6/19/19: Added Video Comparison of the Element vs. Objective 2. Added Photo Gallery. Made Table of Contents.
9/17/19. Link cleanup.
2/23/20. Added Video Shootout and updates to the 400 series as a whole.
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
Small Disclaimer before we get into things: HiFiMan has been having ongoing quality control issues for quite some time now, mostly with the cable connection. My video shootout goes into much depth about my overall impressions of the big 4, including Drop’s HE-4XX, the original 400i, the 400S, and the Sundara. It should also be noted that Audio Advice (a store I frequent to demo these models) has stopped carrying HiFiMan products due to said issues. Your mileage may vary. More in the video below!
The biggest things to keep in mind with these headphones are the following:
They sound grainier and more abrasive than the smoother sounding 400i. More on that later.
They won’t sound their best with the stock ear pads. More on that later.
The cable is very suspect. This was pretty much unanimous in all of the reviews including the positive ones.
There is a lack of bass extension that can be remedied with the Brainwavz Focus Pads and/or the grill mod. This isn’t a deal-breaker per se, but there is a definite bass roll-off starting at 7oHz, and completely rolling off by 30Hz. Just think of them as bass lean. You’re not going to be blown away by it.
They sound best with high-quality source files. 320 kbps should be the standard here.
Other than that, these are a fantastic sounding headphone with a pretty good build quality aside from the cable issue. They aren’t very amp specific and will sound fine with many different combinations.
Great mid-range. Very natural. Their bread and butter. Extremely clear even using Spotify’s sub-optimal 192kbps files. If you have Spotify premium I believe they provide 320kbps which is the standard for good listening and a number you should always strive for.
The cable is not of a high quality/comes loose and/or breaks easily. The sound also may be unbalanced on right vs. left. Unfortunately, customer services solution to bad cables and ones that break down over a short period of time is for you to buy new ones. Unacceptable.
Lack of sub-bass and bass extension in general.
Can get a bit abrasive at times/rough around the edges.
Here I compiled all of my impressions of the big 4 since 2017!
An amp isn’t required for the 400S, but will greatly aid you in the studio when you’re sitting at your desk. I absolutely love these straight out of my phone though. They aren’t too loud or too quiet; it’s a nice happy medium. At 98dB/mW, they are a bit more efficient than a 400i at 93-94dB. Related:How to choose a headphone amp!
I wouldn’t purchase a 400i without an amp. With the 400S you can get away with it although a great Amp/DAC will help the sound in both cases regardless.
Hip-Hop. No, they’re not a bass heads headphone, but listening to some of my favorite artists on Soundcloud I started to hear things that I hadn’t before. It was like I was aware of the artist and how they intended for the mix to come out.
With the Brainwavz FocusPads (replacement earpads), more bass-driven music comes to life. The problem with this is that they cost an additional $40 when they should be included for no extra cost, or used as the original earpads! It really defeats the entire purpose. They also add bass at the expense of the luscious 3D sound signature.
On your mobile device, they aren’t too loud but also not too quiet. They kind of sit somewhere in the middle. I never have to turn them down, but on the flip side, I would like to turn them up on occasion. They’re the type of headphones that makes you want to know every single thing going on, even though they provide that in spades.
The bass is not going to be very powerful or deep. While it is clean, it lacks that “oomph” that many people desire. It could definitely use a bit more extension.
The build quality is decent overall but not spectacular.
The sound signature isn’t flat, but also not overly colored.
You may not want to travel with them. While they are a solid desktop headphone, they aren’t sturdy enough to lug around.
Word on the street is that these will take upwards of 150 hours to break in. A lot of people don’t really believe in this phenomenon, but I’m here to tell you that there is some truth to it. Pretty much all of the headphones I’ve owned over the years started to sound significantly better over time.
There’s a grill mod you can do which also supposedly improves the bass, sub-bass, Soundstage, and treble response. There’s more depth to the sound.
You will definitely want to make sure your source files are good as mentioned in the Pros section. This is very common with headphones in this price range. They tend to really expose bad quality tracks.
While the treble is solid, it does lack a bit of air, sparkle, and detail that would otherwise capture that realism in tracks that we all love. It still has energy but isn’t quite as treble-heavy as other cans. The good news is that it won’t make you tired, which I’ve come to find is a problem with listening to bright/sibilant headphones too long. What does Sibilant mean?
A fantastic overall sounding headphone with some quality control issues. The bad chord is unanimous, and while the Focuspads help the overall sound, they should have come with the headphones.
Similarities & Differences
Both have velour ear pads.
Both have the same frequency response: 20Hz – 35kHz.
Both excel in many of the same genres.
Both sets are constructed in the exact same manner, with a couple of subtle differences. The first is color and the second is ear-pad material.The 400S sports velour, while the 400i seems to be made of plush, soft pleather. It is rather comfy.
Both are very comfortable.
Both come with the same 5 foot, heavily braided L-jack 3.5mm to split L & R 3.5mm balanced cord, and only differ in color. Oddly enough, I didn’t experience nor did I hear anyone having issues with the 4ooi’s cable.
The main difference is in Red.
Amp. Without a doubt, in my opinion, the 400i is much too quiet with your portable device, while the 400S sounds great. So you will need to purchase an amp with the 400i without question. However, with the 400S it’s debatable. If I didn’t already have an amp, and I was deciding, I would probably wait a while before I bought one, since I can enjoy the sound immediately with the 400S.
Sound. The HE400S has a grainier and more abrasive sound, while the HE400i is smoother and warmer. The 400S at times seems like it’s trying a bit too hard to be detailed and analytical, while the 400i seems very effortless for the most part. So in essence, the 400i is more open and has a slightly cleaner sound overall.
Mid-range. The 400S’ mid-range isn’t as forward/prominent sounding as the 4ooi.
Reproduction. The 400i may be better at reproducing the true sound, or the Timbre of the instrument.
Bass. The400S produces a more realistic bass response, while the 400i’s is punchier and digs deeper. The 400i’s bass has more depth and texture to it, meaning it’s more nuanced and detailed.
Soundstage. The 400i’s have a better Soundstage than the 400S’s.
Imaging. The imaging on the 400S is less precise than the 400i.
Instrument Separation. The 400S isn’t quite as clear as the 400i. You will be able to distinguish the locations of different sounds easier with the 400i.
Impedance. 22 Ohms for the 400S vs. 35 for the 400i.
Sensitivity. 98dB for the 400S vs. 93 for the 400i.
Weight. The 400S is a tad lighter at 350g vs. the 370g of the 400i.
Fatigue. Because the 400S is warmer, it’s less prone to causing fatigue than the 400i.
Packaging. The 400i’s packaging is a bit better and fancier than the 400S’s. Patrick Starr says, “If ya wanna be fancy, hold your pinky out like this! The higher you hold it, the fancier you are.” 🙂
The major point to take away here is that the HE400S is more abrasive and colder sounding, while the HE400i is smoother and warmer.
As noted above, the 400S seems like it’s trying really hard to be analytical and in comparison to the 400i, falls a little bit flat although I do like listening with it. I personally enjoy the sound of the 400i. It’s more musical with better resolution, while the 400S is perhaps a bit more detailed in theory, but doesn’t quite hit the mark like the 400i.
Out of these 2, I would go with the 400i, but today I’m going to recommend something else. The updated HIFIMAN Sundara improves upon all the shortcomings of the original 400i with regard to build. It also sports a tighter bass with more impact, better mid-range, and cleaner highs. It’s one of the best mid-fi headphones I’ve reviewed. Interested in learning more?
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.