HIFIman HE1000 – the original versus v2
The HIFIman HE1000 v2 headphones represent a practical pinnacle of headphone technology. Unlike the mystical peak of $50,000 headphones accessible mainly to millionaires, these headphones are impressive but accessible with some work. In this review, we explore the sound and value proposition of this updated v2 of HIFIman’s flagship headphone, in a head-to-head comparison with the original.
The best stuff about the HE1000, which hasn’t changed
While the v2 differs from the original in some a spects, v2 retained the core virtues and limitations of the original. The following key aspects of the sound are retained in the v2:
Bass extension. The lowest registers of drums don’t blur out – you can hear the full contour of the sound. Such depth is rarely heard because either speakers fail to produce it, or if they do, your chest was too busy feeling it for your ears to listen.
Bass resolution. The HE1000 bass has a quality of purity – the base is clear and tight, but never thick. Part of that perception is likely due to hearing crappy overhung bass notes everywhere, and part of it has to do with the characteristics of the open-back design. If you’ve heard dipole speakers like Magnepans, you’ll know that there’s a particular quality to the bass in addition to the quantity present at any particular frequency. Fundamentally, HE1000 makes bass becomes just another note, not a muddy body-slam.
Beautiful mids. Not “full mids”, not even “delicate mids”, just beautiful. It’s like a high resolution SET is playing – that feeling where you just admire how darn pretty the sound is. An additional benefit of this midrange property is that you can easily enjoy many subpar recordings or mp3’s that other headphone render painful. There are limits to this statement, but in general, these phones pull off an amazing combination of resolution, and smoothness. If you’ve heard speakers from BG (Bohlender Graebener) they have a very similar quality, and indeed those are also planar magnetic designs.
Sonic detail – not just treble detail. This is likely a function of the low-mass diagram and excellent damping. Your attention can roam around the spectrum as the music plays, to admire any particular aspect of the song, to appreciate transitions and overlays the moment the spring up, due to the excellent sound-staging instrument separation.
The best adjustable clamping pressure of any headphone. To get the full range of adjustability, you can bend the spring steel of the headband around till you get pressure you like. HIFIman has always had stellar comfort – even the initial HE5 effort kept the diaphragms away from your ears, which also helps with soundstaging and comfort in long listening sessions.
Sonic comparison of the original to v2
The biggest change moving from the original to v2 HE1000 is an increase in the forwardness of the upper midrange. With the v2, it literally sounds like the (female) artist is singing at your face, a few feet away. In comparison, female voices in the original are singing in the same room with you, but they’re on the other end of the room, and it’s a well padded room. Certainly the mids are clear on the original version, but you have to choose to pay attention to the voice compared to other aspects of the music. In contrast, vocals grab your attention on the v2.
There maybe an increase in in overall resolution with the v2, but that’s hard to separate from the increased amplitude of the midrange. What fortunately has not changed is the liquidity of the midrange and its ability to show of the beauty of instruments in that range yet also to keep subpar recordings listenable. There’s definitely a danger to overly forward mids, as many headphones with subpar drivers just roll of the frequency extremes and therefore vocals pop. The v2 is far from such an implementation. If you go from the original to the v2, comparing the same track, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone not preferring the v2. It’s even harder to imaging wanting the original if you go from the v2 back to the original. Sometimes “peaky” sound can lead to a short-lived preference, but the v2 is generally filling in the slightly recessed mids of the original in a way that is listenable for hours.
I initially brushed off the importance of weight reduction in v2, but have come to appreciate over longer listening sessions. Beyond the increased comfort, this change works with the transparent presentation and spacious ear cups to help the apparatus you strapped to your head disappear, as you suspend disbelief and focus on the music.
Despite looking for differences in bass or treble I just don’t hear them. Evidence such differences are faint if they exist at all is that I can definitely (blind) tell differences between cables in this area on the v2.
How it sounds on some awesome music
The comparisons between the original and v2 HE1000 were carried out with a wide variety of music. Switching between the original and v2 was only limited by how fast I could jam on a the next pair of headphones, so the sonic contrasts between them should be very direct and accurate. While the overall sonic qualities of the two headphones are similar, the differences are unmistakable and easily detected in the blind testing my wife facilitated. Below is a list of some key artists that cover the full stylistic and sonic frequency range.
The Well Pennies How can anyone not like them? If you took the best of Portland – the pleasant neighborhoods, thoughtful afternoons, a creative bent, and put it in musical form, you end up with the Well Pennies. The v2 gives you the finest insight into the exact mix of the husband and wife’s voices. The mix on their debut album really captures an intimate studio setting without feeling manufactured, and the v2 does a great show of conveying this.
Vector lovers For a decade I have used their track “Tokyo Gliteratti” track to test treble performance. The sound of a hand through dangling crystals in particular is a constant reference. With each pair of headphones I ask: What can I tell about those crystals? How big are they; will they shatter? With the v2 there’s a very solid quality to them – I’ve actually heard sharper sounds coming from the previous HE5 and 6. There was no appreciable intermodulation distortion between the crystalline shimmer and the bass track, even volumes louder than I care to listen.
Neuroticfish Amazing male vocals, and lyrics that I don’t mind knowing because they’re actually thoughtful. The synthetic bass tracks are a great test of bass texture.
Utada Hikaru Upper registers were quite sensitive to cabling – see upcoming review. Female vocal show and immediate difference on the v2, clearly emerging from the background. If you’ve never heard the v2, you’ll be happy with female vocals on the original, but after the v2 it’s hard to go back.
Rob Costlow Suggest checking out “L.A./Passing by” by this incredibly melodic pianist. Piano is difficult to represent on any playback system, but there’s no need to settle for something that sounds nice and like a piano. You can can get the real thing, sans physical reverberations with the v2 in the test system I used (see testing details).
v2 Physical structure
The headphone design is strictly functional. Almost all components are metal or wood (the veneer rings) which is a good starting point, but the build quality does not feel robust. It may well be robust, as I’ve never had an issue with anything falling apart, but perceived quality is not at the Sennheiser HD800 level. Overall there’s a sense they provide the absolute minimum needed to dangle these things off your head. Minimalism isn’t always bad, and it helps with weight savings. However, there are some negative consequences to the minimalism. For instance, the little detents for the headband adjustment – totally work and there’s a few more of them now compared to the original design, but it’s a crude feeling as you try to adjust them. If you have longer hair (as I do), it’s very easy for it to get caught in the swivel joints and ripped out when you remove the headphones. Fundamentally, at this price point it would be preferable to have an object that doesn’t feel janky when you pick it up. That being said, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the money you’ve handed over went into engineering the sound. If sounds is really what matter to you, the build quality will still leave you quizzical, but you’ll forget about it when you listen.
A note about the stock cable…What the heck happened? If you don’t care about cables (I didn’t) you will still care about this one. That’s the subject of the next review – a full blown head2head, blind testing of headphone cables, including the stock cable and several popular alternatives.
The “expensive” headphones I’ve owned that felt expensive at the time were the Koss KS35, for $25 in college; the massively underappreciated Sony CD3000 for ~$200 used in grad school, and the HE5 ($400 used) during my first job. The point is not just that that expensive is a relative term, but that everyone of the headphones put a smile on my face by provided a magical sense of involvement with music. Were I to listen to them now, certainly I could pick apart the flaws, but give me a couple hours with them, and I’d be appreciating their overall presentation. Does the HE1000 fit with the value proposition, of these past favorites? In short, it could. Decreasing marginal returns set in with a vengeance after $300 in headphones, particularly now with the value from the low-end HIFIman headphones. But as long as your marginal pleasure exceeds the marginal cost, keep upgrading! If audio is your top priority, then spending a couple percent points of your income on it is probably possible if you scrimp everywhere else. In my case, it’s been worth skipping meals to fund these purchases, including the HE1000.
Ironically, the value question is not just about if you need to spend this much, it’s a question of if you could possibly spend more. Options for spending more than the price of the HE1000 on headphones, but still less than the price of a house downpayment, are limited. The cans which are at a similar price point or $1-2K more than the v2 are arguably sidegrades. I find the bass on the LCD4 from Audeze woolly and overwhelming, the ear cups small and the clamping pression extreme, probably to help out with that overwhelming bass. Among options I haven’t heard, you could go to the Stax SR009 + required electrostat amp, which from most accounts has more more treble resolution. The new Utopia headphones from Focal might give the be a run for the money – and indeed it is great to see another big name get into the headphones game. For me the Sennheiser HD800 is not a cheaper alternative, as there are multiple superior planar magnetic options available at that price. The dark horse in this race is the HE6, which still offers most of the performance of the HE1000, with possibly more solid-feeling bass, for about half the price. Of course if you just want bragging rights there are the $50,000 electrostat systems from Sennheiser and soon, HIFIman. But the value there, as with every single object I can’t afford, is very minimal:)
Given the dearth of clearly superior options, the HE1000 can be an end-game piece of equipment. Getting off the upgrade cycle even for a couple years can be cost effective, as you’re not getting hit with steep depreciation on several less expensive purchases. Yes, tell your significant other that – I’m going save money, by spending a lot of money, so that I’m not tempted to spend even more money than that, on a bunch of other stuff.
Of course you want this headphone. The question of whether you would purchase a direct alternative comes down to if you want a ton of bass, in which case there is Audeze or a hankering for the cool beryllium woofer from Utopia, in which case there’s the Utopia. Overall, the v2 is a piece of equipment that lets you lose yourself in the music, which is the whole point. In particular if you listen to well produced electronic music, the beauty of the mids is going to show you all of the detail there, with a richness that’s just perfect. That’s why the HE1000 remains a headphone I don’t have the upgrade itch…. now that it’s been upgraded to the v2.
Because I’ve been following HIFIman through the HE5, to HE5LE and HE6 I’ve tested a large number of dacs and amplifiers looking for just the right fit, by which I mean, equipment that ekes out the last bit of detail while not becoming. Due to my love of low powered amps, I had several on hand, and it was nice to see my fleawatt speaker amps take on a new identity as monster headphone amps. Of course people are powering these through through 70’s receivers with 100+ watts. Powerful amps are really not necessary for the HE1000, but because they were needed for their predecessors, I have overkill on hand.
The signal starts with power is through a standard non-dedicated 15a outlet, to a Running Springs Jaco power conditioner, via Pangea power cord, to a Transcendent mini-beast OTL power amp (6 watts). Music signal provided by a laptop via generic usb cable to an Exasound E28 mkIII (Ess 9018-based) dac with the femto option, which is fed power by a Teddy Pardo PSU. A spades-4pin xlr adapter with solid core copper wire goes from the speaker binding posts of the OTL to a 4 pin xlr, at which point it transitions to the main headphone cable. In the next review, I will describe experiments with a range of cables to the HE1000 with very interesting results – not just idle speculation – fast swapping blind testing with multiple people. Those results to come soon!