The HIFIMAN HE5se: bring it back, now... please!
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Welcome all, welcome back to the Neighborhood! It’s Your Friendly Neighborhood Reviewer, with InToit Reviews. Today we’re taking a look at a somewhat difficult to find headphone from HIFIMAN. The HE5se. This headphone wasn’t out for very long, and reviews were all over the place. Some loved it and others hated it. And, I think the issue here is that the reviewers who hated this set, didn’t really spend enough time with this set or utilize the right gear to accompany it- leading to errant and uninformed conclusions, unfortunately for the HE5se and the rest of the audiophile community, as HIFIMAN has ceased production in recent months. So, the HIFIMAN HE5se, let’s get InToit!
The build of the HE5se is like the Sundara, HE400i 2020, and the Deva had a love child. This is the metal headband and leather strap of the Sundara, with the driver mounted in round plastic cups with metal grills like the 400i 2020, and pads with a jersey material to rest against your face like that of the Deva. Unlike the Sundara, and more like the Deva, these pads were firmer, and were less squishy, so my ear was never in jeopardy of touching the driver. Further, the outside of this pads appears to be some variant of nonperforated protein leather, while the inside is the same material, but perforated. The HE5se sounded perfect, as is with these pads, in my opinion, so I felt no need to experiment with pad swaps in this instance. And before we move away from the build, I should note that the plastic used in the cups felt slightly more premium in comparison to the 400i 2020, but not as premium thick or heavy as the 4XX. This made for an extremely light headphone, who’s suspension strap distributed its weight well, and I was able to listen to this set for hours without any comfort issues. It is much lighter than both a Sundara and a HE4XX. If I had one criticism of the build here, it would be that like the Sundara, Ananda, which share this headband, there is no swivel at the yolk joints, as I would prefer.
The cable initiates at the cup in dual 3.5mm connectors like most other HIFIMANs these days, and it comes with a cable, which terminates in a right-angled, 3.5mm, TRS connection with a quarter inch adapter. As my test unit was provided by a member of the Neighborhood, I not only received the stock cable in the box, but also a Hart Audio Cable and a Viking Weave Cable. For most of my testing, I stuck with the latter, for no particular reason, other than that I dig the aesthetics of it. I spoke about these cables a bit in my Arya review, and like that review, I’ll place a information in the description below that will help you access Viking Weave Cables or Hart Audio Cables if you like, as you most likely already know that I am a proponent of theirs as well.
So, the sound of the HE5se is somewhat unique, and I think that this had led to confusion, and misunderstanding of this set in general, as I already alluded to in the introduction. And I’m going to come out and say that this is one of my favorite HIFIMANs to have graced my ears to date. And there are a number of reasons for this, that we’ll get into.
To start with, the timbre here is excellent, which is a rarity for planars and HIFIMAN alike. And not to spoil the upcoming review of the Deva, but I’m a big fan of the Deva’s timbre, and the timbre of the HE5se tops it. In the course of my testing, I came across to the song “Palace” by the Amazons, and in listening this track’s vocals and piano on the HE5se, I felt swept up with emotion, and almost wept. I would describe its general timbre as "roundedly" flat, and slightly warm. This may be the most natural sounding HIFIMAN that I have heard to date, period, and its listenability is epic. This is, without question, an all day listen, as pleasantness is always maintained, and any ear fatigue is generally avoided.
This is a very detailed set too, and softly so. Clarity and resolution are excellent, especially considering there is a rounded edge to its notes, and it is such a relaxing listen. So sibilance is never an issue with this set. The general presentation comes across as more of a V-shaped one, with much of the mid-range instrumentation occurring with reduced presence compared to the rest of the mix. Having said that, the mid-range is still articulate, and present enough in my opinion. Vocals occur more in the mix for the most part, and occur mostly on top of the mid-range instruments. As the lower components and middle character of the mid-range was generally less pronounced in comparison to the upper mid-range, male vocals sometimes come across as more recessed in comparison to female ones.
The treble has some decent air to it here, but like its mid-range, the upper elevations of the HE5se mostly present themselves as relaxed. I also found there to be less glare in the treble of the HE5se than in some other HIFIMAN planars I have reviewed to date. However; on some tracks, the HE5se did come across as traditionally dark, meaning that the treble was lacking in treble extension, here or there, but I mostly felt that things were well extended enough overall; and with enough articulation and detail to its global presentation too. The classic, “Right Off,” by Miles Davis was engaging on the HE5se, and was delivered in a smooth and expressive manner. The trumpet on this track can become strident and fatiguing on the wrong set, but this was not a problem for the HE5se, as it handled this song’s unforgiving sonics with elegance and grace.
The bass on the HE5se is also very good. I just reviewed the Arya on the channel, and while I’m not going to say that the HEse can really keep up with that set, it is well distributed overall, and more evenly represented across its bass frequencies nevertheless. So auditorily, there is more sub-bass representation here than say a HE4XX, and less of a mid-bass hump in comparison, even if there is still some roll-off at its very bottom-end. There is just less sub-bass rumble here compared to a larger planar like the Arya, which will have more sub-bass presence in contrast to the HE5se. But, given both the HE5se’s size and sound profile, the bass here is pretty gangster all the same. The song, “Breathe Into Me” by Marian Hill was a good example of what the HE5se is capable of. On the HE5se, the bass on this song sounded like the deep pulse of a heartrate monitor, and provided excellent impact and depth to the sonics of this track.
The soundstage on the HE5se is pretty interesting, and unique too, but it won’t be for everybody. Instead of being immersive where one feels within the music, the HE5se chooses to present a very different picture instead. A picture where the sounds are occurring slightly out and in front of the listener somewhat, instead of directly from side-to-side, as one would expect. It’s like the soundscape is presented on platter slightly down and out in front of you, and you are looking down upon it with your ears. Listening to the song: “Would?” by Alice in Chains, I felt as if I was live at the concert venue, looking down upon the stage.
But, within its soundscape, imagining tracks excellently, there is very good separation, and instrument distinction, and placement accuracy is above average. Sound stage width isn’t the widest, but it is decently wide and similar to HE4xx or HE400i, while soundstage heigh was larger than expected, but like the 4XX, depth of field is somewhat limited and more 2D in comparison to something like a Sundara. Transients are a good mix of sot, accurate, and pleasing, and decay was extremely life-like- a strength of this set compared to its brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, peripherals were rather articulate, and I never found them to be lacking in either clarity nor detail.
With regard to amplifier pairings, another reason I adore this set is that it seems to have a particular affinity, or synergy with my Gold Note DS-10 Plus. This is one of my favorite headphones for the Gold Note, along with the DT177X GO, DT880 600 Ohm Special Edition, E-MU Teak, and Aeon Open X. With the DS-10, the HE5se sounded well timbred for vocals and instrumentation alike. The sound could be described as luxuriously ambient, detailed, open and clear. Pairing the DS-10 and the HE5se contributed enough fullness and body to the auditory picture such that I was never left unsatisfied. I also found that the HE5se sounded fairly good on the Bravo Ocean as well, especially when it was seated with a Mullard Tube. But this presentation was ultimately more run-of-the-mill compared to the Gold Note with the HE5se or the HE4XX with the Bravo Ocean.
Idiosyncratically for a HIFIMAN planar, the HE5se did display signs of amp particularity, which was unfortunate. For example, unlike most HIFIMANs, the HE5se did not pair well with the THX AAA 789. On the 789, the HE5se came across as somewhat odd sounding on particular tracks. It’s hard to put into words, other than to say that it was somewhat artificial in its presentation. Nevertheless, it’s not a pairing I’m going to recommend. Furthermore, on the Geshelli Labs Archel Pro, it sounded simplistically hallow, and lacked coherence and definition. Perhaps it is because of its peculiar preferences for particular amps that the collective of previous reviews was so split in terms of its judgment of this set.
So, what else can I say about the HIFIMAN HE5se, other than, bring it back… please! I like this planar a lot. And if it were still available, I would buy one immediately. It works that well with my Gold Note DS-10 Plus, set on Hi gain. And, its detailed and articulate, yet I can listen to it for hours.
Unfortunately, at this time, this headphone has been discontinued by HIFIMAN, and it is unavailable. I think what happened here, is that, originally, the price of this planar was set way too high. At its release, the HE5se was valued at $699 by HIFIMAN, due the fact that it was produced in a limited run of 500 units and was supposedly drawing upon its roots from the prior production, wood-cupped HE5.
And, I’m not shocked that this headphone didn’t sell, at that price. While it is detailed enough to support such a price tag, its presentation otherwise does not suggest it. If I were to guess the price of this unit after listening to it, I would certainly suspect it to be under $400 dollars, even though I do adore its performance. So, this unit didn’t sell particularly well until the price came down, and towards the end of its life on Adorama Camera, these sold for as little as $199. And, I’ll add not purchasing these headphones at that price to my list of regrets in 2020.
Nevertheless, if one does come up for sale on ebay, or something like that, I would look at the HE5se’s capabilities as laying somewhere in between that of the HE4XX and the HIFIMAN Sundara, and I would expect it to be priced as such. I look at the performance of the HE5se as more of a 4XX alternative than a replacement for it, as its V-shaped presentation won’t be for everyone.
Having said that, if were given the choice between this headphone, and the Sundara, I would pick this can every time. And, I generally don’t prefer V-shaped presentations either. I think a member of the Neighborhood from my Discord summed it up quite well when he acclaimed that the Sundara is for audiophiles that like sounds, while a headphone such as the HE5se is for an audiophile who appreciates the music. And, this is definitely a more musical presentation, with less “hifi fireworks” going on here in the case of the HE5se than in the case of the Sundara, as that headphone is definitively more analytical and technical compared to this one. So, the Sundara is “flashier,” but the HE5se just feels more “right,” at least to my ears.
So, my hope is that HIFIMAN will consider bringing this headphone back, but charging a more appropriate price for it in the future. At a price around $200-250, these would sure sell as an HE4XX alternative. In the meantime, I will hope that reviews such as this one will garner enough attention from the audiophile community for HIFIMAN to consider it; as I know this headphone already has a cult following- a cult whose numbers would surely grow with additional units of this headphone on the market. And with that, I’m out, for now…
*Gold Note DS-10 and PSU-10 EVO, Power Supply available at: https://gestalt.audio/
*Viking Weave Cables ordered by emailing Skedra at: VikingWeaveCables@gmail.com
*Hart Audio Cables: https://hartaudiocables.com/
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