In the latest installment of our interview series we explore the inner workings of the mind of Dr. Fang Bian, founder and designer of HiFiMAN electronics. The company has established itself as a household name in personal audio and was one of the early pioneers that can be credited for bringing planar magnetic technology to the headphone masses. HifiMAN manufactures high fidelity audio products that span the gamut of head-fi from DAPs to IEMs. Welcome Fang!
What first sparked your interest in audio?
When I was about 8 years old, I became very interested in my grandfather’s radio. Then my parents bought a Walkman cassette player when I was 10. I quickly noticed that various earphones sounded different and I was fascinated by these differences in sound quality. Then I tried as many different kinds of earphones that I could find to try to determine which ones sounded the best. Gradually I became a more critical listener and I was hooked. By the time I was 17, I helped my parents buy a good home theatre system.
What made you want to get into the audio industry? Why personal audio?
I started listening a lot of music when I was in high school. I used a Walkman and Discman all the time because I had nothing else available to me. They were designed more for convenience than great sound. I wanted both- convenience and great sound so that set the stage for my dream to build the best sounding personal audio products.
What is the history behind HifiMan as a company?
In late 2005, when I was living in New York City, I started Head-Direct, both a web-store and Head-Fi sponsor. We started to use HiFiMAN brand since 2007. At first, we only offered in-ear phones then I started building high-res portable players followed by planar magnetic headphones. It grew fast, really fast so in 2010 I started two small factories in China, and moved our headquarters to Tianjin, China in 2011. That is when I moved back to Tianjin to run the company. Btw, Head-Direct is still doing very well and sells products all over the world.
HifiMAN offers a very wide/deep personal audio product line, perhaps the biggest in the industry in terms of sheer diversity. What inspired you to reach this point and are there any product categories that you would like to explore as a company that haven’t been tapped yet? Any chance we will see a HifiMAN floorstanding loudspeaker?
Currently there are a lot of personal audio devices on the market. They sound very different: some of them sound very good, others not so good. This might give you a result that, if you make only one product such as a headphone or a player, other devices in customer’s setup might make the whole system sound bad. This is why I believe we should do a full product line including portable player, headphones, amp, etc. We are working on desktop speakers and bookshelf speakers currently. About floorstanding loudspeaker, some of our engineers have developed prototype designs but I am not sure when, if ever, one of them will become a HiFiMAN product.
What sets HifiMAN audio products apart from the rest of the personal audio market?
First of all, sound quality. As I mentioned before, currently the personal audio market has not yet matured. There are a lot of products that don’t sound good including some very expensive ones. A lot of customers in this market buy because of marketing/brand, etc, but not by listening. Hifiman gives its customers the confidence that our sound quality is true hifi.
Many audiophiles speak of importance of cables. What is your approach to headphone cords?
I have always believed that cables are very important for sound quality. For example, for the new generation HiFiMAN headphones, HE560 and HE400i, we use crystalline copper and crystalline silver cable which are used in very expensive hifi cables. Before we released these headphones, I tried more than 30 different cables and decided to use this very specific variation because I think they sound best after listening to all of them. No other company invests more in their stock cables than HiFiMAN. It is expensive to do but I believe it makes a difference and our customers deserve that.
Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or do you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?
High quality sound is becoming more expensive today. Audio customers are spending less and less time in music halls nowadays so that they are lacking experience in judging whether sound quality is good or not. Manufacturers need to invest more in industrial design to improve the cosmetics and ergonomics. We have done this in our product line and the results have been amazing.
What is the ultimate goal for the “HifiMAN” sound? What does a HifiMAN product sound like?
HifiMAN endeavors to reproduce the sound one would experience in the best seat in a top music hall.
What is the future of high-end headphone technology in your opinion? Refinements in planar magnetic, electrostatic… something else?
In the future, the market for planar and electrostatic designs will increase because they sound significantly better than dynamic headphones. The differences are so big that anyone can readily hear and appreciate them. Hifiman is working very hard on improving material science on diaphragms, conductors, etc. and much of that work will become part of future products.
Of all the headphones your company has created, which model would you consider your favorite sound or personal preference?
The next model.
Do you have a record collection? What is your favorite album? Do you have a home stereo rig?
Yes I own thousands of recordings. My favorite album is Dire straits “alchemy”. I have a lot of home stereo rigs, some of them are not cheap, some of them are DIY project but all sound very good. As you can imagine, I am always tinkering and trying new things.
Any parting thoughts for our readers?
Starting with me, everyone is passionate about what we are doing at HiFiMAN. We may not always do everything perfectly from the beginning but we try hard to get it right in the end and our track record is pretty good. Most of all, I want our customers to know how much we appreciate them. Their support and feedback is invaluable.