Not to beat a dead horse, but can we finally put to bed the notion that headphones are not a high-end audio experience? It’s possible that my age is showing but I grew up with headphones; my father was on-air talent for more than 25 years on Canadian radio and we were lucky to get his AKG K240S cans as gifts when he decided to splurge on something new. I was raised by Monk. Bought his own and took them home each day. To be cleaned. Had the HiFiMan Sundara planar magnetic headphones existed back in 1983, I’m not sure I ever would have owned as many loudspeakers as I have over the past 30 years.
Most teenagers would have bristled in 1983 at the thought of receiving used audio gear as their Bar Mitzvah present, but I took the family stereo when he upgraded (Yamaha, Thorens, Celestion) with the same level of enthusiasm had he handed me the Stanley Cup. The rule was that I had to use headphones after my four younger siblings went to sleep. With pleasure.
Sleep was never my forte so many nights were spent listening to syndicated broadcasts of the Dr. Demento show, or Jazz with Bob Parlocha. Listening to Parlocha (who passed away in 2015) was a genuine gift; not only did he have a magnificent voice, but he had a way of humanizing every single artist that he played. I remember listening to Stanley Turrentine for the first time on his program and being utterly transfixed by his tenor sax. The music and sound were completely new to me; having grown up on a diet of Geddy Lee, John Entwistle, and Jimi Hendrix.
The Future is Now
The high-end headphone space is no longer in its infancy and has had more than a decade to mature to the place where it exists today. Consumers no longer bristle at the thought of spending $300 – $3,000 on a pair of headphones (if they were willing to spend $300 on a pair of very average sounding Beats…) because they have become their primary way of listening to music.
Music is mobile. Streaming will be 90% of the market by 2021. Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz have become our 24-7 music store offering high-resolution audio streams at the swipe of a finger – and all of that is a good thing.
Brands like HiFiMan no longer exist in a tiny vacuum; the luxury headphone space has certainly taken a hit in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic but the past decade has proven that there is a growing market for high-performance headphones like the HiFiMan Sundara, and forward thinking products like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC, or MZ3 headphone amplifier from Linear Tube Audio. People will pay for quality.
The Sundara sits closer to the bottom than the top of the HiFiMan pyramid, which makes their performance all that more impressive. They do some things better than the wireless HiFiMan Deva that we reviewed last month; which should be expected considering the difference in price.
Over-ear planar magnetic headphones have become the backbone of the high-end assault on the headphone market and there is a lot to like when it comes to the technology. First-time listeners are often amazed by the level of clarity from a pair of planar magnetic headphones, but what differentiates them from a pair of traditional closed-back dynamic studio headphones is the degree of resolution in the midrange and tonal coloration that fleshes out instruments and vocalists.
Another benefit is their reproduction of space – think depth and width that can sound like it is extending beyond your head – which can be both thrilling and disconcerting the first time you hear it.
Is it accurate?
If your standard is something like the Sennheiser HD800S (which are magnificent headphones), then planar magnetic headphones like the HiFiMan Sundara will be a massive shift to the dark side for you. The revised HD800S are not as accurate sounding as their long-revered predecessor that were perhaps too neutral sounding, but they still don’t have the midrange warmth of the Sundara.
One knock against planar magnetic headphones has been the overall weight of the products. Some of them feel like suitcases plonked down onto your head and that has turned me and others off in regard to other brands. The sound quality might be there, but the degree of comfort has to be equally as important when you might be listening for long periods of time.
At 13 ounces, the HiFiMan Sundara are anything but heavy. Their closest competition at the price would be the exceptional AEON 2 from Dan Clark Audio which are lighter headphones and also a great value considering the performance. Both headphones have top notch midrange performance and punchy low-end response. The Sundara has more sparkle on top which I find preferable with jazz and classical music.
HiFiMan’s planar driver utilizes a NEO “supernano” diaphragm which is only 1-2 microns thick. The thinner driver is capable of resolving greater detail, while offering the trademark “lush” midrange that has made the brand so popular.
Having owned different models from the manufacturer, I would agree that the Sundara sounds more detailed and dynamic but I’m not sure I would agree that it sounds as lush; unless you partner it with a tube headphone amplifier or source/DAC combination that leans that way.
Comfort is a huge plus for the Sundara which have an excellent adjustable headband and very comfortable ear pads (which are removable). A lot of thought goes into the ear pads used on headphones; the quality of the seal and the choice of materials have a direct impact on the bass response, amount of leakage, and spaciousness of the sound.
Probably one of the biggest advantages of the Sundara is its sensitivity. At 37 ohms (94 dB), the Sundara is not exactly the most difficult load but that doesn’t mean just connecting it to your smart phone and thinking you’re done.
With headphone jacks disappearing faster than movie theater chains (future article), you may not have the luxury of plugging your headphones into smart devices without the use of an external headphone amplifier/DAC – which I happen to carry around in my laptop bag.
Did you druv or did ya flu?
The Sundara are high-resolution headphones that need to be driven with something like the Schiit Audio Magni 3+, AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt, or even the internal headphone amplifier of your favorite integrated amplifier.
They may not need a lot of power, but they won’t fall to pieces either if you drive them with something that can deliver it.
Because they are open-back headphones, other people will hear your music on the train or at the office as you bob your head and get your funk on.
And make no mistake – these headphones can do rock, jazz, classical, electronica, and pop.
Stanley Turrentine’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (Qobuz, Blue Note Records, 16-bit/44.1kHz) seemed like a good place to start with “Return of the Prodigal Son” offering Turrentine’s thick tenor sax. The Sundara put some space between Turrentine and pianist McCoy Tyner creating a really wide soundstage.
Tone is huge with these headphones. Turrentine’s tenor saxophone is delivered with a combination of richness and detail that makes you wish you could afford an even more expensive headphone amplifier like the LTA MZ3 or Ampsandsound Mogwai to extract every last bit of detail present on great recordings.
Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective (Qobuz, Blue Note, 24-bit, 192kHz) is such an underrated album. And if a loudspeaker or pair of headphones can shine with “Cristo Redentor,” it is doing something really meaningful in the upper midrange and treble.
If you’ve ever watched “Bosch” on Amazon Prime, you can envision Harry Bosch cueing up this record on his vintage McIntosh/Ohm rig and staring out through his enormous glass windows at the city of Los Angeles and getting lost in the case currently occupying his mind.
I think that’s what the Sundara does so well. It brings forth the emotion and raw humanity of a recording and lets your brain and body do the rest.
This is not a purely cerebral pair of headphones. It has a soul.
It is a voice of reason in these trying times. Badly needed.
For more information: HiFiMan Sundara Headphones
Where to buy: $349 at Amazon.com
See more: Headphone reviews and news