Easy Listening

Equipment report

First: analog sources. With an entry-level focus in mind, I opted for the GEM Dandy PolyTable (reviewed in Issue 260) with a Jelco tonearm and Shelter 201 moving-magnet cartridge. In my review of the petite but powerful PS Audio Sprout integrated (Issue 259), I described how the HE400S’ performance was quite literally startling in its imaging and staging: As I was listening to “I Confess” on the Mobile Fidelity reissue of The English Beat’s LP Special Beat Service, I actually jumped when I heard a layered-in backup vocal that sounded as if it were coming from behind me. How’s that for soundstaging? The sonic presentation was tight as a drum and clean as you please, with piano and Dave Wakeling’s vocals front and center.

On the classical front, Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite on Analogue Productions’ superb RCA Living Stereo LP reissue boasted thrilling climaxes with powerful transient attacks on cymbals and other percussion, which the HE400S delivered with a remarkable sense of realism, and—based on my experience listening to this same LP on systems such as JV’s—noteworthy transparency.

I compared a few tracks on this analog setup with those same tracks streamed via Tidal (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC files). On Tori Amos’ “Past the Mission” from her remastered Under the Pink LP, I picked up occasional subtle echoes of the recording venue behind her Bösendorfer piano, along with twangy guitar accent-riffs that previously hadn’t been as audible. The sense of balance and acoustic space felt coherent, of a piece. The digital version of that same track streamed via Tidal revealed crisp details that seemed to appear from different places within the acoustic. In contrast to the presentation of dynamic ’phones, it felt as though each channel had many more spots of possible sonic origin—a planar design advantage. That repeated guitar twang seemed to have longer decay, but a touch more sweetness, and Tori’s voice had slightly more delicacy and detail. I must say I preferred the vinyl version for its stronger energy and excitement, but then again I do adore analog.

Listening to tracks on my iPhone 6’s native music app naturally wasn’t quite the same-quality sonic experience, though it provided hours of pleasure that remained easy on the ears. I listened with the volume up louder than I ever have before with cans, but that’s a factor of the power planars require. (Nonetheless, it’s still pretty remarkable that a mobile phone can drive planar-magnetic headphones!) I went with guilty-pleasure upbeat pop and experimental stuff. Some standouts included Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”—funky good fun—and Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—compelling in its endless layers of old-school sampling and mixing. The track “Mea Culpa” delivered an astonishing sense of center spatial placement with found-percussion-instrument taps. And on Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move” I heard bits of gentle tambourine shakes I’d never picked up on before, deep in the right channel. The sense of space and easy naturalness was a recurring theme.

Of course, there are some tradeoffs inherent to planar-magnetic cans, similar to those found in loudspeakers of that type, with bass being the primary sticking point. I decided to put the HE400S to the test on some tracks with deeper bass. Listening to “Slow” from Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems on LP revealed some softening in the lower octaves, but the emotional impact of his vocals and of the track in general wasn’t lost. These $299 ’phones might not be the last word in low-end slam and extension, but in many other ways they easily hold their own.

Billed as one of the highest-efficiency planar ’phones on the market, the HE400S is a noteworthy bargain within its category. These lightweight, comfy cans are also realistically priced at $299—among the least expensive planar ’phones to be had. There was a kind of effortlessness to their playback, with a largely neutral presentation that was crisp, clean, and open. Quite often, their dimensionality even resembled loudspeaker-style soundstaging.

These phones would make a great choice either for hi-fi fans on a budget or for audiophiles who are simply after a basic, high-quality, lightweight headphone for go-to convenience or travel.

I enjoyed the overall sense of involvement and envelopment within the music, thanks to a striking degree of realism—noteworthy at this price. The HE400S seemed to have a natural way of elevating even (well recorded) lowest-common-denominator tracks (e.g., mp3s and Red Book) into something a bit finer. Great sounding, and a great value. QED.


Type: Open-back headphones with planar-magnetic drivers
Frequency response: 20Hz–35KHz
Sensitivity: 98dB
Impedance: 22 ohms
Weight: 350 grams
Price: $299

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