disclaimer: I received the He6se as part of the head-fi/Hifiman tour. I feel very privileged to be included as I love my He560s and it isnt everyday an $1800 sub-flagship arrives at my door. I’ll be pairing the He6se with my Swing/Bang and He Adapter setup using the SparkOS Op-amps to get the last bit of detail out of the Swing.
Unboxing / Packaging:
The He6se tour unit came with a single XLR cable terminated in 3.5mm mono jacks at the upper ends and an XLR to 6.3mm adapter. While some documentation lists an He-Adapter as part of the kit, this seems to have changed or was not shipped with this particular unit. No worries as I already own one so most of my testing used it.
Well, the obvious is no-one is going to mistake anything in the Hifiman line for any other brand. The He6se now shares most of its design cues with the Sundara as the headband and gimbals look nearly identical while the cups are more reminiscent of the earlier He6 or He400 with the beveled edge and smaller grill. The downside to this is that a headphone costing nearly $2000 externally looks a lot like one that costs $350. At the very least a different trim color might be wise to differentiate the two. Instead of black/gray, could you not add gold notes or something to denote the flagships? Once you get past the looks, there is one trait that immediately identifies the He6se as something different, weight. The He6Se weighs in at 470 grams while the He560 which sports almost exactly the same dimensions is 375 grams. Luckily, the feel when on does not translate into twice the pressure on your head as the headband does a good job of weight distribution. I did find the clamping force of the He6se to be slightly less than my He560 but it was still sufficient to stay in place well. One other difference in the original He6 vs the He6se is that with the change in headband, we lost the ability to turn the cups on the vertical axis. In the new design, cups have a hinge point at the center of the cup that allow rotating around a horizontal axis, but do not allow for vertical adjustment. This may be a downside for those that relied on this for proper fit. I’m also not a fan of the headband adjustment as while it is very positive (read stiff and tough to move without fear of breakage), it lacks any sophistication and leads to scratches on the inside of the headband. To me, this just seems like something I would expect at a much lower price point, but on something at this level, a little more finesse is expected.
Hifiman doesn’t publish a whole lot of physical information about the size of the drivers, but merely by looking I would guess it is 90% of the cup size which makes it a fairly large planar driver and very similar in size to some of the Audeze LCD line. Nominal impedance is listed at 50Ω with a sensitivity of 83.5dB/mW. Take this with a grain of salt and see my discussion on drivability as this is the most difficult to drive headphone I have had the pleasure of trying. My KEF Q350s are easier to drive (quite literally).
The provided cable is a well made heavy cable obviously designed with sedentary use in mind. The cable itself is a copper/silver-coated mix with 3.5mm Mono connectors at the earcups (labeled L/R for easy reference) and an XLR at the lower end. The XLR connector at the lower end has a plastic housing which seems out of character at this price point but it locks in easily and feels well broken in with none of the stiffness often associated with XLR locks. (This may be due to this being a tour unit with unknown mileage on it before it arrived here). An adapter is proved for XLR to 6.3mm TRS connector as well. No attempt is made to provide a cable for portable use as it is hard enough to find a desktop unit that really drives the He6se to its full potential. Use of a portable with the He6se is likely a disservice to the user and to the devices battery as most portables simply cannot provide the power needed to drive these.
While we are on that topic, just how much power can the He6se take advantage of? I started out trying it with the Magni2 just for laughs. Using foobar to the Swing DAC output to the magni 2 and then onto the He6se, I could push the volume to its max on the Magni (which by the way is not a good idea as the sound quality decays in that last 15% or so). Sad part, I couldn’t get the He6se loud enough to be uncomfortable and it was obviously struggling. When the He6se struggles, you hear a lifeless, harsh, mess with transient clipping. In this respect, I had already learned a similar lesson using the He6Se little brother the He560. From there, it is a matter of degree though. To really drive the He560, you need to step up to a fairly potent amp. For me, that is the Burson Fun rated at 1.5Watts at 50Ω. The Fun is a far better match for the He6Se, but still not enough to really feed the beast the way it would like to be fed. For that, you need the Bang! I had purchased the Bang to power a pair of KEF Q350s and when connected to the chain in place of the fun, Swing/Bang – He adaptor – He6Se, now we have a setup that can really drive the He6Se. For those unfamiliar, this amp is a 40 Watt per channel Class AB amplifier. Adjusting for the impedance difference (Bang is rated for 4 and 8 ohm Speakers) and assuming no loss for the He Adapter (I know over-simplified) this should push between 4 and 6 watts per channel to the big Hifiman. These are easily the hardest to drive headphone I have tried. My understanding is that only the Susvara is more power hungry in the Hifiman lineup. Lesser amps and portables need not even apply for the job as even if they are capable in the short term the stress it puts them under will certainly shorten component life.
One note right up front. Having had the He6 to compare against and a couple of different sets of pads floating around, I found the sound of the He6se to be nearly identical to that of the He6 as long as the same pads were used. Having said that, the pads shipped with the He6se are not the same as those shipped with the original He6 so you will hear some sonic differences. In all fairness, I preferred the Dekoni Elite Hybrid or Fenestrated Sheepskin pads to either of the stock models. The Hybrid did less to lift the bass and for that reason was the pad I used to do my comparison tests between 6 and 6se. The Sheepskin tended to make the He6se a bit darker with treble toned down and a slightly smaller stage but for those looking for bass performance, the Sheepskin does give a boost to the low end.
Bass is one of the strengths of planars in general and the He6se in specific. There is something almost visceral when the big kettle drum kicks in. No, the the he6se doesn’t have particularly elevated bass but it has possibly the best controlled bass I’ve heard. From sub-bass all the way up, the He6se delivers, speed of both attack and decay is world class and detail retrieval is stunning. I don’t hear quite the sub-bass depth of the Abyss, but I do think the linearity and detail are better on the He6se comparatively. The one thing that really strikes me about the He6se is (when powered properly) how effortlessly it delivers even huge bass hits. This is the reward for having to provide all that power is this headphone is equally at home with the ending of the 1812 as it is with a piano concerto or a live rock concert. I couldn’t find a track complex enough to make it stumble, it just handled them all brilliantly.
The mids on the He6se are well detailed and I found both male and female vocals equally well presented as both had good clarity and timbre. Electric guitar was very similar in that it comes across with a sense that you are in the room with the instrument and not listening to a recorded playback. Really impressive. The other thing that continually impressed was the fact that vocals and instruments could easily be tracked as they moved during a performance and the weaving of one in front and then behind another was easily heard and translated. I do think mids come across as slightly thinner than some (most) of the other models I compared against, but at the same time I found them more natural and believable than some of the others. I also think this is a function of how seamlessly each region blends and the He6se makes it very difficult to determine exactly where mid-bass ends and mids begin and where upper-mids end and lower-treble begins.
Perhaps oddly, treble is the first thing that falls apart if the He6Se is under-powered. With a questionable amp, I found the treble rough, uneven, and a bit harsh. Switching to a more potent source, all that goes away and yields a very clean, pleasant treble with considerable detail. Attack on snares is flawless and cymbals sound well, like cymbals. Overall, the signature is very clear, very clean, and maybe even just a touch bright. If there is one thing I can say as counterpoint, it would be that at times I felt like the timbre of piccolo was not quite spot on. Still about as good as I ‘ve heard a headphone produce, but getting that airy sound perfectly right seems to be a challenge no-one has mastered including the He6se.
Soundstage / Imaging:
The He6se’s sound-stage is well proportioned with good depth, width, and height and does a good job of seating the listener in about 3rd row center. I don’t feel that the depth is as cavernous as some, but I still got a sense of the dimensions of the cathedral while listening to the Trinity Sessions. Imaging is spot on and movement is easily tracked. I had fun listening to Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein with all its movement and to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for the same reasons. The nuance and micro-detail really add to both of these recordings and if you ever get the chance to listen to either on a world class setup, I highly recommend it.
Thanks to those who let me beg, borrow and steal the He6, Clear, and LCD-3 for comparison purposes. Understand going in, all of these are world class competitors so there are no winners and losers here, only differences.
After saying all the good things about the He6se’ near perfect neutrality, one would think it would be hard to top. In my first comparison I found something that did. The HD800, to my ear, is even closer to perfect than the He6se. Both are wonderful, but I’m not sure the HD800’s tonal balance can be improved upon. The He6 digs a bit deeper than the HD800 on sub-bass and both have a similar mid-bass emphasis (albeit slightly for both). The mids are where the He6Se gains ground. Mids are more natural and vocals are better on the He6Se in comparison to the HD800 while the HD800 has an upper-mid elevation that is noticeable by comparison. Timbre of electric guitar is sweeter on the He6se while Tenor Sax sounds a little more natural on the HD800. Treble is more polite and linear on the He6Se while it is a bit more energetic on the HD800.
(early production) – to my ear, the lower mids are slightly more recessed on the He6se and treble is toned down slightly but this may be a difference in pads as much as anything. While I applaud Hifiman for listening to feedback and attempting to improve the headband, I am not a big fan of the new design as it has no swivel of the cup on its axis and the adjustments are extremely stiff almost to the point of being concerned about breakage. While I am sure the new model is more solid, it it not more elegant and refined. If anything the refinement went a step backward and the new one looks more industrial than high end. The upside is it fits in well with by Swing and Bang for photos.
I find the two very similar in that both are nearly neutral and spectacularly resolving headphones. I find that the clear has a slight mid-bass hump that does intrude at times on the lower mids if only slightly so I preferred the He6Se’s bass and mids for that reason. The treble on the Clear is either hair brighter or just sharper edged than the He6Se and for me adds a little life that comparitively the He6se does not. Soundstage is larger on the He6se and imaging and layering are again fantastic on both. Both have excellent attack and decay although I prefer the planar if only slightly. Somehow, I just kept coming back to the notion that the He6se sounds more effortless in its delivery while the dynamics of the Clear at times make it sound more labored.
Audeze LCD-3 (w Fazor)
Here the two share a lot of similarities in that both are large planars, both share an industrial style to the headbands and gimbals although the LCD looks a bit more like the He6 than the Se version, and both come in impressive packaging. The LCD-3’s wooden cups are bit more aesthetically pleasing to my eye. Sound wise, Bass extension seems to extend endlessly downward on the LCD-3 even when compared to the He6se. Mid-bass seems a bit thin on the LCD-3 by comparison, but that may be due to a slight elevation on the He6se that isnt present on the LCD. Mids are a bit thicker on the LCD, but more natural on the He6Se to my ear. The LCD-3 does push female vocals slightly forward in comparison to the He6Se and the upper-mids and lower treble are more to my liking on the He6Se as it seems a bit less forced and more reserved.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
First off a huge thanks to Hifiman for entrusting their headphone to me for a few weeks. It was time I thoroughly enjoyed and I will be saddened to send them on to the next tour participant. I will readily admit to feeling a bit envious of those who can afford to enjoy these full time. It would be easy to look at the comparisons and say well it doesn’t have the stage of the HD800, or quite the details of the Clear, or quite the attack of the LCD, but the fact remains, it may have the best combination of all of those things ever attained in a single product. Soundstage is far above average and imaging is pinpoint precise, bass depth and quantity are both first rate, mids are to die for, and treble is one of the few I can say succeeds at walking the line between being non-fatiguing and sounding open and airy successfully. Transients are probably the most natural sounding I have ever heard in a headphone. All in all, to say it does a lot well is a serious understatement. The He6se does a lot spectacularly and in sound quality alone deserves to be ranked amongst the world’s best headphones. If I were to buy a headphone at this price, this is precisely what I would look for, one that does everything well. The last thing I’d want at this price point is one that was great for rock, but you really need something else for Opera. In this respect, I think the He6se succeeds where some other top end products I’ve heard fail. Now if only the build quality reflected the sound quality, it would be a true masterwork.
- Bass - 9.5/109.5/10
- Mids - 9.5/109.5/10
- Treble - 8.5/108.5/10
- Soundstage - 9/109/10
- Imaging - 9/109/10
Pros: Level of control is just sick, does everything well.
Cons: May not be the absolute best at any one thing, more jack of all trades than master of one. (is this a con?)