HiFiMAN RE-400 ‘Waterline’ | Core Competency

Hi! My name is Lachlan. This is my first article for CYMBACAVUM, but you may have already seen some of my YouTube video reviews pop up on the site. I thought that for my first piece I would look at a notable in-ear earphone, the HiFiMAN RE-400. Rather than simply regurgitate the information presented about the RE-400 in my video review, I hope this written review is a complementary look at some of my thoughts behind HiFiMAN’s $99 wunderkind — a more abstract jaunt about what the RE-400 means for HiFiMAN and the entire industry. If you want to get a simple four minute rundown of what the RE-400 looks like and how it sounds, simply watch this video review. The following article more or less takes the scenic route.

If you are reading this to work out if the RE-400 is worth it, the answer is yes. Stop reading. Go buy it.

An executive summary of the RE-400 could be delivered in a few sentences, and should be delivered at the top of this article just to get it out of the way: the RE-400 is really good. And not “good for $99” kind of good. HiFiMAN could have dialed in any number between 1 and 200 for the price and still have delivered a winner. It’s clean, neutral, well-defined, cleverly designed, comfortable, and just plain hard to fault. It doesn’t even have the slightly anaemic bass response of every other HiFiMAN IEM. If anything, it has an ever-so-slightly emphasized bass line. If you are reading this to work out if the RE-400 is worth it, the answer is yes. Stop reading. Go buy it.

The RE-400 is the Chinese company HiFiMAN’s $99 dynamic driver IEM. While the RE-400 is technically not the company’s flagship headphone (the company has plans for a RE-600 to be released at a higher price and a later date) it would be a mistake to write the RE-400 off as a budget-priced effort introduced in a tawdry field of other sub-$100 competitors.

It only takes a little knowledge of HiFiMAN’s history and a brief time with the RE-400 to recognise that the RE-400 is a special earphone that represents a particular kind of agenda. HiFiMAN has been carefully working on a line of dynamic driver headphones over the years, starting with the market-disrupting RE-0 and dabbling with various designs and form factors and sound signatures.

While there have been particular themes and variations in the lineage, like the oddly designed RE-252 or the warm and lush RE-262, HiFiMAN has largely stuck to a formula of making competently designed and neutral-sounding dynamic drivers. Each model has been greeted with intense anticipation and rapturous applause from the community. Each model (except the RE-ZERO which was an iteration on the RE-0) has also gotten more expensive.

It’s priced at $99, seemingly out of an aggressive sort of nostalgia.

You sense the mad doctor Fang (Bian) at HiFiMAN has gotten more confident in his company’s wares with each increase in price, as the company shrugs off its Chinese OEM roots to take a seat at the big boys table. It’s a classic trajectory in an industrial origin myth we all know: the scrappy company with the big dreams works hard and makes good. [See also: VSONIC. Further reading: Honda, Sony.]

All this makes the RE-400, which supersedes the entire HiFiMAN earphone line as the sole IEM in their range until the RE-600 is released, so very interesting. Like Josh Whedon’s 2012 film ‘The Avengers’, the RE-400 is a series reboot for HiFiMAN. Like the film, everything that has been learnt until now has been rolled into a revamped ‘best-effort’. The $99 price point is not an indication that the RE-400 is quantifiably inferior in build, performance or technology compared to the more expensive RE-252, RE-262 or RE-272. It’s priced at $99, seemingly out of an aggressive sort of nostalgia.

The RE-400 is meant to be a reference standard earphone to say: hey, stick one quality dynamic transducer in a non-resonant metal shell, design it sensibly and it’ll be amazing.

The $99 price of the RE-400 is something of a magic number for HiFiMAN because it was selling the original RE-0 for $99 (a temporary sale price that later became permanent) that put HiFiMAN on the map. I myself bought the RE-0 at the original price of something near $260 AUD and even then it was considered a toe-to-toe competitor to high-end models. Back then, before portable audio exploded, the field had only a few players like the Shure SE-530, Klipsch Image X10, Logitech Triple.Fi 10 and Etymotic ER4S. The RE-0 really shook things up — especially when the price dropped to $99. I was not particularly pleased by this development, but c’est la vie.

There is no bigger giveaway that HiFiMAN’s intention is to recapture the magic of the $99 RE-0 and shake up the market than HiFiMAN’s alternate name for the RE-400: ‘Waterline‘. The RE-400 is meant to be a reference standard earphone to say: hey, stick one quality dynamic transducer in a non-resonant metal shell, design it sensibly, and it will be amazing. And it will only cost $99 because, honestly, these things aren’t that darn expensive to make!

To beat a very dead horse, they just sound transparent.

The RE-400 is a great argument for sensible design over flashy marketing or exotic technologies. The RE-400 sounds clean, tight, well-defined. To beat a very dead horse, they just sound transparent. There are few IEMs I’ve ever heard that achieve this – perhaps the VSONIC GR07 or the Sony MDR-7550. Both these alternatives are less comfortable, a little more coloured and more expensive. The 7550 has a wider soundstage courtesy of its strange design, but has obvious limitations in terms of practicality. The GR07 sounds a bit more fun and engaging (or at least my original version GR07s do), and you get the fun of knowing that fungus can infect the bio-cellulose drivers!

There are IEMs that deliver more distinctive flavours than the RE-400 — haunting mids, pounding bass lines, laser-etched highs, holographic sound stages. There are IEMs that deliver mythical build quality, the kind that evoke hold in your hand and melt in your brain kind of craftsmanship like the Sony MDR-EX1000 or AKG K3003. These are the kinds of things that you encounter way above the $200 price point, but honestly these things are the kind of marketing mythos dot points that grab at your heart strings and then even more firmly at your wallet. The HiFiMAN is just darn competent, and I mean that in the most positive way.

The RE-400 is to my ears, the best ‘do-it-all’ IEM on the market at the time of writing. It’s an IEM you tell people to buy when they know nothing except they “just want something that sounds good”. It’s an IEM you get people to listen to when they think you have to spend megabucks to get something halfway decent. It’s an IEM you buy for someone because you care.

Just about the only bad thing I can say about the RE-400 is that it makes me very, very excited for the RE-600. The nervous kind of anticipation that could lead to absolute glory or utter disappointment.

Interestingly, I think Dr. Fang has set a very high waterline – even for himself.

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