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HiFiMan HM-602 + HE-4:
As expected this player clearly showed the differences between 16-bit and 24-bit files both over an external amplifier and with its own output stage. Driving headphone amps was very open and clear and far superior to what an iPod is capable of. What surprised me most was the outstanding clarity. When I played some pieces to my friend he noticed the same thing but also felt there was too much treble energy. It was not about sounding harsh or bright. We both agreed that the tonal balance was good. He simply wasn't used to such clarity. He first commented when he took off the headphones, then put them back on and kept listening. After some more time had elapsed he changed his mind. “Wow, that's how it must have sounded in the studio” he said; “I could hear each murmur, each tonal or intonation change, each time a finger touched a string and so on. It was so audible because the microphone enlarged it all”.

I had to agree. I could hear amazing detail with 24/96 files but also plain CD rips. As you know microphones works a bit like a magnifying glass. This was no system flaw then for showing it accordingly. I would even say that only when you can hear this effect the work of the system is done at least in this regard. Again, this was an incredibly clear sound with quite a strong treble, meaning an open and wide top end not just present in amplitude. This proved to be a consistent quality. It was always presented in this same fashion so that when I changed a recording it revealed its own character but the way of the presentation remained the same. Bass was not overwhelming in terms of output but its quality was astonishing for what could be delivered by headphones. These HifiMan cans offered one of the most precise and clear bass presentations I know of. When listening to a 24-bit/44.1kHz rip of Recoil’s SubHuman I did however miss the stronger bass foundation which so benefited the extremely fabulous richness of the Sennheiser HD800 with my Leben CS-300 XS Custom Version combo. That’s probably exactly why the virtual images (remaining mindful that this was a headphone presentation) were a bit smaller than those from my reference system. But on clarity, dynamics and speed the HiFiMan had the advantage.

To work the HM-602 player with its stable mate HE-4 I had to use the high-gain setting even though it still wasn't really sufficient for recordings with full dynamic range like Heartplay by Antonio Forcione & Charlie Haden (24/96) or Structures by John Abercromby & Eddie Gomez (24/96) where the median level is low. Don't get me wrong, I had no issue to play them successfully but I simply wished I could crank things a bit higher. When listening to CDs but also Pop or Rock 24/44.1 rips like Depeche Mode issued as Collector’s Edition I had an impression of the presentation being ‘overcharged’ but with Jazz recordings I sometimes lacked dynamics.

HiFiMan HM-602 + Sennheiser HD800: To use the Sennheiser HD800 on the portable player I had to select high gain again. This combo no longer sounded as clear and precise as the HiFiMan headphones. Those are simply way ahead of classic dynamic headphones for which the HD800 up until now had been my reference for these particular qualities. Using the German headphones resulted in a more relaxed sound with a less precise treble and more focus on the midrange. The bass was stronger but not as extended. I thought it was this player’s sonic signature. It is capable of extremely precise midrange and treble with no sign of brightness or harshness - simply perfect. The bass too is precise but not ultimately extended at least if we use full-range headphones. I found another advantage for the Sennheisers whose soundstage was wider and deeper where the HE-4 had some comparable limitations.

I also paired the HiFiMan player with my AKG K701 for a short period but didn't care for the effect. This pairing produced too much emphasis on the upper midrange which undermined coherence. I believe that the HE-4 in fact had the best control over the vocal range and was capable of delivering more information in a more natural way than either the Sennheiser or AKG.

EF-5 + HE-4: The performance of the HifiMan headphones plus matching EF-5 amplifier (with my Ancient Audio Air deck as source) was quite similar to being paired directly with the HM-602 player. The sound was dominated by clarity and dynamics. The external power supply added more flexibility to the volume range and there was no audible dynamic compression even in its lo-gain setting. Very quickly I realized that there was a distinct attribute to the EF-5's sound that in my opinion should make you look for other headphones.

I think the tonal balance of HiFiMan's amp is slightly shifted up. It doesn't make it bad but I craved for the richness and density of my reference system. On the other hand there still was fantastic speed, clarity and dynamics. The most important difference at least how I saw it was the intensity of presentation. With the HiFiMan system I felt like as though the sound was uploaded directly into my brain. Peszkówna on Miasto Mania had extremely powerful vocals with additional effects presented across a very wide soundstage. That's what one should expect when listening to this music over headphones. Just one flaw remained. Bass extension wasn't good enough yet.

EF-5 + AKG K701: Searching for the best combo I ran through all the headphones on hand - Sennheiser HD800 (a bit too much treble for my taste), Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro (original edition) and last but not least the AKG K701. I found the latter to be the best match for the EF-5. The sound was very creamy, human voices were outstanding and things never got too bright. Tone colors were deep rather than pastel, the overall balance was moved towards the lower midrange and even though the bass still wasn't extended enough I could finally enjoy the presentation without complaining.

That's probably why during the first days of my audition I enjoyed mostly vocal recordings, many of them in the SHM-CD format by Decca including Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella in a mellow mood, Carmen McRea’s Book of Ballads and Torchy!, Jeri Southern’s The Southern Style and Brenda Lee’s Reflections in Blue. I realize that's a lot of titles but I wanted to give you the right idea. The sound was delicious – creamy yet precise, with pastel colors but great definition. I really liked the dynamics delivered by the AKG which usually isn’t their strong suit. All these albums except for Brenda Lee's were recorded between 1954 and 1958 and are simply fabulous material. A system built around the HiFiMan amp and AKG cans is perfect to deliver such marvelous music.