or altering any base parameters. Because his stock harness is so easily replaced, Fang Bian might even end up offering two cables. That would leave the final choice to the end user. If Fang decides to keep it simple, an inclusion of silver in the stock cord seems predestined. I'd make sure though that the balanced drive option of the current stock wire was retained. It's a very useful feature that shouldn't be abandoned. (For an all-out statement assault, HifiMan has announced the HE-6 with gold diaphragm, to be introduced at CanJam 2010 in Chicago. With estimated retail pricing of around $1,300, it'll have to go up against Sennheiser's and Beyer's best without any excuses on sound, construction or fit & finish - very ambitious for this clearly unafraid newcomer.)

Quality of packing: Wooden display box for HE-5LE, early packing for EF5 in need of refinement.
Reusability of packing: A few times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: A cinch.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Website comments: Head-Direct Audio's is average.
Human interactions: My US contact Fang Bian was very responsive.
Pricing: As a statement rather than fashion or budget effort, very competitive.
Final comments & suggestions: On suggestions, I'd replace the dust-magnet velour on the ear pads with smooth leatherette or equivalent for easier cleaning. To refine a cosmetic detail, I'd replace the Philips screws on the ear cup swivel mount with finished cap nuts. To accommodate big ears, I'd enlarge the ear pad's inner diameter. On final comments, wear comfort is very high, the securely fixed but easily replaced wire harness supremely tweak-friendly. Finally, the inbuilt fully balanced drive option via the 4-pin Neutrik is so clever that one wonders aghast why none of the big boys have it. Beat by an affordable newcomer. Hello?

Head-Direct website