Welcome back to Golden Ears, our new column focusing on the enthusiast end of audio. Our goal here is to explore what sets high-end, premium-priced products apart and how they earn their high asking price. Today, we have an exciting new headphone from HIFIMAN, the HE-R10D. Inspired by the classic Sony MDR-R10, they feature solid wood ear cups in a very unique shape, lambskin leather trim, and HIFIMAN’s exclusive Topology Diaphragm for exceptional clarity and detail. Coming in at $1299, there’s no question that this is a Golden Ears product, so let’s dive in.
- Current Price: $1299 (HIFIMAN)
- Frequency Response : 15Hz-35kHz
- Impedance: 32Ω
- Sensitivity : 103dB
- Driver: Topology Driver (Dynamic)
- Driver Size: 50mm
- Headband: Lambskin, Steel
- Ear Cups: Solid Pinew ood, CNC Carved
- Ear Pads: HIFIMAN Tranquility Pads: Leather Outer, Fabric Inner
- Output Cables: Balanced XLR, Single-Ended 6.35mm, Single-Ended 3.5mm,
- Bluemini Bluetooth DAC/Amp Included:
- Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz
- Amp Output in Fact: 230mW
- Amp Output in Theory: 1125mW
- THD: <0.1%
- SNR: 95dB
- Battery Life: 7-10 Hours
- Supported Codecs: LDAC, aptX-HD, aptX, AAC, SBC
- Transmission: Bluetooth, USB Audio
- Weight: 25g
- Weight: 337g
The HE-R10Ds are a unique headphone. They’re inspired by the Sony MDR-R10, a limited edition headphone released in the late 80s that developed a cult following. At the time of its release, it sold for $2500 and was one of the most expensive headphones in the world. The defining feature of the HIFIMAN R10D, and the biggest indicated that the two headphones are related, is their shape. The R10Ds have wide ear cups that taper back at an angle. They’re… an acquired taste. Looking at pictures online, it’s hard to get a bead on how large they actually are and how prominent the pointed ends are. They’re prominent.
With that said, at this price point, it’s sound above all else and this design serves an important purpose: soundstage. The R10Ds are a closed-back headphone, but the spacious ear cups allow for a wider sound than is typical from a closed-back headphone. The ear cups are hollowed out — precision-milled via CNC — so even though the drivers are positioned at a normal distance to your ear, the sound wells from a greater difference and circumference, creating a larger sense of space.
The earcups are also milled from solid pinewood. To its credit, HIFIMAN doesn’t make any grand claims about the “tonal characteristics” of the wood. This may indeed be the case — acoustic guitars demonstrate the tonal characteristics of different kinds of wood very well, but its efficacy on a headphone isn’t something I can speak to in my experience. Many major brands do upsell their headphones based on the solid wood design, however. Here, they lend the R10D a very vintage look in keeping with its Sony counterpart.
The R10D comes in planar magnetic and dynamic driver flavors, each noted with a P or D at the end of the name. The model I have on hand is the dynamic driver version. If $1299 seems expensive, hold your jaw to keep it from dropping: the planar magnetic variant, the HE-R10P, sells for an incredible $5499. The driver here isn’t a simple dynamic, however. It uses HIFIMAN’s patented Topology Diaphragm.
The company’s topology drivers are special creations inspired by the research and thesis report of its founder, Dr. Fang Bian. The drivers are coated in a pattern of nano-particles to allow for fine-tuned control of the driver surface to really dial in tuning. In the picture above, you can see some examples, but I would personally love to know which, if any, of the designs was used here. Are these sheriff badge headphones? We’ll never know! Still, there’s something to this tech. This is the second pair I’ve tested that uses the topology drivers, and like the TWS-800, the level of detail is extremely impressive.
When it comes to specs, these drivers are fairly easy to drive at 32 ohms of impedance and 103dB of sensitivity. Like most Golden Ears headphones, if you’re buying them, it’s to plug them into a nice amp/DAC, but it’s nice to know that they can still sound good plugged into a decent dongle DAC.
Though, that likely won’t even be necessary because the headphone currently ships with a free Bluemini bluetooth DAC/amp. It’s made to connect onto the bottom of the left earcup, as you can see in the picture above. It puts out a good amount of power at 230mW, which is more than enough to power the R10D to uncomfortably loud levels. It also supports high-resolution codecs including LDAC and AptX HD, as well as AptX, SBC, and AAC, and has enough juice to last 7-10 hours before needing a recharge. Dr. Fang has expressed in interviews that he believes the future of high-end audio is wireless, and this is an excellent first step. Like I observed in my review of the DEVA last August, it’s an exceptional wireless unit that deliver clear, high-res audio with plenty of driving power.
Unboxing and First Impressions
The HE-R10D makes an excellent first impression. It arrives in a large wooden box trimmed in leather. The top of the box features a brushed aluminum faceplate. Inside is a glossy owner’s manual that describes each element and what makes it special and of the utmost quality. Also on this layer is the Bluemini adapter and 3.5mm cable. Below these are the headphones themselves, firmly nestled in a silken cloth. In the center are two additional cables, one a balanced XLR and the other a 6.35mm single-ended cable. Both are much longer than the 3.5mm cable, so it’s clear that the smaller connection is intended to be used with portable players and smartphones.
This unboxing experience was the fanciest I’ve ever had and fitting for a product of this caliber. At $1299, you want an experience that feels incredibly high-end and this certainly does. In fact, reading reports from other users, this is the same packaging that the $5499 receives, so it’s nice to see HIFIMAN delivering the same level of quality even with such a large difference in price.
The headphones themselves feel very lightweight; surprisingly so, for their size. The hollow pinewood cups are naturally lightweight, but then there’s an efficiency in materials here that works to the headphone’s benefit in overall comfort. At 337 grams, they’re not heavy, but I would expect to need a break after a couple of hours. Not so, here. They’re well balanced, just grippy enough to create a seal and take some of the pressure from the top of the head. I’ve worn them for 6-hour stretches without any soreness whatsoever.
That lightweight build doesn’t feel as robust as I would expect from a headphone like this, but then, they’re clearly headphones designed for use at home by audio enthusiasts, so comfort takes precedence over drop resistance. Still, HIFIMAN has made good use of metal on the most likely points of breakage. Both the yokes and headband are made from steel, for example.
The cushioning is exquisite. The R10D uses supple lambskin on the headband which is so soft to the touch. Under, there’s just enough padding to keep from feeling the headband. The ear cushions are HIFIMAN’s Tranquility Pads. They’re a hybrid pad that’s leather on the outer ring and fabric on the inner ring. There are no alternate pads in the box, but swapping is easy should you care for an aftermarket pair. They adhere with velcro, so there’s no finagling with temperamental flaps of fabric or adhesive.
Fit and Comfort
The HIFIMAN HE-R10D are a very comfortable headphone, clearly designed for long listening sessions. As I mentioned previously, I was able to wear them for hours at a time without any discomfort. The ear cushions are also very nice. The fabric is very welcome this time of year as the temperatures rise, allowing some heat to vent and preventing undue sweat. I do wish there was an alternate pair of cushions in the box to see how a full leather pad would impact bass response.
The HE-R10D has a lot going for it in the surrounding elements, but how does a $1299 headphone sound?
Going into this tier of product there are two things to know. First, we are well into the area of diminishing returns. HIFIMAN headphones have always impressed me, but the jump from a $500 to $1000 headphone is naturally going to be less than the jump from $100 to $500. This leads to the second point: with enthusiast-level products, often, we’re exploring variations in tone and substance and presentation over sheer “sound quality.” Take cars, for example: a Porsche, a Lamborghini, and a Maserati. Each of those cars is going to be great in its own way but how it’s great, and the price to get there, is going to be different.
After a good few weeks with the R10D, the star of the show is absolutely the bass response. As a dynamic driver headphone, the low-end response is excellent. In particular, the really low-end bass (sub-bass) stands out. The strings in Gisli Gunnarsson’s “Lifeling” have a body to them I’ve never heard before. A low-end presence that gives them authority and realism. NF’s “My Stress” has a reverberating bassline that lingers, descending up and down throughout the song. The sub-bass response these headphones deliver literally allows you to feel that bass reverberate through your head. It gave me chills and I’ve never had that happen with this track on any headphone. They can also bunch, which is great for kick drums.
The drivers bloom in the upper mids, which lends them a moderately bright sound with lots of clarity. Vocals on these headphones are particularly good. Female vocals in particular pop, but the realism and clarity on tap here makes listening more fun and — forgive the cheesiness in this statement — more emotional. Since vocals come forward so much, harmonies and reverb also come forward and make them sound better than ever. “Church” by Tom MacDonald really stands out with this.
This is also great for guitar-driven music as those frequencies also fall into the “boosted” range of the frequency response chart above. In Foo Fighters “Everlong,” Dave Grohl does some of his most iconic guitar work — it’s a classic. With the R10D, I picked up some subtle vocoder harmonies written into the post-chorus I’d never heard before. Combined with the deep, rich bass, the song honestly sounded better than ever. Honestly, these headphones excelled for rock music. As a guitar player, I’m used to hearing chords played on the guitar blend together, but here the sound is detailed enough to make out the individual notes within those chords.
HIFIMAN really tuned these headphones to bring out the upper mids and there is a steep roll-off after 6000Hz. As a result, high-pitched sounds like cymbal crashes ease back into the mix and sound somewhat veiled to my ear. At the same time, that roll-off starts just high enough to allow overdriven guitars to sometimes have an edge of sharpness to them. Foo Fighters “My Hero” is a good example of this, where that edge stands out but the frequent cymbal crashes have a bit of haze. The ultimate effect here is that, broadly speaking, the R10D is good at putting off listening fatigue, but depending on the tracks can still lean in that direction.
Taken as a whole, the detail retrieval on these headphones is very good. The texture and nuance from the bass to the upper mids comes through very clearly. Attack is tight and controlled, so transients come through accurately without realistic punch and decay. Due to the tuning, this is harder to make out in the treble as I describe above. I found these headphones to be quite revealing of how well tracks are mixed, too. The dynamic range is such that the sound delivery can swing from very quiet to very loud with immediacy, and poorly mixed tracks definitely take on a compressed sound that almost makes the music sound boxy. Well mixed music, however, sounds outstanding.
One thing I was impressed by was the soundstage. Compared to other closed-backs, the ear cup design really does make a big difference. They have a wider soundstage than any closed-back I’ve heard except the Beyerdynamic DT-177X-GO. At the same time, this isn’t as wide as a good open back, so it resolves as a kind of hybrid. If you’re not opposed to using Dolby Atmos, this can compete with open-backs, and that’s impressive given it’s still-isolating design.
A Note on Gaming
It’s not likely anyone will buy these headphones just for gaming, but it’s worth highlighting that they work particularly well here. I played a mix of World of Warcraft, Doom Eternal, and Call of Duty: Cold War and their tuning worked very well. They have the punch and slam to give games (and movies, too) a cinematic quality while also drawing out dialogue. The detail and clarity makes picking out fine details easy and they offered excellent positionality in CoD. I would, however, recommend investing in Dolby Atmos for gaming. Without it, the soundstage is good enough to enjoy games with, but the added sense of space and atmosphere with spatial audio is definitely worth turning on while gaming.
Exploring this headphone was a lot of fun. The design is very unique and frankly, we had some fun laughing about my pointy ear cups, but it’s not without its purpose. On that level, it succeeds: these are fairly open closed-backs. And let’s be real: would you take a pair of $1299 headphones out of the house? Me either, so looks aren’t the end-all-be-all here. Much more important is how beautifully they presented vocals and guitars. I’m a rock fan at heart, so the tuning was just a treat when enjoying my favorite genre and also paid dividends in hip-hop and while playing games.
HIFIMAN has quickly become one of my favorite HiFi brands. Each of its headphones I’ve been able to try has been great in its own way. Is the HE-R10D worth $1299? When you’re in the market for a so-called “kilobuck” headphone, it may just be. But, like a sports car, what’s going to matter a lot more is whether this offers the “flavor” of sound you’re looking for.The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.