After I went around their showroom sampling the other headphone models they had on hand (and being impressed with a number of improvements that have been made across the line), I was offered a listen to the new flagship. I remember thinking to myself, “Those HE-560s I just heard hit the sweet spot for me. How much better can these new ones really be?”
After about thirty seconds into listening to the HE1000s, I’m sure everyone in the room heard a very audible “POOF!” emanating from between my ears, as that last assumption I had just made burst into flames. These new headphones were on a whole other level entirely! To be fair, at the show, they were hooked up to a very robust and high-end looking pre-amp/headphone amp combination that HiFIMAN was also introducing.
How much of this sonic nirvana that I was experiencing was due to the phones and how much was due to the amp I wondered aloud. After inquiring about the availability of review samples, the good folks at HiFiMAN said that the design was still undergoing refinements but that, come mid-year, they would see what they could do. Fast forward to June and I have had the opportunity to live with a production version of this impressive head gear for a few weeks now.
Make no mistake; this is a reference class product. Touting a number of advancements in both magnet and driver design; the HE-1000s are the best sounding headphones that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. They are the closest I have ever experienced to that “alive” feeling of music reproduction that I look for in speakers, from a headphone product. I could equate it to being able to take my reference two channel speaker rig and strap it to my head without losing any of the wonderful sound quality.
You kind of forget you’re wearing headphones after a while. Everyone else will notice you’re wearing headphones though, as the aesthetics are unlike anything HiFiMAN has ever produced before. I found them to be quite stunning in appearance, with maybe a little bit of a steampunk vibe going on. All this performance and style means that they also come with a “reference class” price. So does $2999.00 buy you the holy grail of head gear? Read on and find out!
HiFiMAN HE-1000 Over Ear Planar Magnetic Headphones
- Wonderfully “alive” sound with excellent balance across the musical range.
- Midrange and highs have a depth to the sound like some of the best speakers out there. It can make other headphones sound thin by comparison.
- Very light and comfortable to wear for extended periods.
- Excellent build quality and materials.
- Fairly efficient and not too difficult to drive.
- Be prepared to skip a mortgage payment, or two, to afford them.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am rather fickle when it comes to headphones. I always feel like I am compromising on something when I pull out my wallet and buy a pair. Whether it’s about size or style or performance, I know I’m happy for a little while, but sooner or later I end up being dissatisfied with one thing or another and the hunt begins, anew, for something even better. So what happens then when you come across a headphone where supposedly no compromises are made?
Enter the HiFiMAN HE-1000 planar magnetic headphones. These are the new range-topping model in HiFIMAN’s well-regarded line of planar magnetic headphones. Featuring newly designed oblong drivers sporting an incredibly thin diaphragm and a two sided magnet structure, the HE1000 headphones promise a higher level of detail and spatial reproduction than any of the other HiFiMAN models. And boy, do they deliver…in spades!
Planar Magnetic Over-the-Ear-Headphones
131.15mm X 100mm, oblong
“Advanced Asymmetrical Magnet Circuit”
Manufacturer Freq. Response:
8Hz – 65 kHz (Driver freq. response in free-field)
35 Ohm (+ or – 3 ohms)
Brushed Metal with Brown Leather and Wood Veneer Accents
Hifiman, HE1000, Planar Magnetic, Headphones, Over-the-Ear, Open Back, Reference
As I mentioned in the summary, these are some of, if not, the best sounding headphones that I have ever heard, anywhere. They were moderately easy to drive, being able to be powered to acceptable levels with my iPhone. They really came to life, however, when driven by a quality headphone amplifier or portable DAP (digital audio player) with a high gain setting.
The aesthetics are also a departure from HiFiMAN’s usual design palette. A warm brown leather headband, brushed bare metal frame and the afore-mentioned oblong drive units are a radical departure from the mostly black with round cups design that you see throughout the rest of the line. The HE1000s make a statement, both visually and sonically, so much so that they may very well be a benchmark for other headphones to aspire to. To me, they are THAT good.
The HE1000s make a statement, both visually and sonically, so much so that they may very well be a benchmark for other headphones to aspire to. To me, they are THAT good.
Upon unboxing the HE-1000 headphones, the first thing you are greeted with is its very stylish presentation box (Skull not included ?). Unlike some of the other wooden boxes that HiFiMAN uses to house their various products, this one was covered in a very appealing, warm brown grain leather that felt soft to the touch. The brushed metal nameplate on the lid identified the box’s contents which could be inspected by flipping up the little suitcase style latch in front.
Three sets of cables are shipped with the HE-1000s. First is a set that’s terminated with a standard 6.5mm phono plug, the next set is terminated with a single XLR connector for balanced operation and the third set ends with a standard 3.5mm portable headphone jack. All these cables connect to the ear cups via a pair of 2.5mm plugs, one for each earpiece. Apparently gone are the miniature screw-on connectors used on the HE-560s.
Gingerly picking the phones out of the abundantly padded case, you are immediately aware of how light they are, comparatively speaking. At 480 grams, they won’t strain the head or neck with prolonged usage. Aesthetically, I find their design very appealing. Slightly “Steampunk-ish” would be how I would describe them. The modernity of the brushed metal frame contrasting with classic look of the warm wood ear cup accents and the perforated brown leather head strap.
The ear pads themselves are a combination of black leather on the outside with soft black velour on the contact surfaces. The frame design itself shares some similarities with HiFiMan’s HE-560 headphones, so anyone who is used to wearing those will be right at home with these.
My wife said, with a chuckle, that I looked like a WW 2 radio operator when I wore the HE-1000s on my head. Her point that these headphones won’t go unnoticed was well taken. While there might be some braver souls that would wear these headphones outside or on their daily commute, I wouldn’t be one of them.
The thought of wearing a $3,000 pair of cans outside the confines of my home made me a wee bit skittish to say the least. Realistically you really wouldn’t want to, I’d expect, because these guys leak a fair bit of sound to the surrounding environment, more than many other open backed headphones that I’ve heard. It’s easy to see why that would be the case when you get a look at the so-called “Window Blind” grilles on the outside of the ear cups.
There is an inordinate amount of open area behind those oblong drivers. This design is meant to pare down any unwanted reflections that may be created by using a more conventional grille. It also gives more of an impression that you are wearing a pair of open baffle speakers rather than headphones. Thankfully though, there is some protective mesh in there to help guard the drivers from any foreign matter entering.
Technically, the “secret sauce” of what makes the HE-1000s such a compelling listen is a newly designed planar magnetic drive unit. HiFiMAN’s press material touts the use of nanotechnologies in the development of the new drivers and, in particular, the diaphragm material which is specified as being “nanometer grade” in thickness. Specified at less than 0.001 millimeters thick, the diaphragm is thinner than a human hair. This makes for a ridiculously low moving mass and a subsequently quick transient response for this driver.
The other main development spoken of in the press kit is the newly designed double sided, asymmetrical magnet structure. This arraignment places an array of narrower magnets on the ear facing side combined with a wider array of magnets on the other side. This setup creates less of a physical barrier between the diaphragm and the ear and purports to reduce any unwanted reflections in the sound as well. All told, HIFiMAN claims it took a total of seven years’ worth of R & D to help create the critical components in the HE-1000.
Dr. Fang Bian, HiFiMAN’s founder, has himself a PhD in chemistry, with a focus on nanotechnology which was leveraged, particularly, in the development of the new diaphragm material. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I’d imagine that the tooling alone required to produce consistent nano-grade material for use in a commercial product would be quite expensive and specialized. That combined with the extensive development work, premium materials, packaging and individual hand inspection, aim to establish the HE1000s and a premium, luxury product. So…do they have a premium, luxury sound?
For the majority of my testing, I used the HE-1000s connected through either an Audio GD-Compass 2 headphone amp/DAC or the Burson Conductor Virtuoso via the standard 6.5mm phono connecter cable. While these headphones can be powered adequately by my iPhone 5s, they won’t be exercised to their fullest potential that way. A portable DAP like HiFiMAN’s newly updated HM-901s (review coming soon) with more robust amplification would be a more ideal mobile choice. Otherwise, one should use these headphones with a decent headphone amp. So, does it sound good?
In a word: YES! Yes, they most certainly do sound mighty premium. I alluded to it earlier but listening to the HE-1000s is more like listening to an exceptional speaker system, up close, versus listening to headphones. There is an open spaciousness to their sound that is completely natural but also clean and free of echo or any overly reverberant quality that some closed-back headphones can have. They also don’t have that thin sound that can occasionally plague some other open-backed designs either.
In my time with these cans, I ran them through prolonged listening sessions with various genres of music and the HE-1000s handled everything I threw at them with shocking ease. Rock sounded just as good as classical, just as good as jazz, just as good as country and just as good as techno. Highs sounded deliciously airy and fast, with tons of detail and no grating edge. Mids and vocals were reproduced with a lush quality that didn’t mask any of the finer details of the performance. In fact, these headphones made listening to vocalists, male or female, highly addictive! Bass notes were played with authority and impact while not getting bloated or overly heavy. Details present in the lower piano registers and standup bass strings came through cleanly.
The HE-1000s will do your Daft Punk perfect justice while treating your Brandenburg Concertos with the respect they deserve. Even raspy old Steven Tyler’s voice (Aerosmith) sounds pretty darned good through HiFiMAN’s flagships. I hate to sound like I’m gushing about these headphones, but…..I am! I had a hard time finding any significant fault with them. I wore them for several multi-hour stints at my drawing desk and they felt completely unobtrusive. They were totally comfortable and just plain disappeared after a while.
I was surprised that they fit my gargantuan head precisely at the smallest size setting on the headband. When I expressed this concern to HiFiMAN, they told me that their Beta testers reported a similar sizing situation which might be problematic for people with smaller head sizes. HIFiMAN stated that they will be making a running change to the headband that will address that issue and, thusly, give smaller-headed folk a little more love. A few of the more memorable musical selections I used to gauge the performance of the HE1000s were as follows:
Linus & Lucy
The Music of Vince Guaraldi by George Winston on Windham Hill CD. It is music that many of us are fondly familiar with, played on a well recorded solo piano by an exceptional performer. The instrument itself is notoriously difficult for speakers and headphones to render convincingly. Throughout the disk, the HE-1000s lit up the piano with a vibrancy and life that was as good as I have ever heard it. Particularly on tracks like “Monterey,” the ringing of the notes and then the subsequent decay was just so clear, pure and open. Overlapping sounds did not mask one another or smear in any way.
Another quality that the HE-1000s had in spades was the ability to convey depth. Typically, open backed headsets give you a more airy and open presentation than their closed back counterparts. However, for my tastes, they can often times come off as sounding a little too thin in the midrange area and it can really make a something like a piano sound a little hollow and flat. Listening to the tracks “Treat Street” and “Masked Marvel,” the key strikes and reverb have an almost tangible body to the sound. Lower registers also came across with the proper weight to the notes. Again, there was a nice big soundstage but never once getting over exaggerated.
The Brandenburg Concertos Nos 4, 5 and 6, The Boston Baroque Orchestra on Telarc CD. Massed strings, flute and harpsicord can be a recipe for gritted teeth and an ear ache if not well recorded and competently played back. I’ve always liked this CD because of the music’s sprightly tempo and the recording itself is top notch for the time. The HE-1000s handled these tracks deftly, reproducing the strings with without a hint glare or edge to the sound. It was as if they were just floating in midair and the way the harpsicord’s notes resonated after each key strike was particularly nice and live sounding. The instruments all just sounded exactly right, as if I was sitting in the music hall with the performers.
Al Di Meola, on Veliene CD. I’ve been an Al Di Meola fan for a while and his newest CD doesn’t disappoint. Featuring a nice balance of acoustic and electric guitar playing and a few truly complex arrangements, this is a well recorded assortment of songs with some great dynamics. HiFiMAN’s flagship did not choke on any of the musical complexities and rendered every instrument distinctly and in its proper space. I really felt that the new driver design paid some serious dividends here, keeping up with all the tempo changes and instruments coming in and out of the mix. Listening to the track, “Tangier,” Al’s guitar playing is just something else entirely and these headphones didn’t just keep up with the speed of his playing, but also relayed all the character of his various electric and acoustic guitars richly.
Down Home Chrome
Junior Brown, on Telarc CD. Now for something a little different. Junior Brown, with his combination steel and standard electric guitar (called a Guit-Steel) along with his baritone singing voice is a bit of an odd duck, but his virtuoso guitar playing and throwback “old country” style is the real deal. Down Home Chrome is one of his better recorded efforts and the HE1000s made Junior’s guitar just shine in all of its “twangy,” string bending glory. Junior’s voice also sounded appropriately deep and weighty as he drawled out his wry lyrics. The modest backing band of acoustic rhythm guitar, standup bass and drums always sounded tight and distinct with the bass lines sounding particularly good. On the track, “Let’s Go Back,” Junior sings a laid back duet with his wife, Tanya Rae Brown. The sweetness and purity of Tanya’s vocals contrasting with his deeper baritone was balanced and handled beautifully by the HE1000s. Neither vocal part was favored over the other. These phones can definitely walk and chew gum at the same time.
Sessions from the 17th Ward, Chesky Records-Binaural. A good friend of mine turned me on to this folk CD about a couple of months back and I’m sure glad he did. While he was using it to audition speakers, this binaural recording was tailor made for headphones and takes advantage of the HE-1000s big soundstage and open back qualities.
On the instrumental tracks “Strive,” ”Down Home,” “Tundra” and “Sneak,” instruments appear well outside physical boundary of the ear cups along with a fair amount of room ambience. You could clearly feel the hand slaps on the bongo skins on a number of songs, but it’s also all the little details that inform you of how the hand struck that drum. The little cues of the hand being dragged over the drum skin as it came back were all scrupulously retrieved by these headphones and put up to hear in a huge sonic picture.
“Novocaine” is a bizarrely cool little song that squarely profiles Amber Rubarth’s plaintive vocals and the HiFiMAN’s cleanly and airily conveyed them such that they completed the whole film-noire aspect of the tune. Her vocals tend to be in the higher range and not once did they come off sounding harsh or shrill. The cello playing on this CD is also standout and the HE-1000s caught every nuance of the strings as well as the authority of them when the notes got deeper. Excellent stuff this!
HiFiMAN HE-1000 Planar Magnetic Headphones Might just be the Best Headphones in Existence.
- Clean, rich, un-headphone like sound. Sounds more like the best speakers.
- Big soundstage with lots of depth and detail.
- Light and comfortable through extended listening sessions.
- Striking design.
- More affordable price
With the HE-1000s, I feel it’s safe to say that HiFIMAN has created a benchmark headphone product. Even with my brief sampling of the pre-production prototypes at CES this past January, I had a pretty strong feeling that these were going to be something special. This past month, living with them and listening to them on a daily basis, has borne out my suspicions. The HE-1000s are the finest headphones that I have ever listened to. They have a wonderfully open and natural sonic signature. The speed and clarity at which they reproduce all manner of music is something that needs to be experienced. It causes the headphones to sonically disappear leaving no obstructions between you and the music.
The extraordinary detail retrieval that these phones are capable of allowed me to hear “deeper” into my favorite songs while avoiding the pitfall of sounding overly thin. In term highs, mid and lows, the HE-1000s left me wanting for nothing. Every frequency range was handled exceptionally well and nothing sounded exaggerated. And, to round it all off, they look like nothing else out there. These are a reference product, plain and simple. No, at almost $3,000.00, they are not cheap, but references usually aren’t. The only real drawback is that it now becomes very difficult to settle for anything less! On the bright side though, like all other reference products, lessons learned in their development tend to eventually trickle down to the rest of the product line in due course. I imagine the next few years will only see further refinements in HiFiMAN’s line because of this product and the R & D that went into it. It’ll also be interesting to see what other headphone companies do to compete with this product. The gauntlet, I believe, has been thrown down!