Great Planar sound at an Unbelievable Price
Review of Hifiman 5XX
Since these are so new, I wanted to get out as soon as possible impressions of the new Drop + Hifman 5XX. It is the latest joint project between Drop (formerly Massdrop) and Hifiman who produce (mostly) magnetic planar headphones across all price ranges from $125 to $6000 (even much higher for the TOTL Shangri La and Shangri La Jr. electrostatic phones and special amps known as energizers). I bought these myself the first day they hit the drop so I got no remuneration for this review.
It’s also important to know the gear used in a review. I listened to the HE5XX through a SMSL 300MKII Dac, a McIntosh MHA 100 amp, and used Hart Audio cables (though I’m not a cable makes a phone sound different kind of guy.)
First lets confront the naming controversy. Is this a reissue of the renowned HE500? I used to own the HE500 and it was a wonderful headphone that could be improved greatly by making DIY mods to the original phones. Personally, I don’t see any relationship between the HE5XX and the 500. I think it’s best to treat them as 2 different headphones. If you want a pair of HE500’s they often come up used. Occasionally, Hifiman has a few pair of them lying around they will sell open box to you (you have to call the store to get information on these and the HE6 they may have.)
Some people also say it’s a redesigned Deva. I don’t own the Deva so I can’t answer that. If it’s true then Deva owners have a great sounding phone, because the HE5XX sound better than any sub $300 planar headphone should.
Being a new product, the passage of time benefits the HE5XX. Much like the reworked HE4XX (2020), the 5XX benefit from changes in the implementation of magnet structure and a much thinner diaphragm that have trickled down from the Susvara and HEK series. These allow the newer drivers to catch much better nuance in recordings.
The HE5XX have some great things they bring to the table. You get the lower distortion of the planar design which like electostats can give you an uncanny “you are there” esperience. Further, the 5XX have a great sense of dynamics that remind me of the dynamics in the Focal Elex or Clear. The HE5XX are tuned mostly neutral with a smidge of extra bass. This tuning is one that Hifiman uses on a lot of their phones even their most expensive. There is good separation, instrument location and a decent stereo image.
Where the more expensive Hifiman phones and the Focal Clears exceed the 5XX is in detail retrieval. The 5XX aren’t the detail monsters that the HE1000SE and Susvara (or even the Arya) are. But since these other phones run from $1599 to $6000 MSRP it’s not a fair comparison. What you get in the 5XX is a solid musical image which is coherent and keeps, nay demands your attention.
Bass: The bass is present and there and is proportional to the song you’re listening to. A listen to “Better Things” by Massive Attack has bass and excellent female vocals, even if these aren’t phones that give you the extra heavy bass EDM, and Triphop users crave. (Usually to achieve the preferred sound for listening to these types of music the bass is boosted either through headphone choice of EQ.)
That’s not to say the bass is lacking. A listen to Patricia Barber’s cover of the iconic Doors song “Light My Fire” has excellent bass and the natural sound of the acoustic bass and the warm alto of Ms. Barber’s voice come through clearly. It’s like being in a smoky jazz club, and there is no shortage of the required bass to bring this warm performance to life.
Midrange: Midrange sounds distinctive and there is no bleedthrough from the bass. The Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band” is a great test of vocals and the 5XX display it wonderfully.
Treble: Treble is fully present mostly without sibilance. There are a couple of “torture tracks” I play to see how the top end sounds. One is Thomas Dolby’s “Hyperactive”. There is lots of treble in this song which is excellently recorded and the 5XX come through sibilance and sharpness free.
The second track is the Yes song, “Roundabout”. (It’s important you listen to the right version of this song. The remix from 2008 has too much top energy to the detriment of other parts of the song.) Listening to the much superior 2003 Remix of Yes’ album Fragile shows a full frequency response where the top end holds its own with only a very small amount of top end sharpness.
The HE5XX are surprisingly addictive to wear with a great overall tuning that makes you want to continue to listen to them. They are very musical sounding headphones. As I listen to them while writing this they are giving me much aural pleasure. Talking Heads “Psychokiller” and the Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil” sound wonderful on the 5XX.
The 5XX are priced well for what you get. Personally, I prefer this phone to the Drop+Sennheiser 6XX, although the 6XX is a very competent reference level phone, it’s just not as lively as the 5XX.
If you are a basshead I have to recommend the Drop/Meze Classic Noir, which are exceptional in an unapologetically bassy and warm sound signature. I think the Meze Classic is a great phone to pair with the more neutral 5XX.
Overall, I think the HE5XX is a great buy, especially if you judge it only on what it brings to the table. It’s not an HE500, but it is exceptional in its own way.
Would recommend to a friend.