Free-range X

Unusual planar-magnetic lows with thrilling highs — HiFiMan delivers a superb headphone, and one happy to play even from portable sources.

HifiMan (the company writes its name all in caps, local distributor Addicted to Audio has it as HiFiMAN; we prefer to keep caps for acronyms) was founded by one Dr Fang (Fang Bian) in 2007, and the Chinese company he created was soon delivering a stream of planar magnetic headphones, starting with the release of the HE-5 in 2009 (HifiMan’s website says 2007, but then it also has HiFiMan founded in New York, rather than Tianjin). These planar designs garnered increasingly positive reviews, but Dr Fang was not satisfied only with the playback end of the audio chain, and in 2010 the company released a very early high-res portable player (this was, for example, two years before the first Astell&Kern AK100 appeared).

Leading-edge stuff, then, now bolstered by amplification electronics and here, one of its latest releases, quite a rarity, if not a first — a planar magnetic headphone that the company says is suitable for use with smartphones and other portable devices, as well as at home, preferably with a high quality headphone amp.
With this end in mind the Edition X is supplied with two different cables, both using 2.5mm microjack plugs that connect into both headshells. The first cable is 1.5m long and terminates in a right-angled stereo minijack ideal for those portable purposes — though lacking inline controls and so using a simple three-section TRS plug rather than the four-section TRRS shanks which allow for microphone and control connections to smart devices. A useful minijack to quarter-inch converter plug is provided for this cable, but for home use a separate cable with a properly bonded quarter-inch plug is also in the box, with a full three-metre length to avoid those inadvertent head-jerking moments. Both cables are tightly braided and appear of high quality.
The headphones themselves are beautifully and pleasingly personally presented, in high-quality packaging with plush insides, cards with stamped serial numbers, and a friendly invitation to stay in touch with Hi-FiMan in Tianjin.
The Edition Xs are sizeable, with 13cm-high headshells that are asymmetric in being shaped like ears — which strikes us as remarkably sensible. Build quality is high, with internally invisible swivel hinges and an unusually high and wide but very light headband; they weigh 400 grams but once on your head they are among the most comfortable headwear we’ve had the pleasure of donning, their velour and pleather earcups not so much coddling as cuddling your head. With the adjustable headstrap tilted to the top of our skull, there was barely sense of wearing these headphones at all. Wonderful. 
As was the sound. We gather there’s trickle-down tech here from HiFiMan’s HE-1000 at around double the price, and certainly they deliver instantly on the planar promise of speed, detail and accuracy. But they also overcome the lightness of bass that so often distresses us with planar and electrostatic designs. With the Edition X connected to our iPod touch we tried Blur’s ‘Ice Cream Man’ to hear the deep pulses at the head of each bar — delivered here not only with the requisite depth but with its solidity of thud that gets softened by lesser or overemphasised headphones. 
The low content of Neil Young’s ‘Walk With Me’ confirmed this delivery of bass as present and clean but far from in your face — bass monsters these are not, yet there’s enough real stuff to balance the planar delights of midrange and top-end. Because that’s where these headphones shine — they proved darned near divine delivering the popular Adagio from Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto De Aranjeuz’ (Rattle’s CBSO), the spread of swelling strings to left and right, the central guitar revealed down to the sharp edges of the last pluck. It’s that detail that delights, and the dynamics too — Chick Corea’s ‘Australia’ piano concerto had not only nicely percussive and transient-tight piano and scintillating cymbal taps at the opening, but the right sense of surprise when the orchestration begins to burst into being.
And all this still playing from files at CD quality out of our iPod touch. We led the Edition X to the music room for an audition with dedicated headphone amplifiers (Lehmannaudio and Sennheiser), and, well, hours later the missus had to come and tell us it was past bedtime. A previous slight insistence to the punchy orchestration on the Chick Corea was now polished as if with a last coat of piano lacquer, the left-channel strings were thrillingly edged but without the remotest sensation of discomfort even as we advanced levels to, well, more than enough, even for us. Their visit coincided with the arrival of a new John Williams compilation, so much thrilling acoustic guitar went through their planar magnetic transducers.  
They were technically as well as musically sound, their frequency response seeming remarkably flat, gaining in perceived level as they rose up into the hundreds of hertz, a tad down around 600Hz and then a peak around 4000Hz before heading off to the heights allowed for high-res recordings (they’re specified to 50kHz, curve not stated). This could go several ways when playing from the iPod — the attention to the high stuff could start to push material with emphasised lead content in that area; we were, for example, notching down the level to accommodate 1980s’ Teardrop Explodes, and the Xs didn’t fully flesh out Holly Cole’s vocal on her luscious version of Tom’s ‘Ghost of Saturday Night’. But with proper power, Holly was rounded out, and they presented one of the most perfectly realised images of Diana Krall’s ‘Alone Again, Naturally’ we’ve yet delighted in — you could see her mouth shapes, and we wondered for the first time if she might possibly have had a slight head cold when singing this. And for anyone who thinks planars and electrostatics too sharp or silbilant compared with dynamic drivers — well, we were swapping A-B with Sennheiser’s latest HD 800, and the Edition X were way smoother, the Sennheisers semi-sibilant on the Krall, the HiFiMen keeping the sound safe in a softer envelope, still perfectly revealing, but capable of higher playback levels without intrusion (Sennheiser’s own amp on power duties.)
So divine when powered fully, and still a success with portable players — though bear in mind the spill of any fully open design like this. Given the Edition X drivers deliver as much sound outward through the window-blind headshells as they do inwardly, consider your neighbours on public transport; we might also fear for their exposed innards were we caught in a rain shower. 
But they’re fabulous for wandering around tethered only to a device in your pocket, and just bliss for long long sessions under the power of some nice headphone amp — as someone once said, give and ye shall receive. The Edition X headphones have plenty to give back. 
HiFiMan Edition X      $2799 
Type: open over-ear planar magnetic
Driver: 40mm
Impedance: 25 ±3 ohms
Weight: 400g
Contact: Addicted to Audio
Telephone: 03 9810 2999 /  02 9550 4041