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This is the 19th in a series of reviews dedicated to the concept of 32Ohm Audio as embodied by the store of that name in downtown Portland/Oregon and described here - Ed.

Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Ancient Audio Lektor Prime, 1TB iMac (AIFF) via FireWire into Weiss DAC2, Yamamoto YDA-01, iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF) via Peachtree Audio iDecco as DAC
Amplifier: Woo Audio Model 5 with EML 5U4G, Synergy 6SN7 and Shuguang Black Treasure 300Bs; Trafomatic Audio Head One; Burson Audio HA-160 [on loan]; Meier Audio Corda Concerto [on loan]
Digital cables: Firewire 800 - LaCie; S/PDIF - Stealth Audio Varidig, Black Cat Cable Veloce; USB - ALO Audio and Entreq
All other cables: ASI Liveline
Stands: 2 x ASI HeartSong 3-tier, 2 x ASI HeartSong amp stand
Powerline conditioning: 1 x Walker Audio Velocitor S, 1 x Furutech RTP6
Sundry accessories: Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters, Advanced Acoustics Orbis Wall & Corner units
Review Component Retail: $399 for amplifier, $699 for headphones

. For a line of ambitious Chinese products, the name HifiMan conjures up Sony's Walkman. In today's iAge, that rings somewhat displaced and dated. Naming clearly isn't the forté of Head-Direct's Fang Bian whose premium brand this is. But, HeadRoom calls his Yuin PK1 and PK2 "the best-performing earbuds in the business".

That endorsement is serious. Montana's headfi geeks are in the know on all things headphone. Personally, first dealings with Head-Direct came during my review of their imported Qinpu system. That tiny rig punched way above its weight and recently sent Joey Roth's stylish ceramic speakers back to the drawing board. But this time Mr. Bian proposed his own brand, specifically his new statement earspeakers and matching headphone amp.

The EF5 is a smartly styled glossy black single-input headphone amplifier with outboard power supply. The main unit with translucent plexi top runs a 12AU7 input stage and OPA275 transistor outputs. This hybrid circuit generates up to 15 volts into 32 ohms. As we'll see, such potency is a good thing. It's by design and necessity. Dimensions are 110 x 50 x 270 mm WxHxD - times two of course since there's two enclosures linked by 2-pin umbilical with integral ferrite clamp.

The HE-5LE headphones meanwhile are open-backed circumaural designs. They combine a Grado-type fixed leather-clad and padded bridge with sliding stems to adjust for head size. The swivel cups rotate in two axes to conform to head shape. Ear pads are Beyer-type plush velour. The Y leash is detachable from the cups via screw-collar plugs. It terminates in a 4-pin Neutrik like the AKG K-1000s of yore. To this Neutrik couples its counterpart socket to complete the last stretch of the straight umbilical to the amplifier.

This terminates in the usual 1/4-inch plug, another quality Neutrik. Complete or partial cable replacement is thus child's play (one set of extra ear-cup terminations included). Ditto balanced drive without rewiring, i.e. running these cans with dedicated grounds per channel rather than the common shared ground. My Woo Audio Model 5's neglected K-1000 port was just the ticket to explore that. Total length of the two-piece leash is 7 feet. What's beneath the ear covers is unusual. These aren't dynamic drivers but planar-magnetic film diaphragms of aluminum-coated Mylar stretched between two perforated magnetized plates. Not often does one encounter on-ear Magnepans (there are some by Fostex and Audeze - LCD-2 by Audeze above left).

As planars, efficiency is predictably poor and only 87.5dB/1mW. This mandates butch amplification with superior current delivery. My Peachtree Audio iDecco for instance wasn't entirely up to the task. Sheer SPLs were sufficient in its volume control's final quadrant but sonics suffered from sluggishness and some indistinctiveness. Incidentally the LE model replaces the quickly discontinued HE5 at left whose wooden cups were prone to cracks. The LE's lighter cups are now molded black plastic with a honeycomb plastic grill.

The Mylar voice-coil traces are said to be thinner than the short-lived predecessor's for better bass while conductor quality of the umbilical was upgraded from an earlier silver to now OFC copper. Impedance is a low 30 ohms, weight 402g sans cable. These earspeakers arrive in a luxurious wooden box similar to other statement headphones.

Overall first impressions on appearance, build and exceptional wear comfort suggested that its creators put a lot of effort behind this design. It's not a fashion statement but serious assault at this market's upper level. Where pricing for designer 'phones from Grado to Sennheiser well exceeds $1.000 today while some approach two grand, HiFiMan's at $699 sits strategically in the upper mid rather than top sector. It seemingly aims at being best at its price.

With the usual competitors on hand (AKG K-702 and K1000, both rewired; Audio-Technica W5000; Grado PS1000; Sennheiser HD800 also rewired) plus sufficiently muscular amps from Burson, Corda, KingRex, Trafomatic and Woo, ambition would quickly get cut back to size unless it were backed up by real sonic delivery.

What could Fang Bian tell us about these products while his planar cans were breaking in to hopefully shed their initial phase of Slytherin sibilance? Right off the bat, the amp was dead quiet and had tons of gain for the job. And despite the apparently very bowed and thus narrow metal bridge—far better padded than Grado's PS-1000—the headphones fit my big noggin supremely comfortable without expected vise pressure. No Sennheiser HD650 torture. Another instant surprise was bass extension from the barely-there Mylar film. Mercan Dede's 800 was far from malnourished and pounded with gusto. A promising start then to build on whilst the gear underwent the usual break-in wake up.

On features, the HE-5LE caters to diehard headfiers and inveterate tweakers with its easily replaceable wire harness and balanced drive option (requiring a suitably wired headphone amp with the matching 4-pin Neutrik input). Such tweak-ready status demonstrates Fang Bian's prior experience with deeply involved headphone enthusiasts:

"Our planar headphone project started in early 2009. Because one can source the very best magnets right here in China, we decided to create a high-end planar headphone. Our first prototype was only 4 ohms and we had to add a resistor to the driver to make it work with headphone amplifiers. Then we learnt how to print a thinner voice coil onto the Mylar diaphragm. The thinner the coil, the higher the impedance. The HE-5 was 25 ohms, the HE-5LE is 38 ohms. The original HE-5 had two shortcomings that needed correcting:

• The wood cracked. The defect rate was about 5% and unacceptable to us. We couldn't find a consistent wood supplier and the new plastic cup is much lighter so we gained two ways.
• The old HE-5 could easily sound too bright in many amplifiers. Because not everybody wants to buy a new amp to suit our headphones, we toned down the highs a little and built out the midrange and bass. We now also provide a 4-pin balanced connector so all amps designed for the AKG K1000 will work with the HE-5LE. The frequency response of the HR-5LE is a very broad 10Hz to 60.000Hz.

About our EF5 amplifier, the 12AU7 is used in the input stage. The op amp is in the output with a discrete component buffer circuit. The EF5 is very powerful and will provide 2 watts per channel into our 32 ohm load.