HiFiMAN HE6SE v2 review: the beast and the beauty

HiFiMAN HE6se v2 review
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A new version of a modern classic in the world of planar magnetic headphones, the HiFiMAN HE6SE v2 is basically a cosmetic update, a revision of the HE6Se which swaps the headband for the one HiFiMAN used in basically the whole 2020 line-up. In reality, though, there are differences in sound as well and the HE6SE v2 is a more balanced, better all-rounder version. Too bad that HiFiMAN took a bad route when it comes to build quality and design.

Disclaimer: I received this headphone on loan from Mark at HiFiMAN. The HE6SE v2 are an exclusive to Adorama, a US-based retailer which sells them for $1,799, though you can probably find them from other sources as second-hand units.

Buy from Adorama

TL;DR: recap

Pros
Cons
Almost neutral sound signature

Great technical ability

Insufficient build quality

Bad comfort

Terrible cable

Rating: 8/10

Packaging & Design

I don’t want to be the guy who complains about everything, but for a little less than $2,000 I expect the unboxing experience to be quite amazing… and with the HE6SE, that’s definitely not the case. The packaging is made of a rather unassuming cardboard box, with a satin lining. There you also find the cable, tightly rolled up to it in the small space dedicated to it – with issues such as bends and kinks due to this, as we’ll discuss later. The way you see it in the picture above is how I placed it, not the way it was when I first opened the box – but you can clearly see the kink in the adapter’s cable, near the top. There’s nothing else, apart from a “let’s keep in touch” card. Again, for the price I expected something more.

Design & Comfort

HiFiMAN HE6se v2

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. The HiFiMAN HE6SE v2 are genuinely bad from practically all perspectives when it comes to build quality and comfort. Design is more difficult to evaluate, at least from an aesthetic perspective; from a functional perspective it has issues which also have repercussions on comfort. Now that we have this out of the way, we can look at the “why” and “how”.

HiFiMAN HE6se v2

The first thing you’ll notice is how close the HE6SE v2 look to the HE-400i 2020 or to the Dev. That’s mostly because HiFiMAN chose to go with the same headband as the one used on its entry level model – except that this one costs 10 times as much and is a tad heavier. The use of shiny dark blue plastic doesn’t help with the lack of that premium feeling that people (justly) look for in a product that costs almost 2 grands.

The HE6SE v2 weigh in at 510 g, which is not negligible, but HiFiMAN chose a headband that is not suited for this kind of weight. In fact this headband makes for an uncomfortable listening experience, as it doesn’t distribute the weight very well on the head and is not especially soft either; on top of that, there is relatively low lateral clamping force, so the headphones aren’t sustained by that either and all of their weight goes to press onto the scalp. And the scalp, of course, isn’t exactly glowing about that. Just writing this section on design and comfort, which took about half an hour, had my scalp begging me to remove the headphones. By comparison, I can use my HE-560 for hours before I feel the urge to move them to give my scalp some relief.

The earpads appear to be quite close to those I found on my original HE-560: they are mounted on a plastic frame and have faux-leather inside and outside, with inside being perforated, while the head-facing side instead opts for an Alcantara-like material. They creak when I move my head, which is a first for me. It looks like either the headphones are so new the materials have yet to adjust and take the proper shape, or they’re not of great quality and therefore behave in this weird way. Either way, they are the umpteenth thing which I don’t like about how these headphones are built.

HiFiMAN HE6se v2

As it’s supposed to happen, the open-back HiFiMAN HE6se v2 offer no isolation whatsoever from the outside world, nor do they do anything to stop music from going out.

The HE6SE v2 come with a cable using an XLR4 connector on the amp side, with an additional adapter from XLR4 to a 6.3 mm jack, and two 3.5 mm TRS connectors on the headphones side. Again, not to sugar-coat things, the cable is astonishingly bad. Like, it’s possibly the worst headphone cable I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of using. It is made of very flimsy cores, one per channel, inside a large and eerily soft transparent plastic sleeve that reminds me of a sausage’s skin (a vegan one, with the skin that says “cheap plastic” all over the place. I know about them fairly well as a vegetarian myself!). The impression is anything but positive from the perspective of both look and feel. What’s more, the plastic sleeve has some kinks and bends which appear to be permanent and are attributable to the way the cable is packaged. It’s a mess that I hope I wouldn’t see in $200 headphones, much less $1,800 ones.

Sound & Specs

I mostly tested the HE6SE v2 using my Topping DX7 feeding a Drop THX AAA 789 (balanced), plus an iFi micro iDSD Signature (single ended). Most of the files used were FLACs in standard resolution (16 bit, 44.1 kHz).

HiFiMAN HE6se v2

Frequency response 8 – 65,000 Hz
Impedance 50 Ω
Sensitivity 83 dB

 

With an impedance of 50 Ω and a sensitivity of just 83 dB, the HE6SE v2 are very hard to drive and require lots of power: they need ~1.4 W to get to 115 dB. Now, I think that this requires a bit of explanation. That amount of power is not an opinion, that’s math and physics which you can use yourself to get to the same results. At 115 dB, you get permanently deaf to some (or even all) frequencies after less than 30 seconds. You can get to 115 dB for transients, say a single drum beat, and this is why you generally want to have enough power to get to these levels. But the thing is that recordings that have enough dynamic range to allow you to swing from the ~80 dB recommended maximum volume to 115 dB for transients are rare to come by and are probably countable using your fingers (maybe even your toes, if we want to be generous). So there really is little reason to have such an over-specced amplifier that goes beyond 1.5 W. Anything beyond that is just useless: you are never going to use it, no matter what.

I’ve read crazy stuff about the HE6SE v2: people complaining that their 4 W amplifier did not have enough power to drive these headphones “correctly”, or that “they only shine” if you use special cables with esoteric speaker amplifiers. Let’s get this straight: none of this is true. It’s all a steaming pile of rubbish. If you don’t like the sound of the HE6SE v2, or if you think that they should sound differently (e.g. have more bass, or sub-bass, or treble, or whatever), or if you think that more power will make them change in any significant way… then think again, and think harder. No amplifier can nor should fundamentally change how headphones sound, and if it does while not being a tube amplifier then it’s doing something very wrong to your music. So all this talk of “my amplifier can’t properly drive these headphones”, when you have something that outputs more than 2 W at 50 Ω, is basically an elaborate plot to get you to spend more of your money to buy more expensive equipment you don’t need and which won’t change your listening experience with the HE6SE v2. Now that we’ve settles this matter, let’s get on with the analysis.

I would describe the soundstage on the HE6SE v2 as not especially wide nor deep, but still large enough as not to make you feel like music is inside your head (unless you feel like you have a very large head. I don’t know, you might be out of the last Indiana Jones movie…). It’s like a decently large room, so it’s not really an expansive space, but it’s not cramped either. Imaging is very good: the whole space that goes from extreme right to extreme left (and vice-versa) is fully utilised, and instruments are placed there with accuracy and with precise locations. Instrument separation is quite great, with even background instruments being able to showcase the smallest details; it’s really easy to focus on the individual parts of an orchestra, as an example, and to follow them.

Bass on the HE6SE v2 is almost perfectly neutral, with superb presence even in the lowest region and a great balance among its parts. HiFiMAN managed to strike the ideal balance: bass is present, almost authoritative and imposing (but in a very good way!), but it never oversteps the boundaries that would make it excessive. It has great physicality as well: it is so physical I actually feel almost uncomfortable with certain tracks (e.g. The Battle from the Master and Commander soundtrack), as the sound is so sudden and impactful that it feels too sudden and impactful. One thing I noticed is that the HE6SE v2 scale very well with volume and if you give them a bit more they really shine: at lower volume they are much less physical and detailed than they are at higher levels, to the point they become almost muddy in the lower end if you keep them at very low volume. You don’t need to get to 100 dB to appreciate this: just a bit over 75 dB you have plenty of volume and dynamics. The level of detail present is very high, to the point you get minute details like the vibration of leather on drums (in the aforementioned track The Battle as an example). The layering is also quite impressive.

Midrange is typically HiFiMAN: relatively neutral, but with a small accent on the upper area. This emphasis is such that it makes violins sing (e.g. in James Newton Howard’s Noah Visits from the soundtrack for The Village), but on the other hand it doesn’t compromise the general balance – it adds to the sound, but it doesn’t take anything away from it. This also means that male voices are rounded an full-bodied, but they don’t have the same “breathy” nature (as they do on the HE-R10P). The comments about physicality also apply to the midrange, which – if anything – seems to be even more physical, as Inks by Aes Dana shows. What I really appreciate is the detail: HiFiMAN managed to get the driver to convey a superlative level of detail which goes down to the very smallest details you can imagine – the vibrations of the strings, the movement of the bow on the violin, the way the breath moves in and out of the lungs of the singer. It’s almost fuller of details than the real thing.

Treble is rich, full and extended, with a great level of detail that makes it really amazing. It is quite extended, which contributes to it being airy and light. It sits in just the right place for it to be audible, yet not obtrusive; it counterbalances the bass effectively without becoming harsh or shrill. There is a bit of emphasis in the lower area, but it’s minor and doesn’t influence the overall signature too much. The overall result is the almost perfect compromise between having present, clear and front-positioned treble that you can really enjoy and something that’s smooth and doesn’t distract you from the rest of the scene. What I really appreciate is that the detail has been dialled up to 11, so you get all the smallest micro-details with exceptional clarity and ease: in Massive Attack’s Butterfly Caught the cymabls are thoroughly detailed and you can hear every single beat easily.

HiFiMAN HE6SE v2 Comparisons

As I don’t have other headphones in the exact same price range as the HE6SE v2, I am going to pit them against other headphones in lower and upper tiers:

  • HiFiMAN HE6SE v2 vs Spirit Torino Radiante: the Radiante are in a sense the opposite of the HE6SE v2. Their bass is explosive, even excessive at times, and it dominates the signature uncontested; it is much more present at all frequencies, and especially in the sub-bass section where the HE6SE v2 are weaker. The Radiante offer an unparalleled sense of slam, of relentless force, but the HE6SE v2 actually sound more physical overall. Midrange is much more in the spotlight on the HE6SE v2, where it is also better balanced (both internally and from a broader perspective) and more detailed. Treble is more present on the HiFiMAN, which also offer better extension and better detail. Soundstage is comparable in width, which is quite impressive given the Radiante are closed-back, while imaging is slightly better on the Radiante and instrument separation is better on the HE6SE v2. Overall the two headphones are pretty much comparable, but they follow completely different tuning philosophies and this is what should guide the choice.
  • HiFiMAN HE6SE v2 vs HiFiMAN Ananda: although the Ananda keep the same tuning philosophy as the HE6SE v2, they’re quite different. In fact they’re quite brighter, with less focus on bass and more emphasis on midrange. Their bass is less deep and physical, with an inferior level of detail and of layering. Midrange is brighter and emphasises trumpets and violins more, making them really pop out, but it doesn’t have the same level of detail. The same applies for treble, which is also more emphasised and in-your-face than on the HE6SE v2, which sound lighter and airier to me. On a technical level, the HE6SE v2 are better than the Ananda: soundstage is slightly larger, imaging is better, instrument separation is better. It’s not a night-and-day difference, but it’s large enough for it to be noticeable.

Final Thoughts

I really hate what HiFiMAN did to these headphones. These are genuinely great from an acoustic perspective, with a sound that’s really, really done well – it basically sounds almost perfectly the way I think it should. They offer powerful yet accurate bass, superbly detailed and engaging mids and treble, complemented by a very compelling technical section. They’re not perfect, but they are darn good. The problem is that HiFiMAN decided to use the same shoddy headband as in its entry-level model, which is painfully inadequate, and complemented it with a horrible cable. This is not how you should treat these headphones, HiFiMAN.

To sum it up, then, I think that the HiFiMAN HE6SE v2 are extremely compelling from the standpoint of how they sound: their accurate, engaging and well-balanced tuning makes them great for whatever genre or track you throw at them; they reproduce anything with aplomb and care, making your favourite tracks shine. I got lost more than once while writing this review, just concentrating on the sound instead of writing because it was just so good listening to it. It’s an experience that takes you to another dimension, if just for a little while, making you forget of everything else. But you have to ask yourself: is that enough to make you ignore the discomfort caused by the headband and the fact that they look like cheap headphones while they cost almost 2 grands? I can’t answer that for you, so you have to decide. I gave you all the information I could, now it’s up to you.

(also: they seem to be often on sale, even for as low as $799: at full price I think there might be better options out there, but at $800 they’re pretty high value!)

About Riccardo Robecchi

Living in Glasgow, Scotland but born and raised near Milan, Italy, I got the the passion for music listening as a legacy from my father and my grandfather. I have reported on technology for major Italian publications since 2011.
Hey there! Feel free to leave a comment. Please note that you should write in English, and comments in other languages will be deleted. Thank you!

8 Comments

  1. Honestly the audiophile (and really technophile) obsession with unboxing is so dumb and pointless it makes me cringe every time I read it. Stop encouraging companies to waste money on packaging and “cool” unboxing experiences. Go become a florist or something. I want money dedicated to making the product better. Stop speaking on behalf of people who don’t want money wasted on superfluous superficial shit.

    1. Hey Zac,
      The “superfluous superficial shit”, using your own words, is also what protects your headphones when they are shipped to you. In this case it’s a flimsy cardboard box with a little foam padding. I am not advocating for exotic wood cut by virgins during a new moon on a remote Pacific island, I am advocating for a more robust package that protects your ~$2,000 investment so that it arrives to you in optimal condition. I don’t care about “cool” unboxing experiences, I care about having a good accessory set that allows me to make the most out of my product and about a box that offers a level of protection commensurate to the price I pay.
      You’re free to think this is “superfluous superficial shit”, I think this is pretty down-to-Earth thinking.

  2. Riccardo, let me first say that I love reading reviews and I find yours to be well-written and better than most. But it looks like that cheap foam is doing the job of protecting them alright. Maybe we should just do away with the term “unboxing experience” and stick to things that matter like good accessories… I can get behind that. I may be a bit jaded though by reviews and videos for every headphone and tech product starting with 2 paragraphs of opening the damn box… damn you Apple and that kid with all the toys.

    Anyway, I would have liked to see you test the headphones with a more powerful amp to challenge your assertion that more watts at 50ohm don’t make a difference, even though I suspect that you’re probably right. Lastly, I’d rather have a subjectively ugly cable that works properly than a pretty braided or rubberized cable with horrible microphonics.

    1. First of all: thank you, I am happy that you love my reviews!
      As for the box: well, there are quite a few reports of people receiving their headphones damaged, hence my comments.
      Regarding the amp, your comment is exactly the reason why I wrote that couple of paragraphs. You don’t need a more powerful amp than one capable of outputting about 1 W at 50 Ω. That’s physics, it’s not a matter of opinion. But let’s forget that for a moment: the THX AAA 789 outputs around 5 W at 50 Ω and the iFi micro iDSD outputs about 4 W, how much more power do you need?! And how many amplifiers are there that would offer you more power?
      The cable does its job, sure, but it’s flimsy and it comes damaged right out of the box. Not what I would pay for headphones costing anything more than $200!

  3. A Very nice, balanced review that fully mirrors my impressions. My HE6se V2 was recently acquired from Adorama ($699 USD vs the typical list price of $1799). The construction comments are accurate; built quality pales in comparison to, say, my Focal Clear MG Professional headphones. They look/feel cheap and the headband leaves much to be desired (today I emailed HiFiMan asking about replacement headband options). My HE-500s bought back in the day even look better in comparison. I have the same thoughts on the cable. It was promptly swapped for a Moon Audio Black Dragon (XLR connection to the amp). Sound is another matter; it’s extremely competent when powered by my Monoprice THX AAA 887 or Schiit Mjolner 2 headphone amplifiers (via Benchmark DAC3 B). I share your detailed and summary impressions. For $699 it’s a great value….I’d look elsewhere at $1799 unless the HE6se provides a sound signature you cannot live without….even then I’d still audition something else in the HiFiMan range or from another vendor. At the end for the day, I find myself listening to my Focal headphones more than the HE6se based on what I perceive as greater articulation, tighter resolution (and range) of sound.

    1. Hi Todd,
      Thanks for your feedback of the HE6se v2. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts about the two amp you mentioned (THX AAA 887 and Schiit Mjolner 2) in using the HE6se. What do you like/dislike about the two amps? Would the Mjolner2 be somewhat of an upgrade to the THX, considering the price difference? Btw, I don’t see it listed anymore on the Schiit website. It was there a week or so ago. About the HE6se v2, I drive them with the Schiit magnius and like it, though I could use a little more headroom as I am usually at 11-1ish listening volume. I share the same experience/opinion of you and Riccardo. I was lucky to get them at discounted price but I don’t see how the full price could be justified. I got hart audio cable which works fine, but nothing different from stock. Previously I used the Sundara, Ananda and HD620s. I don’t have a higher end comparison, but so far the HE6 are my favorite.
      Saluti and thanks again

  4. Can you share your opinions in direct comparison to your He-560? And I’m a little confused about whether you used a Schiit magnius or Thx 789 to drive these.

    1. Hey Dennis,
      I’ve never mentioned the Schiit Magnius anywhere in the review as I’ve never had it. As for a comparison with the HE-560, I don’t have he HE6SE v2 anymore so I can’t compare them, sorry.

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