HiFiMAN RE-262 In-Ear Headphone (Playback 42)

Equipment report
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Earphones and in-ear monitors
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Products:
HiFiMAN RE-262
HiFiMAN RE-262 In-Ear Headphone (Playback 42)

As Playback readers know, HiFiMAN builds some of the finest full-size planar magnetic headphones on the planet, but with the new RE-262 earphone ($150) the firm is “thinking small” and looking to bring elements of the famous HiFiMAN sound to a new market at a very accessible price. But despite its mid-level price, the RE-262 reflects some of the same kinds of innovative—and distinctly performance oriented—thinking that has influenced HiFiMAN’s higher-end product. Thus, as you’ll see in a moment, the RE-262 isn’t just “another good mid-priced earphone.”

 

PRODUCT CONCEPT

At first glance, HiFiMAN’s mid-priced RE-262 earphone seems like a conventional design—one based on good, solid, straightforward ingredients, but that doesn’t offer spectacular internal components that catch the eye. The RE-262 features an earpiece housing that might be mistaken for molded plastic, but that is actually made of metal and then finished in gloss black. Inside, the RE-262 uses 9mm moving-coil type drivers whose motors feature neodymium magnets. Impedance is a relatively high 150 ohms, while sensitivity is a low-ish 95dB, meaning that the RE-262 can certainly be driven by iPods and the like, though it sounds even better when pushed by robust portable amps.

But take a closer look and you will find that the RE-262 breaks with typical earphone conventions, in that—get this—it comes prewired for use with balanced-output portable or desktop amps, This is a design trend we’ve occasionally encountered with expensive, high-end, full-size headphones, but it is almost unheard of in the world of in-ear ‘phones. In practice, this means the RE-262’s signal cable comes fitted with a balanced 3.5mm mini-jack plug—that is, one with four rather than the expected three conductor sleeves (see photo, above). Why configure an earphone for use with balanced amps? Judging by listening experiences I’ve had with balanced full-size headphones and amps, I’d say the expected sonic benefits include heightened sonic purity, detail, and superior overall driver control.

To be perfectly frank, though, there aren’t all that many balanced-output portable amps on the market just yet (Ray Samuel’s new SR-71B Blackbird is one, and HiFiMAN’s own HM-801 digital music player/amp will be another once the firm’s balanced-output amp modules become available). But obviously HiFiMAN is looking to give the RE-262 a performance-oriented “growth path” for the future. In the here and now, however, most of us own cellphones, digital music players and portable amps that provide traditional unbalanced output jacks, and to accommodate our needs the RE-262 ships with an unbalanced-to-balanced adapter cable.

But HiFiMAN’s innovative thinking doesn’t end with giving the RE-262 capabilities for use with balanced amps, because the firm has also taken a fresh look at ways of achieving an optimal fit—both in terms of sound quality and wearer comfort. Most earphones have a recommended “normal” wearing position, and the RE-262 is no exception. Some earphones, the RE-262 among them, are designed to be worn with their signal cables draping downwards from the wearer’s ears, while others are designed so that cables will be routed up and over the ears (and some models support both approaches). But no matter what cable-routing scheme is used, most good earphones sound and feel their best when three essential conditions are met:

•First, the eartips of the earphones need to achieve a good airtight seal in the wearer’s ear canals in order to achieve powerful full-range sound (a poor seal almost invariably makes for thin, anemic-sounding bass).
•Second, the earpieces/eartips should ideally rest fairly deeply within the wearer’s ear canals (an often overlooked aspect of performance that can spell the difference between rich, vibrant sound and dull, lifeless sound).
•Third, the earpieces/eartips need to offer long-term wearer comfort (even if it makes a great first sonic impression, an earphone that’s uncomfortable is bound to go unused in the longer term).

HiFiMAN took a long, hard look at these requirements and (after much trial-and-error experimentation) came to a highly unorthodox conclusion. Specifically, HiFiMAN determined that while many listeners get good results with RE-262 worn in its “normal” position (earpieces right side up, with signal cables draping downwards), other achieved an optimal fit with the RE-262’s worn (no joke) upside down and with the channels reversed (left earpiece in the right ear and vice versa, with signal cables wrapped up and over the wearer’s ears—see photo).

In order to support this admittedly unusual alternative wearing position, HiFiMAN ships the RE-262 with two additional adapter cables:

•A color-coded balanced-to-balanced adapter cable with left/right channels reversed, and
•A color-coded unbalanced-to-balanced adapter cable, also with left/right channels reversed.

Frankly, I initially thought this whole approach was too strange to embrace, but once I tried wearing the RE-262’s in both positions I discovered that I am one of those wearers for whom the “upside-down-and-backwards” fitment work best. In fact, it gave me a night/day improvement in comfort and sound quality (though you might well prefer the normal wearing position). The point, here, is that the RE-262 gives you two very different fitting options, both of which deserve careful consideration (according to HiFiMAN, if one approach doesn’t work for you, the other almost certainly will).

EASE OF USE

Depending on the user, the RE-262 can be tricky to fit at first. Some wearers find it’s pretty much a plug-n-play design, while others (like me) have to work a bit harder to get optimal results.

For anyone trying the RE-262, I would encourage running three sets of tests when you first receive the earphones:

•First, carefully try out the various eartips that HiFiMAN supplies in order to find the size/type that creates the best seal in your ears. Sometimes, you may find that a not-so-obvious option actually gives the best results.
•Second, try both the normal (right side up and forward) wearing position and the alternate (upside down and backward) wearing position. You will likely find, as I did, that one position works markedly better than the other.
•Third, once you’ve settled on eartips and the wearing position you want to use, try gently pushing inward on the RE-262 earpieces, and note how the depth of the fit influences sound quality. I found that—up to a point—a deeper fit enabled the earphones to produce a significantly richer, more vibrant sound.

The wearing position you choose will also help you determine which (if any) of the three included adapter cables to use:

Using Amps with Balanced Outputs

No adapter: Use this approach if wearing the RE-262’s in the “normal” position (right side up with normal left/right channel orientation).
White adapter: balanced 3.5mm mini-jack to balanced 3.5mm socket, with left/right channels reversed. Use this adapter if wearing the RE-262’s in the “alternate” position (upside down with the left/right earpieces reversed).

Using Amps, Cellphones, or Digital Music Players with Unbalanced Outputs

Black adapter: unbalanced 3.5mm mini-jack to balanced 3.5mm socket with normal left/right channel orientation. Use this adapter if wearing the RE-262’s in the normal position.
Grey adapter: imbalanced 3.5 mini-jack to balanced 3.5mm socket, with left/right channels reversed. Use this adapter if wearing the RE-262’s in the “alternate” position.

With many earphones, all you need is a good in-the-ear seal in order to achieve optimal sound, but the RE-262’s are different. While they do require a good seal, they are also quite sensitive to how deeply they are positioned in one’s ears. When fitted correctly, the RE-262 produces a deep, rich, vibrant sound. Don’t settle for anything less, and keep experimenting until you get all the performance you’ve paid for. The end results more than justify the extra set-up time and effort required.

SONIC CHARACTER

At their best, the RE-262’s have a big, smooth, full-bodied, and almost “lush” sound that is highly engaging and very comfortable to listen to for long periods of time. Several factors contribute to that sound.

Deep, Powerful, Well-Defined bass: Bass is one the RE-262’s strengths, with the earphone delivering extremely good extension, desirable qualities of weight and punch, and—most importantly—good pitch definition and focus. While I would concede that the RE-262 delivers a somewhat bass-forward sound, what makes the low end of this earphone work is not so much the quantity but the sheer quality of the bass it delivers.

As a test of pure bass depth, for example, listen to the RE-262’s reproduce the descending organ passages found in the Pie Jesu section of the Rutter Requiem [Reference Recordings]. More than most earphones, the RE-262 shows real muscle and extension, creating the sense of deep pitched, shuddering columns of air. Most earphones run out of steam on the Rutter Requiem (some of them comically so), but not the HiFiMAN’s; they just wade right in and get the job done.

But the RE-262’s not only go low, as on pipe organ material, but also tackle with gusto those low frequency instruments that have more transient snap and punch, or that rely on subtle variations in low-frequency textures and timbres. Listen closely, for example, to Avishai Cohen’s acoustic bass on “Bass Suite No. 1” from Cohen’s Adama [Stretch Records]. You’ll find it captures the initial “jump” and resonant sustain of the bass strings, while giving you a clear-cut sense for the resonances of the large wooden body of the instrument. Note, too, the way that the RE-262 captures very subtle variations in Cohen’s finger and plucking notes—letting you feel as much as hear the effort he puts into bending or sliding some notes. But perhaps the most spectacular effect comes when Cohen accents certain plucked or sustained bass notes by rapping his knuckles against the body of the instrument to create counter-rhythms. Those knuckle raps sound amazingly realistic.

Few earphones this price can dig more deeply (or articulately) into music’s lower octaves the way that this one can.

Articulate, Vibrant, Lifelike Mids: Most of the music really does live in the midrange, and the RE-262’s honor that fact with mids that are evenly balanced and that—more importantly—are rich in luscious tonal colors and textures. The result is a sound that, more so than is the norm for this class, pulls you in and holds your attention through both its richness and dynamically expressive qualities. This, along with the killer bass mentioned above, is what makes the RE-262 sound like a higher-end model than its price would suggest.

One recording that shows these qualities to particularly good effect is violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn’s performance on the first movement of the Meyer Violin Concerto [Sony]. While portions of this movement are briskly paced, I would not call it a showcase for violin pyrotechnics; instead, what makes the movement work are its slower passages where the voice of the solo violin sings out sweetly and purely—at time sounding terrifically alone and exposed. The RE-262’s let you hear how Hahn deftly balances technical mastery of her instrument with an equally important quality of musical soulfulness. I’m not talking about sloppy romanticism, here, but rather about honest emotion and sensitivity to the sheer beauty of the music—a quality that fills Hahn’s performance with energy, purpose, and life. What the RE-262’s do so well is to put the you in touch with the articulacy and liveliness of music without turning listening into a sterile technical exercise whose objective is to see which earphone can reproduce the most detail or carve the most abrupt transients.

Clear, Smooth Highs: Many earphones that strive for a detailed sound do so at the expense of highs that are either overly prominent or that easily become edgy and brittle sounding. Happily, the RE-262 has neither problem, as its highs are unfailingly graceful and smooth, albeit ever so slightly subdued. Even so, I think many listeners will appreciate the compromise HiFiMAN has drawn.

The RE-262 offers a healthy measure of treble detail, but without any of the downsides that treble detail sometimes implies: there is no tendency toward piercingly overblown high-frequency transients, no blare or glare in the critical upper midrange/lower treble region, and no overheated treble textures scorching their way into your skull. Instead, the RE-262’s highs are always clear, yet at the same time gentle, engaging, and easy to live with.

Like certain fine high-end loudspeakers, the RE-262 thrives on well-recorded treble material, though it will not create the illusion of treble “air” or “detail” in recordings that don’t actually possess those qualities (which is all to the good). But when the recording is up to the task, the RE-262 can sound extremely detailed and revealing.

For a good example of this, listen to the track “Farrucas” from flamenco guitarist Pepe Romero’s Flamenco [Lim, K2HD CD remaster of the Philips original]. What makes this recording jump to life is not only Romero’s fleet-fingered guitar work, whose light-speed runs and trills the RE-262 handles with ease, but the spectacular rhythm accompaniment, which includes the sound of flamenco dancers shoes reverberating within the recording space, as castanets and handclaps keep time in the background. This track features a remarkable variety of high-pitched transient and textural sounds—all of them at play at once, and the RE-262 does a great job of delineating them cleanly and clearly. There is no mistaking, for instance, a handclap for the snap of a castanet or the harder, sharper crack of shoe heels striking the floor. Each treble sound is preserved, separate and distinct from the others.

If there is any deficiency here, it might be that the RE-262’s highs are just slightly softly or lightly balanced relative to the real thing. By this I mean that there are some competing headphones in this price class (e.g., the Phonak PFE 122) that offer a heightened sense of treble focus or that do a somewhat better job of conveying the high frequency “air” between instruments. But that said, I would add that few other mid-priced earphones in my experience could equal the RE-262’s uncanny combination of treble clarity and smoothness.

BOTTOM LINE

Consider this product if: you want one of the better mid-priced earphones currently available—one that offers a rich, vibrant, lush sound. The RE-262 is one of small handful of mid-priced earphones that plays far above its price class. Consider the RE-262 for its two versatile (though admittedly unorthodox) fitting options, or if you like the idea of an earphone that is ready to take advantage of coming balanced-output amplifier options.

Look further if: You want a simple, plug’n’play solution that’s easy to fit and to optimize; the RE-262 requires a bit of experimentation and trial-and-error adjustment to give of its best. Also consider other options if you prize completely neutral tonal balance, since the RE-262 has a somewhat bass-forward sound with slightly subdued highs (neutrality seekers might consider HiFiMAN’s upcoming $249 RE-272 as a better alternative).

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced competition):

•Tonal Balance: 8.5
•Frequency Extremes: 10 (bass)/ 8.5 (treble)
•Clarity: 9
•Dynamics: 9
•Comfort/Fit: 8 (you can almost always get a good fit with these ‘phones, though you may have to work a bit to achieve it)
•Sensitivity: 4
•Value: 8.5

Summing Up: HiFiMAN’s RE-262 is an excellent mid-priced earphone with a number of unexpected and unconventional design elements. First, it comes pre-wired for use with balanced-output portable amps and therefore requires (included) adapter cables for use with conventional unbalanced portable amps, iPods, etc. Second, it offers two possible wearing positions: a normal position and an unorthodox alternate position (where the earphone is essentially worn upside down and backwards—again necessitating included adapters).

But look beyond the RE-262’s unconventional aspects and you’ll find its strengths center on it rich, vibrant, luscious sound, which is always engaging and easy to enjoy for long-term listening sessions. Sound quality, pure and simple, is what makes this little HiFiMAN earphone shine brightly, and at a very reasonable price.

SPECS & PRICING

HiFiMAN RE-262 In-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: Three pairs of single-flange eartips (S, M, L), two pairs of double-flange eartips (M and L), one detachable clamp for clipping the signal cable to garments, five pairs of user-replaceable filters (for keep ear way from clogging the RE-262’s sound output tubes), one padded leatherette presentation box, and three color-coded adapter cables, as below:
      •Black adapter: unbalanced 3.5mm jack to balanced 3.5mm socket with standard left/right channel orientation.
      •Grey adapter: unbalanced 3.5mm jack to balanced 3.5mm socket with reversed left/right channel orientation.
      •White adapter: balanced 3.5mm jack to balanced 3.5mm socket with reversed left/right channel orientation.
Frequency response: 15Hz – 22kHz
Weight: 0.6 oz.?
Sensitivity: 95 dB SP/1 mW
Impedance: 150 ohms
Warranty: 1-year replacement warranty
Price: $149

HiFiMAN/HEAD DIRECT?
(347) 475-7673
www.hifiman.us
www.head-direct.com

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