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REVIEW: Hifiman HE400se Ė the new budget headphone benchmark?

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Itís been quite a while since I last listened to a planar magnetic headphone, so when the great guys at Lumous Audio suggested I take the new entry-level Hifiman HE400se planar for a spin, I jumped at the chance.

My previous experience with Hifiman is admittedly brief. Iíve sampled quite a few of the companyís headphones, from the early HE400 models, to the highly-respected HE1000, and most recently, the bar-setting flagship, Susvara, but havenít spent serious time with any of them.

Mostly though, I was intrigued that a name-brand headphone could cost so little, especially with some of the tech on the spec sheet. Surely something had to give?

In the box

Nothing about the packaging, presentation or build quality of the He400se belies its lowly price point, although I can pick out where corners have been cut.

The headphones are packed inside a black box not much larger than a shoebox, with a nicely silkscreened image on the front and specs on the back. Inside, a foam sleeve protects the headphones themselves, which are placed inside a molded plastic cutout. A thin, white cable is rolled into a cavity in the cutout, above the headphones.

Aside from a warranty and info card on Hifimanís ĎStealth Magnetí technology, thatís all you get. No storage case, no cleaning cloth, no adapters (unless you count the standard 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter), and no spare pads. Not that I expected anything more, but just be aware that if you need any of those extra goodies, youíll have to buy them separately.

One thing youíll definitely want to buy, even though itís included, is a different cable. Rarely have I seen such a poor stock cable on a full-size headphone. Itís stiff, wiry, tangle-prone and microphonic. Yes, it does the job of getting a signal to the headphones, but honestly, if you take any sort of pride in your audio gear, leave the cable in the box and buy a better one.

I guess context is all-important here. The stock cable on any one of my higher-end IEMs costs more than the entire HE400se package, and itís a point Iím going to keep making in this review. The same way you canít hold a Hyundai i10 to the same standards as a Lexus, you canít hold the HE400se to the same standards asÖjust about anything that costs an order of magnitude more than it does.

The fact that Hifiman have somehow been able to produce such a low-cost headphone that presumably holds its own against far more expensive competition is quite remarkable in and of itself.

Design, build and comfort

The HE400se looks a bit different to how I remember the older entry-level Hifimans, with their laughable (albeit comfortable) clothing hanger-style headband. The newer headband style is the more traditional single-piece, pleather-padded type, and this oneís rather decent, especially since the headphone itself isnít very heavy.

The metal headband yokes can be extended a fair way to accommodate larger heads, and I donít think anyone, even the giants among us, will have issues getting a decent fit. The cups are closer to how I remember the early Hifimansí, with a sleek silver faÁade but (disappointingly) made from a cheap-looking plastic material. Thankfully the grilles are made of a finely meshed metal, and to be fair the cups feel solid enough to take the regular use and abuse of everyday listening.

Hifiman have opted for pleather and suede hybrid pads, which are actually very plush and comfortable to wear. The clamp force isnít excessive, resulting in a good seal, and combined with the generously padded headband, I could easily wear these for hours without issue. The pads are also replaceable using Hifimanís click-on mechanism, so Ďpad rollingí shouldnít be a problem if youíre so inclined.

Not that it needs mentioning, but these are open back headphones, so expect minimal isolation when listening, and everyone in earshot will be able to hear what youíre listening to. If youíre buying these headphones for privacy, donít. Youíll be better off looking for a claosed back pair, or IEMs.

Overall, the HE400se is well made and very comfortable to wear for longer listening sessions, especially for the asking price. 

Specs and tech

Before I get to what really matters, some notes on the specs and tech you can expect for your handful of ZARs.

Planar magnetic headphones have their pros and cons, fans and detractors, and the HE400se is no different. The large 10cm drivers cover almost the entire diameter of the cups, and for the first time at this price point, feature Hifimanís ĎStealth Magnetí technology, the self-same tech used on the R100,000 Susvara.

Now, before you think Iím comparing the two headphones on either end of a very wide price scale, Iím not. But itís good to see companies like Hifiman making tech they developed for much more expensive headphones accessible to audio enthusiasts with normal-sized wallets.

Without delving too much into the tech itself, if youíre familiar with Audezeís Fazor waveguides, youíll know more or less what Hifimanís Stealth Magnets set out to achieve. Essentially, theyíve designed the magnet arrays that move the planar diaphragm (to make the sound that you hear) in such a way that they donít obstruct the airflow from the drivers (hence Stealth). But theyíve also designed them so they act as waveguides for the drivers, causing less resonance and therefore lower overall distortion.

How much (or how little) this actually affects what you hear is debatable, but the theory is interesting regardless, especially (and Iíll keep saying it) at this price point. 

If Stealth Magnets are the headline tech, the important spec, as far as drivability and matchability are concerned, is the HE400seís paltry sensitivity of 91dB/mw. With a low 25ohm impendence, youíd think the headphones would be easy to drive from most sources, but not so. These things need POWAH, and lots of it, if you expect to get anywhere near the sound quality Iíve heard them produce.

Note that I said quality, not quantity. I could get the HE400se to sound plenty loud at around 70 percent volume on my portable DAP, but plugging it into a desktop amp with twice the power makes it obvious how much better they sound when given the juice they demand. That means the HE400se will necessarily need a decently powerful amplifier for optimal performance. Sure, you can try get away with plugging them into your phone, but theyíre going to sound like s***, simple as that. Keep that in mind when factoring in the low, low cost of the headphones themselves.


Sound impressions

The HE400se has a fairly balanced sound signature, though itís not completely flat or Ďneutralí either. Tonally Iíd say it leans bright, with more emphasis in the upper midrange/lower treble region than the lower mids or bass, but itís not Beyerdynamic bright or peaky, if you know what I mean.

Bass is typical planar, reaching fairly deep, but nowhere near Audeze deep, and lacking the punch of a good dynamic driver. Thereís texture and speed aplenty, but itís not the most resolving bass Iíve heard, and the sub-bass rolloff gives it more of a midbass bias. Also, unlike Audeze planars, the HE400se wonít satisfy bassheads. This is a neutral, even slightly south-of-neutral bass response that plays a smaller supporting role in the overall signature (of course Audeze planars start at six times the price of the HE400se, so thereís that).

Listening to Lordeís Royals, I donít get the sense of weight and slam the intro to that track is famous for, but that can also be a good thing if youíre particularly sensitive to deep bass rumble. Another go-to bass test, Missincatís Piu Vicino, lacks the type of authority and size I know to be there with more bass-adept headphones, but again, the flipside is greater focus on the harmony, vocals and strings in the track, so it ultimately comes down to preference.

The midrange is where I have some issues with the HE400se. Lower mids and male vocals, given no added warmth or weight from the upper bass, are slightly thinner than Iím used to, while upper mids are pushed more forward than Iíd like. The result is a mismatch between what Iím hearing when listening to purely male or purely female vocals, the former being too airy, the latter too shouty.

Ingrid Michaelsonís sweet voice has a glassy crackle to it on The Way I Am, a combination of the neutral bass that pushes the warmer bass plucks to the background while bringing her less-then-perfectly recorded vocals too far forward. And Don Henleyís signature smoothness is a little too lightweight in the live version of the Eaglesí Hotel California.

ButÖand thereís always a but, the HE400se does have a lane where the midrange deficiencies I found in my vocal test tracks donít exists, or at least, arenít as obvious. Missy Higginsí Shark Fin Blues, normally a litmus test for sibilance, is surprisingly sibilance free with the HE400se. This jazzy track gave me the idea to explore other, even jazzier numbers by the likes of Diana Krall, and lo and behold, this is far more aligned with the HE400seís tonal and technical strengths in my opinion. Dianaís smoky vocals in The Look of Love, for example, were as smooth and even as Iíve heard them, and the intimate staging of the HE400se worked particularly well for this track (more on staging below).

Again, like the bass, this is not the most revealing midrange presentation Iíve ever heard, but itís not the least either. The same goes for the HE400seís treble response, which as Iíve already mentioned is too peaky for my liking in the lower treble, but less so than some far more famous (and expensive) headphones. Thereís enough air and sparkle to keep things interesting, and while the HE400se is many things, dull isnít one of them.

Max Richterís Winter 1 shows the strengths of a good planar driver in delivering plenty of detail and air to the strings, keeping up with the frenetic speed of its busiest sections. But even on slower, more meandering instrumentals, like Richterís On The Nature Of Daylight, I enjoyed the lightness and agility of the strings. In fact, like jazz, classical music and pure instrumentals definitely play more to the strengths of the HE400se than most my indie pop and female vocal albums.   

Where the HE400se loses ground to more sophisticated (and expensive) headphones are its technicalities. This is not a headphone for lovers of ultra-wide (or even just wide) staging, being rather more intimate and Ďclosed-iní, though not quite as intimate as a Sennheiser HD600/650/6XX. From vocals to instruments, everything seems to be focused in the space between my ears.

Strangely enough I didnít find the HE400se too congested on most tracks, with a decent amount of separation between vocals and instruments, and enough space between instruments to keep them from crowding. Then again, I donít listen to particularly frenetic or complex music, so if thatís your thing, YMMV.

Resolution, as Iíve alluded to, is very average. I didnít feel like I was missing out on too many details but I definitely didnít get a sense that I was hearing everything in the tracks either. The lack of stage likely has something to do with it, but then so does the reality of squeezing every last drop of juice from a planar driver at this price.

If a technical detail monster is what youíre after, the HE400se isnít it, but itís not going to let you down like a cheap knockoff either.

Closing thoughts

Good but not great. Itís a theme that repeats every time I listen to these headphones, but again, when I think about the price Iím paying for entry, the quality is testament to how far headphone technology has come in the last few years.

For the R3000-odd youíll be paying Lumous Audio to own a pair, youíre getting headphone that does very little wrong (with the right sort of music, that is), and does many things right. It has balance, speed, and agreeable tonality (for many), and technicalities that wonít light up the world but wonít make you wince either. Itís well made, has some respectable pedigree behind it, and aside from the lack of accessories and throwaway cable, youíre getting more than your moneyís worth for a pleasant, if not mind-blowing listen.

The HE400se, to my mind, is a gateway drug for anyone looking to venture down the quality headphone rabbit hole without spending the exorbitant amount of money required to get to the really great stuff. If youíve previously hesitated to get into head-fi for any reason, be it cost or complexity, this could be just the ticket to set you on your way.

Thank you for a detailed and informative review, I really enjoyed reading it.  :thumbs:

Fantastic review, thanks! I am one of those guy would like to get into headfi, but scared to do so due to the unfamiliarity and costs. This is helping a lot!

The reviewer has got it spot on and as always, a great read and good to look at.
I have had a pair of these for about 3 months, bought because I was curious to hear what HFM could do with a R3000 headphone.
Although I have and have had many more expensive headphones, they are a revelation at the price.
For anyone looking to get into Head-Fi this really is a perfect gateway that will not disappoint.
I suggest Lumous Audio stock up!  :groovy:

Nice review.. and bang on the money. I find the stage to be just fine on the 400SE - it's not a heaving outdoor festival under the stars, but it's also not a hot, sweaty boxed in recording booth. It's worth mentioning that they shine with harder and more prog music as well: NiN, GnR, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Tool etc. It has the speed to keep up, decent enough bass presentation, enough instrument separation to follow different instruments without popping an eyeball, and considering how it glosses over the detail (which it does), it still somehow manages provides a coherent and really enjoyable listen. You simply ain't gonna find better at R3k new, that's for sure. So.. gateway drug it certainly is, provided you can juice it properly - all things that were mentioned in the review.

I still think the 6xx/650 is a better gateway drug, but it doesn't come in at the remarkable R3k price point of the 400SE, so there's that. For brave new souls looking to take a stroll through the rabbit hole and taste some of its forbidden fruits.. this is a most worthwhile entry point of exploration!

I also think a huge shout out should go to Lumous for opening the doors for SA audio enthusiasts new and old.. really fantastic! Maybe we will see more of these type of reviews done locally with Lumous walking amongst us mere mortals now.


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