HiFiMAN Jade II Electrostatic Headphone and Amplifier Review: inviting electrostat

Pros: Silky mids, balanced sound signature, fluid and detailed treble, treble that contrasts favourably to other electrostats, comfortable earpads, lightweight, that cool jade green dust-cover on the drivers

Cons: Tangle prone flat cable, amp isn’t completely silent and takes several hours to warm up (leave it on if you like listening), not as comfortable as HE-1000 V2 due to lack of swivelling cups, tonally accurate but not impactful

List Price: $2499 as a package ($1399 headphone, $1499 amplifier if bought separate)

Product Website: HiFiMAN official store ($1700 through 31 Dec. 2019)

HiFiMAN Jade II Electrostatic Headphone System

Rating Disclaimer: ratings are subjective. Audio quality and value do not mean the same thing across all prices. A headphone with a 5 rating on audio at $5 does not have equivalent sound quality as a 5 rating at $500. Likewise, value at $5 is not the same as value at $5000 dollars.

Introduction

I’ve got a long history with HiFiMAN. My first ‘real’ in ear was the RE0, which I still have. My favourite headphone is the Susvara. My favourite Bluetooth headphone (for sound) is the Ananda-BT. With this out there, it is highly likely that my views on any HiFiMAN tuned product will be good, but I haven’t been a big fan of electrostatic full-size headphones in general, so this review could test my fondness for the HiFiMAN house sound.

So far, it has looked like I’m not an electrostatic guy for full size headphones. I tried the Stax SR009 with the Blue Hawaii, it was good, but felt too dry and lacking in impact or realistic decay, both in the treble and the bass. The Stax SR009 is fast as all get out, but it isn’t anywhere near realistic. I tried the Stax again on a $100,000 MSB Select setup and it sounded better, but still lacked something. It sounded technically wonderful on the MSB, but seemed to lack a proper soul. At CanJam London 2019 this year I finally tried the Warwick Acoustics Sonoma, it wasn’t bad, but was still on the drier side and wouldn’t be where I would put $5000. This Jade II system is better as an electrostatic headphone system for my sonic preferences, and the money saved could get me a great DAC and a different and potentially better electrostatic energizer like the iFi iESL.

Usability: form & function

Unboxing

The box is understandably quite large, about 70cm cubed.

First up, the headphone box. It’s big and flat with a sturdy foam insert to protect the headphone. The cable goes under a little foam hatch.

After that it’s the big amp. It’s well protected with similar foam to that protecting the Jade II.

There she is. The unboxing is heavy, as in lifting, but pretty pedestrian. No big reveals, no special boxes, no visually striking angles, just plenty of utilitarian foam.

Aesthetics and build quality

I like the look of everything here. It’s matte black industrial eye candy for me with jade highlight reflecting at me from the drivers. The cable for the headphone is flat, like most electrostatic headphone cables. I personally think that the Dan Clark Audio Voce has got this right by ditching the flat cable for a round cable. Computer cables switched over to round about 15 years ago, the electrostatic headphone industry needs to wake up to the same improvement.

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Nobody wants that mess in their computer anymore. I don’t know why anybody thinks I want that mess in front of my face. Look at the Dan Clark Audio Voce below: detachable, imminently usable tangle-resistant round cable. That’s how you do.

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There’s been some criticism of the build quality online, but I’m not an engineer and am not about to tear down a review unit, so I’m just going to stick to what I’ve observed. When this came, the RCA inputs were both loose, I tightened them. The balanced or single-ended input selector on the front is wobbly feeling, it just kind of floats. The button could use a bit more firm click and a more linear line, less side to side wobbliness. The volume pot is a 21 step stepped attenuator.

It doesn’t feel like that, but it’s nice enough. The knob doesn’t have notable wobble or give to it. I do wish it had more steps, as if I was using a fixed output device, it would be really hard for me to dial in the proper volume. I’d also like a little bit firmer click into place in each step.

The rest of the amp seems pretty solidly constructed. It’s a boring black steel block of amplifier with a bunch of heft to it. It’s beefy and black. I’ll leave you alone with your thoughts.

Ergonomics

The headphone has the same band as the Ananda, with a Jade II label. It is a simple band made of spring steel, plastic and protein leather. It has a light feel on the head. Adjustments aren’t as easy as with the HE-1000 v2 or Susvara, which I can adjust while I’m wearing them. To adjust the band on the Jade II I have to take it off my head. The headband doesn’t swivel like the Ananda-BT band does, which means that the Ananda-BT is more comfortable than the Jade II.

Audio quality

The Jade II has a smooth sound with excellent weight to female vocals like on Macy Gray – Slowly (24-192, binaural). The sound is fluid with an overall soft feel to the sound—this is not to say that it lacks definition, just to say that it doesn’t have any points where it feels aggressive or peaky. It has a natural tonality with a tad more bass emphasis than neutral. Bass sounds rounded and smooth rather than precise and textured with a little bit of emphasis on the midbass which adds a touch of warmth to the sound. The lack of peakiness also manifests as limitation of sibilance on tracks like Rush – The Trees (DSD64). The Trees has plenty of opportunity to emphasize sibilance, the Jade II doesn’t take these opportunities. When torturing treble with Katherine Bryan – Flute Concerto: II. Alla Marcia (24-192) or Kraftwerk – Kometenmelodie 2 (24-96, vinyl-rip) the Jade II avoids the shrill points that these tracks produce naturally. This is to say that the Jade II actively suppresses shrillness; which may also manifest as some loss of resolution. On busy tracks like Animals as Leaders – Ka$cade (16-44) the Jade II keeps pace and has good depth and separation on instruments while never sounding harsh or edgy, which this track can often do. I really like the way the Jade II presents this track. If we are looking for raw power, we get a semblance of it on tracks like Rage Against the Machine – Take the Power Back (16-44), but these never give the aggressive impact to make you feel rather than just hear the aggression inherent in the track, a deficit of visceral feeling that is replicated with The Notorious B.I.G. – Me and My Bitch (24-96, vinyl-rip).

The test rig

Open back headphones don’t measure the same when I point a sound pressure level (SPL) meter at them, so here I have listened to a track to set the volume I like on the HiFiMAN Jade II Electrostatic Amp, switched to Ayre Acoustics – White Noise off their Irrational but Efficacious System Enhancement Disc, measured the SPL and then tried to match by ear with the same track. Chances are I’m off by a half to a full decibel (dB). For listening tests, I set the Questyle CMA600i to 15 volume—I know I’m double-amping but I don’t care so long as I don’t get distortion—and then I set the XI Audio Formula S by hand with the HiFiMAN HE-1000 V2 (review of HE-1000 V2 here). For the HE-1000 V2, the gain was set to High on the XI AUDIO Formula S. The full signal chains can be found below.

DAC Amplifier Headphone Cable SE/Balanced Gain Volume ~SPL
Questyle CMA600i HiFiMAN Jade II Energiser HiFiMAN Jade II Stock SE* 8 steps** 66.1
Questyle CMA600i XI AUDIO Formula S HiFiMAN HE-1000 V2 Stock to Aiva 4.4mm to 4-pin XLR Balanced High 42%** 63.4
HiBy R3 HiFiMAN Ananda-BT HiFiMAN Ananda-BT 57 65.9
*This is the input on the amplifier, not the cable

**With Questyle CMA600i set to 15

Power components

  • MCRU No. 11 mains cable to iFi PowerStation
  • Stock power cables for HiFiMAN Jade II Amp and Questyle CMA600i
  • MCRU DIY (£10) aftermarket power lead for XI Audio Formula S (didn’t come with power lead)

Signal components

  • Dell Vostro running Windows 10 and JRiver Media Center
  • Vertere Double D-Fi split power and signal USB 2.0 cable to iFi Micro iUSB3.0
  • LH Labs Lightspeed 2 split power and signal USB 2.0 cable to Questyle Audio CMA600i
  • Vertere D-Fi XLR to RCA to HiFiMAN Jade II amplifier to Jade II electrostatic headphone
  • Wire On Wire Experience 680 (no tuning applied) RCA to XI Audio Formula S
  • SendyAudio 4-pin XLR to 4.4mm TRRS female adaptor to SendyAudio Aiva stock cable to HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2

For HiFiMAN Ananda-BT, source was HiBy R3 set to LDAC.

Comparisons

HiFiMAN Jade II ($2499 including amp) vs. HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2 ($2999 not including amp)

Build and feature comparison

The HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2 is built better. It’s more comfortable, has better materials, and has a detachable cable. Neither comes with a case worthy for transport. Neither comes with a high quality cable. Nobody would mistake the Jade II for a portable setup, the amp is a heavy little unit and the permanently attached cable isn’t so friendly for transport. However, while the HE-1000 v2 would seem to be the more transportable, given its weight and detachable cable, the headband shape doesn’t fit in most aftermarket cases. The Jade II electrostatic headphone fits in HiFiMAN’s new case, first debuted with the Ananda-BT, now available separately.

Sound

Bjork’s voice drips with vulnerability on Bjork – Black Lake (24-96) and the Jade II conveys this emotion beautifully. Strings are soft, with a somewhat muted raspiness to the sustained note at about 1.5 minutes in. When the bass kicks in it is round and fluffy, as expected on this track. There is a warm velvety sound to the Jade II on Bjork’s vocals. In contrast, the HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2 has more precision with her vocals, she isn’t hard or etched, but there is added resolution and texture. Similarly, violins are more detailed with sharper peaks. I find the expression of violins more accurate on the HE-1000 v2. When the bass kicks in it is a touch tighter, but the round fluffy nature of the bass is as expected on the track. There are definitely elements of shared heritage in the sound signatures here. The Jade II has a bit more immediate feel than the HE-1000 v2, with less depth in stage. Both have good depth, but the HE-1000 v2 is better. The HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2 gets more ambient detail and is more subtle. The HE-1000 v2 also sounds a touch faster on it’s transients.

A lot of people talk about having tracks for male and female vocals, but I don’t have so many vocals that I consider quintessentially masculine. Nobody would mistake Geddy Lee or Jon Anderson for quintessentially masculine. I think Van Morrison and Eddie Vedder probably qualify for being distinctly male, as does the baritone of Leonard Cohen. Van Morrison – Into the Mystic (16-44) positions Van Morrison a little ahead of the bassist, ahead of the saxophone and on par with the tambourine and guitar. The instrument spacing is wonderful on the HE-1000 v2. I can easily listen to any of the instruments in the stage, all by themselves. The stage on the Jade II doesn’t have as much width. Guitars are a touch sharper on the Jade II, but Van Morrison’s vocals are a bit softer. Depth is good on the Jade II, but width is narrower than the HE-1000 v2. The background on the HE-1000 v2 is blacker than that of the Jade II, which allows little details like reverb from the recording space to shine through a bit more than they do on the Jade II.

Katherine Bryan – Flute Concerto: II. Alla Marcia (24-192) is a speedy, high dynamic range piece with loads of different instruments recorded well with an open sound. The Jade II keeps up with the speedy flute and summons up some powerful tonality for the big tympanies. It maintains nice depth in the stage, but not a ton of width. Transients come off just a touch soft on the Jade II. On fast drum bits the HE-1000 v2 keeps pace a little bit better. The stage is a bit wider and taller, with roughly the same depth as the Jade II, but it has a bit more clarity at greater depths. The flute has a bit less body on the HE-1000 v2. It’s got some thickness and presence on the Jade II that the HE-1000 v2 isn’t giving. I think many will like the presentation of flute on the Jade II better.

Would you kill for this sound? Notorious B.I.G. – Me and My Bitch (24-96) asks us that question with regard to bass presence. Me and My Bitch exudes attitude in the bass with thumping drums (those show up well here), and a big deep bass guitar (that comes up a little bit short on the Jade II). The thumping sound of the drum comes through, but doesn’t have the visceral impact that a good dynamic driver can give you. You feel this, but partly because you know you should. The violins have good separation and tone on the Jade II. The HE-1000 v2 has what is almost like a halo around the vocals. They are so clear and precise. Bass-wise, the HE-1000 v2 doesn’t have as much impact or volume as the Jade II, but it does have a little more depth and texture. Neither of these is a bass cannon. For this album I would probably turn to some more specialist headphones or IEMs to feel more of that bass.

HiFiMAN Jade II ($2499 including amp) vs. HiFiMAN Ananda-BT

Build and feature comparison

The build quality is basically exactly the same, with one difference on the headphones. The Ananda-BT has a slight modification to the headband that allows a small range of swivel, probably about 10-20 degrees. The Ananda-BT has some other feature differences:

  • It’s wireless with LDAC and other hi-res Bluetooth capability
  • It has a plug-in jack microphone that is excellent—best experience I’ve had on call quality
  • It has a built-in USB DAC.

Sound

On the Ananda-BT, the mids on Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 (DSD64) are a touch back of where they are on the Jade II. I’ve got a little less guitar presence when I volume match by ear. Treble on the Jade II is softer, which made it interesting for volume matching with white noise. The Ananda-BT has more treble energy, which makes it sound more present on the white noise. When listening in practice this translates to a softer, smoother presentation on the Jade II. The Jade II sounds a touch smooth on cymbals. I’m not getting every cymbal tap. I’m getting some blending. The Ananda-BT doesn’t blend, but it sounds like I’m not getting all taps—this could be Bluetooth compression. I’m using LDAC, but this is a complex track that any compression in the high-end would probably lead to missing information. The Ananda-BT still sounds faster, but it sounds somehow incomplete. The Jade II has more presence in the mids, so I’m expecting to hear some of this on the next track.

Not much visual difference between Jade II and Ananda-BT, they even fit in the same case

Sometimes we forget how forward and loud a recording is when we shift between old recordings and new recordings. Comparing between Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 (DSD64) and Damien Rice – Elephant (16-44) is one such time. Older recordings were quite frequently recorded at a lower volume. Like Fleetwood Mac – Rumours and Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms, Billy Cobham – Spectrum was recorded at low volume. There are volume leveling functions in JRiver, but they only work on PCM and Spectrum is DSD. To cover for this, I took a listening break. Next morning now, the Ananda-BT has some great balance. The arrangement is very forward on vocals, so the slightly back mids (compared to Jade II) do not factor into the sound portrait and there is still sufficient separation between the strings, and the power strummed raspy guitar. The Jade II is softer, warmer, smoother and more linear in the mids, while the Ananda-BT has some small peaks when playing out of the HiBy R3. The Jade II is more delicate, but has a more clouded background vs. the cleaner and blacker Ananda-BT. Both handle the busy section of the track after 4 minutes well, but the Jade II comes through sounding a touch purer. The instrument separation on the Jade II is aided by there being a bit more depth in the stage.

Yosi Horikawa – Wandering (16-44, binaural) wasn’t a bass test track for me until I reviewed the Stealth Sonics U2, but after that, it hasn’t left my quiver of tracks to fire at my bass targets. Only bass-cannon headphones really push up the bass like crazy on this. The Jade II is not a bass cannon, but it does represent the tone well. The tone goes deep, but without the joyful amplitude. The other aspect of this track I test with is sound stage. This track being binaural means it has quite a large soundstage. The Jade II does a good job capturing height and depth. The height is especially good. It doesn’t go big on stage width, though the binaural track gives it more width than other tracks have. All the complex nature sounds come through each in their own space with the Jade II rendering them to nice effect. When switching to the Ananda-BT the big bass note is less round and smooth than the Jade II. The Jade II has an emphasis on the midpoint of the note that makes it smoother, while the Ananda-BT has a more even representation that lets the sub-bass texture come through more. This is not to say that the Ananda-BT has more quantity of bass, I don’t think it does. If anything the bass quantity on the Ananda-BT is slightly less than the Jade II (this could be due to slight differences in volume from the difficulties of comparing open-back headphones). I think the bass texture of the Ananda-BT is superior. Soundstage-wise, the Ananda-BT doesn’t have the height or depth of the Jade II, and is about par on width. Within the stage, instruments are a bit sharper on the Ananda-BT, which gives an impression of added resolution. The Jade II has a softer ambiance.

Guitars, the bass, and Macy’s voice have a silken quality to them on Macy Gray – Slowly (24-192, binaural) listening with the Jade II. As noted previously stage depth and height are quite good with plenty of separation between the drum-kit, the guitar, Macy’s vocal and the forward bass on the right side (audience perspective). On the Ananda-BT Macy’s vocal has less body than the Jade II. The sound of the Ananda-BT is a little drier on her vocal and a little sharper on the guitar. Bass is a touch more forward on the Jade II, but a little more textured on the Ananda-BT. With regards to stage dimensions, the Ananda-BT has much less height, slightly less depth, and about the same width. Presentation of the Jade II is thicker, while the Ananda-BT has pretty average note thickness.

Specifications

Headphone Specifications
Price $1399 ($2499 total with amplifier)
Driver type Electrostatic (0.001mm nanotech driver)
Frequency response 7Hz to 90kHz
Bias voltage 550V to 650V
Weight 365g (12.9oz)
Construction Basically identical to HiFiMAN Ananda on the cups, pads, yoke and headband. Plastic cups, metal yoke, plastic and metal headband, protein leather supporting strap (not premium looking) No swivelling. Six-step headband size adjustment. Fixed electrostatic cable.
Amplifier Specifications
Price $1599 ($2499 total with headphone)
Weight 6.5kg (14.3lb)
Dimensions 276mm x 270mm x 116mm (10.9” x 10.6” x 4.6”)
Construction Big hunk of black steel. 21 stepped attenuator volume control. XLR and Phono (RCA) inputs, only one activated at once, via switch on front of amp.

Acknowledgment

The HiFiMAN Jade II was provided on loan from HiFiMAN. It will return to HiFiMAN after this review is published. I have not been compensated by HiFiMAN for this review. All thoughts are my own.

Conclusions

Overall the Jade II is an easily approachable electrostat. It doesn’t have the sparkling, jangly, ethereal, dry, overly-fast treble of other electrostatic full-size headphones that I’ve listened to; nor does it have the hyperfast bass of creations like the Stax SR-009. It eschews this focus on unnatural speed and artificial transients for a more smooth and organic sound. The Jade II has reassuring note weight through the mids. It is gentle and genteel, to the point of taming naturally occurring sibilance and smoothing natural treble peaks in music. This means that sometimes when aggression is called for it isn’t quite there. I didn’t have an alternative energizer during my review time, so this genteel nature may be the amp and not the headphone. This is a long-listening non-fatiguing electrostatic headphone system. These have great stage depth and fantastic stage height, but average width. For those looking for a smooth, easy-listening headphone system that still keeps pace with fast and complicated tracks while portraying a natural and balanced signature, the Jade II might be just the ticket.

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