Brands like Audeze and Dan Clark Audio (formerly “Mr. Speakers”) get a lot of the credit for the popularity of planar magnetic headphones, but that’s only part of the actual story. HiFiMAN have been synonymous with planar magnetic designs from their founding and over the years have invested a rather significant amount of money into R&D to further the development of more advanced drivers.
Corner a group of Head-Fi community members at a local meet or event like CanJam NYC 2022 that just took place and more than a handful will suggest that the HiFiMAN Susvara are the best headphones currently available.
Before you click open a new window to investigate the Susvara….I’ll let you know that they retail for $5,999.00 USD.
HiFiMAN have sold a staggering number of those headphones which might shock some people, but it’s the same story over at Audeze, Meze Audio, and Dan Clark Audio who have more than a few models available above $3,000.
The company has had a few failures along the way; specifically when it deviated from its core designs, but it is a company that sells a lot of high-end headphones.
Everything changed for HiFiMAN when it introduced the HE1000 model; the newly designed shape, choice of materials, distinctive house sound, and the price were bold moves.
The HE1000 utilized polished aluminum, very high quality leather, and had an elongated ear cup that was more comfortable for a lot of users compared to its earlier designs.
Admittedly, it was a big and heavy headphone that required a desktop headphone amplifier to sound its best but it was also 2015 when portable DAPs did not possess the horsepower that they can offer in 2022.
Enter the Dragon
All of the steps that it took to arrive at the HiFiMAN Edition XS were worthwhile based on my time spent so far with this very interesting pair of headphones.
The HiFiMAN Edition XS are a descendent of the HE1000 branch on the HiFiMAN tree, but there are a few steps in-between the HE1000 and the Edition XS. The first step were the original Edition X model that was a step down from the HE1000; it didn’t use premium materials and was better suited for portable use.
It had a lower impedance and higher sensitivity that made it more portable friendly and was priced almost $1,000 below the HE1000 when it was originally introduced. That’s a rather significant amount of money in the Head-Fi space.
18 months passed and HiFiMan introduced the Edition X V2 that had a much lower price and only slightly different construction and level of drivability.
HiFiMAN has introduced a number of collaborations with Drop that borrowed some of the parts but I don’t see them as the same headphone.
The brand new HiFiMAN Edition XS takes the lessons learned from all of those models and adds a few tweaks from the Ananda and Arya to deliver a very technically advanced package priced below $500 that convinces me that HiFiMAN is making some of the best affordable audiophile headphones in the world right now.
The biggest change from the Edition X V2 to the Edition XS is the change in driver technology that HiFiMAN refers to as Stealth Magnets and the NEO Supernano Diaphragm.
All planar magnetic headphones rely on a magnetic field around the charged diaphragm to cause the diaphragm to move. Changing the current flowing through the diaphragm changes the degree to which it is attracted or repulsed by the magnets.
That movement produces the sound waves that we hear. The problem is that those sound waves originate on the surface of the diaphragm and have to pass by part of the magnet’s structure to reach the ear. Different approaches have been taken to reduce the amount of interference the structure causes.
Some have tried only using magnets on the surface opposite the ear, others have tried changing the shape and placement of the magnets to minimize the interference and distortion they cause. Stealth magnets are HiFiMAN’s llatest development in this field.
The magnets are shaped to have the maximum effect on the diaphragm with minimal interference on the sound wave produced. The diaphragm has been made even thinner and lighter (75% thinner according to HiFiMAN) than previous versions and the conductors are improved as well so the new design moves faster and in a more linear fashion reducing noise and distortion.
We first saw this new technology appear in the $6,000 Susvara, and has been slowly trickling down into less expensive models.
Currently, the XS is the least expensive entry point into this new technology as the Sundara has the newer style diaphragm but retains the older style magnet structure and the technology hasn’t yet trickled down into the HE400 Series yet.
Headphones need to be really comfortable and sit properly on your head. A state-of-the-art headphone loses a lot of its desirability if it feels like either a suitcase or vise on your head. There have been more than a few over the past 5 years in the $3,000 range that delivered unbelievable sound quality but fell on their faces when it came to comfort.
Brands like HiFiMAN and Meze Audio figured out that asking consumers to spend that kind of money required a lot more than just sound quality and it explains why the Meze Elite, Empyrean, and HiFiMan Susvara have been so successful.
The Edition XS might not be in the same price category as the aforementioned headphones but HiFiMAN has made some meaningful changes including a new headband style that has taken some time getting used to because it is such a radical departure from the suspension design of the earlier models.
It is indeed rather comfortable and I have to credit HiFiMAN for figuring out how to distribute the weight better; I was skeptical when I first removed them from the packaging to be quite honest.
The new frame design also gives us the ability to rotate the ear cups on the vertical axis; a feature that was lost on an earlier model.
This new single band padded design harkens back to the original HE5 headband in many ways; it uses a single leather wrapped memory foam padded band with click adjustments and roughly a 15° rotation on the vertical axis.
I do like the new adjustment design better than that older model and found that it is less prone to breakage.
What’s most fascinating about the Edition XS with all of its new technology and improved ergonomics is the price difference between the previous version which retailed for $1,200 USD and new model that retails for $500.
$700 is a lot of money and one could purchase a pair of headphones and amplifier for the same amount of money.
It’s reasonable to expect the $500 Edition XS to provide an inferior level of performance compared to more expensive models; the Edition XS uses the same oblong driver shape as previous models and is roughly 130mm x 100mm in size.
My tests show that the new model has a sensitivity of 92dB/mW and the impedance is 18 ohms — which puts it in the same general class with the Ananda and Sundara when considering pairings and drivability.
The Edition XS can be used with Dongle DACs in a portable role, but with its large size and open back, it is more likely to find a home on desks or in listening rooms. I found it paired well with the iFi ZEN Signature HFM stack and the Topping E30/L30 for those desiring a small office setup.
It also had plenty of headroom from the Kann Alpha and although not my favorite pairing, power was good from the Sony WM1a paired with the Oriolus BA300s (too much warmth).
For purposes of listening notes, I paired the Edition XS with two DAC/Amplifiers that I know well. The first was the RME ADI-2 FS Black and the second was using the same DAC with the Pass Labs HPA-1 Headphone Amplifier. Either one has more than enough power to push the XS well above normal listening levels so I had plenty of headroom at the top; likewise with gain set appropriately, the Edition XS has a nice black background at reasonable listening levels.
The low end is a bit sneaky on the Edition XS. It has really good sub-bass extension and weight but it only shows up when called upon. If you don’t listen to music with a lot of low end information, you might not notice it and think it is missing — it is definitely there.
Listening to Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique Mov. 4,” you immediately hear the depth and clarity of the timpani strikes. Electronic music that uses a lot of synthesized bass has good clarity and impact as well.
If you listen to rock, you’ll immediately notice the well defined mid-bass; bass guitar and drums are delivered with texture, speed, and rather surprising detail. The clarity is also very strong on the Edition XS and there is no bleed into the upper bass or lower midrange. Even poorly recorded music with a lot of compression is quite listenable.
The lower midrange is quite linear sounding and I found the balance between the bass and midrange to be quite even with a few caveats; the midrange is definitely a little warmer than neutral but it helps give vocals a nice tonality and acoustic guitar is presented with rather natural sounding timbre.
The detail in the lower midrange is also quite good which gives the cello more presence in the mix versus headphones like the Sennheiser HD660s that the XS will compete with. The piano also benefits from this lift and added warmth; notes have more weight behind them and the decay is quite audible. I’ve yet to listen to that many headphones in the price range that do it as well.
Strings have good clarity and texture as well and there is enough energy here to let the violin really shine in its upper registers. That energy translates well for female vocals as well; they stand out in the mix without standing too far in front of the rest of the instrumentation.
The only caveat here is tracks that have too much emphasis in the the vocal range will get thrust forward and can sound somewhat nasally.
The same lift found in the upper midrange is carried through the lower treble which gives the Edition XS a slightly bright overall signature. There is a little grain to the treble as it isn’t completely linear through its range but it does have good detail and enough energy to keep the top-end open and airy.
There is some sparkle as well but again depending on track quality it can turn to sizzle with poorly recorded material. This is not the most forgiving headphone in that regard and I found that well mastered tracks had good snare rattle, while lesser tracks had too many sharp edges and cymbals could slightly metallic.
Going back and forth between the XS and X V2, I was hard pressed to say that the more expensive headphone was that much better than its $500 sibling. I definitely prefer the XS to the Ananda and would suggest trying it before spending the additional $200.
Where does the more expensive HiFiMAN Edition X V2 best the Edition X2?
The soundstage. Big time. It’s wider and deeper and often sounds borderless.
But the longer I listened to the Edition XS, the more I felt its soundstage was more realistic sounding; the coherency of everything on the stage was also surprisingly better.
I could easily place instruments in their specific space; they had very defined positions and the instrument separation was excellent.
Gamers should take note of the imaging performance of this headphone; HiFiMAN should offer a version with a microphone because the specificity and tracking is superb.
This might not make HiFiMAN happy, but the Edition XS comes a lot closer to the performance of the Arya than any previous model for only $499. If you called this pair of headphones, the Arya Jr. — it wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
It is entirely possible that this is the new benchmark for headphones below $500 and that may create two large problems for HiFiMAN. Keeping this headphone in stock and convincing consumers that they need to spend more for the Ananda or Arya.
The Arya may survive simply because it offers enough detail and resolution for those who need more of it — but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better headphone.
I’ve held for a few years that the HiFiMAN Sundara was the best value in their lineup and one of the best headphones in the world below $400; it’s still a very good headphone but the Edition XS is superior in many areas and one of my early candidates for “Best Headphone of 2022” — although we still have 9 months to go and I have a lot of great headphones on my desk.
Will any of them surpass this stellar design from HiFiMAN? I wouldn’t bet on it below $500.
Very highly recommended.