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Review: Fostex TH500RP and HiFiMAN HE-560 headphones

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by Brian Hunter

The market continues to swirl around planar magnetic technology and its popular sonic benefits. With growing maturity and gains in acceptance and sales, the fallout is proving to be a real “W” for consumers. Where the forerunners of the planar race used to sit solely in the upper tier of $2k, it now appears that there could be a mad dash for mindshare in the slightly more wallet-comfortable $700-$900 range. The first early contenders entered the market last year in the form of the two subjects of this review, the Fostex TH500RP and the HiFiMAN HE-560. One of the newest additions to this open-back mid-tier group is about to hit the market, courtesy of Head-Fi favorite Audeze. First shown to the public at CES this year, the EL-8 is the newest planar magnetic headphone from the company and comes in both closed and open variations for $699.

Fostex is no stranger to planar magnetic technology. For those not familiar, one of their earlier classic headphones, the T50RP, is perhaps one of the most tweaked and modded headphones of all time, giving birth to standalone mod brands like MrSpeakers. The new Fostex open-back drafts some of that original brand equity with a similar model nomenclature, just add a “H” and a “0” to the blender, and mix well. While a quick glance might allude to similarities, the constancies with the product in hand end quite quickly. Gone is the plastic outer shell and closed-back “directness” of sound, instead replaced by an interesting yet simple open-back design and upper-tier build. On-product branding for the TH500RP is understated, consisting of a same-color Fostex logo on the headband and the simple white text of “REGULAR PHASE STEREO HEADPHONE” circling the lower half of the earcup. The model number is located on the inside of the headband out of sight, opposite the serial number on the right internal side.

On the head, the Fostex is very comfortable. The clamping pressure is to my preference, which is to say, fairly light. The headphone sits very well on my (admittedly absolutely ginormous rather large) head and offered easy adjustments in all directions for the drivers. In contrast with HiFiMAN HE-560 however, the Fostex does not offer interchangeable cables; the connection is hardwired directly to the ear cup.

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I very much enjoyed the feel of the TH500RP. It’s a light, but durable, design and it really struck a chord with me, maybe enven more so than the HE-560’s wearability did.

The HiFiMAN external design of its headphones has come a long way. The rounded edges and lighter weight of the HE560 make entire package feel very thought-out from top to bottom. The headband architecture has been revised to something like a toned-down and smaller version of the behemoth Abyss headphone. A small head-cage traces an outline in which the leather head-pad can be adjusted either up or down. And while the TH500RP may have outpaced the 560 in terms of clamping pressure comfort, the HifiMAN is by no means tight as far as headphones go. Long term listening should pose no problems with the sturdy feel and neck-reliving 375g of weight (the HE-6 is 502g). The ear pads feature a leather edging but the actual head-facing material is more of a felt-like texture. While the outer ring of the ear cup is now decorated with a dark red wood grain finish, the outside grill remains much of the same traditional styling of the rest of the HiFiMAN line. Also consistent with other models, the removable cable is terminated in a easy-to-swap twist off connection that allows for balanced connections to amplifiers if you so desire, a good option that I like to see in higher-end head-fi products. Both headphones are very high in terms of wearablity and comfort (at least according to this reviewer’s pumpkin head melon).

If you take a quick trip up the reviewer’s frequency trail, you always start at the bass. In both cases for these headphones, the news is good. Taking queues from the traits that planar magnetic technology is known for, on a grand scale the bass in both cases exudes tightness and balance. It’s delightfully present; it feels deep and never overdone. For a bit of perspective, I threw in a benchmark to my reference Audeze LCD-3’s (also a planar magnetic technology) for good measure. In Mark Ronson’s newest collaboration with Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk”, there is a sampled vocal chorus that is doubled by a bass line throughout the song. The initial intro to the male line is stripped down, but as the song grows the two play out very close together. Of the three, the LCD-3 still held the crowd in terms of being able to discern the separation between these two bass elements. The Fostex felt a little more blended, with the HE-560 allowing for a bit more separation. Still when all is said and done the bass is one of the true arenas where planars excel the most and all three of these options bring it to the table.

But that’s pretty much where the TH500RP and HE-560 really start to diverge. When I reviewed some of my listening notes on the Fostex, one word kept leaping out at me, ‘fat’. I’m comfortable with calling the Fostex “fat sounding”. Being fat in musical terms can be very good (fat tones!), even as it tugs on the sleeve of individual preference a little more. What I’m not comfortable calling the TH500RP is “richer” or “more analog” than most headphones. Those terms don’t quite fit the robustness of the tonal saturation I heard throughout the mid range. That being said, I would recommend a listen to the 500 if tubes and vinyl are your thing; some early feedback on the headphone suggested that this pairing might be very desirable to individuals who lean towards those type of priorities. It is still great fun in sonic terms, but piled up next to the HE-560, vocals would sound just a hair more congested at times by comparison.

What is a bit more obvious — and unique to the HE-560 — is the top-end. There is a bit more of it overall and the extension upward is pretty fantastic, at almost any price point. The detail, articulation and dynamic finesse all took me by surprise when I first donned the review sample. If micro-detail is your thing, than the 560 may align with your priorities. The Allison Kraus’ album New Favorite starts out with a balanced stereo field of acoustic guitars with the slide filling in the gaps. The single note leads, dipped in just the right amount of reverb, offers an interesting pinpoint to gauge location awareness and the guitars provide an anchor to the song, the slide leads appear to move around and even out into (head-) space as the song progresses. Throughout the mids and treble, the HE-560 did a tremendous job of providing a sharp focus and sense of projected “out of your head” experience. But even with all this transparency, it’s important to remember that the 560 generally had more treble presence than the 500, which may again induce some polarization, depending on your relationship with sensitivity to the frequency. By comparison, the TH500RP felt closer to the LCD-3 “house sound” in terms of frequency response, at least more than the HE-560 did, which is consistent with the rest of the HiFiMAN line.

You could potentially draw audiophile party lines between the fat 500 and the leaner 560, but really, that generalization would be shortchanging the whole scene. Even a simple “tube lovers start here” sign pointing to the 500 doesn’t tell the whole story. Bass is just where it should be for both headphones by most audiophile terms, which is becoming quite the signature trademark for planars. Control, reach and slam are hitting benchmark levels that have apparently proved more of a challenge for dynamic driver models over the years. These two open back models show us how far the hobby has come in a short time.

I am pretty awestruck by the performance squeezed out of the HE-560. If you prefer a bit more detail and energy in the high frequencies, then HiFiMAN is the direction you should look; the spatial reasoning and attention to detail makes it a superb specimen in this price bracket.

Those big on tones and textures may get a kick out of the TH500RP; along with a comfortable fit, the headphone feels like a feather on the head — compared to far too many.

Those looking for a step up from the $300-$500 tier of headphones should be fairly happy with new entries to the subtle ledge that hangs just under a grand. Not really a budget move, these newest offerings in headphone audio give a solid taste of the flagship good life, just without the crazy price tags.

Audiophiles who love chasing the last 10% still can get their fix with the current flagship offerings from Audeze, HiFiMAN, Stax and Abyss, but these more practical offerings make serious waves for high fidelity.

Highly recommended. Both of ’em.

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Fostex 1

Fostex 2

HiFiman 1

HifiMAN 2

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