There’s nothing quite like the sublime experience of hearing your favorite music played on a pair of high-end headphones. During my recent visit to CanJam New York City 2017, I had a chance to try a wide variety of personal-audio gear. While there, I chatted with Fang Bien—founder of HiFiMan—and wound up borrowing a pair of HiFiMan Edition X V2 planar-magnetic headphones ($1300) for a hands-on review.
While $1300 is a lot to pay for headphones, modern high-performance models offer an elevated listening experience that can only be matched by considerably costlier full-sized stereo systems. Thus, even at four-figure price points, great headphones can be a Hi-Fi bargain—especially for apartment and condo dwellers.
In a world where many audio enthusiasts do not think twice about spending over a thousand bucks on a new subwoofer, AVR, or pair of speakers, there’s a niche for luxury headphones that offer exceptional performance. Who knows, maybe you fit into that niche.
The HiFiMan Edition X V2 is derived from the successful and well-reviewed Edition X. The V2 improves upon its predecessor in areas like the design of the headband—it adapts to a wider variety of head sizes and features metal yokes rather than plastic.
These planar-magnetic headphones feature low impedance (25 ohms) as well as fairly high sensitivity (103 dB/W/m), so they work with portable-audio devices. The frequency response from 8 Hz to 50 kHz, combined with the clarity and precision of the ultra-thin and lightweight drivers, ensures that you hear all the details within a recording.
These headphones come with two cables: one cable for mobile use and one for home use. Both feature “crystalline silver” and an outer sleeve that reminds me of medical-grade silicone tubing. It’s a bit unusual and springy compared to any other headphone cable I’ve used, but it’s flexible and semitransparent. The 1.5-meter cable terminates in a 3.5mm connector, while the 3-meter cable has a 6.35mm (1/4-inch) plug.
Although you can power these cans with a portable device such as a phone or tablet, your options for portable listening are limited because the Edition X V2 is a full-sized, over-ear, open-back design. As a result, they radiate sound outward as if you are wearing a pair of speakers on your head. Therefore, they are great for taking a stroll, but not for traveling on a plane, train, or bus.
These headphones are supremely comfortable. Given their large size and audio capability, they are surprisingly lightweight at 399 grams. Plus, the angled pads never touch your ears—you can wear them for hours with no fatigue.
For the bulk of my portable listening, I used a Sony NWZ-A17 Walkman, a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge phone, and a Galaxy Tab Pro SM-T320 tablet.
At home, I used an NAD C 368 hybrid DAC/amp to decode audio from a Windows 10 laptop running the Tidal desktop app and Equalizer APO (a very powerful, free, open-source EQ for Windows). With this rig, I streamed CD quality and Tidal Masters quality (24-bit /96 kHz) audio to the Edition X V2s.
When configuring Equalizer APO, my singular goal was to make the bass response sound perceptually flat when running a sine wave sweep. Unlike subwoofers in rooms where nulls and peaks make adjustment by ear tricky, the process is straightforward with headphones.
The EQ curve I wound up with features a 4 dB boost at 20 Hz that drops to 3 dB at 30 Hz, 2 dB at 40 Hz, and 1 dB at 50 Hz. That’s just what sounded right to me; it’s subjective and to taste. What’s important is the combo of EQ and a better headphone amp delivered the gravitas I sought, and the Edition X V2s always delivered as much perfectly clean bass as I asked for. Long story short: Windows 10 + Equalizer APO + NAD C 368 + Edition X V2 = Wow!
The light weight I mentioned earlier, combined with the generous size of the earcups and the comfy earpads, make the Edition X V2s more comfortable than just about any headphones I’ve worn.
Planar-magnetic drivers promise super-fast transient response for crystal clarity. Regardless of whether I used the phone, tablet, Walkman, or C 368, there was nothing between me and the music. Even sine waves sounded eerily clean, with bass test tones exhibiting an absence of the distortion I typically hear when torture-testing headphones.
The Edition X V2 drivers deliver percussive dynamics that rival the pleasure of hearing a great subwoofer do its thing in a well-tuned full-sized sound system. Treble is precise and tremendously detailed, and the perfectly executed midrange reproduces human vocals utterly faithfully.
An informal comparison with HiFiMan’s much more affordable planar-magnetic HE400S made clear what you get for an extra $1000 for the Edition X V2. You get more detail, better dynamics, and more dynamic headroom, along with deeper and cleaner bass response.
Speaking of bass, I performed a quick and dirty test using the NAD C 368 and played sine waves at fixed frequencies—starting at 50 Hz and going down. It’s not a scientific measurement, but it’s clear that these headphones can play cleanly right into the infrasonic realm—to my ears the bass sounded subwoofer-like right down to 16 Hz.
HiFiMan Edition X V2 headphones and NAD C 368 hybrid DAC/Amp.
I prefer a little more emphasis on the very lowest bass frequencies than what the Edition X V2 provides. Fortunately, there’s plenty of headroom—even at 20 Hz and below—to allow for the use of EQ. I found that slightly boosting bass between 20 Hz and 50 Hz gave me the effect I sought when listening to a wide variety of genres including rap, dubstep, trip-hop, reggae dub, industrial, ambient electronica, and jazz. The only catch is that portable devices often do not have the power needed to make the most of this approach.
For many, the audible improvements found in going from $300 or $400 headphones to $1300 cans will seem incremental and not worth the extra dough. But for audiophiles, what’s gained are the precise characteristics that make this sort of gear worth the investment.
No joke, listening to the Edition X V2s became an obsession thanks to how great they sound. Any piece of audio gear that brings excitement to the act of listening is welcome, and these cans delivered. In a matter of days, I consumed many hours of my favorite music. Here are some subjective impressions of what’s been a consistently rewarding experience.
I took a nostalgic trip back to the early 1990s while listening to Coil’s masterpiece, Love’s Secret Domain. Back then, I relied on a pair of Grados and an Aiwa portable cassette player wired up to a pair of D cell batteries to get my portable audiophile fix. What a thrill it is to hear this album presented so perfectly. I was particularly blown away by Annie Anxiety’s vocals in “Things Happen”; there’s so much texture that gets lost on lesser headphones.
No Protection by Mad Professor and Massive Attack is a trip-hop dub classic that’s permanently etched in my memory. Any chance to hear an improvement in its rendition is welcome. And so it was, as I wandered through my local Whole Foods listening to it through these amazing headphones and the Sony NWZ-A17, that I could only chuckle at the notion of having a first-class audiophile experience as I browsed for yogurt. “Cool Monsoon (Weather Storm)” never sounded so good to my ears.
Invariably, when I did hear compression or distortion, I found it was an issue in the recording and not the headphones. Issues that were too subtle to notice on other systems were made plainly obvious. I found this quality to be quite thrilling; it was not long before the Edition X V2 earned my complete trust regarding its fidelity.
Boards of Canada is exhibit A when it comes to deeply layered ambient electronica, and the album Geogaddi is arguably the group’s masterpiece. What a pleasure it is to revisit the album with these HiFiMan cans. I have a ripped copy of the CD on the Sony Walkman, which is (by a small margin) a superior portable player versus the tablet when it comes to clean amplification.
The group’s “Sunshine Recorder” sucks you right in with its liquid-like percussive sounds and ultra-elongated ambient synth pads. And then the bass enters—in proper proportion—while the layering gets thicker and thicker, until finally the voices arrive and the headphones allow the music to melt into your auditory cortex. “Julie and Candy” is full of sharp sounds, crunchy sounds, deep sounds, and a bunch of near-subliminal swirling texture that is a thrill to behold when a system such as this one manages to render all the layers clearly and distinctly.
Thievery Corporation recently released Temple of I and I, which is a great album. I trust the group’s impeccable production sensibilities, so I listened to the album for the first time with the Edition X V2s. What a great presentation, full of great tracks. “Let the Chalice Blaze” sounded spacious and alive. Using the Galaxy Tab Pro, the bass line was deep and driven while the kick drum had just the right amount of impact.
“Arrabel” by Gotan Project was full of energizing snap and crispness and was sufficiently holographic that I easily forgot where the music was actually coming from. I appreciated the attention to micro-detail, like exactly how the guitar blended with the drums and vocals—it’s quite an aural collage. Best I can tell, nothing’s missing and nothing’s exaggerated. The next track, “Domingo,” let the Edition X V2 strut its stuff in the bass department. To hear open-back headphones cover the bottommost octaves with such transparency, power, and control is a sheer delight. Surely, it’s a factor in how people exposed to cans like these wind up justifying the price.
On all these tracks, listening at home with the NAD C 368 resulted in listening experiences that significantly outperformed the portable players and brought out the best from the Edition X V2 headphones. This was especially true when I applied EQ with Equalizer APO in order to make the bass response sound roughly the same as the default setting in a multi-subwoofer Dirac Live-EQ’d full-sized surround system.
One sign of a truly great system—portable or not—is the ability to reveal the truth about a recording. Sometimes, you hear details in recordings that you never noticed before. Other times, you run into the limits of a recording; perhaps you discover there’s nothing more to hear except some hiss, or that it can never sound crisp due to the production style.
If you like to play music loud, and you enjoy deep bass plus bracing dynamics to go with an expansive soundstage, then you need to feed these cans some juice and make ’em really boogie. The result is simply outstanding.
I could go on about how great the music I love sounds through these headphones, but I suspect you get the point. The Edition X V2 listening experience allows for musical discovery by revealing what’s great and not so great in each track. Whether you are listening to new music or revisiting familiar favorites, you get to discover new things with these headphones.
When powered by a cell phone, they perform surprisingly well. But, when fed just a bit more power using a dedicated portable device like a Walkman, they make the leap to profound. And once plugged into a dedicated DAC/amp system at home, they become an epicurean delight.
Truly, the only fly in the audiophile ointment is that the open-back design means you can’t use them as commuter headphones. But who cares! If you can afford Edition X V2s, you can afford to buy a separate pair—preferably closed-back with noise cancellation—for traveling. These headphones are about indulging your ears, giving them something beautiful to behold.
Upon concluding this review, I determined the HiFiMan Edition X V2 is a Pandora’s Box for music lovers. Put them on and you’ll quickly become spoiled by their fidelity. If you wear them for too long, the price tag starts to make sense. That’s the curse!
Only you can judge if rarefied performance in personal audio is worth the price of entry. But, if you have a weak spot for truly great fidelity, approach demoing a pair of these headphones with caution. Otherwise, you could find yourself considering how to justify buying a pair.