The HE400se are entry-level planar magnetic headphones from Chinese audio manufacturer HiFiMan. The company is known for making portable audio players and headphones but off-late has grown in popularity for its expansive and impressive range of planar magnetic headphones, which goes as high as $8000.
The HE400se, however, are on the other end of that spectrum. Coming in at just $129, the HE400se is the cheapest model in the HiFiMan range and one of the cheapest pairs of planar magnetic headphones on the market today.
At that price, the HE400se goes up against mostly dynamic driver headphones, such as the Audio Technica M50X and the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro, although the HE400se have no pretensions of being mastering headphones and are designed for just casual use. I’ve been spending some quality time with these headphones for the past month or so and these are some of my thoughts.
The HE400se have a large, over the head design with circumaural earcups. The headphones use the more modern HiFiMan aesthetic, which means more articulating ear cups and a redesigned headband.
The ear cups feature a side hinge design with the yoke connecting on either side, providing free 360 degree motion. They can also be angled slightly in either direction, so they better match the contour of your head.
The yoke, like the rest of the exterior, is made out of plastic. It now goes inside the headband while adjusting, rather being attached to the exterior as on previous generation models.
The headband features a standard arching design as seen on recent models and not the suspension strap design as seen on older models. The single piece is more durable and covered in soft, leather-like material.
The ear cups feature large foam ear pads with a hybrid design that has a leather-like finish on the edges and velour on the inside. The pads are removable and replaceable.
Inside the ear cups, the driver and magnet array is easy to see. The entire assembly is covered by a thin cloth, with nothing else between it and your ears.
On the other side of the ear cups is a metal grille covering the drivers. The grille can be removed with some effort but it’s not intended and best avoided.
The HE400se comes with a new audio cable, that is similar to what you get with some of the more expensive models. It is a thicker, more durable cable with a 3.5mm connectors for either drivers and a 3.5mm L-shaped termination. A 6.3mm adapter is provided in the box.
The new black cable replaces the chintzy silver cable that came with the early batch of the HE400se, which ended up being universally hated. Thankfully, HiFiMan took the feedback to heart and chose to swap the cables. There are even some units out there that came with two cables, the old and the new, although my newer unit just had the new cable.
In terms of build quality, the HE400se are okay. The headphones in general seem reasonably well-built but still fairly plasticky. The problem area for me was the length adjustment of the ear cups, which did not slide smoothly and made it difficult to adjust to a specific spot difficult. Both ear cups felt like they were grating on the inside while sliding, even though there was visible (and sticky) grease on the adjustment arms on both sides.
The other issue was with how exposed and vulnerable the drive assembly is inside the ear cups. These are not the headphones to buy if you are not careful with your devices. The thin cloth covering the drivers will provide zero protection if you end up shoving your thumb through the ear cup and planar magnetic assemblies aren’t exactly robust. Make sure you know what you’re getting into or stick to dynamic drivers with a giant plastic cover over the driver if you can’t take care of your things.
The HE400se are a comfortable pair of headphones. The ear cups don’t have large cutouts, so those with larger ears may disagree, but they did fit my smaller ears well.
The ear pads themselves are soft and feel good on the side of your ears. The cups are also deep enough that your ears don’t touch their insides. They do get slightly warm but still run much cooler than closed-back headphones.
The new HiFiMan headbands are also decently comfortable. The shape fit my head well and there was ample cushioning on it. Clamping force is nominal and the headphones feel secure without being too tight on your head.
The headphones are on the larger side; the ear cups managed to be just within my peripheral vision even when I was looking straight ahead. The headphones also don’t fold in any way. All of this means these are meant for using indoors and not on the move or for traveling with. Then again, that goes without saying for open-back headphones.
The HE400se are open-back headphones with planar magnetic drivers. These headphones use what HiFiMan calls Stealth Magnets.
Basically, planar magnetic drivers have an array of magnets on either side of the diaphragm, which holds the diaphragm in place and also makes it move when an electrical signal passes through it. With the Stealth Magnet design, HiFiMan has designed the magnets with curved edges, making them pass acoustically transparent and not influence the sound through them.
The HE400se are largely great sounding pair of headphones, with a mostly neutral-leaning sound signature. In many ways, they sound similar to HiFiMan’s more expensive headphones like the Sundara, while being less than half the price.
Let’s start with what is arguably the best part of the sound, which is the treble performance. The treble is delightfully articulate and lively in its delivery. On most tracks, it comes through brilliantly with just the right amount of sparkle and energy, although on occasions it can get a touch too bright in some parts of the frequency range. However, this is usually not a concern on well-recorded content.
The mid-range response is also very good. It tracks quite well through most of the range, which results in very strong presence and delivery for male vocals. The mid-range does falter a bit in the upper ranges, where HiFiMan has decided once again to introduce a dip from reference tone. This pulls back female vocals and some string instruments. Some may find this as a fair trade-off, as our ears are fairly sensitive in this range and a pulled back response may sound more pleasing and less shouty. But, it’s not accurate and can cause some mixes to sound a bit hollow.
The bass response is a mixed bag. Planar magnetic drivers have exceptionally fast and precise bass response, which the HE400se deliver in spades. Percussion instruments, particularly the smaller drums, have a lovely snap and taut quality with pleasing timbre. Male vocals have a good amount of warmth to them without sounding thin or brittle.
Unfortunately, the HE400se have very little to offer in the lower regions of the frequency range. The bass can be punchy but there is no satisfactory thump or rumble to the sound. So while bass guitars and cellos do still sound quite nice, the lowest notes don’t come through as well as they should. This is often the case with open-back headphones but it seems the HE400se goes a step further in this regard.
Fortunately, it is surprisingly easy to make up for the low-end and upper-mid range deficit in the sound using EQ. Many headphone amps these days even have a bass-boost function, which is surprisingly effective for the bass deficit, although you’ll have to find another solution for the mid-range. However, headphones aren’t judged for how they sound with EQ, and thus out of the box the HE400se leave something to be desired.
Quibbles with the tonality aside, the HE400se impress a lot with their technical performance, despite their meager price. The drivers are fantastically resolving and can bring out a lot of fine detail in your recordings. There is a satisfying level of texture and layering noticeable in the sound, with instruments occupying a distinct space in the mix.
Another extremely impressive aspect of the sound is the imaging. The HE400se do a fantastic job here, creating incredibly well localized sounds that often make you turn your head in the direction from where it came. There is also a great sense of verticality to the sound even in standard stereo recordings, with different sounds and instruments having precise three-dimensional location.
Less impressive, however, is the soundstage. Despite the open back nature of these headphones, the soundstage is rather close and intimate. It’s certainly wider than most closed back headphones but it still feels clustered around your ears and you never quite feel like you are in the room with the sound.
Based on my usage, I found the HE400se to be exceptional for games as well as television and film content. Gaming massively benefits from the superb imaging of these headphones with eerily accurate object positioning. This makes these better gaming headphones than almost every pair of headphones marketed for gaming. Film and TV also sounds great although you do lose some of that boom and rumble for certain sounds.
I am in two minds about recommending these for music, however. Most genres do sound fantastic on them but despite not being a bass-head I felt the lack of a proper low-end often left me wanting for more. Depending on what you listen to, these may or may not work for you at all.
Being open back headphones, it goes without saying that they leak a lot of sound, both ways. Putting these headphones on basically makes no difference to the ambient noise as they are almost completely transparent. Likewise, the drivers produce almost the same amount of audio from the back of the ear cups as from the front, so everything you listen to is broadcasted to the world around you.
In terms of impedance, the HE400se do require a dedicated amplifier to run. I tried running these off smartphones and even at max volume the headphones weren’t loud enough. If you are planning on using these headphones, a simple headphone amp/DAC combo like the Fiio E10K-TC or the Shanling UA2 should be perfectly adequate. In fact, the latter is exactly what I used for this review, along with an aftermarket balanced audio cable, although the default single-ended cable sounds just fine.
The HiFiMan HE400se are an excellent pair of headphones, doubly so when you consider the price. HiFiMan has attained a certain level of mastery now when it comes to making these planar magnetic headphones and the HE400se bring a lot of what we have come to expect from the brand at a much more affordable price point.
Compared to other headphones in their price range, the HE400se are often in a different league altogether and barely worth comparing. It’s a different pedigree of product and there’s a genuine sense of getting a true audiophile experience without blowing a hole through your wallet, something most other headphones in this price range simply do not offer.
I particularly enjoyed using them for playing games, and would highly recommend them as gaming headphones if a built-in microphone and ambient noise cancellation aren’t important to you.
On the other hand, some things could definitely have been better. The bass is on the leaner side, which does impact the enjoyment of certain genres of music. The build quality is less than ideal and the headphones expect a lot from the user in terms of care while handling in order to not damage the drivers, which users at this price point may not be used to.
However, after about a month of use, I simply forgot about most of these issues as they didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. So until something better comes along, the HE400se are going to be my top recommendation for open-back headphones in the $150 price range.
Thanks to Headphone Zone for providing the review unit.
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