These budget Hifiman planar magnetic headphones offer serious sound for not much money. The HE400se is imaging sophistication, which can make your music seem more three-dimensional than other budget pairs. Before buying, bear in mind that its open-back design is most suited to at-home use, and it doesn’t get as loud as more conventional rivals when running off a power-limited source, such as a phone or laptop.
- Excellent value
- Great imaging
- Sound has real depth and height
- Lacks a little bite in the mid-treble
- Open-back design is not suitable for plenty of situations
- Sub-bass can seem a little timid
- Planar magnetic driverLike almost all other Hifiman headphones, this pair uses planar magnetic drivers, which typically produce very low-distortion sound.
- Open-back cupsThe grille on the back of the cups is perforated, leaking sound freely. These headphones provide almost no isolation.
- Removable cableA portable-use-length cable is included, and the headphones have standard 3.5mm stereo connectors at the base of each cup.
The HE400se is Hifiman’s cheapest full-sized set of headphones. For over a decade, this brand has been the budget audio fan’s friend. But while its early cheaper pairs were pretty standard dynamic driver headphones, the HE400se is the real deal.
These planar magnetic headphones look pretty similar to the Hifiman HE6se V2 that once sold for $1,799. So, is the HE400se a match for the latter? Of course not – but it does sound pretty fantastic for the £129 you’ll pay for it online.
For their price, these headphones offer precise and immersive imaging that sounds a lot more three-dimensional than many other pairs around.
Sure, you don’t get the bite and dynamics of the step-up Hifiman Sundara, or the sub-bass slam of a closed-back headphone. But the HE400se comes highly rated for just about all types of listening – as long as you’re at home and not expecting super-high volumes while running off the output of your phone.
- Mixed velour and synthetic leather pads
- Comfy and easy fit
- Open-back, so not that versatile
The Hifiman HE400se is a full-sized open-back headphone set. You can say the same about almost all of Hifiman’s pairs, but this means there are a few essentials to get out of the way first.
You should not buy this set if you want to use it on public transport, in an office, or, really, anywhere outdoors. It leaks sound and barely isolates at all.
For headphone fans, this is kind of stating the obvious, but if you’re just looking for a great-sounding pair you can use anywhere, get a closed-back set.
The HE400se’s design is a direct descendant of the company’s first major headphone release, the HE5. Its cups are entirely round and sit on a sturdy metal hinge.
These cups only articulate one way, but the headband stems themselves twist laterally by about 15 degrees, letting this pair mould to your head pretty effectively. The pads are designed to help here, too. They are slightly sloped, thicker in the back, and thinner at the front, forming a sort of wedge shape.
It’s all in aid of fitting your head better without tilting the cups. I found the HE400se super-comfortable, particularly for a planar magnetic pair, which can get quite heavy. And while this pair is around 20% heavier than the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, there’s lovely thick padding on both cups and headband.
Hifiman has used a mix of velour and synthetic leather for the pads, with perforated inner walls that should help breathability a bit. These are far, far better than the basic pleather rings used in the original Hifiman HE-400, which I first tried a decade ago.
The HE400se’s fit is also less problematic than that of the pricier Hifiman Sundara, which can feel too “clampy” if the headband isn’t opened up enough. The HE400se has an almost fool-proof fit – aside from the possibility of putting it on the wrong way around.
Its build is solid for a budget pair of headphones too. The silver cup housings are plastic, whereas the pricier Hifiman pairs use metal. But there are no creaks as you put these headphones on and no flimsy parts.
The cable is a basic 1.4m affair that attaches to both cups. But as the sockets on the cups are standard 3.5mm, replacing this in the future – if you need or want to – will be easy and cheap.
- Great imaging and separation for the money
- Immersive sound field
- Slightly darker, more relaxed tone than some other Hifiman models
The Hifiman HE400se is a set of planar magnetic headphones, which use larger magnets than traditional dynamic designs. It allows for more linear movement in the diaphragm to generate less distortion. Planar magnetic drivers used to be exclusively found in quite expensive headphones, and Hifiman was arguably the primary force in making them more accessible.
Now, we come to the one reason I think some of you should pause before buying this set. These headphones are super-affordable, but they do not get on that well with sources that have lower output.
The HE400se sounds great plugged into a phone, but you might find that even at maximum volume, it sounds a little quieter than you’d like. I used these headphones to watch a stack of films, and where the average dynamic driver headphone might be set at -33dB on my amplifier, the HE400se sounded about right at -18dB.
Hifiman told me these headphones were designed to be “easier to drive” than their predecessors, but like other planar models, most phones just don’t quite have the juice to make them party-ready loud. Loud enough for casual listening in a quieter room? Sure.
Back to the good stuff: the HE400se’s sound is mostly wonderful and makes this set just as much of a bargain as it initially appears.
Spatial elements are the strongest bits. These headphones have terrific imaging considering their low cost. While the sound isn’t crazy-wide for open-back headphones, strong separation and clarity of positioning kind of let you mentally walk around arrangements in a way that, for example, the generally great Shure SRH840 doesn’t.
The “airiness” – as it’s often called – is one of the top reasons to buy a set of open-back headphones like this. But the HE400se also has characteristics that plenty of other open-back headphones lack. For example, there’s a greater sense of height here than with the AKG K701, making music seem more three-dimensional.
The AKG wins for width, but I find the HE400se’s sound field presentation ultimately more engaging.
These headphones are also much less likely to seem tiring in a listening sense than some other top Hifiman models. And their bass is, for the most part, clear, clean-sounding, measured and powerful.
However, the HE400se doesn’t have the true slam of the earliest Hifiman pairs, and the sub-bass is quite reserved. But I think this only becomes obvious if you’re listening to action movies or electronic music where that super-low rumbly bass can become a star. If that is going to be an issue, then at this kind of budget, you’re probably better off with closed-back headphones.
What you get for the money here is excellent, mind. The HE400se has a more neutral presentation than the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, and it sounds richer – less clinical – than the similarly priced AKG Studio headphones.
Compare the HE400se to the Hifiman Sundara and you start to hear what you can get for a little more money – or well, at double the cost.
The Sundara is significantly brighter-sounding than the HE400se. While Hifiman’s headphones have occasionally been described as fatiguing over the years, the HE400se has a surprisingly conservative amount of bite in the lower treble. It makes vocals sound a little darker than usual.
I also find the midrange texture a little soft, compared with that of the Sundara and other open-back headphones that sound less warm than the HE400se. The Sundara sounds faster, more vital and dynamic, and still three-dimensional.
But while terms like softness and a darker-sounding treble normally don’t go together with a super-open and well-separated sound, they do with the HE400se – and that says a lot about Hifiman’s planar magnetic drivers.
Should you buy it?
These are ideal headphones for someone looking for their first “serious” set, where sound quality is valued over practicality. The sound per pound/dollar is excellent, and they are comfortable too.
These headphones won’t sound that loud when driven directly from a phone or laptop. Also, bear in mind that the open-back sound does not isolate you from outside noise.
The Hifiman HE400se is among the better-performing headphone sets you can get for the money. It can paint sound in a three-dimensional space very well while also pulling it in more spatial directions than some of the better, affordable open-back headphones.
Like a lot of open-back pairs, the HE400se doesn’t have bags of sub-bass slam, but standard-register bass sounds confident and solid. I think if anything’s going to put the audio fan off, it’s the slight softness in the upper mids and low treble, which gives these headphones less bite and a more relaxed vibe than the step-up Hifiman Sundara.
However, this helps make the HE400se great for all-day casual listening while also handling close listening and movies very well. If you’re buying your first serious set of headphones, just bear in mind they didn’t get as loud as virtually any dynamic driver pair I’ve tried in recent memory – which may be an issue if you want to run them off a phone.
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Tested for more than a week
Compared to other headphones
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The cable is roughly 1.4m long and plugs into the headphone cups using 3.5mm jacks.
While these headphones sound good running off a phone or laptop, you may find they don’t get quite loud enough with these lower-power sources.
Stealth is a proprietary Hifiman magnet design that aims to reduce interference.
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