HiFiMan is on a course to dominate most price ranges and it’s hard to argue that they go hard at it. Well, you can’t do that without an impressive lineup. While Paweł is playing with Susvaras I got the glorious task of tackling the HE400se. I might be better off actually, but first…
Sit down kid, grandpa is going to tell you a story. A few years back I went with my dad (yes, your grandpa was a kid once) to get me my first decent headphones. The budget was around 200$, so even then the choice was pretty good. I was sitting down in the shop, trying AKG, Sennheiser, Grado, when the sales guy asked me if I wanted to try something much better to get some perspective. „Yeah, let’s do it” I said, as all of that was pretty new to me and I was straight up curious. What I got then was the first generation HE400 from HiFiMan. I remember very well when I listened to them then. Dark, powerful, yet detailed and controlled sound. It absolutely swept the floor with everything that I listened to before. Clever tactic Mr. Salesguy, but it wasn’t made of money. Not that I am now. That day I walked out of the shop with AKG K540 (nice sound, very prone to breaking plastic), but 400s lived in my memory rent-free for a really long time after that. They started my attraction to planar headphones that some time later led me to Audeze LCD-2Fs. Overall I’ve gotten into stereo more and more until now when I’m staring at HE400se that have taken me back in time.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX?! – Mills from the movie „SE7EN”
Well, not much, what did you expect? It contains the basic set: cans, a cable with 3,5 mm jack to 6,3 mm adapter, and some papers. There is a flyer about stealth magnets obviously. I would’ve flaunt that too. The box itself is elegant and solid. You can be sure, that nothing bad will happen during shipping. Unless they roll a jumbo jet over it or something.
There is something to say about the attached cable though. I’m sure you have heard about the absolute trash cable added to HE400se. It’s stiff, transparent, and extremely prone to tangling. Also, it’s silver plated and many people pointed out its a really bad pick with a slightly brighter tone of those cans. When I opened the box for the first time I actually planned to buy a new cable on day 1. There was a different cable included. Black, standard similar to the one in Deva Pro (right Paweł?). I’ve been using it for some time and it’s perfectly okay. Would you benefit from an aftermarket cable? I believe so, but more on that later.
Build quality and tech
Let’s start with a headband. Oh boy, there should be a whole Wikipedia page about all the types HE400 has been through. The OG HE400 had that vintage-looking, simple headband. Then HE400S and the first HE400i rocked metal band with a band of leather-like material similar to the first Arya. Now we have a simple system that is used by Deva and Deva Pro.
Each can is connected to it by bent steel profiles that have a lot of movement. It’s not the smoothest tilt but it works absolutely well. I’d rather it be made rugged without a smooth feel, than smooth but not as durable. Driver housing is made out of solid, metallic grey finished plastic. Nothing bends under my finger, and it is also well damped. On the bottom on both sides, you can find 3,5 mm jack input. It is possible to use them with a balanced connection, yay!
Pads are made of artificial leather and velour, and are extremely comfy. I don’t sweat underneath them at all. Great touch as I use HE400se for a long session listening to music or playing games.
At this point, everybody knows what is a planar magnetic driver, but since it’s a starter headphone I’d like to give you a small introduction. A classic driver uses a diaphragm that has a circular coil attached to its bottom. Planar magnetic has a coil printed onto the flat diaphragm. Thanks to that whole thing can be stiffer while being lighter than classic drivers. On the bad side, it requires strong and stable magnets that weren’t available for some time. In real-life experience, planar drivers have their kind of sound. It’s very dynamic and usually delivers lots of detail. For a long time, it was reserved for higher-priced cans but steadily we’ve gotten to a point when you can get them for an affordable price.
The driver used in HE400se is almost 10 cm in diameter and uses one side magnets (as far as I can see them). Magnets used here are the new stealth magnets, that you can find in most of HiFiMans portfolio, including their best-sounding cans. Nice. More about that below.
HE400se has 25 Ω impedance and 91 dB sensitivity so you will need a more capable amp than what’s in your phone or laptop.
Stealth Magnets are what sets the tone for the current generation of HiFiMan cans. They have come up with a new shape, that makes it easier for sound to pass through it. Conventional, rectangular in cross-section magnets create a resonance between them. That resonance will color the sound in an unwanted manner. Having the edges trimmed at a 45-degree angle strongly reduces the resonance, allowing air (and sound) to move freely.
Being all technical it goes like this: moving air changes its volume as it encounters the flared magnets. The changing volume also changes the speed. Less speed means a flatter Q of the resonance. How it’s possible that nobody else does it if it’s so simple? Well, it’s not easy to make magnets in that shape that are repeatable and have very good parameters suitable for planar headphones. So you either pay a ton of money for them, or you order a train of those at a bit less outrageous price. Then you put them in every product you have. Now we have them in both HiEnd Susvara, in basic HE-400SE, and everywhere in between. Well, that’s cool with me.
Very often we can hear someone saying „when I tried X I’ve heard my music as never before!”. Resolution and detail are some of the most important qualities in audio equipment because we want to hear what the artist did. Good, or bad it’s there and we want to extract that. It’s what High-Fidelity stands for after all.
On the other hand that can’t be done for a price of harshness. Usually revealing sound also means a brighter tone, so finally, you can see where I go with this detour. Luckily HE400se doesn’t fall into that trap. They have one of the nicest sets of traits you can get, as they combine lighter sound and lots of detail with a bit of sweet temper. You need to remember that I use them with a slightly warm JDS ATOM PLUS set so it adds up. Even with a colder sounding JDS ATOM NO PLUS I can’t recall any unpleasantness and I’m quite vulnerable to bright sound. At first, I was missing some punch and fattiness of bass (my first planars were Audeze LCD-2F), but it grew on me that I can live with skinnier lower tones. It’s just a slight tilt in tonality that makes them sound a particular way but it doesn’t manifest negatively in other aspects of the sound.
The biggest question I can imagine about those cans is if 150USD??? planars sound enough planar? Rest assured they do have that nice planar style that I appreciate a lot personally. It’s kinda like listening to a closed cabinet speaker: tight, controlled, detailed all in a good way. Spaciousness is very good here. They don’t play the music inside your head at all. Open back and a good driver with stealth magnets provide HE400se with ease in creating width and depth in music. Sound is not tied to your head and a nice quiet background lets you pick up very minor notes.
As previously mentioned, bass isn’t the star here. It is a little bit receded and play a support role in this set. It for the most part does the job you would expect. It isn’t the fastest on the block, but it doesn’t slack either. It is the weakest part of those cans, but if you want to get this sound with better lows, well, you gotta pay way more. So there is that. In the lowest bass, you can definitely feel the effect of not only the frequency roll-off but also I guess lack of stiffness of the driver or enclosure. A little bit of muddiness, lack of definition starts to show up. Midbass doesn’t have the slap that I like when listening to Sober by TOOL, or Franks Tune by Makaya McCraven. The highest parts of bass share more character with the mids, as they have very nice dynamics and tone to them.
The midrange is detailed, yet smooth and is the best description I can give you. Let’s start with the good. Female vocals sound very feminine and soft. If you like girls with velvet-like voices you’ll be in heaven. Listen to Feel good by Dominique Fils-Aime and just get sunk in the amazing voice she wields. It’s also a very good recording, so with HE400se, you will hear how she draws breath in between words and how she moves around the microphone. There is lots and lots of information waiting for you to spot. On the other hand, male voices are a little bit worse. Tested cans tend to tame the natural harshness and power that make them what they should be. If you are wondering, yes you will also be able to tell what type of string a guitar uses. DETAIL.
There is plenty of treble, and with a more transparent setup, it might be a tad dominating. In my setup (and without that dreaded, silver-plated cable) it is mellowed down so no bleeding from my ears. But jokes aside. Dominating high frequencies from HE400se doesn’t bother me as much as they usually do. They are a bit rounded on the edges, and the top part is a bit rolled off. This might be a secret of brighter, but still relaxing enjoyable sound. Cymbals sound sweeter and more delicate than they are. Synthetic bells in electro make an amazing impression. They just spread all around you and decay into darkness. Cool stuff greatly enhances the feeling of space exceeding the cans on your head.
What I really like about planars as a whole is the ability to provide very spacious sound with a more relaxed presentation than most of the dynamic cans. Here we have the same thing, while it’s not the widest, or deepest sounding in its class, they aren’t offensive with the sound. Let me put it in different words, as I’m not a native English speaker. Some headphones (and stereo systems) that I’ve heard over the years put instruments as close to your head as HE400se, but they do sound aggressive doing that. It’s just tiring to me, but I know lot’s of folks like Diana Krall (or Justin Timberlake, not judging Bro) sitting on their lap and singing into their ear. Back to the subject at hand. HE400se sound outside and open but neither the width nor the depth is outstanding. What really builds its own idea of spaciousness is a really nice, black background together with planar drivers’ ability to play really quiet, yet precise notes. It just gives that extremely natural decay of the sound that I personally love.
These two are just like a Song of Ice and Fire, vastly different from each other. While the Dekoni Blue focuses mainly on the low frequencies and that huge, saturated sound, the 400se is more well-rounded and better in technical capabilities. The detail retrieval and overall openness of the sound blast the Blue out of the water, and it shouldn’t be a surprise having in mind how technically superior the new Hifiman budget kid is.
While you might be better of with the Blue if you’re a bass-head, I honestly can’t imagine you picking them for any other reason compared to the 400se. It’s just a superior headphone that is capable of playing with the big boys, while the Blue is a fun provider, but technically somewhat lacking.
Same story – the 400se is more technically impressive, faster, more detailed, and transparent, while the 99 classics are more bassy and “fun”. There’s a second thought to this comparison though – I’ve never treated the 99 Classics as a stationary pair of headphones, but rather a portable pair for those who like over-ear action on the go.
Still, it is quite hard for Meze to keep up with the newcomer in almost every single aspect of the sound. While the 99 Classics might sound fun and vivid, the 400se takes no prisoners when it comes to the “objective side of sound”, and by that, I mean more detail, more air, better soundstage, etc.
The Hifiman HE400se delivers some of the best bang for the buck I have ever heard in my life. They have one of the nicest sets of traits you can get. You get an extremely good amount of detail and easy-going sound that’ll allow you to keep listening to music for hours. Tonal balance is tilted towards high frequencies so I recommend the rest of the setup on a bit of warmer side. While not being the lightest pair of cans, they are very comfortable in the long run, so an extra point there. Just ask me why I don’t have the LCD-2F anymore… You probably picked up that they are not sounding the way I like it. It’s okay, we can’t have it all. That doesn’t change the fact that they are a straight-up steal. If you want to spend up to 300$ you SHOULD try them. Give them a shot, it might be one of the best ones you did. I welcome them as my reference for other reviews because they set the bar so high.