Are wireless headphones finally catching up to their passive siblings? I’m not prepared to go that far yet but the technology is evolving at a rapid rate and I won’t be surprised when the sonic performance overlaps in the future.
HiFiMAN is likely to be the brand that crosses that divide faster than anyone else; the brand has been synonymous with leading edge planar magnetic driver technology and open-back designs that deliver on that promise of sonic excellence.
It is also not a brand that has strayed too far from the path that made it successful; the few times that it has gone off the reservation were not met with success. Models like the HE-300 may not have been a bad headphone, but the HiFiMAN customer ran for the hills because it was so different than what came before.
The brand strayed from the “open” and detailed sound that made it stand out in a very crowded field and the absence of dynamics and micro detail turned listeners off.
More recently, HiFiMAN paid homage to the Sony R10 with a design that offered either a planar or dynamic driver that mimicked the performance of the original R10.
Imitation is a form of flattery but not everyone thinks that to be the case; consumers spending between $1,500 and $5,000 for a pair of headphones expect engineering and sonic performance that far exceeds what came before it.
HiFiMAN did not cut corners on the driver technology in either model and it is worth your time to understand what inspired both designs; the inspiration came from their earphone models as opposed to anything that you wear on your head.
Dynamic drivers for IEMs and earbuds have proven to be quite profitable for HiFiMAN which has experienced solid sales with the RE400, RE800, RE2000 Silver, and RE2000 Gold models. Its “Topology” driver utilizes a diaphragm with a very specific set of coatings that created micro patterns in the surface.
The concept behind this technology came from Dr. Fang Bian’s Ph.D thesis on Nano-Particles on the surface of the driver and it’s now become a reality with its products.
The HE-R9 feels like a mixture of multiple products including the shell shape of the Sony R10, a enlarged version of the RE2000’s driver, and other items from recent HiFiMAN headphones.
Does this make it a mutt? It certainly performs like a thoroughbred but all of the bits and pieces are a mixed bag in some ways.
The HE-R9 is a full-sized closed back headphone with a shape very reminiscent of the R10, but with a build that is much more composite material than the wood and metal of its spiritual ancestor.
Be prepared to be somewhat nonplussed when you handle them the first time. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to handle an R10 or one of the big Fostex or Denon wooden closed-back headphones, you know they are not light; almost clunky or heavy in your hands.
In contrast, the HE-R9 feel almost too light at only 11.5 ounces. EIC Ian White emailed me from the NYC CanJam and was taken aback by the weight and what he called “strange build quality.” I can’t totally disagree with that.
The original HE-6 were nearly 18 ounces and an open-back design.
I’ll admit that my first impression included some hesitancy and skepticism as I unboxed them, but the materials used do have proper metal parts at high stress points and the cups are tougher than the weight might suggest.
I don’t think these are a great book bag headphone if they are going to be subjected to constant battering, but they do make for a more comfortable headphone with the new style headband (discussed in the Edition XS review) and medium clamping force.
The ear pads are hybrids with leather sides just shy of an inch tall and a velour face where they contact skin. This gives the ear adequate space inside the pad and keeps them from getting too warm during long listening sessions.
HiFiMAN has listened to its customers in that regard and it’s a good sign that the brand takes feedback quite seriously.
The adjustments are by click for height with detents easily seen on the inside of the top portion of the gimbals. Looking closely, you’ll see another trick HiFiMAN has implemented. In older designs, it was common to have headphones with a single jack on one cup and a wire that ran between cups to provide the signal to the offhand side.
Then came the balanced craze and many conversions of older style headphones to have two jacks, one on each cup and separate connections to the drivers.
Today, most audiophile headphones offer the one jack per cup design as it can still be run as single-ended (and that is still the most common cable provided with headphones), and those who want to use balanced amplifiers need only to change cables to do so.
The HE-R9 adopts both approaches; it has 3.5mm jacks on both cups, but of different types and the left side is marked TRRS and uses a 4-pole connector while the right side uses a standard TRS jack.
The reason for this is that there is a wire that runs between cups but instead of carrying signal between the two when a cable is plugged in, it is only used when the BlueMini Bluetooth module is added.
When a cable is used the two tip and 1st ring connections are established by the two respective connections and provide signal to the driver on the same side. The wire between the two cups ties to the 2nd ring and shaft on left and the terminals on the right driver.
With no second ring on the left connector, both wires are grounded to the shaft and out of play. When the BlueMini is connected those additional two poles become the path from the left cup where the device plugs in, to the right driver. It’s a clever way to offer both the option of balanced while still offering Bluetooth.
Internally, the driver is a new 50mm version of the Topology driver with several notable advancements. The tiny drivers in the RE2000s are probably the closest direct ancestor and at 60 ohms were harder to drive than many IEMs.
The HE-R9 has a nominal impedance of only 32 ohms and a sensitivity of 100dB/mW (at 1kHz under 32Ω load) making it easier to drive than its ancestors; with a frequency response of 15Hz to 45kHz it has much more room at the top as well.
For purposes of listening notes, I paired the HiFiMAN HE-R9 with the RME ADI-2 FS Black and the Auris Euterpe. These two stand in stark contrast with the RME being solid state and the Euterpe being a tube headphone amplifier.
The RME is all about detail and the Euterpe is more about musicality. I wanted to see what brought out the best in the HE-R9; both had plenty of power to drive the headphones, as did a number of portables like the Fiio M11Plus LTD, Sony NW300, and Shanling M6 so those who want to the use the HE-R9 as a traveling companion will have no issues finding a pairing that works.
I also did some listening with the BlueMini and while it powered the HE-R9s better than most other BT boxes, the Quedelix 5K wasn’t that far behind.
I’ll be doing a full review on the BlueMini itself so less to write here. For our purposes, when using the BlueMini you lose a bit of dynamic range compared to my other sources, and you lose a bit of texture at times. It is a surprisingly good setup, but it does have some limitations.
The overall signature is a shallow V with a warm, and at times slightly dark signature; It delivers good note weight, a wide dynamic range, and good resolution.
At the low end, there is enough sub-bass to satisfy as it has no trouble dropping into the lower 20Hz range. The sub-bass emphasis peaks around 60Hz and then gradually falls back as we move through the mid-bass.
The mid bass has enough speed and texture to sound clean and fairly tight even if it does sound a touch ragged at times.
The HE-R9 is midrange focused and that starts with a mildly emphasized lower midrange that gives lower vocals a nice lift and good presence and does good things for both electric bass and the cello.
Textures are good as well; vocals have good timbre and guitars have a nice growl with enough edge to be believable. One caveat here is that as volumes get higher, that edge gets sharper and the R9 takes on a more aggressive tone.
I found these best for normal listening volumes and if auditioned at 95 dB you may find these utterly different than what I report. When listening at normal levels, the mids are quite clean with good detail. Violins are well presented and have good energy and piano has good note separation and clear strikes and decay.
The upper midrange again starts to lift a little so female vocals are pushed forward in the mix slightly ahead of the instrumentation; the separation is also more realistic in comparison to other headphones in the same price range.
The lower treble starts on the same level as the upper mids before gracefully stepping back and even with the emphasis in the lower treble it never quite reaches the level of the lows leaving the HE-R9 with a slight warmth lingering over all of it.
There is some air at the top but like most closed back headphones, it feels a little less voluminous and open than the typical open back here. Snare rattle is good but cymbals lack the energy to be entirely realistic.
The upshot is the HE-R9 is not a fatiguing headphone and will be a good choice for the more treble sensitive among us; those looking for the last degree of detail will not find it with these headphones.
The soundstage is quite good for a closed back and honestly some of the credit goes back to Sony and the original R10 design team. The design of the cups was something Sony was quite proud of when the R10 released because of the amount of reflection it was said to eliminate.
In short, a lot of time and energy went into the design to try to make a closed back that didn’t sound like one. HiFiMAN started from that point and updated the materials and optimized the internals for this specific driver. The result is a stage with slightly more width than depth and good height as well.
Seating the orchestra is straight forward with no big gaps or overlaps and overall the HE-R9 comes closer to holographic than one expects for the price. I
Instrument separation and imaging are both good, but not spectacular which brings the HE-R9 back out of R10 territory. The imaging is good but it’s more diffuse and instruments are not carved deeply in place.
The HiFiMAN HE-R9 do a lot of things really well for $599 — better than a lot of other headphones in the same price range. That was the asking price when I received the R9 for review. As of today, the price has dropped to $369.
I’m sure if you will not be able to find a better performing pair of closed-back headphones at the current price.
However, the build quality and construction are likely to raise some eyebrows; the first time you lift them up — the lack of heft will probably cause some concern in regard to durability and the construction.
In your hand, they will fail to impress. On your head — they might be the ideal headphones for a lot of people.
The ability to add the BlueMini is a cool feature and the drivability opens a lot of source options. I liked the euphonic quality the Euterpe gives them, but can’t say they did badly on the RME or anything else I tried them on. With a slightly warm tilt, it might be advisable to stay away from sources that impart a lot of warmth themselves, but otherwise options abound.
HiFiMAN are on a roll in 2022. Definitely worth a listen.