Published: 1. November 2012, No. 102
HE-300 are the only full-size dynamic headphones offered by an American company HiFiMAN. Founded in 2007 by Mr. Fang Bian it has direct ties with China, the country of his ancestors where its products are manufactured and some of them, e.g. headphones, are also designed. The person responsible for the latter is Mr. He whose name features in every model type of full-size headphones.
The company was founded with one goal on Mr. Bian’s mind - manufacturing and selling the best possible and the most affordable magnetostatic headphones (also called planar or orthodynamic). The HE-300 is an exception to this rule being dynamic headphones, the least expensive in the whole line.
It would be a mistake, however, to pass them over only because they lack flat diaphragms with sputtered flat voice coil vibrating between magnetic assemblies on both sides of the diaphragm. Their outer design, the cable, and even the drivers are of the highest quality. Everything, besides drivers, looks almost identical to the more expensive models. Large earcups, metal bridge, high-quality cable (fully replaceable), velour earpads, tight clamp on the head. Of course, there are some differences – the cups are made of silver plastic (the cups color is a distinguishing feature between various models), and the leather-clad padded bridge is not particularly refined nor is the leather genuine.
Nevertheless, it would be a shame not to try out that second last model from the manufacturer (I haven’t had a chance yet the listen to the newest HE-400). All the more so as two of the other models I’ve tested, the HE-500 and the HE-6, stayed with me as reference headphones.
HiFiMAN products featured so far in “High Fidelity”:
- REVIEW: HiFiMAN HM-602 media player + EF-5 headphone amplifier + HE-4 headphones, see HERE
- REVIEW: HiFiMAN HE-500 | HiFiMAN HE-6 headphones, see HERE
A selection of recordings used during auditions:
- Assemblage 23, Bruise. Limited Edition, Accession Records, A 128, 2 x CD (2012).
- Carol Sloane, Little Girl Blue, Sinatra Society of Japan, XQAM-1036, HQCD (2010).
- Niemen & Akwarele, Sukces, Muza Polskie Nagrania/Polskie Nagrania, PNCD 354, "Niemen od początku - III", CD (1968/1996).
- Dead Can Dance, Anastasis, [PIAS] Entertainment Group, PIASR311CDX, Special Edition Hardbound Box Set, CD+USB drive 24/44,1 WAV (2012).
- Depeche Mode, Enjoy The Music....04, Mute, XLCDBONG34, maxi-SP (2004).
- Depeche Mode, John The Revelator, Mute, LCDBONG38, maxi-SP (2006).
- Hilary Hann, Hilary Hann Plays Bach, Sony Classical, SK 62793, Super Bit Mapping, 2 x CD (1997).
- J. S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas, wiol. Henryk Szeryng, Sony Classical/Sony Music Japan, SICC 840-1, 2 x CD.
- Jean-Michel Jarre, Magnetic Fields, Dreyfus Disques/Epic, EPC 488138 2, CD (1981/1997).
- Simone Kermes, Viva!, Archiv Production, 477 9843, CD (2007-2008).
- Ultravox, Vienna, Chrysalis/EMI, 23436527, Remastered Definitive Edition, 2 x CD (1981/2008).
- Vangelis, Spiral, RCA/BMG Japan, 176 63561, K2, SHM-CD (1977/2008).
- Yo-Yo MA & Bobby McFerrin, Hush, Sony Music/Sony Music Hong Kong Ltd., 543282, No. 0441, K2HD Mastering, CD (1992/2012).
Japanese editions available from
I compared the HE-300 primarily against my reference Sennheiser HD-800 as well as the magnetostatic HiFiMAN HE-500. It didn’t take me a long listen to conclude that the HE-300s are much different from both. They are the first headphones from that company that seem to sound “warm”. I put quotation marks here because that’s not fully true and is probably an oversimplification; however, that’s how they sound initially. Still, it needs to be noted that that’s how they were described and commented on both by Mike, the editor of “Headfonia”, and Brent Butterworth in his review for “Sound + Vision”. We will come back to that later.
The main thing to be said is that the reviewed headphones deliver strong, very rhythmic bass. All sounds in the bottom range are slightly emphasized and “picked up”, i.e. not so much inflated but somehow “noted” and “appreciated”, which is not the same as a simple bass emphasis. Strong performance just below 100 Hz and above 42 Hz, the base frequency for the double bass, is evident and has been confirmed by “Sound + Vision” measurements demonstrating that the headphones maximum impedance (up to 94 Ω) occurs at 68 Hz resulting in a 2.4 dB increase in the frequency response. That’s something beyond discussion.
That gives an excellent foundation to the rest of the frequency range. Putting the HE-300s on the head we are immediately isolated from the surroundings. Isolation is fantastic for an open design, almost as good as with the closed headphones, and we are immediately “immersed” in the sound. It is a deep, substantial and dense. And it’s primarily that “density” that makes us perceive the sound as “warm”. Besides, treble is rather withdrawn which only strengthens that impression. But, let me repeat, that is not a “warm” sound per se.
The reason for that is that upper midrange is quite strong. Not so much the whole band as rather its narrow section but it can be heard as a slight hardening of some higher vocal parts and other instruments, such as the trumpet. Just to be clear, that strengthening is not unpleasant. It’s not brightness, grain or impurity. I’d say it’s something like a stronger accent. With that kind of accent or emphasis within that frequency zone there can be no question of “warmth”.
Let’s go back to the beginning then. Strong bass and very high culture of sound meant that for over a month before formal auditions I’d been listening to the headphones paired with the HiFiMAN HM-801 portable player. In my opinion it’s probably the best player of that type currently available. With the HE-300 it makes a lovely pair indeed.
The sound from this duo was dense and strong. With classical music the uniform emphasis of the said narrow bass range was slightly distracting but after getting used to it I had no other objections. Actually, it just so happened that on that system I preferred to listen to more rhythmic recordings, to electronics and rock rather than jazz or classical music. These headphones are, in my opinion, perfectly suited to generating low, really low sounds, to a slightly closed headstage, to close-up presentation rich in massive bass.
Feet were dancing away, hands were clapping the rhythm when I listened to remixes on the limited edition of the album Bruise by Assemblage 23. Rain Falls Down that’s not available on the “regular” release resonated with power in a dark, disturbing way, hiding some secret. The same was true with remixes of Enjoy The Silence… 04 by Depeche Mode from their single by the same name. Both the strong, hypnotic “Richard X Extended Mix” remix of the song, and – an even better – “Cicada Mix” remix of World In My Eyes were shown fantastic by the HE-300. I had no doubt that they are just the right headphones for that kind of music. I sat down and listened, listened and sat down – you just need to experience that yourself!
However, for proper auditions I paired the HE-300 with my reference headphone amplifier – the Leben CS-300XS [Custom Version] and a brilliant amplifier built into the Marantz SA-11S3 SACD player.
The latter completely surprised me. I have just reviewed a Marantz system with the said player and the PM-11S3 amplifier for Polish “Audio” and I treated the headphone output in the “Player” as an add-on, the same as it’s almost always treated by manufacturers. I was proved wrong. In this case the developers approached the matter very seriously and in addition to a normal line output they included another, almost identical output stage dedicated for the headphones, built around a few HDAM S3modules and discrete power transistors. That makes the unit a high performance headphone amplifier integrated with an SACD player and a DAC as the Marantz sports a digital input.
Both amplifiers instantly showed why the Sennheisers HD-800 are much more expensive. There was no doubt they build bigger, better arranged virtual sources, provide better tonal balance and most of all have better resolution.
Despite that, I spent most of my time with the Leben and the Marantz paired with the HE-300 on my head. Why? Because it’s good playing. Not quite “audiophile” in the sense that one hears what was done and why and that the main concern was certainly not fidelity to the recording material but loyalty to a vision. After all, maybe THAT is audiophilism… Be that as it may, with the kind of music material I mentioned it was great. There was meat, weight, dynamics, good selectivity, no sharpening.
And I think it probably sounded even better with the Marantz. It seems that all the headphones need is simply a headphone amplifier with a slightly lighter tonal balance and everything returns to normal, at least when it comes to bass volume.
HiFiMAN HE-300 + Music Hall ph25.2
I’ve known of the ph25.2 for a long time. Preparing for the reviews of Music Hall turntables and D/A converters, especially the dac25.2 and dac25.3, I also read about that headphone amplifier.
Despite that I didn’t fully realize it existed. No, I don’t pose any paradoxes. It’s probably a fairly common phenomenon when we KNOW of something yet we don’t fully REALIZE it exists, at least not consciously. We are aware of something at some basic level of perception but it never gets further to turn into reflection about that SOMETHING.
In this case, there was a simple reason for that: the spotlight was dead on the dac25.3 D/A converter sporting multiple digital inputs and a headphone amplifier. Selling (in Poland) for 2,390 PLN it seemed to be a far superior choice than the 2,000 PLN ph25.2 being “only” a headphone amplifier.
And yet, after taking a closer look at the latter that approach seems flawed for the ph25.2 is an exceptionally well made amplifier. The headphone section of the dac25.3 is somewhat of a “throw-in”, a small addition to the DAC. Let’s see what we have in turn in the ph25.2:
- two Swiss Neutrik headphone outputs,
- durable, miniature 6N16B tube in the SRPP input section, soldered directly to the PCB,
- two inputs - CD and Aux selectable by a toggle switch on the front panel,
- preamp direct out,
- audiophile grade RCAs from American CMC,
- low-noise, hefty R-core transformer powering four independent power supplies,
- two buffered headphone outputs sporting TPA6120 chips (one per channel) that can work simultaneously,
- precise Alps Type 27 Japanese potentiometer with 0.5 dB accuracy located next to input connectors with an extended shaft,
- solid, rigid 12.5 mm aluminum front panel.
Can you see that ladies and gentlemen? So much “goodies” for so little! And it all lay fallow because someone else stole the show (the dac25.3). Until one day someone from Eter Audio distribution collecting a component from me after review wouldn’t say that “maybe I’d listen to something else,” that “I hadn’t have it yet,” and that “they (at Eter) were in a shock”. Why not? All the more so that I was just reviewing the HE-300 headphones that seemed to me the right partner for that amplifier.
As it turned out they’re not just partners but nearly a perfect couple complementing each other. Eventually I only listened to the HE-300 paired with the HM-801 portable player or with the ph25.2, driving the latter with either the HM-801 or my reference player.
The sound of that system is not as fat and not set as low as with the HM-801 or the Leben. On the one hand, I missed some of that meat and pressure. On the other, however, only then had I such lovely soundstage with so well presented instruments’ bodies and spatial relationships between them. In case of headphones it’s of course difficult to talk about “soundstage” as such, especially with conventional recordings (not binaural; incidentally, it’s worth paying attention to one of Chesky brothers’ latest initiatives, see HERE), but each recording has its own “world” that with the headphones on our head becomes our world, too. The HE-300s show that perfectly transporting us into another space, another reality, perfectly isolating from the outside world without causing strange effects usually accompanied with closed headphones.
The Music Hall added something more to that – a very deep perspective. The amplifier paired with the reviewed headphones creates something spectacularly different, better than most other systems. It turns out that most recordings contain vast amounts of spatial information, not only about what’s in front of us but also about the whole area around us. That system can and does show it.
Indeed, I was in a shock – to refer to what people from Eter Audio said to me – listening to the edition of Czesław Niemen’s album Success released in the Niemen od początku series. That’s the last version approved by the artist, thus being binding, definitive. Niemen prepared the material on his own, in his home studio, using emerging at that time digital technology in 20-bit resolution (quite a big deal back then). I never really noticed that, apparently trying to detach the mono sound from the center in front of us (and with headphones, which he often used, from the center of the head) he slightly manipulated the recordings, adding counterphase information.
Fortunately, that’s not some crude job quite common in the 70s. It really gave a good spatial effect. The sound is mono, of course, but it’s placed IN FRONT OF us, not IN OUR HEAD. As if it were a binaural recording. Such discoveries, such flavors will wait for us time and time again.
But even the sound as such is really lovely with the reviewed system – strong, palpable and pure. A slight drawback is not high enough midrange saturation and the lack of lower bass – that’s something we won’t get in that system. However, if we are able to get over it we will enter into a completely different space where there’ll be only us and music, even the audio gear will disappear. And that’s what this game is all about, isn’t it?
The HE-300, the first dynamic headphones offered by HiFiMAN sound completely different planar headphones from the manufacturer – the HE-500, HE-4 and HE-6. They are less selective, less open but they offer more powerful bass. That – paradoxically – makes them a better fit in most audio systems. They are simply more forgiving and just have that “groove”… They are quite easy to drive although the HD800s are clearly louder and can be driven by even tiny amps. Despite that, the HE-300 worked very well with portable players, both the HiFiMAN HF-801 and the iPod Classic 160 GB. They look nice which is also important. They sounded perfect paired with the Music Hall ph25.2 headphone amplifier.
The attached cable turned out to be pretty good. Its replacement for the Entreq Konstantin 2010 cable will bring in a slightly better resolution but makes little sense from the economic point of view. The only problem turned out to be the quite “vibrant” plastic earcups painted in silver. Pretty stiff speaker cable made even gentle knocks to the cable result in quite a loud sound in the headphones caused by vibrating plastic earcups. It might be worthwhile to dampen it from the inside (and easy access) thin strips of bitumen mat. This should also improve the sound quality.
The headphones were compared in an A/B test with known A and B using 2 min long music samples against the following headphones:
- HiFiMan HE-500; see HERE,
- Sennheiser HD800,
- AKG K701; see HERE,
- Bayerdynamic TD-770 Pro (Limited Edition 32 Ω)
- Beyerdynamic DT-990 PRO (Vintage); see HERE.
Both the Sennheiser and HiFiMAN headphones were equipped with Konstantin Entreq 2010
Entire albums were also auditioned.
I used the following headphone amplifiers to drive the headphones:
- Leben CS-300 SX [Custom Version]; see HERE,
- Synergy HiFi 6F3; see HERE,
- Ear Stream Sonic Pearl; see HERE,
- headphone amplifier in Marantz SA-11S3SACD player ,
- Music Hall ph25.2.
The amplifiers and the player sat on the Acoustic Revive RAF-48H anti-vibration platform; see HERE.
In addition to the headphone amplifiers the flowing portable players were used during testing:
- HiFiMAN HM-801,
- iPod Classic 160 GB.
The HE-300 are dynamic open headphones, so far the only such design offered by HiFiMAN. The manufacturer is known not only for centering its offer on magnetostatic headphones but also for a close relationship with a large, loyal Internet community of its products users. It looks that introducing a new product Mr. Fang Bian carries out consultations with people from all over the world, releasing fixes for all reported issues wherever possible.
The HE-300 have the same dimensions as other headphones from HiFiMAN and the same appearance. The only change is earcup color, here silver. The bridge and components supporting earcups are made of steel and they are what makes the headphones tightly clamped on the head. The bridge is covered with leather-like material and is padded in the point of contact with the head. The cups sport perfectly fitting soft, thick velour earpads. From the outside the diaphragms are protected by steel mesh.
50 mm drivers are mounted on a rigid plastic component that is screwed into the cup. That component divides the earcup into two parts –the ear side and the outside.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS (AFTER MANUFACTURER)
Driver: 50 mm diameter, dynamic drivers
Impedance: 50 Ω
Sensitivity: 93 dB @ 1 kHz, 1 mW
Rated power: 30 mW
Frequency response: 15 Hz - 22 kHz
Weight: about 270 g
Headphone cable is coupled with gold plated connectors characteristic to that manufacturer. With the HE-300 we receive “silver” cables according to company materials. The cables are very light and quite stiff. Each run consists of only a few wires that are naturally quite thick. The cable is terminated with a 3.5 mm mini-jack. Included we find a 3.5 mm to 6.3 mm adapter.
The headphones are extremely comfortable and do not tire even after long listening sessions. One of the reasons is their light weight of only 270 grams Though at first we may have the impression of a slightly too tight clamp on the head, it is not true. The clamp is just enough to “close” the space before the ear – necessary to get low bass – but on the other hand non-fatiguing so that one doesn’t mind. The headphones sit perfectly on the head, probably best of all my headphones.
The only problem I noticed is a quite “vibrant” behavior of the earcups. The headphone cable is pretty stiff (although not disturbing with the hearing), and each knock to the cable causes cup resonance. I think the cups should be damped from the inside with e.g. thin strips of sound absorbing material.