We’ve never rated a product A+. On our “How We Rate Products” page, we explain that this is because no product is — or has yet been — perfect. Even the best products usually have some flaw or other factor that necessarily limits our recommendation, even if it’s nothing more than a prohibitive price. We have, however, celebrated companies that have recognized where their products have room for improvement and taken steps to make those products better. More than a decade ago, Hifiman made a name for itself with a unique headphone — the HE6. The HE6 become famous in its own right, but as much for its flaws as for its sound quality. Up for review this week is the revised version of their original top-end headphone, the HE6 SE. We think it’s an excellent and worthy update to this legendary set of cans.
Like its predecessor, the HE6 SE is a full-size planar magnetic headphone. It’s drivers and driver housings are identical to that of the original HE6, except for a new matte black paint job on the cups. To understand what makes the HE6 SE actually a “special edition” and worth the higher price, we first have to understand what people didn’t like about the original HE6. HIfiman’s original headband, although apparently good enough to get the company where it is today, was stiff and thin, lacked adequate padding for these heavy headphones, and was prone to breaking at the sizing mechanism. Its cable connectors were also problematic — its screw-on male SMC connectors were recessed, making it almost impossible to properly tighten the connectors without twisting the cable, and exited straight from the bottom of the headphone, causing the cables to drag on the user’s shoulders. The HE6 may have had great sound, but the materials and quality of its build have been the subject of criticism for years.
The build issues of yesteryear have mostly been addressed in the HE6 SE. The old headband has been replaced with a wide leather suspension headband, a more secure sizing mechanism, and overall higher-quality (and better looking) assembly. The headphone, as a whole, feels far sturdier than our old HE500, which as burdened with the same issues as the HE6. The HE6 SE’s connectors are improved — the downward-facing SMC connectors have been replaced with user-friendly 3.5mm jacks which exit at a forward angle. The sizing mechanism, although sturdier, no longer allows for any rotation of the cups and it’s no longer infinitely adjustable. Also, bad news for collectors who like to keep their headphones in perfect condition: sizing cannot be adjusted without scratching the black finish off the metal parts underneath. The wider suspension headband is perhaps the biggest improvement — though you’re never going to forget the HE6 SE’s 470-gram mass, the improved headband eliminates the hotspots and pain from HIfiman’s old days. The original HE6 cable was nice, but we like the new one included with the HE6SE — where the original headphone came with a woven but easily-kinked silver cable terminated in a 1/4-inch single-ended jack, the HE6SE’s cable is similar to that of the Ananda — OCC copper and silver inside a translucent tube, this time terminated in balanced XLR with a 6-inch 1/4-inch single-ended adapter. The final change is with the HE6 SE’s ear pads — this is always a matter of preference, but we much prefer the HE6 SE’s hybrid mesh and perforated leather to the stiff velour pads of yore, especially with the HE6 SE’s weight relatively strong clamping force — our ears stayed comfortable and cool. Overall, the HE6 SE’s design remains simple and utilitarian, with ergonomic and build quality improvements all around.
One thing that Hifiman did not change is the HE6’s hunger for power — the HE6 SE uses the same drivers as the original model, which have a low 83.6db/mW sensitivity. On the far opposite side of the spectrum from the Ananda, which could be driven by mobile devices, the HE6 SE requires a powerful amp to drive properly. Hifiman recommends an amplifier capable of at least 3 watts per channel into its 50-ohm drivers. To put this in perspective, we found the $2,000 Brooklyn DAC, even in balanced mode, struggling to drive the HE6 SE to normal listening volumes. One of our favorite parts of original HE6 lore is that people drive them straight out of speaker amps, claiming that these headphones just continue to scale with power. Hifiman seems to agree — for $99 Hifiman will send you their “HE-Adapter”, a box that adapts the HE6 SE’s XLR cable to speaker plugs. To our surprise, however, the HE6 SE’s need for watts was not as much of a barrier to entry as we thought it would be — the $600 iFi iDSD Black Label that we tested earlier this year was able to drive the HE6 SE adequately (listenable at 50% volume), albeit in “Turbo Mode.” At some point we’ll have to try this headphone using our Schiit Vidar speaker amp.
We were very impressed with the HE6 SE’s sound. Like most of HIfiman’s headphones, the HE6 SE is fully open-backed, with a huge driver seated in circular cups. It’s sound is extremely open, but also — to use an audiophile buzzword — very holographic. The HE6 SE does an excellent job creating a sense of space and soundstage that makes traditional music sound real and layered electronic music sound particularly trippy. With a claimed frequency response of 8hHz to 65kHz, the HE6 SE’s bass extension and punch, especially when well-powered, are excellent, reaching low without getting bloated or muddy. We could feel the size of kick drums and tympani. For midrange testing, we listened to lots of metal with male vocals; mids sound clear and present, though we did find the upper midrange a little too forward on some songs. The HE6 SE’s treble is also sharp and clear, was never overpowering or sibilant even on songs that sound painful on other headphones. Worth nothing here that the HE6 SE performs substantially better than the HE-500 (which now seems easy to drive by comparison) in just about every way, especially in the sheer palpability of its low-end. We’ve heard and owned a lot of high-end headphones; the HE6 SE is one of the few headphones that’s made us say “wow” in a long time. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on your equipment, since planar performance is almost always correlated with power.
Having the been in the headphone enthusiast community for several years, we’ve seen Hifiman endure its fair share of criticism despite the important role it played in the popularization of planar magnetic headphones. It’s up for debate whether the criticism is totally fair: on one hand, the HE6’s flaws could probably be the trappings of a new company that spent its R&D on sound rather than ergonomics, which have followed it for years because those original headphones sound good enough to remain relevant even to this day. On the other hand, it did take Hifiman years to update its headband design and, at the time of this printing, the company is still selling a new headphone with its old headband design on Massdrop. What’s important for this review, however, is that HIfiman’s “Special Edition” headphones show that the company hears this criticism and is willing to take steps to improve — the HE6 SE addresses just about all of its predecessor’s shortcomings. It would be understandable if the price and power demands of the HE6 SE are prohibitive for those looking to try this great-sounding headphone, but one thing is for sure — Hifiman deserves your attention.
Company and Price