The HIFIMAN HE-R10 Planar is HIFIMAN’s first true foray into closed-back headphones. From the name to the design, it’s clearly inspired by Sony’s MDR-R10, but with the intent to improve on the MDR-R10 and bring its design into the 21st century. Will this new take on an old design help the HE-R10P surpass the performance of more modern closed-back headphones?
The Build and Design
The HE-R10P comes in a similar package to the Susvara and HE1000V2 with a leather wrapped box, a selection of cables, and a small hardback owner’s guide featuring a mix of history, photography, and important information about the headphones. The cables have an improved look and feel over those which shipped with previous HIFIMAN models, with a more classic looking black cloth wrap. The HE-R10P’s cables also represent a change in overall design in that they feature a single 3.5mm TRRRS plug that goes into the left side of the headphones rather than the dual TRS plugging into left and right that has been featured on their previous models.
In terms of the design of the headphones themselves, they don’t have the same level of upscape look and feel as the Susvara or HE-1000, with the main notable design feature being the very large wood ear cups that help give the HE-R10P its sound. The headphones are lighter than expected, and while the headband might not be as classy as the one on the Susvara, it provides a comfortable fit. I found the earpads to be a touch shallow: my ears would sometimes touch the speaker grill while I was moving my head or adjusting the headphones. It’s clear that the HE-R10P was not designed to be the most stylish headphone on the market, but instead was built to deliver next level closed-back performance.
HE-R10P sounds big. Really big. Those oversized earcups? Basically mini-cathedrals for your ears. Overall the sound is smooth but detailed. The highs are rich, the mids full, and the bass hits with impact and rumble. The soundstage is very round and impressive for a closed-back, and the stereo image well-constructed. The vocal and instrumental timbre is natural and the presentation overall transparent, but maybe a little darker than you might expect coming off of other brighter HIFIMAN offerings like the Ananda or Arya.
The bass on the HE-R10P is mostly focused in the mid-bass, and has a small roll-off in the sub-bass. Despite the roll-off there’s still a good feeling of rumble in the low bass on most tracks. The mid-bass provides a good helping of impact and there’s a visceral quality to the thumping low end on bass heavy songs. There’s also a good helping of detail and texture in the bass.
The mids are filled with detail, and the instrument and vocal balance is clearly presented with good layering. Initially I noted some mild congestion in the low mids, particularly where strong bass elements mixed with other instruments in the transition from the bass to the low mids, however, after several hours of listening, this largely cleaned up, and going back to the same tracks I didn’t notice the same issue. I can’t say for sure if this was “burn-in” or the fact that the headphones literally came off the truck and went immediately onto my head at Northeast United States in December temperatures, and the low temperatures impacted the driver performance initially.
The highs are well presented, and while I’d generally describe them as smooth, as there’s a steep roll-off near the top, there’s still a good amount of air coming from the upper mids and treble. As I mentioned above, the tuning of the treble feels a little darker than a typical HIFIMAN tuning.
On Led Zeppelin's instrumental “Moby Dick,” the HE-R10P delivers all the energy of the original performance directly into your ears. The drums hit with impact and texture. As it gets quieter, you’d think that John Bonham was tapping directly on your eardrums. And as it builds up again, it’s a roaring, powerful thunder. The splash of the cymbals demonstrates the fast response of the HE-R10P’s planar magnetic drivers and crispness of the mid-highs.
Since I’m writing this review shortly before Christmas, I figured I’d indulge in some Christmas songs for my listening. I’ll be honest, I never really considered “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney to be a testament to his songwriting ability, however, it is a testament to the detail and texture that the HE-R10P can deliver. With the combination of space and imaging, I can practically see Sir Paul himself, flanked by the choir of children singing “ding dong ding dong ding dong” as snow falls around. All of the detail, little artifacts, and even some layers of synth I’ve never noticed before were revealed by the HE-R10P. It’s still not a great song, but it was made quite a bit better by listening with headphones of this caliber.
Listening to the acoustic version of “Simmer” by Hayley Williams, puts you face to face with Hayley, her guitar, and her anger. With such a simple, emotional performance, there are so many little details to find. From the little occasionally inconsistent fingerpicking, to the small wavers and catches in her voice. There’s an additional depth and reality added to the performance by the intimacy and detail that the HE-R10P can deliver.
Thelonious Monk’s opening arpeggios strike with a delicate power on “Straight, No Chaser.” Hardly a tour de force of Monk’s own piano chops, he lays down staccato chords and accents for the rest of the band to work around. The HE-R10P’s imaging is on full display, with a strong sense of positioning for the whole band. The saxophone is the real highlight, and the HE-R10P does a great job delivering all the energy of the solos without sharpness or harsh overtones. The bass and drum groove holding it all together has a good sense of impact down low, and a nice shimmer in the highs for the cymbals.
Comparison: HIFIMAN Susvara, Focal Stellia
Two of the biggest questions facing the HE-R10P are where it stands in the pantheon of closed-back headphones, and whether or not it can be considered a “closed-back Susvara.” The short answers are “very high up,” and “it’s Susvara quality, but doesn’t really sound like a Susvara.” But to get some longer answers, let’s do a more comparison with the Susvara, and also see how the HE-R10P stacks up to the current reigning closed-back champ: the Focal Stellia.
In comparing the HE-R10P and Susvara, one of the first things that’s clear is that the HE-R10P has an ample soundstage, but it can’t quite match the massive sense of space created by Susvara. However, in the imaging department it feels very close, with the HE-R10P maybe even having a stronger sense of holographic imaging in some tracks. In terms of the headphones’ frequency response, the Susvara has the edge in the treble and mids, with a more transparent, detailed sound, with the HE-R10P feeling slightly darker by comparison, the HE-R10P has a significant amount more presence and impact in the mid-bass. So while the tunings and capabilities are slightly different, the HE-R10P exhibits a similar level of high performance as the Susvara.
Going up against the Stellia provides a different set of challenges. One of the first things that’s noticeable is that the Stellia has a stronger aesthetic design, and, despite the Stellia being the cheaper of the two, a feeling of higher grade materials quality. In terms of their sound, the Stellia seems like a bit of a safer tuning. It’s a little bit brighter in the highs, and quite a bit less exciting in the bass. Both have incredible detail and resolution. The HE-R10P’s advantages come in two places – both likely thanks to its unique earcup design – bass and soundstage. The HE-R10P provides a larger soundstage and a better sense of space than the Stellia, and a more powerful, dynamic low-end. Overall, the Stellia feels more neutral, so while the HE-R10P might have stronger technical capabilities, some people might have a stronger preference for the more subdued tuning of the Stellia. And that's the core difference between the Stellia and the HE-R10P, the Stellia is an excellent implementation of a "safe" design, while the HE-R10P seems a little bit crazy at times, but ultimately delivers excellence of a different sort.
The Bottom Line
The HE-R10P’s earcup construction isn’t going to win any fashion awards, but that wasn’t the point. The large sculpted design seems to be doing its job by providing more open-back-like characteristics in a closed-back headphone – both in giving the bass more room to breathe, and allowing for a better sense of space. The HE-R10P is the evolution of a classic design and the new king of closed-back performance.