By Don Lindich
Week 18, 2023
Q: I read that the Hifiman HE400se headphones you recommended require a separate amplifier to make them work. Is this true?
-A.H., Raleigh, NC
A. They will work without an external amplifier, but you may want to consider one to make them sound their best. Read on to learn more.
Hifiman HE400se headphones and iFi Audio GO Link bundle for $159 from headphones.com: A few months ago I wrote about the Hifiman HE400se Planar-Magnetic Open-Back Headphones, on sale from $149 to $109. In the column I said, “Planar magnetic headphones use exotic driver technology and many consider them to be the ultimate in sound quality. Planar magnetic headphones sound magical, and with the HE400 at $109 that magic is now available to everyone.” Many readers agreed with my assessment, and I received some wonderful feedback from happy listeners who felt like they were hearing really good headphones for the first time.
Some of the communication I received was questions such as yours. Strictly speaking, the headphones can be driven with a tablet or Smartphone’s headphone output, which usually takes the form of a small dongle. The dongle looks like a small wire with ports on each side but is much more, containing digital-to-analog conversion and amplification inside its tiny form. Though the dongle can drive the HE400se headphones, the right amplifier can take things to the next level and I recently came across a simple, convenient and affordable device that can really make them sing.
The iFi Audio GO Link is an amplifier and USB digital converter that resembles a dongle since it is small, portable and works just the same way. Just connect it to the Lightning or USB port on your device, connect your headphones and, as the name says, GO. The difference is the GO Link is much better made and provides stronger amplification, improved digital-to-analog conversion and Hi-Res audio playback. Consider it the Ferrari of dongles, for only $59. Powered by the GO Link the HE400se headphones sounded a bit clearer and a bit more transparent, a bit more lively, a bit more musical, a bit more rich, and a bit stronger in the bass. Add up all those different bits and you have a meaningful, clearly audible improvement over something that was pretty great already. Download and play some Hi-Res audio sample tracks and you will be blown away. Playing Hi-Res audio through the combo is a feast for your ears.
As part of my review process I had an audiophile friend over for a visit and I had him compare the sound of the HE400se/GO Link combo to the $799 Focal Bathys and $2,000 Meze Lyric headphones. He immediately picked the Meze Lyric (also powered by the GO Link) as the best, which is understandable given the price. The Focal Bathys, which includes its own amplification, came in next, also to be expected. But he seemed most enchanted with the HE400se – GO Link combo, and kept reaching for them as we passed the headphones around. He smiled and sighed while listening, saying, “These headphones are really only $149? And the amplifier is $59? Wow, this is really great.” It’s easy to fall in love with expensive gear, but it is a lot more satisfying to fall for things we can actually afford.
He will be happy to learn the combo is not $208, though that would be a bargain for what you get. Headphones.com now sells the HE400se headphones and the iFi GO Link in a $159 bundle, about the MSRP of the headphones alone. It’s a fantastic way to experience audiophile sound quality for under $200.