Over the last few years HIFIMAN has developed quite the reputation for high quality headphones at relatively low prices, with the company winning back-to-back Sound+Image awards for the original Edition X and then the version 2, which dropped in price. The HIFIMAN HE5se is a nod to another of the models pivotal in developing that reputation, the HE5. There’s certainly a cosmetic resemblance, but it seems there are also some very significant differences.

One clear difference is the use of a planar magnetic driver. This uses a flat diaphragm, with a coil applied to its surface, in a strong magnetic field. This arrangement tends to allow a lighter driver than the more common dynamic driver design. The remarkably literate 24-page user manual even lays out the formula relating maximum frequency to driver mass. Incidentally, the box in which the headphones come is lined in a classy black satin. There’s a real sense of luxury and care with these headphones.

These drivers are built into an open-back design. The headphones look to be very nicely finished. The cushions are large, with the round insets for the ears offering ample space for one’s ears. The cushions have soft leather-look sides and cloth faces. The main headband has a softer, wide strap suspended underneath to rest gently on one’s head. Left and right are clearly marked. There is no creaking or other mechanical noise from the body, nor where the earcups swivel on their connections to the headband.

The cable is removable and connects via 3.5mm plugs, though there are two of them so you’re not going to be able to replace them easily. The cable is 1.55 metres long. In my office, that’s bit of a stretch to my headphone amplifier/DAC, and I can imagine that also being the case in many living rooms. A 3.5mm-to-3.5mm extension cable would be the solution.

HIFIMAN rates the frequency response of these headphones relatively modestly (compared to some) at 20Hz to 35,000Hz. My listening suggested rather more bass extension than that.

Their nominal impedance is 40 ohms, and as is a common characteristic of planar magnetic headphone designs, the impedance varies very little across the audible band of frequencies. Even in line with a high (466 ohms) impedance, the resulting input signal varied by less than half a decibel across the audible spectrum. However, the claimed sensitivity is quite low: 92dB, which I presume to be for 1mW of input. That could lead to inadequate levels with some musical content and some equipment, particularly portable players.

These headphones were one of the brighter models of this collection. That came out in a couple of different ways. Laura Marling’s occasional incipient sibilance on some words, for example, was no longer incipient. On the Melanie track, the crunchiness of the recording was brought forward a little, but also coming forward were such things as the handclaps halfway through, of which I’d previously been unaware.

You see, with that brightness comes a marked attention to detail. I should add that it was a pleasing brightness for the most part, often adding some sweetness where required. And it was amply balanced by a powerful bass. Again with Melanie, the bass guitar line was clearer, better articulated than most. That evened the score with the treble.

The opening bars of Eminem’s Stan are a processed version of Dido’s Thank You. I admit it — I sometimes don’t get things until I have my nose rubbed in the them. These headphones did just that, and for the first time I realised that the processing is meant to make it sound like it was coming from a car radio. That’s clarity and detail for you. You come to new realisations.

After a few bars, the bass line kicks in with tremendous power and clarity in these headphones. What sounds to be electronic drums (my apologies to Mr Mathers if they aren’t) are again a little brighter than I’d preferred, but not excessively so. This just brings out the inherent tinniness of the sampled drum sounds.

But with real drums and cymbals there is no such tinniness. The percussion on Primus’ Southbound Pachyderm is first-class in precision when delivered by these headphones. Some of the subtle cymbal work operating underneath the main layer of percussion is brought more to one’s attention by these headphones. Yet again, the bass drum is full of power, perhaps a decibel or two above a purely neutral level.

The Schubert Quintet was delivered with a great sense of excitement, and it contained a few surprises. The rustle of clothing, the drawing of breath, these were things I had not heard before, but were evident with the HIFIMAN headphones. ‘Revealing’ is, I think, the word we’re supposed to use here. Revealing these headphones are. Nothing can remain hidden.

And that includes deep, deep bass. The 1978 Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Symphony 1812 had both the bass drums and cannon delivered with a satisfyingly deep bass extension underpinning the slam. There was a real sense of atmospheric rumble.

However, it also disclosed a limitation with these headphones. They are relatively insensitive. For satisfying playback I turned up the volume to the maximum. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded going a touch louder still. This is with a two-volt unit. You’d be very limited with material recorded at a low level of encoding if you were using a device capable of one volt of output. And even more so with some portable devices that are subject to European output level restrictions. So choose your player carefully.

But that low a level in a recording is quite unusual. For just about everything recorded in a modern genre, there was plenty of headroom with the two-volt output DAC.

If you particularly like hearing everything — absolutely everything — in your recordings; if you like to analyse the sound and performance of what you hear, then the HIFIMAN HD5se headphones are going to deliver for you. There’s nothing hidden. Yet they couldn’t properly be called ‘clinical’ either, because they also deliver a sense of excitement and a slightly forward bass line to which I couldn’t help but tap my foot.

Price: $1099

+ Extraordinary detail
+ First class bass
+ Luxuriously delivered

– Slight treble forwardness
– A touch insensitive

Drivers: Planar magnetic
Quoted frequency response: 20Hz-35kHz
Nominal impedance: 40 ohms
Sensitivity: 92dB
Weight: 387g

Contact: Addicted to Audio
Telephone: 02 9550 4041 (Sydney)
03 9810 2999 (Melbourne), 08 6478 4816 (Perth)
Web: www.addictedtoaudio.com.au