HIFIMAN’s HE1000 Part 2 of 3: Listening Impressions

For my portion of this review, I’m going to focus on how I think HIFIMAN has really changed the landscape for top-of-the-line high-end headphones. To say that it has been a love affair since their arrival wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Previous to hearing these headphones, I thought this level of high-end quickness and tactility only came in the form of electrostatic headphones. But once you decide to go down that electro-static road, you very quickly realize that the costs can be quite prohibitive. Yes, you will need a dedicated electro-static headphone amplifier (I own the Cavalli Audio Liquid Lightning 2) and they don’t come cheap (between $4250 – $4750, depending on the Liquid Lightning 2 or Liquid Lightning 2T), the Woo Audio WES electro-static amplifier ($4990) or the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition (starting at $5596). Stax manufactures its own brand of “energizers”, but to really get the most out of your SR-007s or SR-009s, you really will need to go beyond these options.

So for more than two and a half years, I’ve been quite happy with both my SR-007s and SR-009s. They have provided me with the satisfaction of an incredibly quick and nimble sound, and all while never sounding dry or artificial. I thought this was the only path in order to hear this level of detail. Then, my HE1000s were delivered and things changed very quickly.

I want to preface this by saying I have also owned the HD800s for just over 5 years now and have heard them on some very well respected and vaunted setups (both tube and solid state). No other headphone has come as close to my Stax setup as the HD800s; that is until the HE1000s arrived.

I was certainly excited as I opened up the box and found a beautifully hand crafted leather storage case. Opening that, the exquisite wood finish and metal headband grabbed my attention immediately. Then when I lifted them out of the box, I was completely shocked on just how light these Orthodynamic headphones were! I’ve owned the LCD-2, LCD-3, HE-6, and currently have the LCD-X / XC on hand, and while all sounded magnificent, I thought that weight was par for the “ortho course” in order to accommodate their magnetic structures. And here I was holding the HE1000s; physically large, but incredibly light…talk about bucking the trend.

I then started to sift through all the accessories and found 3 different cables. That’s right, three! Two 3-meter cables are included for your main desktop rig, a fully balanced cable with a 4 pin XLR output, and an unbalanced TRS cable. As if that wasn’t plenty, HIFIMAN included a portable 1.5 meter cable (terminated with a 3.5mm TRS plug). I was a bit surprised of that last addition, considering my 2-year ownership of the well-reviewed HIFIMAN HE-6 headphones. But thankfully the good folks at HIFIMAN have listened to the audio community and really upped the efficiency on these new headphones. Instead of the 83.5dB efficiency level of the HE-6s (where a speaker amp was almost the only choice of a proper amplifier), the HE1000s come in at a significantly improved 90dB. And these headphones can sound very good out of my AK240SS portable DAP.

The overall build construction is very fetching and really shows the workmanship and pride that went into making these headphones. Everything from the handsome wooden ear-cups, to the metal headband, or the leather strap on the headband, everything exudes luxury. The ear-pads are a combination of incredibly soft leather sides and fabric tops that come into contact with your ears and head. They are very comfortable and breathable, allowing for several hours of usage with very little discomfort whatsoever.

Comfort and Beauty

Comfort and Beauty

Once on my head, my initial shock of the lightweight stature of these headphones barely wore off when I realized that they were actually comfortable. Not just a little bit comfortable, but a whole lot comfortable! I’ve previously categorized all of my other Orthodynamic headphones as neither comfortable, nor uncomfortable, but the HE1000s are along with my HD800s and SR-009s, the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever had on my head. Over my past 5 years with ortho-based headphones, I thought this feat was unattainable. But I put up with the comfort issues because of just how good they sounded. Well, with the HE1000s, you can have all that ortho goodness and comfort.

For the purposes of my review, I used a few different setups I had on hand:

  • My main setup: CDs, or Amarra for Tidal, or high-resolution music (played through Amarra 3.0) > Metrum Acoustics Hex DAC > HeadAmp GS-X Mk2
  • My work setup: CDs or Tidal or high-resolution music > Resonessence Labs Concero HP
  • My portable setup: High resolution music > Astell & Kern AK240SS

First up was my main rig, since I was at home when DHL delivered them. I have to also say, that while they ship out of the Far East, it took only a few quick days to reach my door here in Toronto, Canada. Not bad at all! As my main setup is fully balanced front-to-back, I went with the 3m-balanced XLR cable and picked some of my favourite tunes off of Tidal’s streaming music service. Not sure why I selected Shelby Lynne’s “Just a Little Lovin’ as my first track, but I’ve always been a big fan of female vocals and from previous experiences, I’ve come to appreciate not just the sound quality of this spectacular recording, but also Shelby’s wonderful voice. And right off the bat I was floored with what I heard; such beautiful, subtle, quick, detailed and full sounding music. Those were the first 5 adjectives that came to mind and I quickly jotted them down. The last three times I’ve been totally floored in this hobby were:

1.) the first time I got to hear the Sennheiser HD800s,

2.) the first time I got to hear the Stax SR-009s, and,

3.) the first time I got to hear the Astell & Kerns/JH Audio Laylas, and now this experience was right up there with the other three!

If I could describe the sound and tonality of this album through the HIFIMAN HE1000s, it would be right in between my Stax SR-007s and SR-009s. The SR-009s have more of a leading edge and attack that some might prefer, while the SR-007s are the more laid back little brother. The HE1000s split the difference here. And that “electrostatic quickness” I’ve come to know and love over the years, was there in spades. But this time, it was with a pair of orthos. For the design of these headphones, Fang (the founder of HIFMAN) utilized a nanometer thick diaphragm; a world’s first according to HIFIMAN. And the thin diaphragm’s benefits are easily detected when you hear just how quick and nimble these headphones sound.

Nanometer-Thick Diaphragm

Nanometer-Thick Diaphragm

Shelby’s voice was liquid, smooth, up front and all the finest details were rendered in perfect proportion. The only headphones that can relay this level of innermost detail are the SR-009s and HD800s. In terms of overall detail extraction, I would place the HE1000s right after the SR-009s, but just slightly ahead of the HD800s. The bass notes were as with the vocals, just perfectly rendered. The bass went down deep, but always remained taught and detailed. There is more impact than the HD800s (which I always felt could use a little more heft down low) and anymore would be too much in my opinion.

Now onto the treble. This is one area where stats (electro-static headphones) have consistently ruled the day. They offer extremely extended, quick, and true-to-life upper octaves, and I’ve never felt that any dynamic or Orthodynamic headphones could compete with them. Well, that was before I heard the HE1000s. Yes, the SR-009s offer some of the best treble I’ve heard, but the HE1000s are right up there with them and surpass the SR-007Mk1’s treble to my ears. The treble portrayed; while extended and fast, is never strident, nor etched (like a Grado headphone), nor is it overly abundant (like on the previous TOTL HE-6s by HIFIMAN). It is simply “right there” for me and again, for the third time with these headphones I was surprised on what they can do.

The sound staging on “Jazz at the Pawnshop” was pretty much on par with my SR-009s. In other words: truly excellent. While not as wide or expansive as the Sennheiser HD800s (but then again, nothing really is), the image portrayed will have you rethinking on just how far headphones have come through the years, and the HE1000s certainly push on that envelope. Maybe the SR-009s provide slightly better separation and better placement within that sound scape, but the HE1000s are not that far off when driven by my GS-X Mk2 (about 5 W or so into these headphones). Moving to my smaller workplace setup (Resonessence Labs Concero HP), the HE1000s still sounded sublime. But the tightness of the bass, the expansive sound stage and instrumental separation seemed to all collapse, somewhat. This was not major in anyway, but indeed noticeable after a few songs of Patricia Barber’s “A Distortion of Love” (DSD version). Through my AK240 portable DAP, the HE1000s were fairly close to my Concero HP, but that slightly reduced soundstage had opened up a bit (but not to the same level as with my Metrum DAC and GS-X Mk2). But, I could seriously enjoy them with this portable player for an extended amount of time. While I write this I have a balanced cable Silver Dragon adapter coming in from Moon Audio that will allow me to run the HE1000s with the AK240SS in balanced mode. I’ll report back in the comments section when I’ve got the adapter and had a chance to compare the HE1000s, in both balanced and un-balanced mode on the Astell & Kern DAP.

However, my experiences with orthos has revealed, that the more power the better, thus the wonderful experience with the 5+Watts that the GS-X Mk2 could push into them. I then threw some of my favourite Rush and Led Zeppelin albums (all newest remasters) at the HE1000s, and they do ROCK! I have to admit; I mostly reach for my HD800s when listening to classical or acoustic music (and maybe progressive rock), but not so much with The Rolling Stones or Black Sabbath. The HE1000s shine with all types of rock I play with them, as do they with classical, jazz, and acoustic music. They really are spectacular all-rounders and I haven’t heard them lacking in any way regardless of the genre of music I threw at them.

After the past month with my HE1000s, I can safely rate them as #2 in my collection (right after my Stax SR-009s and just ahead of my SR-007Mk1s), and that’s truly saying something for me. Throw in the added bonus of not having to spend $4250 on a dedicated electro-static amplifier; I think HIFIMAN is going to sell a lot of them. Now, I realize that these are quite expensive; coming in at $2999 USD, but they do run with all of the other top electro-static dogs I’ve heard, and will in the end, save you money on a separate amplifier. Kudos to HIFIMAN for such a wonderful pair of headphones that will certainly leave their mark on personal audio for years to come!

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  • stephen S

    Good positive view of the HE1000. Feel that more about its sub bass capabilities could be focused on since this is one area in which IMO it beats the 009. The cello sounds very realistic on the HE1000. At this level of performance it really is very much a matter of personal opinion whether the HEK or 009 is better.

  • Peter P.

    It really depends on the amps used with the SR-009s and with the KGSSHV or LL2, I felt the 009s were a tad ahead in the sub bass department. 🙂

  • Johan Gao

    Hi.. I have LCD 3 with WA6 SE as my amp, and planned to sell my lcd 3 to fund HE-1000, Have you try HE-1000 on WA6 SE? could it be a good amp for HE-1000?