I first became aware of HiFiMan roughly eleven years ago, when I sought to review one of the firm’s earliest planar-magnetic headphones. However, in the course of reaching out I learned that, even earlier on, HiFiMan had made a full-range electrostatic headphone called the Jade. At that time the Jade was no longer in production, but I soon learned that it enjoyed an almost reverent cult following among high-end headphone enthusiasts. In fact, one of my happiest memories of that time period was attending a CanJam event where I met up with the great personal audio electronics pioneer Ray Samuels (of Ray Samuels Audio fame); Samuels handed me his personal pair of HiFiMan Jades and said, with a sly smile, “Here, try these out; you need to hear them.”
Singing sweetly when driven by a Samuels-designed electrostatic amp, the Jades indeed proved to be something special. They offered the transient speed and transparency for which fine electrostatic headphones are famous, without even a trace of the subtly edgy and analytical quality that makes some electrostatic headphones a sonic mixed blessing. On the contrary, the Jades had a mellifluous and full-bodied character that made them wonderfully musical and easy to enjoy. The only catch was that the Jade had essentially become “unobtanium” as HiFiMan wasn’t making any more of them and the lucky few—like Ray Samuels—who owned Jades had zero interest in parting with them. Ah, well, I suppose it is human nature to yearn for things we cannot have…or can we?
Let’s fast-forward to late 2018 and to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, Colorado. At that show, in the CanJam personal audio exhibit area, the HiFiMan stand featured something many enthusiasts had dreamed of: namely a brand-new electrostatic headphone called the Jade II with a matching electrostatic amplifier. Though the headphone and amplifier are potentially available as separate products, HiFiMan prefers to bundle both products as a specially priced, turnkey Jade II electrostatic headphone system ($2499). The Jade II system is the subject of this review.
The Jade II is an open-back electrostatic headphone that looks like an updated version of the original Jade, but with more refined finishes and a distinctive iridescent blue-green diaphragm visible behind the headphone’s open-mesh anodes (or stators). The Jade II’s teardrop-shaped earcups are finished in satin black, as is its top headband frame. Beneath the frame there is a simple but effective height-adjustable leather headband strap. The Jade II earpads feature leather (or leather-like?) outer coverings, but with comfortable fabric inner surfaces and touch surfaces capable of wicking away perspiration. Following recent design trends, the Jade II headphone frame allows its earcup to swivel in the vertical axis, but not in the horizontal axis. Apparently, the train of thought is that there is sufficient flex in the frame to accommodate horizontal positioning adjustments, while the elimination of horizontal pivots improves that overall strength of the frame.
HiFiMan does not go into great depth on the technologies used in the Jade II, but describes the headphone as having a “housing (made) from ABS and a steel frame composed of a stainless-steel honeycomb mesh for the anode casing.” Expanding on this last statement, the product manual adds that “the Honeycomb mesh can protect the headphone from airflow vibrations assuring that the sound reproduction remains true and accurate.”
On the inside, the Jade II uses an ultra-low-mass diaphragm less than 0.001mm thick, coated with nano-particles that are said to provide “an extreme high frequency response and excellent musical reproduction ability.” Completing the picture is a nanometer-thick dust cover designed to prevent “dust and other pollutants settling and avoiding ensuing distortion caused by electrostatic dust.” The overall design goal, says HiFiMan, was to create a headphone capable of delivering “highly resolving audio,” along with extremely extended high-frequency response with soundstages said to be dramatically open and expansive compared to a traditional “moving-coil” headphone.
The Jade II electrostatic amplifier is a balanced output, solid-state design, which comes as a surprise given that HiFiMan’s previous Shangri-La and Shangri-La Jr electrostatic amplifiers were both tube-powered units. Compared to those two mega-amps, however, the Jade II amplifier is considerably lighter and more compact, with an elegant and attractive minimalist industrial design created by HiFiMan’s Boston, Massachusetts, design team. The amplifier chassis is formed from “aviation-grade aluminum alloy” finished in satin black.
HiFiMan says the Jade II circuit uses a Texas Instruments OPA2107AO high-precision dual op-amp “for signal pre-amplification.” In turn, discrete cascode MOSFET devices power the amplifier’s balanced output stage. HiFiMan emphasizes that the amplifier uses a high-voltage power supply that features an independent power supply regulator. What is more, HiFiMan paid particular attention to the amplifier’s PCB layout, which was developed, says the manufacturer, with an eye toward reducing “interference hum,” thus enabling “a more transparent sound.”
The amplifier provides two stereo pairs of analog audio inputs—one single-ended (via RCA jacks) and the other balanced (via 3-pin XLR connectors). Also on the rear panel is an IEC power-inlet socket and an AC 115V/230V power-input selector switch. The Jade II amplifier’s front panel sports a large power switch, a bright power light, two 5-pin Stax-type electrostatic headphone output jacks, a simple pushbutton input selector switch, and a moderately large, 21-step rotary volume control. In practice, the amplifier proved extremely easy to use while generating a commendably modest amount of heat.
For my listening tests, I was able to compare the Jade II electrostatic headphone with the substantially more expensive MrSpeakers Voce electrostatic headphone. I was also able to compare the Jade II electrostatic amplifier with my reference iFi Audio Pro iCAN headphone amplifier driving an iFi Pro iESL electrostatic headphone adapter. Let me concede in advance that both these comparisons are in some respects unfair, given that both the MrSpeakers Voce and the iFi Audio Pro iCAN/Pro iESL combo cost more than the entire Jade II system does. Even so I found it illuminating to see how the Jade II fared in comparison to these more costly products. Here’s what I learned.
The Jade II follows much in the sonic footsteps of the original Jade, in that it offers a carefully judged combination of transient speed, transparency, exceptional midrange purity, superb spatial characteristics, and an inviting quality of natural, organic warmth. If you were hoping for a headphone that emphasizes bleeding-edge, razor-sharp transient definition and sub-microscopic levels of detail, then the Jade II might not be your cup of tea—not because it does not possess those qualities in reasonable measure, but because it doesn’t make them the centerpieces of its musical presentation. So, the Jade II is not about creating hi-fi-centric shock and awe experiences, but more about conveying the vibrant tonal and textural richness of well-recorded music, while also capturing the always engaging dynamic shadings that help bring music alive. Also, more so than many top-tier headphones, the Jade II provides large, spacious soundstage envelopes that help keep the music from sounding as if it is trapped inside the listener’s head. Several musical illustrations will perhaps help to show what I mean.
On “Zapateados” from Pepe Romero’s Flamenco [K2HD, 16/44.1], the Jade II presents Romero’s exquisite flamenco guitar, recorded in a richly resonant natural acoustic space, juxtaposed against the striking handclaps and foot-and-heel taps of an expert flamenco dancer. Many transducers—loudspeakers and headphones alike—turn this track into a hi-fi extravaganza, which sadly redirects the listener’s attention away from the musical event and toward a narrowly focused preoccupation with sound quality. The Jade II, however, is different. Yes, it captures textural and transient sounds with exemplary clarity; yet it also captures the varied and subtle dynamic moods and the spatial cues that are so vital to conveying the “you-are-there” sense of being present at the original performance.
On this same track the MrSpeakers Voce offers superior upper midrange and treble extension on the rapid-fire guitar passages and the sounds of the reverberant recording venue. The Voce also delivers slightly tauter and better-defined bass on the dancer’s powerful, percussive foot stamps. With this said, though, I found the Jade II able to hold its own with the Voce in terms of conveying the overall feel of the performance. What is more, the Jade II’s natural organic warmth attracts and holds the attention in a deeply engaging way—never forcing the listener into a coldly analytical listening mode.
On Mark O’Connor’s Fanfare for the Volunteer [Mercurio, London Philharmonic, Sony Masterworks, 16/44.1], the Jade II does a fine job of capturing the gravitas and sonority of the orchestra’s instruments—especially brass instruments and low percussion. The tricky part about rendering brass instruments effectively is finding the balance point between the natural “bite” of the attack of the horns and the rich, burnished, harmonic “glow” of their sustained voices—a balance point the Jade II found time and again. Similarly, the difficulty with reproducing low percussion instruments is capturing their weight, depth, and dynamic power while at the same time preserving vital textural, transient, and pitch information. Again, the Jade II did a fine job of finding the right balance point, where the headphone’s slightly warmer-than-neutral tonal balance helped give low percussion the dynamic wallop it should have. Perhaps the best part of all involved O’Connor’s solo violin passage, where the Jade II caught both the incisiveness and the sweet, lilting tonality of the instrument.
On Fanfare the MrSpeakers Voce again showed its superior upper midrange and treble extension, its greater bass purity and power, and its superior resolution. Even so, the Jade II offered enough of each of those qualities to be fully competitive with the Voce musically, which is saying a mouthful.
Finally, on Anne Bisson’s rendition of Pink Floyd’s classic “Us and Them” [Portraits and Perfumes, Camilio, 16/44.1], the Jade II did something wonderful with Bisson’s voice; namely, it captured her breathy delicacy, her slightly off-kilter inflections, and her uncanny ability to underscore the dark humor implicit in the song’s lyrics. In contrast, the MrSpeakers Voce offered greater extension and resolution, but at the expense of imparting very faint traces of glare on the edges of Bisson’s voice. Once again, the inherent musicality of the Jade II shone through.
In comparing the Jade II electrostatic amp to the iFi Pro iCAN/Pro iESL combo, I found the HiFiMan amp nearly equaled the iFi combo on most material, though the iFi was arguably quieter, more resolving, and more flexible. Given that the iFi combo is more than twice as expensive as the Jade II amplifier, though, I think all might agree the HiFiMan amplifier offers terrific value for money.
What about caveats? Some of you will have discovered an online review declaring the Jade II system is a “dangerous” product capable of shocking its users. Frankly, I’m going to call that review erroneous to the point of almost irrational hysteria. I’ve used the Jade II system—and many other electrostatic headphone systems—for hours on end in both humid and dry conditions with zero problems. My opinion is that about the only way you could hurt yourself with the Jade II system would be to take it with you into the shower, bathtub, or swimming pool. Refrain from such lunatic behaviors and everything should be fine. Enough said.
While the Jade II system may not in the strictest sense be a “state-of-the-art” product in the way that HiFiMan’s far costlier Shangri-La Jr or Shangri-La systems are, the Jade II package offers such heaping helpings of the sonic qualities most listeners seek in electrostatic systems that it qualifies as an unequivocal success. The fact that it can deliver the results it does for a tick under $2500 is downright amazing.
Frankly, the Jade II system offers so much musical insight and enjoyment for such a sensible price that it may be all the electrostatic headphone system many listeners will ever need or want.
Specs & Pricing
Jade II Electrostatic Headphone
Type: Open-back electrostatic headphone
Driver complement: Single full-range electrostatic driver with <0.001mm-thick diaphragm and nano-material coatings, thin metal-mesh stators, and nano-material dust covers
Frequency response: 7Hz–90kHz
Bias voltage: 550V–650V
Weight: 365 grams (12.9 oz.)
Price: $1399 ($2499 bundled with Jade II amplifier)
Jade II Electrostatic Amplifier
Dimensions: 4.6″ x 10.6″ x 10.9″
Weight: 14.3 lbs.
Price: $1599 ($2499 bundled with the Jade II headphone)