HiFiMan HE-560 Headphone Review

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HiFiMan's Mid-Priced Planar Magnetic Headphone

Brent Butterworth

The HiFiMan HE-560 reminded me that in a lot of ways, HiFiMan put planar magnetic headphones on the map. Or at least, back on the map. Planar magnetics have been around for decades, made by companies such as Fostex and Yamaha. But the embrace of the technology by HiFiMan -- and the introduction of reasonably affordable, great-sounding models -- brought planar magnetics back to the attention of audiophiles.

However, the company's efforts, while acclaimed, looked a little primitive -- no surprise considering it was a company tackling an unfamiliar technology. The HE-560 and the HE-400i represent a substantial design rethink for the company. The basic technology is the same -- planar magnetic drivers mounted in shallow, open-backed cylindrical earcups -- but the style and fit are much more refined. The headband is designed to provide a more consistent clamping pressure all around the earpads, so it fits better around your ears and feels more comfortable.

Like the HE-400i, the HE-560 has a single-sided planar magnetic driver designed to deliver tighter bass and better imaging. For those who don't know what planar magnetic drivers are, they use a mylar diaphragm onto which a long wire trace has been applied. The diaphragm is surrounded by perforated or slotted metal panels, which are attached to a magnet. When electricity passes through the wire traces, the diaphragm moves back and forth between the metal panels. Compare this with a conventional dynamic headphone, which has drivers that are essentially tiny speakers with the familiar voice coil, cylindrical magnet and diaphragm that works in pistonic fashion. The purported advantage of the planar magnetic technology is that the diaphragm is lighter and can thus produce more detailed delicate treble.

The single-sided driver design eliminates one of the two metal panels, so the diaphragm is open on one side. This design eliminates the acoustical impedance of the removed metal panel and also helps to lighten the headphone.

HiFiMan doesn't detail the differences between the HE-560 and HE-400i, except that the former features upgraded cables and teak earcups. But as we'll see, they sound and measure different.

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HiFiMan HE-560: Features and Ergonomics

Brent Butterworth

• Single-sided planar magnetic drivers
• Teak earcups
• 9.8 ft/3 m detachable cord with 1/4-inch (6.2mm plug)
• Included storage/presentation box

The HE-560 is an audiophile headphone designed for home use, so it doesn't have much in the way of features. It's designed only to sound good, not to take calls from your smartphone, cancel out jet engine noise, etc. I will say, though, that it looks very nice; the woodgrain sides give it a refined, elegant style that would have delighted the pipe-smoking, Brubeck/Kenton-listening, Esquire-reading audiophiles of the 1960s as much as it delights me.

As with most planar magnetic headphones, the HE-560 is an open-back design, which means that it provides no significant isolation from outside sound. So when the kids start screaming and the dog starts barking, the HE-560 will give you no sanctuary. It also leaks sound out, which may annoy someone sitting next to you.

The cables seen in the picture are relatively inexpensive ones that HiFiMan supplied with my review sample. The company normally sells the HE-560 with a higher-end cable made with crystalline copper and crystalline silver.

As I found with the HE-400i, HiFiMan's newer headband design seems a little lighter than the old ones, but it distributes the pressure around your ears more evenly. I found it comfortable enough to wear for hours -- something I couldn't say about the HE-500, which always felt heavy to me. HiFiMan says it's 30% lighter, a fact I couldn't confirm because my kitchen scale is behaving erratically but if you just lift both headphones it's obvious the HE-560 is radically lightened.

And as with the HE-400i, I like the presentation box but I'd have preferred a Pelican-style carrying case that would let me take the headphones on business trips.

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HiFiMan HE-560: Performance

Brent Butterworth

I'm not one of those guys who gets real excited about the sonic differences, real or perceived, among headphone cables, but I thought I should give the HE-560 its best shot, so for most of my listening, I used the silver-coated copper cables supplied with the original HE-500 review sample HiFiMan sent me years ago. As you can read in the measurements, the HE-560 isn't sensitive enough to get a usable level from a smartphone or tablet, so I used it with two different USB headphone amp/DACs: a Sony PHA-2 portable and a Goldmund HDA. Both were connected to the Toshiba laptop on which I store my digital music files.

When I listened to "Between Joy and Consequence" from jazz drummer Franklin Kiermyer's intense Further, the difference between the HE-560 and HE-500 was obvious, although their similarities were also readily apparent. The newer headphone seems more oriented to detail and spaciousness. Not that it sounds brighter, but the soundstage for me was definitely bigger and the air and breath of Azar Lawrence's tenor and soprano saxes were easier to hear. But the HE-500 has more and deeper bass, and a fuller sound overall, even if its treble reproduction sounds less refined.

Which is better? That's a matter of taste, but my guess is that Dr. Fang Bian, the entrepreneur behind HiFiMan, tuned this headphone specifically to suit audiophiles. Not that it's one of those treble-that-takes-your-head off audiophile faves like the AudioTechnica ATH-M50; it's far, far better balanced, less colored and more natural-sounding. But if bass is important to you, this isn't your headphone.

Playing my go-to test tracks for tonal balance, Toto's "Rosanna" and James Taylor's live version of "Shower the People," I noticed that the HE-560 does have some apparent emphasis in the lower treble -- around 3 or 4 kHz, I guessed. This manifests itself not as an overt coloration, just a subtle boost in this band; the only thing it does that I'd call a coloration is that it makes snare drums, cymbals and high-pitched acoustic guitar notes sound a tad more sizzly than they probably would in real life. Again, the HE-560 doesn't sound overly bright, and it doesn't sound fatiguing, it's just a relatively mild emphasis that makes detail stand out a little more even if it probably makes the bass appear a bit less robust. (The HE-400i sounds a few dB brighter in this region.) It's actually quite surprising and delightful and rare to me to hear a headphone with so much detail that doesn't fatigue my ears.

The bass on "Rosanna" and "Shower the People" was as tight as precise as I'd expect from a high-end planar magnetic headphone. On a tougher bass test, the upright bass solo that begins "The Blue Whale" from saxophonist David Binney's Lifted Land, the HE-560 showed off its flawless precision, capturing every subtle detail of bassist Eivind Opsvik's plucking and fingering. As with the Franklin Kiermyer side, I didn't hear a ton of body in the bass, but paradoxically, neither did the HE-560 ever strike me as thin-sounding.

Of course, I doubt many HE-560 owners will listen to a lot of heavy rock or hip-hop on this headphone, but I thought I should try it anyway, so I played "King Contrary Man" from the Cult's mega-classic Electric. I loved the way the HE-560 gave a huge sense of space to the cymbals, snare and electric guitars. Sure, I'd have liked more bass, but on the flipside, I did love that fact that there wasn't the slightest sense of boom or resonance in the bottom end. That's an exceedingly rare experience with headphones.

I had the exact same experience with R.E.M.'s "Little America" from Reckoning. On this tune, the HE-560 sounded pretty close to ideal. The detail, dynamics and drive in Peter Buck's jangly guitar line, Bill Berry's snare and kick drum, and Mike Mills' bass line really grabbed me. Especially the bass, which wasn't loud, but sounded incredibly tight and precise -- much the way it does when you plug an electric bass straight into a mixing board instead of recording with an amp.

And you know what? For a lot of audiophiles, this may just be the perfect amount of bass.

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HiFiMan HE-560: Measurements

Brent Butterworth

The chart above shows the HE-560's frequency response in the left and right channels. As with most open-back planar magnetic headphones, the measurement is fairly flat in the bass and midrange. Above 1.5 kHz, though, it rises considerably, suggesting that the HE-560 will sound somewhat trebly.

I measured the performance of the HE-560 the same way I do other over-ear headphones: using a G.R.A.S. 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. Measurements were calibrated for ear reference point (ERP), roughly the point in space where your palm intersects with the axis of your ear canal when you press your hand against your ear. I experimented with the position of the earpads by moving them around slightly on the ear/cheek simulator, and settled on the positions that gave the most characteristic result overall.

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HiFiMan HE-560: Comparison

Brent Butterworth

This chart compares the HE-560's response to three other open-back planar magnetic headphones: the HiFiMan HE-400i, the Audeze LCD-X and the Oppo Digital PM-1. All are referenced to 94 dB at 500 Hz. The measurements are similar for the two HiFiMan headphones, with the HE-560 showing a little less bass output than the HE-400i, and +2 to +5 dB more energy than the HE-400i between 3 and 6 kHz. This suggests the HE-560 will be the brightest-sounding (i.e., most trebly) of all these headphones.

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HiFiMan HE-560: Spectral Decay

Brent Butterworth

This chart shows a spectral decay (or waterfall) plot of the HE-400i. Long blue streaks indicate significant resonances. Like many planar magnetic headphones, the HE-560 shows a lot of resonances in the midrange, although its bass resonance is less than I typically see with conventional dynamic headphones.

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HiFiMan HE-560: Distortion and More

Brent Butterworth

This plot shows the total harmonic distortion of the HE-560 measured at 90 and 100 dBA (set with pink noise generated by the Clio). As with most planar magnetic headphones I've measured, distortion is extremely low: almost non-existent through most of the audio band, rising to 1.5% at 20 Hz/90 dBA and 4% at 20 Hz/100 dBA. Note that 100 dBA is an extremely loud listening level, and that as I've learned when doing subwoofer measurements, 4% distortion at 20 Hz is very, very hard to hear.

Impedance almost dead-flat in magnitude and phase, at a measured 48 ohms. Isolation is for all intents and purposes non-existent, with maximum attenuation of just -4 dB at 6 kHz. Sensitivity measured with a 1 mW signal between 300 Hz and 3 kHz at the rated 50 ohms impedance is 86.7 dB. That's low, although some other audiophile-oriented, high-end planar magnetic headphones I've measured had similar results. Bottom line: Use a headphone amp or a dedicated, high-end music player with this one.

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HiFiMan HE-560: Final Take

Brent Butterworth

I love HiFiMan's new industrial design, especially because many planar magnetics feel uncomfortable to me either because of their weight or because they clamp too hard at my temples. The HE-560, like the HE-400i, is easily one of the most comfortable planar magnetics on the market.

For me, the tough decision would be whether to spend more on the HE-560 or less on the HE-400i. The HE-560 has a smoother response, while the HE-400i has more emphasis in the lower treble. I definitely prefer the HE-560, but I'm not sure the difference is worth almost double the price to me. Whether it's worth it to you is a decision dictated by your pocketbook and your priorities in life.