Today we’re going to be checking out the HEM6, a premium triple balanced armature (BA) earphone from the folks at Optoma NuForce.
NuForce was founded in Milpitas, California and since 2005 has been providing their customers with high-end audio experiences. In 2014 they integrated with Optoma and in early 2016, their HEM lineup of premium earphones was announced. My introduction to the brand was through the BE6i, a stellar Bluetooth product that graced my top Bluetooth products of the year list. I next purchased their Massdrop collaboration in the form of the micro-dynamic based EDC. The EDC showed itself to be a great sounding and well-constructed daily driver that shared a lot of its DNA with the HEM lineup, something that made the HEM6 instantly familiar upon first unboxing and listen.
Now that I’ve spent nearly a month listening to the HEM6, what do I think of this triple driver earphone that sits second in command to their flagship HEM8 model? Let’s find out!
A big thanks to Jyri at Nuforce for reaching out to see if I would be interested in checking out the HEM6. It was sent over free of charge for the purposes of a fair and impartial review. The thoughts within this review are my own and do not represent Optoma, NuForce, or any other entity. There was no financial incentive provided.
At the time of this review the HEM6 was retailing for 349.00 USD. You can read up on the HEM6 here; https://www.optomausa.com/audioproduct/hem6
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. While I enjoy a variety of signatures in my headphones I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even and natural mid-range response, with reduced mid-bass. The HiFiMan RE800, Brainwavz B400, and thinksound On2 offer unique examples of signatures I enjoy.
For at home use the HEM6 was powered by a TEAC HA-501 or iFi Pro iCan desktop amp, or straight out of my Asus FX53V laptop. For portable use it was paired with an LG G5, Shanling M1, or F.Audio S1. The Walnut F1 also made it’s way into the rotation at times. The HEM6 is very easy to drive and can be powered to listening volumes easily enough by portable devices, however, I found them significantly more detailed and less veiled when run through an amplifier. I highly recommend amping them for the best possible performance.
- Driver: Three Knowles balanced armatures per side
- Impedance: 37 ohm
- Frequency Response: 18Hz-40kHz
- Sensitivity: 124dB
- Max Input Power: 2mW
- Cable: 0.75mm 2-pin
Packaging and Accessories:
The HEM6’s presentation, while simple, is quite nice and definitely has a premium air to it. The dark gray box the earphone arrives in looks seriously classy with the NuForce branding and glossy image of the HEM6 on the front. You will also find the infamous “Hi-Res Audio” logo. The left side contains their slogan, “Hear more. Feel more.” while the left gives you a glimpse of one of the two cases included, the in-line remote, and that Comply ear tips will be found inside. The rear contains a breakdown of the HEM6’s construction including a list of features. Features like their use of current Knowles BA drivers, the application of a linear-phase crossover for accurate frequency division between drivers, the use of durable Lexan for the earpieces, and the inclusion of a silver-plated, oxygen-free copper (OFC) cable.
Opening this initial box reveals a second one. Flip back the magnetically sealed lid and you find some handy information on the inner flap; how to wear the HEM6, use the Comply tips, properly plug the cables in, and the remote’s multifunction button’s controls. You are also provided a safety instructions manual in 30 languages. Yeah, 30. You read that right. This is a global brand if I’ve ever seen one. Underneath this manual is a massive Pelican-style carrying case holding the rest of the accessories.
NuForce really seems to get that accessories add to the overall value of a product, and that not everyone has a pile of spare tips to play around with to ensure a proper fit. Not only do they give you a lot of stuff for your money, but the quality is there too. In all you get;
- HEM6 earphones
- Two cables; mobile cable and silver-plated OFC
- Two carrying cases; Waterproof clear case and a hard cloth carrying case
- 3 pairs of soft silicone ear tips (s/m/l)
- 3 pairs of stiff silicone ear tips (s/m/l)
- 2 pairs of Comply eartips (m/l)
- 3.5mm to 1/4” adaptor
- Cleaning tool
- Shirt clip
The waterproof clear case is a really nice addition in my opinion. Sure, it’s not the most convenient case in the world (hence the inclusion of the compact cloth case), but it’s waterproof and extremely durable. This case would be awesome to have on hand when traveling, or camping, or if you simply want a safe place to store a compact media player or some non-audio related valuables. It feels like an appropriate inclusion for a premium product.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
After my experiences with the EDC, I was sure the HEM6 would end up being much of the same in the three aspects we’re looking at here. That certainly ended up being the case and why if you’ve read my review of the EDC you’ll see a number of similar observations here.
The ear piece housings are very well-constructed from Lexan, the brand name of a lightweight, polycarbonate known for its durability. Fit and finish is tops with no unsightly gaps or mismatches. The shells are colored a soft, matte black with HEM6 printed on the bottom. On the exterior of each shell, color-coded L and R markings can be found which match up with the color coding on the included cables. While the lipless nozzles are overall fairly slender at 3mm (average is usually 5mm in my experience), the thickness of the nozzle walls is fairly impressive at around 0.5mm, leaving only enough room for a Shure-style tuning filter to be tucked within. I wouldn’t want to sit on these just in case, but I honestly believe they could take it.
The included cables are a bit of a mixed bag and unlike on the EDC, I much prefer the “audiophile” cable over the mobile cable. At first glance I thought the mobile cable was the same as the one included with the EDC, but nope, not at all. Looks can be deceiving. First the good; nice strain relief, great pre-formed ear hooks, and fantastic build quality on the in-line control module and 90 degree angled jack. Next the bad; tangles like no other, the cable sticks to itself and is constantly kinking, and it remembers those kinks so it can annoy you with them later. It’s also noisy. Lastly, I’m not one to takes sides on whether or not change cables changes sound quality, but in this case it is an obvious as day and night. It makes the HEM6 extremely muffled and veiled; I’ll come back to this in the sound section. My advice to NuForce; burn this cable with fire and replace it with the EDC’s which is vastly superior.
The silver-plated audiophile cable shares the nice construction of the mobile cable, sans inline mic, but is [loosely] braided and lacks a standard y-split. With the y-split NuForce went the high-end route of using shrink-wrap with a small section of clear tubing running chin cinch duty. I’m of mixed feelings about this style of y-split. On one hand, it looks fairly low rent. On the other, it means they don’t have to solder or split the cable and as such the cable strand thickness is retained the entire way through. It also simply works, so I really have no valid complaints beyond aesthetics. Finally, this cable improves the HEM6’s sound significantly. Again, I’ll come back to this later.
Given the light weight and low profile design of the HEM6, I found them comfy as can be, just like the EDC. There are no odd shapes or uncomfortable protrusions to cause discomfort. They simply slide into place in your outer ear, fuss free. I can wear these for hours and hours without any issues whatsoever.
Sound isolation on the HEM6, especially with the included foam tips, is excellent. While this housing has a very small ear-facing vent to prevent pressure build up when inserted, it does not affect their ability to nullify incoming sound at all. These would be agreat option for commuting, closing yourself off from the noise of an office or school environment, or any other situation where strong passive isolation is useful.
Cable selection: Yup, I’m going there. Without hesitation., I recommend ignoring the mobile cable and running only with the audiophile cable. I spent the first couple weeks with the HEM6, mobile cable only, thinking it was just a mild upgrade over the EDC. Not good given the large price difference. I was using the mobile cable because it was my preferred cable with the EDC, so why would it be any different here? Because the mobile cable makes the HEM6 horribly veiled, that’s why. Noob mistake…
With the mobile cable in place, I found the HEM6 sounded like the EDC, but with all fine detail smoothed over and muted. For example, using the HEM6 while playing World of Tanks with the mobile cable led to track effects blending together in a muted drone. Plugging in the audiophile cable sounded completely different with all the fine clinks and crunches, and other minute details present once again. The level of detail present between the two cables is very apparent and as a result all of the audio observations below were gleaned through the audiophile cable.
The HEM6 has a very relaxed treble presentation meaning your focus is drawn to other areas of the signature. Personally, I would prefer more energy up top, especially at this price point. The HEM6’s treble is very clean and smooth though. There is no splashiness or harshness. The level of detail it is capable of putting out requires either a hefty increase in volume to pick up, pairing with a media player or device with a bright signature, or some EQing to compensate. On the plus side, the base signature is very easy on the ears.
When it comes to the HEM6’s mid-range, it is fairly thick and naturally toned. Vocals are lush, forward, and the primary aspect of focus in this earphone’s signature. I really enjoyed the HEM6 with videos and film, as even during intense action dialogue was easy to comprehend, more so than with many other earphones. As with the treble region, upping the volume is advised in order to get the most detail possible. It’s there, you just need to push these drivers to get the most of them.
The HEM6’s low end has a distinct mid-bass focus which gives the HEM6 a somewhat darker tone overall. Extension is decent, but the lowest regions lack physical rumble, common with BA-based earphones. Texturing is acceptable, but smoothed over a touch more than I would like. Mid-bass regions are tight and impactful without any bloat or bleed into the lower mid-range. While the HEM6 definitely won’t please bass lovers, those who enjoy a polite bump should be pleased with what is available here.
The HEM6 has a decent soundstage, much better than I was expecting from an earphone with a mid-range focus and mellow treble presentation. It’s fairly spacious and far from congested or compressed. This is helped along by the HEM6’s accurate imaging with great layering and separation qualities. It’s reminiscent in this regard to another multi-driver BA-only earphone I’m particularly fond of.
At low volumes the HEM6 certainly doesn’t sound like anything special, but as you up the volume its positive qualities pick up pace and start to shine through. This really isn’t a style of earphone that suits my listening preferences as I have to listen at higher volumes than I like to get the most out of them. Those that prefer to crank the volume, you’ll be right at home with the HEM6.
Brainwavz B400 (179.50 USD): The B400 is a quad-BA earphone that also uses Knowles armatures; 1 for the highs, 2 for the mid-range, 1 for bass. I find the B400 clearer, more balanced without the mid-range push of the HEM6, and more detailed. It’s also a touch warmer and more natural in the treble as a result of some additional emphasis and sparkle. The B400’s low-end has more sub-bass emphasis and digs notably deeper than the HEM6. While not quite as impressive as the B400’s, the HEM6 has great layering and separation qualities with accurate imaging that lets sound travel freely. They’re both quite impressive in this regard.
Build quality and overall presentation goes to the HEM6. The B400’s 3D printed housing are fine, but they lack the polish of the HEM6. Especially when looking at the colored versions, the B400 has a bit of a DIY feel to it. The HEM6 packaging is also a step up providing more information and a more comprehensive accessory kit. I do prefer Brainwavz’s cables though, and it’s cool they let you select at the time of ordering what type of cable the second one will be.
Fidue A85 Virgo (399.00 USD): The A85 is a premium triple hybrid with a very unconventional, mid-prominent signature. While the A85 offers a more detailed sound than the HEM6, it sounds significantly less natural due to its driver tonality. The HEM6’s treble is slightly more prominent and lacks the dryness of the A85’s. It comes across more organic and smooth. Their mid-ranges are more comparable, though the A85 is a touch more forward. Bass on the A85 digs much deeper but lacks the texture and has a hefty mid-bass focus, more so than the HEM6. Still, it definitely feels more weighty and gives the A85 a mid/low-end focus when listening to the two back-to-back.
In terms of build the A85 is tough to beat. The HEM6 is nice no doubt, but the A85’s flawlessly crafted metal shells and beautiful cable easily compete with much more expensive gear. The HEM6 comes with a more comprehensive and useful accessory kit however. Fidue would be well-served to look at what NuForce has done with the HEM6.
The HEM6 is a well-rounded product. While it doesn’t offer the same level of detail as others in its class, it makes up for this with a signature that is easier on the ears and non-fatiguing, especially important at the higher volumes it sounds best at.
This earphone has a prominent mid-range with great vocal presence. It’s not bassy, but there is still some thump. They aren’t treble heavy, but it’s prominent and extended enough to give the soundstage some air. They’re small, light, comfortable, and come with a premium accessory kit full to the brim with quality tips, two awesome cases, and some other handy extras. All Nuforce needs to do now is replace that frustratingly mediocre mobile cable with something more suitable for an earphone like the HEM6.
Thanks for reading, and have an awesome 2018!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Album)
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That? (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bonet) (Album)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)
The Crystal Method – Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes) (Track)
Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)
Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)
Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (Track)
Aesop Rock – Fishtales (Track)