I was fortunate enough to be picked for the review tour for HiFiMan’s latest planar magnetic headphone, the HE-400i, billed as an improvement over the outgoing HE-400 model, and slotting in at $500, $100 more than the HE-400.
The HE-400i arrived in sizeable, leather appointed box, much improved from the simple paper box the HE-400 was packaged in. Right off the bat, my expectations were raised in the best way possible and when I opened up that box, I was greeted with a much classier setup than that of the HE-400. I knew then I was in for an interesting headphone in the HE-400i.
Design and Build Quality
Honestly, my first reaction to the HE-400i when taking it out of the box was…“cheap”. I’ve realized since that it’s not anywhere near that clear cut. Compared to the beefier, heavier HE-400, the HE-400i is significantly lighter, featuring more plastic in its build and a bit less metal. Contrasting the HE-400, the 400i has plastic ear cups and yokes, compared to the resin cups and metal yokes on the HE-400.
The cups themselves feature a nice, chromatic deep purple finish that’s classier and more immediately distinctive than the HE-400’s dark blue finish, which was rather polarizing among HE-400 owners. Personally, I didn’t mind the blue color but I do feel the HE-400i benefits from the chrome purple finish.
The headband has been changed from a more rigid leather wrapped affair to a suspension headband system employed in headphones like AKG’s K7XX series.
But, if I had to pick one failing of the HE-400i’s design, it’s one that was carried over from the HE-400, the screw-on, mini-coax connectors that secure the cable to the headphones. I’m not one to switch my cables often and this isn’t a problem that rears its head particularly often for most people but attaching the cables can be a bit of a hassle, as the opening where the cables screw into the headphones is just too small for one’s fingers to get into comfortably to secure the cables tightly. If you’re a set-it-and-forget-it guy like I am, this’ll only be a problem once, but if you like switching out your cables for different situations (say, a longer cable for living room listening and a shorter one for bedside listening), the connectors are bound to be a nuisance.
But, in many respects, the design is still distinctly HiFiMan in that I wouldn’t mistake them for headphones made by any other company. Though the materials have gotten lighter and arguably cheaper feeling, the design itself is sound and as long as you take care of it, it should last.
Comfort and Isolation
Isolation? No. It’s an open headphone. About as much sound comes out as goes in through those open grilles.
Comfort is provided by way of HiFiMan’s new Focus Pads, a hybrid design of pleather and velour. I originally bought a set for my HE-400 before I received the HE-400i and loved them right from the start. The HE-400i with the Focus Pads and the new suspension headband, combined with the lighter weight is a very comfortable headphone that should last long listening sessions without much in the way of fatigue. I, for one, wasn’t a big detractor of the HE-400’s comfort, even in its stock form but for some, the HE-400’s heavy build made it uncomfortable for many people so I believe the HE-400i will be a huge step up for those people.
First, a note on amplification. The HE-400i is, unlike many planar headphones, surprisingly easy to drive from a number of portable sources. HiFiMan claims the HE-400i is efficient enough to be run straight from a portable device like an iPhone without needing an external amplifier and, while this is certainly true, the headphones do benefit quite a bit from adding a dedicated amp to the mix. Without one, they tend to sound sound a bit thin and – dare I say – dull.
Now here’s where things get interesting. Let me just say right off the bat that if you’re expecting a direct upgrade to the HE-400, you’re going to be disappointed. The HE-400i does not build upon the sound signature of the HE-400, fixing the “tizzy” high end and making improvements elsewhere, maybe adding a bit more texture to the already lovely bass and bringing the midrange a bit forward. Instead, HiFiMan went a different direction in tuning the HE-400i, making something of a bridge between the outgoing HE-400 and more expensive and also retiring HE-500.
The low end presentation is the biggest and most immediate difference when comparing the two headphones directly. The HE-400i is less impactful and immediate than the HE-400 but still retains much of the texture and richness that I’ve come to love so much. But, that lack of “oomph” in comparison is what makes the HE-400i so very different from its predecessor. My main reason for purchasing an HE-400 was because of that planar driver bass, a low end that’s about as good as you’re going to get without dropping a grand on Audeze’s LCD-2. Sure, it’s nowhere near the last word in terms of quantity, but its quality is unparalleled by anything I’ve heard and many who own the HE-400 and other high end headphones would agree.
The HE-400i doesn’t deliver that same wonderful low end. At least, not in the same way. The detail is there, the depth is there, the wonderful texture is there (to a degree) but the impact and presence just aren’t. But, I’m saying much of this as a basshead. I can’t get enough bass and there’s nothing I want more in a pair of headphones than a rich, meaty low end. And there’s no doubt that the HE-400i has this, just not as much so as the HE-400. The HE-400i is most definitely a very good performer in the bass department, it’s just not as “fun” as its older brother. At least in my opinion.
The midrange is another big difference between the two headphones in that the 400i presents it more forward and fuller. I would say the level of detail is similar, with the edge going to the 400i. The presentation is surprisingly similar as well, with a fairly small soundstage (for an open headphone) but good imaging and spatial presence. The high end sees some improvements as well, with less of that HE-400 “tizziness” in the treble. There’s less sizzle and more sparkle, more delicacy in the chimes but with similar airiness and speed.
The HE-400i isn’t a direct upgrade to the HE-400, but that doesn’t make it a lesser headphone. In many ways, it’s better than the outgoing HE-400, from the more present midrange, to the less strident treble. Though it has a slightly smaller soundstage, the sound is a bit more coherent and naturally presented. The result is a more neutral and slightly less colored headphone than its predecessor but one that doesn’t have the same distinctiveness but is arguably more suited to a wider range of music.
What we have here in the HE-400i is a much more neutral headphone than its predecessor. At the end of the day, I see the HE-400i as neither an upgrade nor a proper replacement for the outgoing HE-400. Though that may sound negative, that’s not how it’s meant to be perceived. The HE-400i is a great, versatile, neutral and well nuanced headphone, just not in the same way the HE-400 was.
It’s almost like the HE-400 to 400i has progressed in a similar manner to that one guy you knew in college who partied all the time yet somehow managed to get good grades in all of his classes. Sure, he’s a bit rough around the edges but that’s his thing and he carries himself well while being a fun guy to have around. That’s the HE-400. The HE-400i is that guy, after graduating from college and getting himself a big boy job working in an office and wearing collared shirts and ties to work every day. He’ll still meet you for a beer after work, but he’s settled down and his rough edges have been smoothed somewhat. Maybe he’s not as fun and rowdy as he was in his college days, but he’s just as likeable nonetheless, albeit for markedly different reasons.
So, no, the HE-400i isn’t an upgrade to the HE-400, it’s a sidegrade, offering a retooled and retuned sound signature that, while retaining some of the characteristics that made the HE-400 so special, doesn’t carry enough of them to warrant being called a true “upgrade” to the HE-400. Again, this sounds negative, but it’s not, unless an improvement on the HE-400 while retaining similar sonic characteristics is what you’re expecting in the HE-400i.
Nonetheless, the pair I have is currently on loan from HiFiMan and I now have a choice to make. I can either ship them back at my expense or I can keep them and pony up and pay retail. I think I’m leaning heavily toward paying up and keeping my pair. They’re not an upgrade to the HE-400, but they sure are a nice complement. For $500, the HE-400i is a great headphone that, while not without its flaws, is certainly good enough to stand on its own.