A great pair of headphones can mean the difference between casual listening on a Saturday morning and hours of full-blown immersion; between catching up on the latest releases and playing your favorite album from college to get transported back to the freshman dorm room (I can smell the gym socks now). I can’t recommend investing in quality headphones enough, and there are few phones I could recommend more highly than the HE-400i.
If you’re not an avid headphone enthusiast, you might not be familiar with HiFiMan. The brand was started in 2007 by audio enthusiast Dr. Fang Bian. Headquartered in China, HiFiMan has helped redefine the world of personal audio through its headphones, amplifiers and audio players.
Warning, technobabble incoming: One thing that makes the 400i special are the planar magnetic drivers it uses (also called Orthodynamic, a phrase coined by Yamaha who worked the technology in the 70’s). Instead of using a single magnet to move a diaphragm attached via a coil of wire like most headphones, planar magnetic headphones suspend a very thin membrane between two oppositely aligned magnets. When the membrane is electrically charged, its movement produces sound waves.
This technology typically produces a higher audio fidelity than dynamic (standard) headphones, but have historically been heavier and have required more power than their mainstream counterparts. Enter the HE-400i.
HiFiMan has been working to perfect planar magnetic technology almost since the company’s inception. Though their early models had wonderful sound, they were heavy, uncomfortable and needed a boatload of power. In fact, many people hooked them up to speaker amps (cue image of Marty McFly rocketing across the room). The HE-400i solves all of these issues. It’s supremely light, has a new suspended headband structure that improves comfort and you can drive it from your phone (although it does benefit from a little more power).
So how does it sound? Like a wet crack of thunder on a hot summer’s day. Not really, but I wanted to write that. For reals though, it sounds phenomenal. The audio spectrum is presented evenly, with a slight tilt toward the bottom. One thing planar magnetic headphones excel in is their presentation of sub bass (bass below about 60Hz). I love super low bass, probably like you, since you are human (love for low tones is a human universal) and the 400i does not disappoint. For some real fun, use an equalizer to boost the sub bass and pump some EDM like Come with Me by Truth through these. The technology is capable of presenting the boosted low range without the distortion commonly found in dynamics.
The mid range, where you find the vocals, are both rich and smooth. Try Open by Rhye for a sweet test. The upper range is fairly extended and doesn’t have any annoying or harsh tizzy traits like the 400i’s predecessor (HE-400). This range is where you’ll find the sizzle of cymbals or the crisp pluck of strings — All Your Gold by Bat for Lashes is a nice example. I’m not going to talk much about soundstage other than to say that this isn’t a great set of cans if you’re trying to reproduce the experience of being in a large concert hall. There, I got to say “set of cans.” I am an official headphone reviewer.
One thing I should mention is that these are “open” headphones, like most quality phones are. This means that they allow sound to pass through the backs of the cups. The sound quality is better, but you give up isolation. So if you’re trying to drown out the sounds of screaming kids, this isn’t going to work for you. On the other hand, if you needed to hear any screams that might come from the other room, these would allow for that.
Priced at $499, the 400i is a great value. Now if you’re new to the headphone world (aside from Beats, which don’t count — don’t argue, they don’t count) that might sound like alottadough. But most of the best headphones cost thousands and require even more expensive special amps. The 400i approaches that sound (bests it in some categories) and you can plug it into your phone. Plus, people blow a grand on a flatscreen TV and don’t even blink; great headphones and a Spotify account can give you just as many hours of enjoyment while also enhancing other activities. Like writing blog posts for example.