BEST OF BOTH WORLDS – THE ONE OF A KIND HiFiMAN HE1000

HiFiMAN HE1000 Planar Magnetic Headphones

HiFiMAN has always had a special place in my heart. My audiophile journey began back in 2012 with their former mighty flagship, the HE-6, which is notoriously known for not only being very demanding of power  but also for its pickiness about what it is paired with. While my setup was far from ideal at that point [a cheap DAC and speaker amplifier], I still enjoyed listening to it quite a bit. Even today, many consider it one of the best headphones available. Time has passed since and I moved on, owning many different headphones, from the excellent AKG K7XX to the beautiful Audio Technica ATH-W1000X, as I fleshed out my sonic preferences and experimented with different gear.

Since last July, my favorite headphone has once again been one of HiFiMAN’s own – the HE560. This headphone performed better than the HE-6 on my budget-conscious setup and scaled higher when I upgraded later. This new-born planar-magnetic headphone performed admirably and I found myself in a temporary state of bliss. However, I knew there were still many headphones out there that was yet to hear.

This was about to change the upcoming August, when I flew to London for the first annual Europe-held Canjam. There, I finally tried some of the current and past world-class headphones, which I wanted to hear for so long. There was one in particular, however, that in my view managed to steal more of the spotlight than the rest. One that made me really eager to hear and review it on a gear of my own. Which brings me to HiFiMAN’s newest flagship, the HE1000.

The HEK – what the HE1000 is often called – got to me earlier this month, delivered by DHL. The packaging is designed so that the HEK box rests securely, fixed in place by six clear protective pieces, one for each side. Removing the top piece reveals the beautiful headphone box. While all next generation HiFiMAN offerings come in all-new, improved and fancier packages, this one tops the others with its luxuriousness factor. The rigid wooden box is fully coated in grained leather, with a squared aluminum middle section, where the letters ‘’HIFIMAN HE1000’’ are imbued, along with company’s logo, giving it a clean yet classy look. The cover slowly opened as I lifted the metallic buckle, revealing the owner’s guide as well as additional paperwork. Underneath this layer laid the headphones, nested in a soft cutout, with cables hidden under a removable compartment in the middle.

HiFiMAN HE1000 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Speaking of accessories, the HEK comes with 3 sets of cables. The first one is 3 meters long, terminated by an XLR connector, the second, also 3 meters, ends with a 6.35mm plug and the last one is 1.5 meters with a 3.5mm end. All are made from crystalline silver & copper, sleeved in a fabric jacket and terminated into the headphone with 2.5mm mini plugs. The cables are fairly unwieldy and stiff but they are quite long and as far as I can tell, fairly well made as I’ve been using the 6.35mm cable without issues. If you were to buy them separately, they together retail for over 500$. Adding the warranty and owner’s manual, there are no other accessories in the box. I think a nice stand or case would be welcome given the price but with headphones like these that will be kept at home and pampered, this is less of an issue than it would be with a pair of closed back portables. The stand depicted is HiFiMAN’s own, which sells for 20$ and gets the job done.

Holding the HEK in my hands, they feel like a product of decent craftsmanship. The materials used are all of premium quality. The headband frame is made from stainless steel, the suspension strap that rests on your head is premium leather. The yokes, grilles and ear-cup rims are all steel. A big part of the headphone is occupied by two chunky wooden veneer strips. The newly developed 2.5mm metal sockets sit at an angle near the bottom of the cups, preventing the cables from rubbing on your shoulders whenever you put the headphone on. HiFiMAN made sure there would be no obstacles in the way of sonic reproduction, by utilizing a new back cover system – shades, which improve upon the previous grille design. At the back of each ear-cup are 11 horizontal ‘shades’ with a thin grill layer underneath, combining for a more transparent solution with the added benefit of protection.

Previously, avid audiophiles would have to modify the headphone by replacing the sound-obtrusive stock grilles with something more transparent, to attain the most faithful sonic reproduction, but with this aspect now remediedthere is no need for any modifications. The UltraPads, HiFiMAN’s newest ear-pads exclusively developed for the super-sized HE1000, are made from protein leather, with velour sewn on top for added comfort. These headphones are indeed physically the largest I’ve ever owned and they do feel a bit flimsy when held. This is mainly because the ear-cups rotate and swivel freely and when rotated, produce a squeak-like sound. Despite this, the overall finish looks great without any rough edges or imperfections and I cannot see any reasons for long term durability concerns.

The reason for their gargantuan size is a valid one as inside the cups live some very special drivers. These measure 131x100mm across and their thickness is calculated in nanometers, making them the world’s thinnest and possibly largest planar-magnetic drivers ever made. I am not quite sure what material they utilized, but there is a video on the internet where it is dropped on the ground. As the feather-light nano-grade substance slowly spirals and dances in the air, I found myself wondering at just how far technology has progressed in recent years.

Putting the headphones on feels great. They are twenty grams shy of being 500g, but they don’t feel heavy and I can wear them for hours on end without fatigue. This is due to the reworked headband system, which distributes weight evenly across my whole cranium, making these newest planars one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn, with ideal clamp right out of the box. The pads themselves are cavernous and my large ears fit inside very comfortably, instantly forming a perfect seal. I do wish they were stylized slightly more akin to the Focus pads, meaning even thicker and more cushioned, but the UltraPads still make for very fine pads with good depth and softness. The velour topped protein leather allows for excellent heat management, mitigating any issues that a leather contact area could create. The stainless headband is adjusted by tactile ‘clicks’ and feels secure, but I wish it were a bit smaller. To fit me comfortably, it has to be set to its lowest possible setting, meaning there is practically no leeway whatsoever for adjustment. Now, I do have a smaller head, but this was not an issue with the HE560, where I was on the second or third ‘click’. These still do rank up among the most comfortable headphones, if a tiny step below the pillow-like comfort of the 560/400i/400S.

With other necessities out of the way, what does this expensive pair of oversized headphones sound like? Initial Canjam impressions were positive, but show conditions can notably affect perception. I made sure I gave the HE1000 at least 200 hours of recommended burn-in before listening critically. My music taste spreads across a broad range of genres including 90s electronic pop, chamber jazz, large instrumental pieces and alternative rock music, with varying degree of mastering quality, which made sure the headphones were certainly put through their paces. In addition I also played games and watched movies. My current setup is an Audio-gd SA31SE amplifier, a vintage Theta Digital DS Pro Basic II R2R DAC, coupled with a Breeze Audio DX-U8 USB DDC and a USB isolator. Thousands of files flow through JRiver MC20 from my PC.

HiFiMAN HE1000 Planar Magnetic Headphones

 

The first track I listened to with the HEK was ‘A Scattered Moment’ by Hidenori Shoji. This is a simpler instrumental piece, but it carries incredible emotional impact for me and I have heard it countless times before with different headphones. But what an impression it left! The piano starts off shy, delicate, moving from right to center and right again. The timbre and tone is pitch perfect. Individual key strokes echo through the air and fill the whole space. Then a synth roars through the air, rising up, disappearing slowly until the last tone melts into space. A drum kicks through, intertwined with a cymbal crash. The cymbal is not harsh and decays naturally with excellent timbral accuracy, while the definition of the drum is simply stunning as the impact is also felt and the vibration disappears to the far right. Other instruments start filling the stage, throwing an image so big, natural and real I am completely taken aback. A knock-on-the-door-like synth hits a few times through the song. It was always difficult to hear but now it is oh so clear. The balance is perfect throughout. The track ends. I open my eyes… Wow! That was my first home experience.

Now to describe the sonic characteristics more meticulously. The bass is very impressive. The sub-bass is tuneful and deep, while never bleeding into other frequencies without any trace of sounding boomy and also  produced  a tight yet tactile feeling. The mid-bass punches well with moderate impact that never overbears and kicks decently. There are songs where it might seem a bit on the soft side, but then there are tracks where it feels very adequate and recording dependent. Acoustic bass does show less variability than synthetic. The transition into upper bass – lower midrange is seamless. I am quite amazed by the overall bass response as the sub-bass is integrated expertly into the mix and the whole low range just sounds so clean, textured and tight with zero bleed as if it were produced by a separate woofer. Believe me when I say the bass surprised me on more than one occasion.

Midrange is likewise stellar, smooth, even and musically rich. It sounds very coherent throughout and gives great presence to most instruments from lower to upper, including guitars, pianos and violins. Sometimes I only wish vocals had a bit more heft to them. It is not that they sound recessed, rather they sound ever-so-slightly  small at times. This again depends on the mastering to a substantial degree although  it is something I noticed recurring. Midrange registers do sound enveloping, cohesive and natural, and like the bass was well incorporated into the encompassing mix.

It is fair to preface this by saying that I am more sensitive to lower treble than most other people and it should be taken into consideration as it is very relevant here. The treble area is slightly different to the smooth bass & midrange  in that it is boosted from 4 through 7KH and then dips a bit and later rises again, extending up to 15K. As one of my few criticisms, this enhances presence and sometimes gives some recordings some  sibilance in male and female vocals. As such, this also has the butterfly effect of injecting a pleasant boost of energy into recordings that need it and would otherwise sound dull or muffled. Also, because essentially the whole lower treble area is boosted it is less problematic than if there was only a single peak, causing less trouble. Minding this raise, the treble sounds accurate, delicate and extended. Lots of air surrounds instruments and voices, helping to create a more convincing and realistic presentation. All secondary harmonics, like air, timbre and decay are preserved to their fullest. A very clear and open treble presentation, which, as with most neutral headphones, I would not pair with dead-neutral or bright gear.

Detail retrieval is amazing. Simply phenomenal. Now, I thought I’ve heard everything there was to hear in my favorite tracks but the HEK proves me wrong again and again with its subtle cues, extraordinary layering and clarity. All the minute details are not forced on you but are instead presented in a very natural manner, without ever sounding strident or artificially enhanced. This makes it easier to follow any instrument at will. The dynamic range is virtually infinite, allowing for both very fine and nuanced cues and grand and explosive impact. The HEK manages to reveal all the details without ever losing musicality.

Soundstage is the most realistic and convincing I have heard yet. It almost makes regular stereo recordings sound binaural. Sounds come from all directions and spread wide and deep, filling the stage evenly with musical bliss. Never did anything sound congested, too distant or mushed. As someone who also likes using headphone surround for games & movies, this attribute is very crucial for me and the HE1000 delivers here on all counts. It simply allows me to just get immersed completely in whatever I am currently doing.

Now this wouldn’t be possible without exquisite imaging & instrument separation and while all recent HiFiMAN planars do admirably in these areas, the HEK simply takes it to another level. Instruments just pop up and disappear, locked in their own little airy bubble, never smeared. Locating them within space is easy, with multi-vocal tracks deserving special mention as this is where I found many headphones to struggle.

To briefly compare, I would like to throw in my previous favorite headphone, the HiFiMAN HE-560 as in many ways, the HE1000 sounds like an evolution of sorts. On the HEK, the bass digs deeper, the midrange is more articulate and the treble is more even in its presentation. The vocals sound more like real voices, though the way the HE560 does vocals is also very special. The soundstage is one of the most apparent improvements as it is bigger, more dimensional and projects more evenly from all directions. Imaging was already excellent on the HE560 but the HE1000 outclasses it still with even more accuracy. The HEK always manages to straddle the line between analytical and musicality perfectly, revealing all the details yet keeping the experience musical and while the HE560 comes close, it does not quite reach that line. Price is an entirely different matter of course and it is the one area where I feel the HE1000 is squarely beat.

HiFiMAN HE1000 Planar Magnetic Headphones

Retailing for 2999$, the latest HiFiMAN flagship finds itself priced in the top tiers of the headphone pricing echelon. With many great offerings for significantly less, starting with the AKG K7XX and HiFiMAN’s own HE400S and going all the way to the Mr. Speakers Ether, Audeze LCD-X and Sennheiser HD800. These established themselves as excellent sounding headphones and represent a contextually incredible value for about half the money. But they did not wow me to the same extent and I believe that indeed at this price point, it becomes a matter of personal enjoyment rather than technical prowess. Preferences have always played a major part in decision making, especially this high up and the HE1000 simply comes closest to my idea of ‘perfection’ that I have heard in any headphone yet. I will continue to enjoy this HEK of a headphone, while playing with my setup to hear just what else the astonishingly-analytic-yet-marvelously-musical HiFiMAN HE1000 has to offer. For those looking to spend less, the just released HiFiMAN Edition X is worthy of consideration.

 

Headphone Specifications:

Type: Planar-magnetic driver, full-size, open-back design

Frequency Response: 8Hz – 65KHz

Impedance: 35 +-3 Ω

Efficiency: 90dB/mW

Weight: ~480g

MSRP: 2999$

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