HiFiMAN HE-350 Headphone Review by mark2410
Thanks to Massdrop for the loaner.
TLDR? Try herehttp://www.head-fi.org/t/816751/hifiman-he-350-headphone-review-by-mark2410#post_12778810
First Impressions: Sooooo this is a sort of first for Massdrop as I understand it. You see this, it is a Massdrop exclusive, they made it in collaboration with HiFiMAN. As to what level that was collaborative and more an asking HiFiMAN if they could make something with xzy attributes and whatever. I have zero idea. Anyway, the point of Massdrop it to get stuff that bit cheaper than you can usually get it for. HiFiMAN is well known in the headphone / earphone world for making stuff that is amazeballs but for cheaper than anyone else can manage. They aim their stuff at audiophiles and each and every head / earphone of theirs I’ve heard has been simply amazing. Yeah even the uber weird RE-252 was, well I never really think I found the words to quite grasp what it was. Then there was the RE-0 that on launch was a bit of a wow thing but it one day got a price cut to just US$100 and at that price, there was no question it was, by far, the best audio quality US$100 could get you. The HE-350, it also comes in at that magical, psychological US$100 price tag. Today that’s £76 (stupid crappy exchange rate.) Still, there is a lot of expectation that this will be something special.
When mine came, it came in an absolutely massive cardboard box, that weighed almost nothing. And on opening I found just the headphones. No fancy box, hell no box at all. I wonder if that’s because it’s a review unit or if it’s a razor thin margins cost saving? At least that means “reviewers” can’t video their opening a box and calling a YouTube review.
So rather excitedly on they went and I am not sure what I make of it. Hmm, lordy it’s a got a brightness to it hasn’t it. Oh wow these maybe need to get a warm source going, god maybe bass boost too. I can’t help but think Ety’s, then I remember that the venerable RE-0 was essentially a dynamic ER4. Have they gone for the exact same sound signature? While it’s maybe technically perfect it wasn’t always what one might call a crowd pleaser. Indeed I recall when the RE-0 went to US$100 and Head-Fi went ape poop over it. So many, many noobs bought one and then immediately protested that they had no bass whatsoever. That was years back and on an enthusiast website, before the days of Beats, that headphones are cool now trend where normals have been taught that stupendous amounts of bass equals better. These are the antithesis of that. At least I think they are, I mean there are clearly Ety esq bass light but that treble, hmm. This may take much playing about with things.
Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear. Plus a variety of things and in various combinations.
Lows: They are beautifully sculpted, they really are, without question, beautifully sculpted. Their quality is not just exemplary, it is the standard by which all headphones at this price should be measured. However no one’s going to do that. Why you might wonder, well this is an audiophiles dream bass, it’s just so astoundingly good. People may quibble about it may not be just quite as fast as they want or maybe a punchy, or as deep, or whatever attribute they particularly prize. However these are as close to perfect as anything near this price is possibly ever going to get. I’m quite confident in saying that too. You see I doubt these are going to be replicated anytime soon. Why? Quantity.
The quantity of the bass is an issue, it’s not it’s so tiny per say because it is very Ety like perfectly balanced but…..human perceptions essentially need a bump because you aren’t feeling it, literally. If all you listen to is symphonic / acoustic / classical where not an electronically generated note can be found then, wow, they are stunning. Throw in every gushing phrase you can think of, it is wonderful…… but……. please sir, can I have some more? The bass for its quite incredible talent is just so controlled, so perfect, it is hopelessly left behind. It just will not rise up and thunder the way modern music generally wants and expects. It’s so polite it’s like the perfect gentleman holding the door open, in London as half of London pours through, doesn’t take the door, doesn’t say thank you, doesn’t even look up to acknowledge him.
Now if you are sticking to classical masterpieces, beautifully recorded, sans loudness wars, these can me be absolutely magnificent, seriously a wonder for their price tag. However I can’t help but feeling they a little bit of a one trick pony.
Mids: They are, for this price, breath-taking. They are as pure a mountain stream, Julie Andrews twirling in the background with Barbara asking where the clowns are and Jacqueline playing a little Elgar something in E minor. So, yeah they are great, glorious etc etc inserts lots of purple prose. I do not believe anyone who ever hears these will not be deeply and profoundly impressed with them for their price. They are really, really good, you can dress it up in more fancy terminology but they are really, really good.
What is not so good is with their super neutral like balance there is a proclivity to the upper mid ranges and into the treble ranges. Now focusing on the mid aspect of that these can be, erm, shall we say temperamental. Like all the greatest diva’s, with great talent comes great, errr, temperamentalness. Never would they burst into full on sibilance, but, good lord they could put a lot of energy into the cutting inflection of and S or a T. Like a lightning fast swipe form the most exquisite of Samurai swords wielded by a master. The cut so fast, so viciously sharp it has been and gone before you have barely registered anything. What remains is the damage which in this case was to my ears. A vast array of music, from a wide range of sources would slash at my ears. Even things that you wouldn’t think of, even from the warmed E7/E9. Actually it was worse out of the E7/E9 than from the more neutral Solo Ultra which I did not at all expect. Other sources were equally unpredictable as to the effect and a very general rule for me, the cheaper it was the more cutting a combo it could be.
If all you listen to is the softest of Jazz, fabulously well recorded, classical equally well recorded, the most mellow pop music all from before the loudness wars. Then maybe you’ll have no issues. For me I found a lots of things I was track skipping the instant it started because I couldn’t face my ears finding out how cutting it might be.
Higs: For the price tag, off the charts great. So long as you throw power at them and aren’t allergic to their quantity. And you’re willing to play with parings, add some impedance. Or of course you could skip all that and just be old with diminished upper end hearing. The quality is stupid good, I cannot fault it but the quantity when it just hits that stabby stabby note….stabby stabby. They feel like they are tuned as if they were the HE-1000 and one of the very best headphones on the planet. The 350 is doing its absolute damnedest to match it and it just can’t. Don’t get me wrong, for the price of 1 HE-1000 you could buy 30 of these. It’s like the younger sibling trying to imitate the practised choreography on an older sibling. The will is there but it just can’t quite match it and as good a performance as it gives, standing side by side it falters.
Okay, back to those praise again shall we? You stick to acoustic, really well recorded stuff made for crazy audiophiles that turn up their nose at Red Book and want, at least 192K 24bit. That sort of stuff, which has been perfectly recorded and then masterfully mastered. You stick to that and these shine, oh my good god they can shine. Shine a light on so much detail for the price, though it might shine a little too much on the hiss if the recording contains it.
Soundstage: Super-duper grand. They are so open they are basically speakers kinda near the sides of your face. Super open cans such as these, unsurprisingly also sound very open and spacious. Instrument placement is alright, as is instrument separation, both quite good but nothing particularly special.
Fit: On head they went and it was done.
Comfort: Hmm, maybe I have sticky out ears? These while the pods are big and full surrounded my ear, they were not quit deep enough. Thus my ears where pressing ever so slightly onto the central space, pad thingy bit. They’ve bene on my ears for three hours now and it is beginning to bother me. So not killer but you know, if I were to use these all day every day I’d need deeper pads. Which you can get btw, it seems the Brainwavz “Angled” ones fit and work great. However I note that they cost between US$27 and US$45 for the sheepskin leather ones. That’s 27 to 45% of the HE-350’s price right there.
Cable: It really very nice. It’s nice and easily user replaceable, it attaches at both sides (which I very much prefer.) and it is of course user replaceable. It’s nicely flexible and it feels very sturdy. You really would never guess that this comes off a headphone as cheap as it is.
Isolation: Lol, yeah there is none. Use these near co-workers or in a library at the very sizable risk you will be getting a beating from every one near you.
Build Quality: Wow, while in the past, HiFiMAN haven’t really always been noted for having the world best build quality. No one really minds because they sound so good for the price but here, aside from the head strap resty bit that touches your head, I can’t see anywhere they have scrimped. Maybe that metal of the headband isn’t super fancy but seriously, these are really good. They are very light, which to some means “feels plasticky” well duh, of course they are plastic, what isn’t? However to the touch and the eye, I really cannot find much to pick fault with. For the money, they are fab.
Aesthetics: Hmm, they are headphone nerd cool looking. Not sure they would appeal to a Beats crowd but then they are so open you can’t use them in public and not to mention their lack of “thumping bass.” I like the look of them, they look serious and grown up. Like “My First” audiophiles headphone.
Amped/Unamped: Oh, yeah so you may or may not want to amp these. With the right amp and with the right every bit of the chain you can get some stonking audio out of them. Soooo I’m going to say tentatively that you will want to amp them. If not at first but eventually. Plus the sound signature of them means if you buy these your next purchase audio wise was probably going to be an amp anyway. However they are very sensitive. You can without trouble plug them into your crappy sounding phone and they will play happily. Not to their best but they will be able to go deafening loud out of anything. They will also be pretty stellar out of your crappy phone too. So you don’t “need” to amp them but in the same way some products I’d expect never to meet an amp in their lives, this is something I’d expect every pair sold will be paired to a separate amp at some point or another.
As to which amp, well that is a more complicated question. My long standing, and well liked E7/E9 combo, it’s a hearty little set up, good power and a nicely smooth flavour. Did these love it then, you would think yes but they didn’t. They actually pair rather better with the Solo Ultra being fed by the Oppo something. The thing is, the power supply I have for it cost more than the 350, erm I can’t recall the exact amount but I have £170 in my head for some reason. Whatever it was, it’s really silly to think that a US$100 headphone is going to meet such an amp. The only thing I’d really note is that I liked them more with additional impedance as it took the edge off a bit. That is the only consistency I noted. That said, if I was you I wouldn’t be looking to cold, hard or brittle amps.
Value: You mean you haven’t ordered a pair already? If you are reading this, it is probable that you have more than a passing interest in audio, headphones and most importantly audio quality. Like the RE-0 before them, everyone should hear a pair of these at some point in their lives and probably sooner rather than later.
Conclusion: These, wow, just wow, in so many ways, so many aspects, just wow. Do you think I’ll be using these once I’m done reviewing them? No. I know that these are paragons and that they are pretty much perfect but……….. I have little sensitive ears and good lord, the same reason I don’t, (and others) don’t only use the RE-0 or ER4. They may be technically, on paper just about perfect in their balance but for my ears it is too much treble. It’s that simple, that upper mid and into the treble range blade that it has is exhausting. What’s more, after a good A/B’ing session the 350 has a very more considerable upper end peak. I can only think these must be more like the ER4-B.
So we have a product that is on many fronts, quite incredible, for its price, wow, its crazy good, it really is. This is the sort of headphone that everyone on Head-Fi ought to own at one point or another. It isn’t however one that everyone will choose to keep. It’s got a balance that while incredible at perfect recordings at much of the music we actually listen to, they are, shall we say less suited. For classical, acoustic, Linn Records type stuff its awesome, it really is.
So would I / should you buy one. Would I, hmm probably, should you, yes. You may not end up loving it but Head-Fi peeps all need to hear one. It is that simple. The thing is, I suspect that the people who want this sort of balance and want to pair it with what it needs to be paired, its price tag is silly. I think that those who are after this sort of sound and ability are likely to be able and willing to throw down rather more money to do so. That could be its biggest problem. It’s acoustically aimed at a user base that is willing to pay more and thus the 350 may end up overlooked. That would be a shame however as it means people won’t discover just how good a job HiFiMAN have done with the 350. For despite it’s not being for all men nor for all music it is a wonder and deserves to be heard by every budding or potential audiophile out there.