Review: HiFiMAN Edition S Headphones
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HiFiMAN is a well-known brand among audiophiles. Based in China, HiFiMAN has produced some of the best sounding planar magnetic over-ear headphones on the market, from their entry-level HE-400i to their flagship HE-1000. Where HiFiMAN’s fullsize planars have traditionally been open-back, power-hungry, and very much not portable, the Edition S is different in almost every way. The Edition-S ($249) is an on-ear, dynamic driver, portable headphone that is easily driven by portable devices and packs an unusual feature – magnetic covers instantly detach from the cups, converting the headphone from closed-back to open-back in moments.
For an audiophile who has spent years with HiFiMAN’s HE-500, the Edition S appears, at first glance, like a headphone made by a different company. It’s very light, with a plastic headband, metal yokes, and metal cups. The detachable 3.5mm cable includes inline controls and a right-angle connector. Instead of circular cups and planar drivers, the Edition S comes with more rectangular cups and 50mm dynamic drivers. Instead of large, open-back grills, the Edition S comes with plastic covers that feature large, bold HiFiMAN branding. The Edition S folds for storage in the large included carry case; we appreciate this feature, but we think that these headphones would be more portable if they could be laid flat.
There are some aspects of the Edition S that we simply didn’t like. The cable feels a little cheap for an audiophile brand, and the volume controls didn’t work with our iOS devices (though they do work with macOS). The headband – though comfortable – is very stiff, making it somewhat awkward to put on. The driver cups can’t freely rotate backwards, so we occasionally had problems getting a good seal at the bottom of the ear pads. We found the HiFiMAN branding to be a little much for our tastes, though in fairness it’s not any louder than that of Beats or any other popular portable headphone.
Those aside, there are things about the design of the Edition S that we like very much. Light weight and soft, hybrid velour & perforated pleather pads make the Edition S comfortable enough for long listening sessions, despite a relatively high clamping force. Though HiFiMAN sells these as “on-ear” headphones, the pads are large enough that many will be able to use them as over-ears. They can become warm over time – depending on the size of your ears, these may either be extremely comfortable on-ears or slightly congested over-ears. We think that slightly bigger pads and a little more air around the ears would have made the Edition S even better, with broader appeal.
After more than a week switching between open and closed configurations, we think the Edition S sounds best with its magnetic covers off. As an open-backed headphone, we found the Edition S to have a forward, very detailed sound with engaging highs and deep, clear bass. We tried the Edition S with a variety of genres, and the details of each successive track were presented as in-your-face as the last. Its presentation is like a less-fatiguing ATH-M50 with bass boosted more than the planar magnetics we’ve heard in the past. It has a sound signature that is very engaging, but might not be ideal for “laid back” listening moods. If we had any complaints about this sound signature, it would be that there seems to be a slight dip in the midrange that caused some guitar solos to sound somewhat thin and tinny compared to that of other headphones.
Of course, the Edition S leaks sound in open-backed mode. This is where the magnetic covers come in – they attach quickly and easily to the cups, and hold firmly enough that we never worried about losing them. Though not eliminated completely, sound leakage from the Edition S is sufficiently attenuated by the covers to be used on public transportation or in an office setting. The sound of the Edition S, however, changes substantially with the covers on. We noticed a more congested, almost nasal tone with weakened bass and artificially boosted highs. Once we noticed the difference in sound with the covers on, it was hard to ignore. Despite the convenience of the magnetic covers, we think users will seldom choose to use the covers if they have the option.
This result is hardly surprising. Making a great closed-back headphone is more complex than simply closing the cups. Many manufacturers vary the cup shape and internal damping material of their closed-back headphones to calm unwanted resonances and fine-tune frequency response. The Edition S, by contrast, just adds two covers that hold securely but, unlike a true closed-back do not form an airtight seal. HiFiMAN’s claim that this design offers the “best of both worlds” might be a bit overreaching – in our testing, the best part about the Edition S’ covers was that it enabled us to bring the open-back experience on the road without having to carry a second headphone.
Earlier this year we reviewed the Audeze iSine which, like the Edition S, combined elements of different headphone styles to create what felt like an entirely new kind of headphone. The Edition S aims at a slightly different target – instead of a new type of headphone, the Edition S tries to be two headphones in one. Though HiFiMAN has made a very good sounding portable open-back, the experience of using the covers feels more like a limitation than a fusion of headphone “genres.” We think the Edition S is best viewed not as ‘two headphones in one’, but instead as an open-backed headphone with a temporary “courtesy mode.”
We think HiFiMAN is on to something very interesting here, though we think the compromises in the current version of the Edition S might limit its potential audience. The Edition S gets our limited recommendation and we’re excited to see what HiFiMAN comes up with next.