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Uncovering hidden treasure: modifying the HE6se v2 to bring out their best.
The HiFiMan HE6Sse v2 headphones are a paradox. They epitomize the very best and the very worst aspects of a pair of audiophile cans. The HE6se v2 at MSRP are absurdly priced, cheaply built, difficult to power, uncomfortable, and have awful accessories.
Yet, they sound terrific. Which is all that’s important… right? Right?
Let’s start with the near USD$1800 price tag. Well, that’s where that poorly kept secret comes in.
- Neutral and natural sound with terrific detail
- Perpetually on sale
- Lots of modding potential
- Built to the standard of HiFiMan’s cheapest headphones
- Expensive MSRP
- Headband cannot offset the weight and should be replaced
- Perhaps the worst cables in the industry
- Requires robust amplification to sound their best
- Limited distribution
The HE6se v2 are only sold by US retailer Audorama (and from HiFiMan directly) and are frequently on sale for around USD$500-$600. In fact, using an email code (it comes and goes and may not be currently valid), I purchased the HE6se v2 for $399 – about 75-80% off the regular price.
Great sounding planar magnetic headphones for sub-USD$500? That’s a terrific starting point.
The original HE6 were infamous upon their 2010 release and often appeared on “Most Expensive” and “Best Sounding” headphone lists. In 2018, the HE6se replaced the HE6, and finally, the HE6se v2 were released in 2020.
HiFiMan is known for great-sounding headphones and questionable build quality. Never has this been more evident than in the HE6se v2. The HE6se featured a comfort strap suspension headband used on the Ananda and Sundara. Unfortunately, the v2 changed to the less comfortable basic padded band used on the lower-cost HiFiMan models.
But really, shouldn’t the question be: do they sound like near-USD$2k headphones? And is that enough to make up for any other shortcomings?
HiFiMan Electronics Corporation was founded in 2007 by Dr. Fang Bian. That year HiFiMan released the RE series IEMs and the HE-5 planar headphones. HiFiMan is primarily known for its planar-magnetic headphones, although has released DAPs, IEMs, DACs, and headphone amplifiers.
- Form: Open-back, Over-ear
- Drivers: Planar-magnetic
- Impedance (Ohm): 50 Ohms
- Sensitivity (dB): 83.5 dB
- Frequency Response (Hz): 8 Hz – 65 KHz
- Removable Cable: Y, dual 3.5mm
- Source Jack: 4-pin XLR balanced, 4-pin XLR to 6.35mm adapter
- Cup/Shell Jack: 3.5mm
- Mic: N
- Weight (g): 510g
If you’ve had the pleasure of unboxing a pair of Focal headphones, you know what sort of luxurious experience can be had at higher price points. Unfortunately, this sets the wrong expectations for the HE6se v2.
The HE6se v2 come in a plain brown cardboard box with the headphones nestled in a foam cut-out inside. One neat innovation is that the foam is intended for removal and for use as a desktop headphone stand. Clever stuff.
Beyond that, you’ll find the cables tucked in the box as well. Sigh. The cables. We will get to them shortly.
In the box
- HE6se v2 headphones
- Dual 3.5 mm to 4-pin XLR cable
- XLR to 6.35 mm adapter
- Warranty card
HiFiMan describes the cable as a “Crystalline Copper and Crystalline Silver cable for optimal signal transmission with near-zero signal lost.” Users describe the cable as surgical tubing, sausage casing, or simply as ‘the worst cable I have ever seen.’
This is the cable that puts a lie to statements like “I don’t care what a cable looks or feels like as long as it works.”
On the positive side, the cable terminates in a 4-pin XLR jack, and an XLR to 6.35mm adapter is included. The jacks are gold plated and seem of good quality. And that’s it on the good side of the equation.
The individual thin silver and copper wires float within a weird semi-translucent grey rubber tube that is the cause of all the derision. It bends and kinks. It looks and feels awful.
As a modding enthusiast, I set out to remove the casing and sheath the wires in paracord. Unfortunately, the dual 3.5mm jacks don’t seem to come apart and can’t be reused. I carefully sliced off the cable cover and tried braiding and twirling the wires to see if they will retain a shape.
They will, sort of. But this is not a good solution. So, I gave up. I say remove the 6.35mm and XLR jacks and bin the cable. Let’s move on.
For near-USD$2k, I expect most headphone buyers will want more than the build quality and style of the cheapest headphones in HiFiMan’s lineup. Making the colorway shiny blue plastic doesn’t help make the HE6se v2 feel any more premium.
The outer black metal grills are removable by prying out a plastic retention ring. The grills are perforated with small round holes and have a fabric inner surface to keep out dust.
The grills are an easy opportunity for modification and personalization. With a 3D printer, it is simple to make freer flowing honeycomb-style grills in a variety of colors.
I was interested in testing the claims that grill removal positively impacted sound quality. In my measurements and listening, removing the stock metal grills and using open plastic grills or no grill at all resulted in around a 1-2 dB increase in the bass region.
I finally settled on black 3D-printed grills with a woven stainless steel mesh to help keep out dust. The mesh is soft, easily cut with scissors, and can be glued to the plastic grills.
The HE6se v2 weigh more than 500g, which is to be expected from a pair of full-sized planar magnetic headphones with dual-sided magnets. To combat this sort of heft, other manufacturers have adopted wide comfort strap suspension headbands to evenly distribute the weight and plush earpads with a solid clamping force.
The HE6se v2 do neither.
The padded headband can not offset the weight of the HE6se v2, and hotspots on the top of the head develop within minutes. While the HE6se v2 use the decent hybrid angled PaliPads from the Sundara, the clamping force is relatively low and does little to reduce the downward pressure.
Replacing the headband is a necessary modification to enjoy the HE6se v2. Since they share the same cups as many other HiFiMan models, the HE-560 comfort strap band is compatible and easily swappable.
Since I had a pair of DOA HarmonicDyne G200 planar magnetic headphones on hand, I set out to use their excellent carbon fiber band with the HE6se v2. Unfortunately, the larger cup size of the HiFiMan headphones meant I had to fabricate aluminum spacers to accommodate them.
While the end result will now only fit larger heads (like my own), the HE6se v2 are now very comfortable.
All three versions of the HE6 have legendarily low efficiency (sensitivity 83.5 dB, impedance 50 Ohms) and, as a result, significant amplifier requirements. HiFiMan recommends using a headphone amplifier with a minimum output of 2 watts per channel.
Some say 2 watts per channel isn’t enough. There are tons of folks who recommend using a full-sized stereo amplifier to power them.
Some of this amplifier requirement controversy comes down to the sound signature of the HE6se v2. They have a relatively flat bass response, and subjectively, dynamics seem to increase with volume. So, you may find yourself listening to the HE6se v2 louder than you typically listen to other headphones and saying to yourself, ‘more volume, more power, better sound.’
You cannot use the HE6se v2 directly from a phone or dongle and expect great results.
To put the power requirements in perspective, keep in mind that for EVERY other pair of headphones that I have reviewed and measured, I used my trusty old iFi Nano iDSD DAC/amp. I hooked up the testing gear with the HE6se v2 as normal, and… nothing. I fussed with cables, settings, etc. until I tried cranking the volume.
The poor little Nano simply wasn’t up to the task of driving the HiFiMan cans loud enough (~88dB) to measure them.
The Nano was retired that day – pour one out for the little guy – and a Topping L30 II amplifier (3.5W x2, 2W x2 @64Ohms THD+N<0.1%) has taken over measurement duties.
HE6se v2 Sound
The HE6se are really a terrific sounding pair of planars and display many of the audio characteristics that make me love this type of headphones. The bass is relatively flat to the lowest registers, the midrange dips around that potentially nasally sounding 2kHz region, and things pick up again north of 6kHz.
The impression is of neutral and natural sound, with plenty of low-end presence when called for but no unnatural boosting of the bass frequencies. The upper end sounds lively and bright but remains smooth and unfatiguing. The HE6se v2 are extremely clear and engaging.
As mentioned, increasing the volume (75-80dB and up) increases perceived dynamics. When the bass drops in your favorite EDM track, the HE6se v2 deliver all the slam and punch you could hope for.
The delicate and extended upper frequencies yield an impression of airiness and space. Clarity and separation are especially impressive, and the HE6se v2 are among the better planar-magnetic headphones I’ve tried in this regard.
This is what neutral planar magnetic bass is all about. It’s there when the music calls for it, but is everything that a bass-boosted signature is not. Notes are controlled and clear. They are viscerally engaging at times and just enough to balance a crisp high-end at others.
This is the subtlety and strength of a great pair of headphones. The ability to deftly and effortlessly balance quantity and quality.
Depending on the earpads used, the frequency response is near flat all the way down to 20Hz.
The midrange is probably the least impressive part of the HE6se v2’s sonic profile. This isn’t to say it is poor, merely the frequency extremes stand out more. It’s rather laid back, although it still conveys plenty of detail.
Voices sound real and natural, and I found myself especially impressed at the separation of the male and female vocals in the duet from The Fortunate Ones – A Light Will Come.
The smooth-feeling midrange rises up into the treble frequencies without a touch of the honky sounding tuning that seems popular these days. The upswing in the highest audible frequencies makes the HE6se v2 sound light and delicate.
It’s an articulate and detailed presentation that isn’t grating or overdone, although especially treble-sensitive folks may find it a bit too much.
My middle-aged ears seem to appreciate this sort of treble tuning.
This upper delicateness adds to the feeling of space and imaging, both of which excel on the HE6se v2.
Ear pad modifications
Since I was cannibalizing the rest of the pair of dead HarmonicDyne G200 headphones, I thought I might as well try the two pairs of included pads and a couple more I have on hand with the HE6se v2.
As was to be expected, the perforated leather pads boosted bass frequencies (in this case, all the way up the frequency spectrum to about 1kHz). I like the sound of the stock or velour pads the best and the Brainwavz perforated leather pads the least.
I own (and quite like) the HiFiMan Ananda v1, and beyond an obviously different cup shape, they sound quite distinct from the HE6se v2.
The Ananda use the newer oblong-shaped cups that I find more attractive on the shelf or in pictures but always seem to push uncomfortably on my jaw bones. YMMV. I find the HE6se v2 the more comfortable option with a proper headband, even though the Ananda are about 100g lighter.
Unsurprisingly, the Ananda are far louder from the same source at the same output volume (such as simultaneously using the two headphone outputs on the Mojo 2 or Conductor 3R), A fairly loud listening level on the Ananda translates to very quiet on the HE6se v2.
The Ananda feel like a dialed-up version of the standard HiFiMan tuning with less subtlety and finesse than the HE6se v2 are capable of. Overall, the Ananda are the brighter sounding pair, and I can’t listen to them as loudly as the HE6se v2 without fatigue setting in.
There’s booming bass and a more forward midrange and treble, but less detail and control. The HE6se v2 sound more natural and effortless than the Ananda.
Despite their quirky construction, this sort of head-to-head test shows just how great those HE6 drivers really are – as the Ananda are understandably a well-respected pair of headphones but fall short of the sonic performance of the HE6se v2.
Where to Buy
To paraphrase author Chuck Dickens, “it was the best of headphones, it was the worst of headphones.”
The HiFiMan HE6se v2 are, indeed, a tale of two headphones. One pair is cheaply made, uncomfortable, and expensive. To make things worse, they require the purchase of a beefy amp to use them.
The other pair sounds detailed and clear, with solid bass and extended highs, and is often on a significant sale. Unquestionably, they are technical wonders at the sale price.
Are the HE6se v2 worth the USD$1800 MSRP asking price? Absolutely not. However, it’s tough to find planar magnetic options that sound anywhere near as good at the sale price.
But even for $400, they’re still uncomfortable, and the cable is awful, so factor in the price of replacements.
If the HE6se v2 were priced at $500-$600 with a proper band and acceptable cables, then they would be a killer set for audiophiles with proper amplification on hand. They do sound great, but this is a case where you must look for the asterisk and read the fine print.
Are you willing to get your hands dirty and replace the band? Provide ample amplification? Replace the cable? Wait for the sale price to come around again?
Then yes! Yes, an unqualified yes! Sonic bliss awaits with the HE6se v2.
No? You aren’t feeling it? Fair enough. I’ve never encountered another pair of headphones that require so much work.
If you do all the mods, buy them on sale, and properly power them, they are a 4.5 – An excellent-sounding product that is almost perfect.