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Review: HiFiMAN HE1000 flagship headphones

HiFiMAN-

by John Grandberg

The proliferation of really-high-end headphones is undeniable. Back in the day, a $500 headphone was considered expensive, and the few thousand-dollar-plus models in existence were typically limited-edition rarities.

Nowadays? Not so much. We’ve got the usual suspects like beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, AKG, Ultrasone, and Grado, all selling at least one model with a four figure price tag. Beyond that we’ve got relatively new companies like Audeze, HiFiMAN, ENIGMAcoustics, and Mr Speakers, each with at least one model in that same range. And let’s not forget brands like JPS Labs and McIntosh — traditionally players in some other realm of HiFi — launching expensive headphones as well. And don’t get me started on how many killer flagship IEMs and custom IEMs are available these days. Plus, who could forget the electrostatic goodness of Stax, with several excellent high-end “earspeakers” to choose from.

In short, it’s never been easier to spend loads of cash on a (hopefully) not-good-but-great headphone. 

Any discussion of high-end headphones would be incomplete without the inclusion of HiFiMAN. Once primarily known for their expensive (for its time) HM-801 portable audio player, I’d say people mainly think of HiFiMAN as a headphone company these days (although they certainly still do make amps and portable players). HiFiMAN, along with chief competitor Audeze, was instrumental in bringing about the modern planar magnetic headphone renaissance. Prior to 2009, headphone design was a two horse race between the electrostatic technology used by Stax, and the dynamic driver method used by everyone else. Nowadays, roughly half of the top models at any given time seem to use planar magnetic drivers. And, being less of a mature technology (at least as it pertains to headphones), planar magnetic technology seems to have more room to grow. Designers are still learning what works and what doesn’t, refining their process and materials resulting in mo’ betta headphones every few years. Sennheiser makes some great stuff as well, but hasn’t been able to top their HD800 in the past 6 years, leading some to speculate that Senn may be close to the limit for dynamic transducer technology [Editor’s Note: the new Orpheus complicates this a bit]. I’m not sure I agree but I certainly do see planar models as evolving much more rapidly, regardless of the reasoning behind it.  

HiFiMAN’s first planar model, the HE-5, was unveiled at RMAF back in 2009. Audeze also showed a prototype LCD-2 at that same show. My recollection is that HiFiMAN was quicker to market with actual units available for purchase. They may have paid the price for that, with issues stemming from the wood used in the cups causing some major havoc on the reliability front, so perhaps a delay for more thorough QA would have been worthwhile. In any case, the direct evolution of the design brought us to the HE-5LE, followed by the former-flagship HE-6. We also got other, non-flagship models along the way, such as the excellent HE-500 and HE-560. Overall, I’d say HiFiMAN has done a great job in expanding the idea to include multiple high quality headphones at a variety of prices.

The new top model and subject of this review is the HE-1000. It’s a significant headphone in a number of ways, not least of which is the $2,999 price tag. That’s Stax range, particularly with the favorable Dollar-to-Yen ratio currently in play. It’s also speaker territory … the whole reason some folks get into headphones in the first place is to buy high quality sound without burning through little Johnny’s college fund. Headphones, and their corresponding amplification, have always cost significantly less than speakers and speaker amps. When top headphones sold for $500 or so, this approach made perfect sense — how many truly enjoyable speakers are there on the market for around $500? [Editor’s Note: this does seem to be in something of a shift, with solutions coming from both ends of the high-end market — a development we celebrate.] Even with a really small room or a near-field setup (i.e., computer desk), $500 doesn’t go all that far. And with a larger room? Even less so. But at $3k we’re talking seriously worthwhile speaker options from Dynaudio, Harbeth, Sonus Faber, PSB, Focal, MartinLogan, KEF, Spendor, Bryston, Green Mountain Audio, Salk Sound, Magnepan, and any number of other brands.

In short, there’s no lack of choice in this price range, so HiFiMAN has to justify the price far more this time around than they did with their earlier models. Can they pull it off? We’ll see.

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Introducing ….

The HE-1000 is, as I mentioned, a planar magnetic design. You might say “Duh, it’s a HiFiMAN” but keep in mind they DO have a few models with dynamic drivers. The HE-1000 borrows the headband system from the HE-560 but upgrades the leather quality and adds holes for ventilation. It’s a very nice setup which I find exceedingly comfy. Aside from that it looks like most everything else is new — the cups, for example, aren’t circular, which is a first for the brand. While large, I find them incredibly versatile — they fit my huge head like a glove, and my wife’s small head reasonably well too, though the look does seem more appropriate for my extra-large cranium. She never found the older models to fit particularly well, so this is a good sign. The weight is reduced too — especially interesting, considering what appears to be an overall increase in size. At 480 grams, it’s less than HE-6 (502g) and Audeze LCD-3 (548g), and significantly less than the LCD-XC (650g). As I write those numbers, it seems like an insignificant difference, but “in real life”, the HE-1000 feels subjectively lighter than the figures suggest. This is a very comfortable headphone, and a huge step in the right direction for planar magnetic designs — not traditionally known for their comfort. 

HiFiMAN-2405The cabling system has also been redone. Gone are the somewhat frustrating twisty connections used by prior HiFiMAN headphones. Instead we get a simple 1/8″ mono jack that plugs/unplugs into each cup without any further hassle. Time will tell if this system proves reliable but I’ve given mine quite a workout with no ill-effects thus far.

Speaking of cables – HiFiMAN throws in 3 different options to cover most any type of use. One has a standard 1/4″ jack, while another has 4-pin XLR for balanced operation. These are both thick, long cables which remind me very much of what we get on the very nice Fostex TH900. The third cable is smaller and terminates in a 1/8″ jack for use with portable amps and other compact devices. HiFiMAN could have just used the balanced cable and added adapters for other terminations, as they did with HE-6. But for this price separate cables feel more appropriate. I haven’t bothered to look just yet but I’m certain the market will be ripe for cable upgrades from a variety of brands.

If you follow the headphone scene you’ve probably encountered the marketing video where Dr. Fang Bien, chief HiFi Man himself, drops a “nanometer diaphragm” from a height of about 6 feet. No? Missed it? Well, click the link above. You’ll see — the thing practically floats through the air, showing how thin and lightweight it really is. In this context “diaphragm” is analogous to the “cone” in a speaker driver. If you care at all about speakers, you’ve seen all the wacky materials for drivers over the years — paper cones are classic but various polypropylene compounds are quite popular, as are more exotic materials ranging from aluminum to kevlar and, for tweeters, diamond or beryllium. If the marketing firms are to be believed, each brand seemingly has their own proprietary solution offering perfect rigidity, excellent damping, etc.

Of course we know some drivers inherently perform better than others which plays a huge part in the overall sound of a speaker, right up there with the crossover design and cabinet quality. Yet, I’m not so sure we can really separate those aspects and determine how much each one contributes. Nor, for that matter, can we really be sure the speaker is best served by that particular choice — all we get is the end result, take it or leave it. That’s why it always kills me when people confidently drop gems like “Silk dome tweeters always sound smoother but less detailed than metal-based drivers.” Really? Always? Because I can think of a dozen examples which support that theory but just as many counterexamples showing it to be false. 

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Headphone makers have a similar situation where everyone is searching for an ideal material. Dynamic diaphragms are made from all sorts of materials. Mylar is common, but you can find titanium (Ultrasone), wood (JVC), and even “biocellulose” (mainly Sony but also Denon/Fostex and some others). All of these companies claim some kind of superior reasoning why their choice in diaphragm material is best. In the real world, I don’t see or hear any real correlation between these things. Some headphones sound excellent, some terrible, and some in between … and it’s hard to figure exactly which part of the design is responsible. I don’t think we can point to the diaphragm material as anything other than one single data point among many, though I am glad to see advancements being made across the board. 

Where am I going with this? Well, planar magnetic headphones work differently than dynamic drivers. HiFiMAN claims their ultra-thin diaphragm has the advantage of lower mass, thus giving a faster, more linear response, with lower distortion. This technology is made possible thanks to HiFiMAN founder Dr. Fang Bien. His doctorate from CUNY is in chemistry, with a specific focus on nano-technology, which perhaps has allowed him to create the thinnest diaphragm the headphone market has ever seen. It’s measured on the nano-scale, where others are on the micron-scale: one micron being equal to a thousand nanometers. I recall Stax used to boast about the thinness of their diaphragms back in the day. They got down into the one micron range. Their latest models do not follow this line of marketing, so perhaps Stax determined that diaphragm thickness was not always indicative of performance. Audeze doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but I did find this page showing their diaphragms are 2 microns thick. So HiFiMAN’s diaphragm is significantly thinner than anything else on the market which again is just one factor among many for potentially killer sound. I’m sure it’s important, but at the same time I’d hate for “diaphragm thickness” to become the latest fad in the ongoing spec-war … you know what I’m talking about — how DACs have “femto-second” clocks or ever-higher upsampling rates, and how IEMs use a gazillion drivers, and if you deviate from that by going in a different direction, your design is DOA.

Not sure about you, but I prefer to judge on a variety of factors, chief of which is actually listening to the stuff. 

A new reference?

So, we’ve established the HE-1000 brings a fresh design and new technology to the table. It ships in an extravagant package with a fancy wood/metal box, plenty of cables, and very nice hybrid pleather/velour pads. Build quality, unlike what we saw with initial show demo units, is very high — at least on my unit, which is all I have to go by. I really don’t think there’s anything else HiFiMAN could have done in terms of making it a more luxurious experience, other than aggressive QA to ensure each unit is equally perfect — a process with which HiFiMAN has struggled in the past (and, to be fair, so has Audeze). But, at the end of the day, and assuming we get a quality example free from any issues, we’re mainly interested in sonic performance. Does the HE-1000 live up to its hype and large price tag?

HiFiMAN--4

In a word: Yes! I’m blown away by the sound these things make. As an early adopter in the planar scene I’ve owned just about every other model HiFiMAN has made, as well as all the Audeze models minus the elusive LCD-1, which was never really more than an engineering prototype. I’ve got lots of experience with the MrSpeakers products and the Oppo line as well. I’ve even lived with the ridiculous Abyss for a month which, while not something I would actually purchase for myself, was actually really awesome in some ways. All this to say I’ve heard quite a few planar magnetic headphones … and the HE-1000 is undoubtedly the best I’ve experienced to date

The overall sound is what I’d call “balanced”. Yeah, I know it’s something of a cop-out to say things like “neutral” or “balanced”, since everyone seems to have their own thoughts on just what those words mean. In my case, it translates to a sound which isn’t as lean or tipped up as a stock Sennheiser HD800, nor dark and smooth, like the old Audeze house sound. It’s somewhere in the middle, with no major emphasis in any particular area — yet handling every aspect like an absolute professional. Treble extension? Yep, HE-1000 does that exceedingly well, and this may be one of my favorite aspects about the sound. It’s not as relentlessly “in your face” as an HD800, but when you really listen for small details and air in the recording, it’s there in spades. Bass impact? Again, not an emphasis as it seems to be in the Fostex TH900, but when you play something with deep bass impact — say a Felix Hell organ recording, or the Paul Oakenfold version of Africa Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”, from the Swordfish soundtrack (dreadful movie, great album), you get a substantial, almost subterranean rumble that very few headphones can match — provided your amplifier is up to the task. 

I could keep going like this. Soundstage? Open and believable, among the very best out there. Midrange? Full, engaging; lifelike. Vocals in particular sound truly convincing, on a level I’ve rarely heard from any headphone past or present. What about coherency? Speed? Dynamics? Yep, all the boxes are checked. I could continue picking musical examples until I’m blue in the face, pointing out how impressed I am by the HE-1000’s fluid presentation, its convincing sense of heft, and on and on. But that’s not really what I want to do here. I’m sure other sites have those types of reviews up anyway, or will in the coming few months. Instead I’d like to call upon my experience with other headphones in order to point out what the HE-1000 does better, or similarly, or where exactly the differences can be found — and which one might be a better fit for you. I’m hopeful this approach will prove to be more useful than the usual “see what a wordsmith I am” type of write-up.

Comparisons

First off is the venerable Sennheiser HD800. Now, the HD800 is often regarded as the king of detail, and rightly so in my book. It’s hard to argue with what HD800 can do when tasked with playing material from Reference Recordings, Blue Coast, Mapleshade, or Groove Note. Problem is, the vast majority of our music libraries is made of far lesser quality recordings. Feed the HD800 with more pedestrian fare and it often comes across as sharp, lean, and just hard to listen to for extended periods of time. The HE-1000 is substantially more forgiving with lesser material. I can play Jimmy Eat World, Soundgarden, or Mogwai — not the worst material in the world, but certainly not ear candy, and HE-1000 remains very presentable. I can play old Django Reihardt albums which, while musically very worthwhile, really show their age. I can groove to the Isley Brothers or Cheryl Lynn or the Ohio Players, and enjoy what these recordings have to offer (big dynamics and convincing transient snap) without agonizing over their downsides (overly sharp upper midrange, lack of microdetail, nebulous soundstage), as I do when using the HD800. Switch to reference-quality material and the HD800 comes into its element, though I feel like the HE-1000 also scales up rather well. It’s weird how it can be more forgiving but also highly transparent … those things don’t usually go together but in this case they do. HE-1000 has more authority, with significantly more convincing tonal density. It also does imaging and soundstage in a different way. HD800 is massive, among the most “out of head” sounds one can achieve with headphones. HE-1000 is perhaps slightly smaller in terms of soundstage depth and width, but somehow just as convincing due to its organic presentation. I might not get quite the same sense of exact player location on the stage, but the overall effect is certainly that of a real band being “there”, occupying that space. It’s hard to explain so just know that the HE-1000 has by far the best soundstage I’ve heard from a planar magnetic headphone, surpassing even the HE-6 which was impressive in its own way. 

HiFiMAN--7

In short, the HE-1000 is “close enough” to the HD800 in the positive areas that matter to me, while also being “different” or “better” in ways that I appreciate. HD800 is still a bit more comfy, likely due to the low weight achieved by using a plastic frame. And it’s obviously cheaper by a good margin, which is something to consider.

Despite the price difference, I strongly caution against buying an HD800 just for the cost savings alone: those savings can often erode when it comes time to assemble a proper system capable of extracting the full potential of this fickle headphone. An amp which powers them well is relatively easy to find, but one that does an exceptional job is another matter entirely. It can be tough finding just the right balance of warmth and smoothness without going too far, and many combinations fall short of world-class. In contrast, the HE-1000 is quite a bit more forgiving. It likes high-current, so a powerful amp is beneficial — but that doesn’t necessarily imply a really expensive amp. I love it with a pair of NuForce HA-200 amps in monoblock mode ($700). The Lake People G109S makes an excellent match at $615. Tube amps can be very good too, assuming they are on the more powerful side. I use the Icon Audio HP8 ($999) and the result is just lovely. I was also very impressed by the HE-1000 being driven off a quality DAC with integrated headphone out. The Anedio D2, NuPrime DAC10H, and Chord’s diminutive Hugo, all make convincing cases for a simplified setup. And while I no longer have them here with me, I’m confident similar results would be had with the Auralic Gemini or B.M.C. PureDAC. In short — with careful, but not overly critical gear selection, it’s not hard to achieve very high quality results with the HE-1000, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune either. 

HiFiMAN--8

Next comes the beyerdynamic T1 — a headphone I’ve repeatedly grappled with over the years. I love some of the things it does, but it’s certainly not perfect. In contrast, I’d say the HE-1000 actually does what the T1 wants to do, but doesn’t quite pull off. It’s balanced, neutral, even-handed, but not boring in the least. It hits harder down low. It has more air up top, and is quite a bit more resolving without any of the glare T1 can exhibit. As good as the T1 can sometimes be — especially the latest iteration — the HE-1000 is just in a higher class altogether. I know lots of folks who ditched their HD800 for a T1, in search of a more organic and musical experience. Most of them ended up going back to HD800 or sidestepping elsewhere as the T1 ultimately did not satisfy. I can’t help but think the HE-1000 is exactly what they were looking for.

The logical competition for HiFiMAN is Audeze — the two have been duking it out ever since 2009 when both firms first appeared on the scene. I think the history is interesting, and it tells a consistent story: HiFiMAN drops the HE-5 for $599. It sounds great in most areas but can be waaaaay too bright up top. Audeze soon counters with the original LCD-2. It costs more ($999), and the sound is also great but very much on the dark side … almost murky compared to the latest revision. HiFiMAN’s next true flagship is the HE-6 at $1299. It’s a big step up from the HE-5. It’s certainly more well-rounded but can still sound harsh, especially when not driven from a very powerful amp. Audeze fires back with the LCD-3 ($1,999) which is their most balanced sounding headphone yet, though still on the warm/rich side compared to HD800 or T1 or HE-6. And now, finally, how here we are, in what I’d call the third generation of top models from both firms. HiFiMAN launches their HE-1000 at $2,999, and Audeze characteristically responds with their new LCD-4. At $3,999 the LCD-4 is significantly more expensive, and we’ll see what happens in terms of sound signature. I predict a generally neutral tone, having much in common with its HiFiMAN counterpart — as both brands continue moving from colored towards neutrality, they will likely meet in the middle to some extent. 

HiFiMAN--5

I can’t help but notice a large backlash on the forums, based around the feeling that Audeze has gone too far with the pricing of LCD-4. Yes, some people wanted to see HE-1000 come in at $2,000 or $2,500, so I’ve seen some grumbling there as well. But it’s nothing compared to the complaints I’ve seen regarding the $4k LCD-4. Part of this may be related to the design itself. While everything on the HE-1000 is either completely new or else borrowed/improved from the (still very recent) HE-560, the LCD-4 is largely similar to its half-priced-predecessor. It’s got a tweaked headband and various little touches but for the most part it looks like not much has changed. I’m going to refrain from any real judgement until I actually get my hands on an LCD-4, but I do think that price hurdle will be very tough to overcome.

What I can do is offer my insight into how HE-1000 stacks up against Audeze’s LCD-3. I’ve got the latest revision with the Fazor technology and higher impedance than the original. One thing I love about this version — it sounds excellent with powerful amps like my Violectric V281 and my Auralic Taurus mkII, but is also quite presentable even from a portable player such as those from Astell&Kern or other brands. The HE-1000 doesn’t sound terrible from these devices, but neither does it come anywhere close to its full potential. So, that’s something to consider. With each headphone driven to its fullest though, I find the HE-1000 more enjoyable, and not by a small margin. This is surprising as I really do like the LCD-3 quite a bit. HE-1000 seems very obviously more transparent — it’s quite striking to hear the difference in back-to-back comparisons. It sounds more open, spacious, and just “real” compared to the Audeze, which seems to impart a bit of euphonic haze over everything it plays. Despite being more well extended than any of its predecessors, the LCD-3 still maintains some semblance of the warm/smooth Audeze house sound. Which is great fun to hear at times but not always what I’m after. The HE-1000 doesn’t seem to lack any musicality, yet I find it more convincing and accurate overall. Factor in comfort and apparent build quality, which both swing in favor of HiFiMAN … and it’s obvious which model I recommend. 

HiFiMAN--6

On the topic of pricing — the JPS Labs Abyss probably takes the cake in that department. At over $5k, these planar magnetic beasts are out of reach for most enthusiasts. When I recently tried a pair, I was shocked to find them somewhat comfortable. Not my favorite, mind you, but certainly far better than their appearance suggests. My large head probably helps in that department, but I found I could wear them for an hour or two without trouble — not something I can claim with every headphone. And the sound? Again, surprising. Still not worth the price in my humble opinion, but nonetheless enjoyable for their uniquely visceral presentation. If one was accustomed to large speaker rigs with multiple large/well-integrated subwoofers, Abyss (reviewed here) is probably the closest approximation in headphone form. 

The HE-1000 can’t match that same impact, but still does low-end thump extremely well. After a few minutes to acclimate myself, I didn’t really miss the Abyss at all. The HiFiMAN cans have such a well-rounded presentation that the Abyss almost seems a little unbalanced in comparison. Tons of fun, given the right mood and the right music, but ultimately not anything that personally would want to live with for the long haul (YMMV), even leaving price and aesthetic appeal out of the equation completely. 

HiFiMAN--9

The HE-1000 is so impressive that it seems to invite comparisons to Stax gear — which is obviously a compliment, as most other headphones just don’t stack up very well. See what I did there? No? Anyway, I’ve been using a custom-built KGSShv electrostatic amp as a reference for a while now, driving a “hand-picked” SR-007mkII which I chose after auditioning half a dozen of that same model. This “earspeaker” (don’t let Stax hear you call it a ‘headphone’) used to sell for $2,650 but has recently dropped to $2,350 to adjust for the strong Dollar to Yen ratio. Still, it’s a close enough competitor to the HE-1000. Stax also sells a higher model, the SR-009, for $4,450, but I don’t like it as much. It’s brilliant in its way, yet I find it a little too bright — much like HD800, it has the technical aspects down, but just isn’t all that enjoyable for day-to-day use. I find the SR-007mkII, especially my particular model, to be more universally agreeable, even if I do lose a bit of resolution in the exchange. I’ve also modified this pair as recommended here, which I consider non-negotiable in terms of bringing an 007 up to world-class levels. 

Obviously, I can’t use my beast of an electrostatic amp to drive the HE-1000, so a truly direct comparison is simply not possible. But using the Violectric V281 in balanced mode, the HE-1000 is the first planar magnetic headphone to give my Stax rig a serious challenge. In terms of detail extraction, the planars may actually dig deeper than the stats, which is saying a lot. It’s a very close race though, and I’ve gone back and forth several times as to which one I think is the most incisive. Let me point out that my particular pair of 007’s are not as warm and dark as the other examples I’ve heard. There’s clearly some unit-to-unit variability, not to mention revisions (secret or otherwise) by Stax over the years. In any case, this set of mine has excellent extension paired with a rich, full-bodied sound, and seems almost closer to what we’d call a planar magnetic presentation than the typical electrostatic signature. And I’d say the HE-1000 sounds almost like an electrostatic design in some ways, so the two are closer than I would have ever guessed prior to hearing them back to back. 

But, if I’m honest as I sit here picking apart each aspect of their performance, the HE-1000 seems to have a slight edge in quite a few areas. It actually seems more insightful when it comes to microdetail. It images more accurately. And it has a more convincing, organic midrange feel to it, like I’m right there in the room with the performers. The Stax rig is no slouch at all — it still holds up better with really complex musical passages, where the HE-1000 can show some confusion at high volume levels. But overall, the 007 does seem to fall behind when I look closely at almost any single aspect. Interestingly, as I switch out of analytical mode and just listen for the musical experience as a whole, my preference tends to swing back towards the Stax setup. Not by a huge margin, but time after time I keep going back to it for its warm, inviting tone and more relaxed presentation. I don’t mean relaxed as in “muddy, dark treble” — again, my particular SR-007mkII doesn’t have that characteristic. It just has a less “immediate” sound to it, perhaps more focus on decay than attack, making it a more suitable partner for the long haul. I certainly don’t intend to imply that the HE-1000 is fatiguing in the least … compared to the HD800 or HE-6 or T1, the HE-1000 is the more relaxed and inviting headphone. So it’s hard to explain, and perhaps my preference for the Stax rig is simply a mental reaction to the time and money I spent putting it together. Maybe when you commission a custom-built amp, wait months for completion, then try out 6 different examples of a headphone prior to choosing the perfect one, then modding it to further perfection… maybe you have no chance of being objective about its inferiority to a more easily obtained setup. Or maybe it’s simply a matter of familiarity, and I’ll eventually become accustomed enough to the HiFiMAN that I won’t miss my Stax gear at all.

Whatever the case, I’m hanging on to both systems for now, as they just walk all over everything else in my collection. 

Conclusion

So, is that it then? The HE-1000 is the best headphone available? If it “beats” my carefully assembled electrostatic rig, it must be the top dog … right?

It’s not really all that simple. Yes, the HE-1000 is blindingly impressive in a number of ways. I hope I’ve made that abundantly clear in my comparisons above. Yet I think a quick discussion is in order prior to giving my final recommendation. $3,000, while a relatively small sum in the grand scheme of HiFi madness, is still a crazy price for a pair of headphones. I worry that it sets a precedent and will cause others to jump on the bandwagon simply because “that’s how much the best headphones cost now”. I don’t even really like the idea of headphone selling for over $1,000 unless they really do something special to justify it. Many of them don’t. So if companies want to start charging even more for mediocre headphones, well, I’m not gonna be happy about that. They’ll need to step things up in order to justify anything like a $3K price.  

Having established that, if you do find yourself in the market for this particular headphone, it’s worth asking: have you considered speakers? Some excellent options exist for $3,000 or so. A lot of people get into headphones because they can’t afford a really nice pair of speakers, and that’s just no longer true when we reach prices like this. Seriously, even if you consider yourself exclusively a headphone nut, you might examine your motives on that, because speakers can be very rewarding. [Editor’s Note: ahem.] That said, there are some downsides to be aware of. If you’ve got a large room, that $3k budget suddenly doesn’t look so hot for true full range sound. If you’ve got poor room acoustics and no ability to correct that situation with treatments, then speakers may not be right for you either. And, as is the case with me, if you’ve got kids and a spouse and don’t want to disturb them, then headphones may be the way to go after all. 

And, just between us, do you really need to spend $3k on a headphone? As great as the HE-1000 is, I wouldn’t call it twice as good as an HD800. I wouldn’t call it three times as good as an LCD-2 either. The higher end of the pricing scale is never the best in terms of value, so you really have to ask yourself if you wouldn’t be just as happy spending less on a slightly inferior (but still excellent) headphone. I’d even go so far as to recommend hunting down a second-hand example of the recently discontinued HiFiMAN HE-500 — one of my all time favorites — which can likely be had for a comparative pittance these days. And don’t forget the Sennheiser HD650, ever the crowdpleaser, which is on sale for under $400 brand new. No, none of these are as good as the HE-1000, yet all have the potential to satisfy for a lot less cash. Seriously, give it some thought.

Still with me? Good. I promise, I’m NOT trying to talk anyone out of buying this headphone. Without a doubt, the HiFiMAN HE-1000 is the most impressive headphone I’ve ever heard, and is fully capable of justifying the price for those in search of ultimate performance. If nothing but the best will do, this is it; no corners cut, no excuses made, just superlative sound in a comfortable, well designed package.

If such a thing as a $3,000 headphone must exist, I’m glad it sounds this great. 

About the author

photo (5)John Grandberg has a decent speaker-based system but spends most of his time with tiny speakers strapped to his head, or sometimes even inserted into is ears. Gross. John tries his best to eschew purple prose but occasionally has trouble avoiding sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Shockingly, he doesn’t “do” vinyl, being utterly content with his ever-growing collection of music stored in lossless digital form. He is terrible at photography and apologizes in advance for the shoddy pictures he might force upon his hapless readers. Consider yourself warned.

He can be also found contributing to InnerFidelity.com where he covers “personal audio”, which includes headphones and amplification, desktop speakers, portable players, etc.

Financial Interests: Writing for Inner Fidelity and Part-Time Audiophile represent his intersection with audio’s high-end.

9 Comments on Review: HiFiMAN HE1000 flagship headphones

  1. Michael Schulz // November 9, 2015 at 7:10 PM //

    Best review of the HE1000 I’ve read yet. I’ve heard all the headphones mentioned and I agree with the author on all his opinions..

  2. Holy Mackerel. A trilogy for a review. Nice work.

  3. Joe Skubinski // November 8, 2015 at 1:31 AM //

    A gimmick is something that tricks you into thinking it’s real– Within such a definition falls every method of musical reproduction, and human understanding of the sense of hearing.

    What does a drum really sound like? Does even the drummer really know? What does he listen to while he’s playing, compared to an individual wearing a pair of headphones, or listening to loudspeakers in a room? Are their opinions compatible? Comparable? Life experiences the same?

    What does bass really sound like? Or is bass just a gimmick designed to fool the senses?

    So many questions, so little time to answer them. Oh, the existential reality of it all…

    • John Grandberg // November 8, 2015 at 6:54 PM //

      Hi Joe, all good points. As a recovering percussionist I can say with confidence that drummers hear things differently – different from one another for sure, not to mention different from a listener using headphones. How then can anyone hope to make gear which will satisfy everyone? Simple answer, it’s not possible.

      I have to reiterate how surprised I was to hear the Abyss and actually enjoy it… it was rather poorly received over at HeadFi (where I spend a lot of time) mainly due to price and appearance. And I agree both of those aspects are tough to swallow. BUT the sound is, as I said earlier in this review, pretty amazing in its own way. The original Audeze LCD-2 was pretty rough, as was HiFiMAN’s HE-5. Both led to greater things. I have hopes JPS Labs will make similar progress with future endeavors.

      • Joe Skubinski // November 10, 2015 at 12:32 AM //

        Let’s talk about progress…

        A square shaped headband? Check. Metallic grille style back side… Check. Diaphragm material thin and of an unique material, check. Maybe we had some influence on design? Check. Apparently something worth copying, and worth noting in a review, rather than being unfairly placed within the context of a gimmick..

        Or, maybe I’m subjectively compromised?

    • Michael Schulz // November 9, 2015 at 3:56 PM //

      A gimmick is actually $16k speaker cables and rebranded $400 power cables. A headphone $5k by same company I already binned in gimmick territory just on that basis alone. Actually, I have heard the Abyss & HE1000 and the HE1000 takes it easily in comfort in sound IMO.

      • Joe Skubinski // November 9, 2015 at 11:32 PM //

        Actually Michael Schulz we do not have $16K speaker cables unless you have a rare system in need of abnormally long, custom, hand-made speaker cables larger that the largest garden hose you ever owned. You’re taking our pricing out to an extreme to suit your personal attacks, and intentions.

        And who do you think designed those $400 power cables, a product ultimately made possible by the many many vendors we work with to produce cables, connectors, conductors, dielectrics, shielding, passive components, PC boards, diaphragm materials, adhesives, platings, solders, packaging, tooling, machines, etc., etc., etc? We’ve been designing and building what many consider the finest audio products for 25 years man, that’s a long time running for what you consider a gimmick, don’t you think?

        Then again, you already knew this. Give it a break man, 2015 is coming to an end, time to move on…

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