Nov 23, 2017

With News of an Early Ship Date




I figured I'd add my impressions of the Massdrop X Hifiman HE 4XX in!

Starting with the build quality, I have to say I'm impressed and a little jealous honestly. I own a Hifiman HE 4 one of their legacy planars, and the stock build of the HE 4XX is a real step up from what I remember of my HE 4. Long since modded, I stripped away what felt like cheap plastic from my HE 4 years ago and went with mango wood cups and accents instead. Had my HE 4's original manufacturing felt as good as the HE 4XX, I might have kept it stock.  Plush and well manufactured, the headband is what impresses me most. A little more padded than the original and much more comfortable. The Massdrop team made sure to fix this pain point from the original legacy design. It both sits comfortable atop of my head and balances the weight of the cups well. The headphones overall gave me little to no neck strain or fatigue. They were light weight and easy to manage over long listening periods! 
Another big step forward, new connectors! While not unique to the Massdrop collaboration, I am happy to see Hifiman switch over to a simpler connection. Those old mini RF connectors where a nightmare to swap out... the 2.5mm dual entry cables are much more user friendly. There's a nice weight to the plastic cups and a pleasant matte blue finish on the HE 4XX, additionally the gimbals and slider mechanism are well built. The slider clasps in particular are heftier than what I remember from the OEM equipment on my HE 4. There's a solid in the hand feel with this headphone for sure.  Overall the HE 4XX looks and feels sharp, solid and modern. The classic style headband doesn't make it stand out like Hifiman's own newer hardware nor does it feel as flimsy either.  Hifiman offers two distinct ePad Styles for their circular headphones. The Focus and Focus A Pads, with the latter offering a clearer sound over the former. Hifiman apparently thinks most consumers will prefer the more V Shapped signature of it's classic Focus Pads, thankfully the Massdrop team choose the more balanced Focus A pads as stock hardware for the HE 4XX. I found the Focus A Pads to be both comfortable and breathable. I didn't have any issues with heat or excessive sweat. 
But... looks and build aside, what are the specifications and ultimately how do they sound?
 Specifications  
  • Frequency response: 20 Hz–35 kHz  
  • Sensitivity: 93 dB
  • Impedance: 35 ohms
  • Cable: 4.9 ft (1.5 m), removable
  • Plug: ¼ in (6.35 mm)
  • Weight: 13.1 oz (370 g)
To leave it at good would be a gross understatement, in short these are hands down the most beautiful sounding headphones I've heard in this price range to date!  The Massdrop X Hifiman HE 4XX presents a warm full bodied sound, with a thick meaty low end, warm romantic mid-range and a touch tactility of smoothness up top. It proves itself as a exceptionally well rounded headphone, suitable for a wide variety of genres and file formats. While it scales mildly with more resolving gear, the improvement isn't really worthwhile. It's consistency across a wide variety of both entry level and higher end gear make it just a pleasure to own. 
Low-End Response
  • The lows were quite fun, meatier than lean with excellent kick for drums and a good punch for Electronic Dance Music and DubStep. It is a little loose, all in all it's not too emphasized. It's slight roll off around 50hrz isn't to obvious either.
  • I found the HE 4XX to be phenomenal with D.R.A.M's Dark Lavender Interlude, the sub bass kicks were heavy and drove the music well.
Mid-Range Response
  • A warm full bodied sound characterizes the HE 4XX's presentation of the mid range. While there is some emphasis on decay over attack, there's still a nice touch of tactility and excellent resolve. An while I couldn't find any real faults with the mid range presentation, vocals are what stand out the most in my mind! The HE 4XX proved it self exceptionally well resolved with vocals especially. It maintains both a beautiful gentile tactility and warm romantic quality. 
  • One of my favorite vocalists, Dai Quing Tana, has a distinctly lower register. The HE 4XX was able to present a beautifully romantic sense of weight and body in her vocals while also preserving the delicateness of her lips and breath as she sang! 
Top End Response
  • Neither super impressive nor disappointing, the HE 4XX has good balance and extension up top. There are instances where I'd like a little more energy from it but also times were I appreciate it's more tapered response as well. 
Resolve
  • Again, the HE 4XX does place a little more emphasis on decay rather than attack. While this does soften the sound in general, the HE 4XX retains a nice tactility amidst it's beautiful decay.
  • It's dynamics were neither impressive nor too lacking, they felt sufficient given the price range.
  • Ultimately vocalists and horned instruments had the most resolve comparatively, I found more AHMsamong instruments and information in that category than others. 
  • Speaking of AHMs I found the HE 4XX to max out at about 20 AHMs out of my reference systems, while netting 6 AHMs from my Shanling M2s.
Imaging
  • Proving it self a real people pleaser, the HE 4XX matains a well balanced image. Intimate when needed and a little more spacious when required. Though it was more intimate than wide, and did lack a little depth at times. The HE 4XX also responded well to the imaging characteristic of the amp driving it, there was an impressive bit of flexibility from the HE 4XX especially in regards to making adjustments to the audible image it presented. 
Function & Scale While not needed, an amp is recommend primarily for functional gains in headroom or for having a wider range of listening levels. I used the Line Output of my Shanling M2s to achieve average volumes peaks of only 88.9 dBs. I prefer to have peaks right at 93 dBs. While the M2s offered an excellent quality of sound, I did find my self sometimes needing a little more power to maintain an average listening level of 87dBs. While the HE 4XX does scale with more resolving gear... it's not really worthwhile. Starting with the M2s I was able to net about 6AHMs or "Ahhhh Moments" those moments when you hear something you hadn't before, especially when compared to something like a Superlux HD 668B powered buy just your cell! I had the MOST gains in AHMs when moving from the M2s into the JDS Labs EL Dac with my Pico Power or my GeekOut v2+ I netted an additional 8 AHMs for a total of 14. Each of these systems can be had for around $500, though part of that price is mark related to portability. So for a purely desktop system, $350 is more reasonable.
Finally, moving into my reference level system, complete with upgraded power cables, a power conditioner, Blue Jean Cable inter-connectors all fed from my ESS Sabre Balanced Dac into a Hybrid Tube amp with a hand picked Vintage 6sn7 tube, netted the addition of another 6 AHMs for a total of 20. 
The problem here is how little gains were made from moving out of a Mid Fi system that can be had for around $500 into a one that costs upwards of $2000+ & while technically the reference system had the BEST quality of sound... the improvements were disproportionate given the cost. We have a total of 14 AHMs with an investment of $500, vs a total of 20 AHMs with an investment of at least $2000. So we go from about $35 invested per AHM in the mid range tier, to $100 invested per AHM at reference levels. So ultimately I think the HE 4XX offers the BEST ratio of cost to performance within it's price bracket. I see NO need to recommend any one spend more than $500 on a desktop system.  Let's start with the Shanling M2s, using the line out the M2s HE 4XX combo was outright fun! There's an added touch of kick in the lows and some excellent resolve, the mid range retains beautiful vocal resolve and otherwise romantic decay characteristics. Additionally, the highs open up nicely with the Line Out from the M2s, gaining a little touch of needed tactility. An while the frequency response pairing of the M2S an HE 4XX was spot on, it did lack in imaging and resolve comparatively ultimatley netting 6 AHMs. But, this super simple plug and play combo was just plain FUN! Super convenient to carry and operate while being a real joy to listen to. 

Introducing Hifiman squared, this was really by FAR the most romantic sounding portable system I've ever listened. Unmatched in it's beautiful romantic mid range presentation and natural spacious imaging. But... more often than not it was too much of a good thing! Yes the HM 601 and HE 4XX share a very similar tuning, and yes there's just SUCH a VISCERAL quality to the lows, and YES the mids are to DIE for. But the top end is much to tapered for my tastes, and all that mid range emphasis and decay kinda kills the balance. The HE 4XX no longer has beautiful, tactile mids with a touch of energy... but rather a beautiful, romantic and almost sleepy mid range that's often too soft and slow. While resolve and imaging were some times vastly improved on the HM 601 in comparison to the M2s, the pair'd frequency response of the two is too polarizing and there are still times where the imaging and resolve fall behind that of the M2s.  Depending on your tastes, the HM 601/HE 4XX combo may net you 5 or 7 AHMs. Making the M2s a smarter more consistent recommendation for this headphone. Though after pairing it with a variety of other DAC Amp combinations, I feel it has it's best price to performance ratio in systems ranging from $300-500 total cost. There's a lot of customization here for fine tuning the HE 4XX to what you like best without missing out on too much in terms of resolve. I HIGHLY recommend any one who intends to keep the HE 4XX as their primary headphone to, upon acquiring such a system,  seek NO further upgrades to your DAC/Amp until after you upgrade to another headphone.  At the end of the day, the Massdrop X HE 4XX earns nothing less than my wholehearted recommendation. It's tuned beautifully, for our community by members of our community. It brings enough resolve to be an eye opener and is still forgiving enough to always be pleasurable. Additionally it's modest amping requirements and limited scale really help any one new to this hobby grasp many of the basic concepts of upgrades without having the temptation to fall too deep into the rabbit hole. The next time it drops, if you've never taken the plunge on an "audiophile" headphone I sincerely hope you choose to make this your first and maybe even your last!
For more pictures and detailed comparisons check out the full review on my blog; https://hifilowlight.blogspot.com/
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