HiFiMAN Sundara Around-Ear Open Planar Magnetic Headphones Page 2


Sound Quality
Well...let's see if I can thread this needle.

As is my custom, I've been reading the Head-Fi thread on the Sundara as I've been doing my listening tests, and feel the need to quote this post a couple of times:

It is apparent that Hifiman is aiming to please reviewers like Tyll Hertsens (who has repeatedly stated that he favors laid-back treble response) by altering the frequency response and the sonic characteristic of their headphones.


Hysterical on so many levels. For starters, geting the Sundaras from HiFiMAN was a bit like pulling teeth. I've been both complementary and critical of HiFiMAN products over time, and believe me, no company, including HiFiMAN, likes it when I'm critical. Companies are way too interested in their own idea of what good sound is to worry about trying to please reviewers, and if they've got any plans for me it's usually just not sending the headphones at all. This has happened numerous times with numerous companies, but I've never felt a company was pandering to my taste.

Secondly, and this is interesting to me, from the same post...

Hifiman used to have (my opinion) probably the BEST treble response in headphone-dom.

The airy, shimmering, smooth, utterly transparent and effortless sonic character that Hifiman was famous for in the past is now gone and been replaced by an equally effortless, but much darker and "veiled" presentation that will undoutedly be more forgiving and more to the liking of reviewers.

The high frequency resolution of the Hifiman headphones was a problem in the past: Because of this articulation and clarity, they often sounded accentuated and piercing in the highs when coupled to mainstream amps.

My opinon is that a number of HiFiMAN headphones simply had overly bright and/or uneven treble response. When I read this post what comes to mind is that there is a category of listener that enjoys overly bright response mistaking it for clarity. In my experience, really good treble response is characterized best by a smooth sense of resolve. Real violins heard in the flesh are smooth; it takes a really good audio reproduction system to make them sound that way.

IMO, the above quote evidences unresolved cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the poster says it's his opinion that HiFiMAN headphones have "probably the BEST treble response in headphone-dom" and then claimed HiFiMAN headphones are famous for "airy, shimmering, smooth, utterly transparent and effortless" treble response, essentially mating his opinion with broad fame. And then says, "The high frequency resolution of the Hifiman headphones was a problem in the past: Because of this articulation and clarity, they often sounded accentuated and piercing in the highs when coupled to mainstream amps." Well, then that's what they're really "famous" for and many HiFiMAN headphones were simply too sizzly on your average headphone amp. The poster just plain likes bright headphones and doesn't know he's outside the norm.

Lastly, from this post by another member:

But I think your comments that Hifiman produced Sundara to please Tyll is totally ungrounded. He didn't say he favors laid-back treble response, but he said he doesn't like irregular peaks in lower treble/upper mids. And who like irregular peaks in those regions? I don't think his such preference is far from general public.

Also, if he likes laid-back treble response, he should favor hd650 over hd600 and lcd4 over utopia, but it was opposite.

Actually, I do say that I like my sound a little laid back, though it's also true I don't like irregular treble peaks. The thing to get here, really get, is that liking my headphones a little laid back doesn't mean I'll pick the warmer headphone every time. I like it close to neutral but a bit laid back; I don't like a headphone that's too bright or too warm.

My point in all this quoting? A couple of things:

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; if you like things that are significantly brighter than neutral, fine, enjoy. But it's a mistake to assume your tastes are the norm and that manufacturers are pandering to me or other reviewers by making a headphone that's not as bright as your tastes desire. Everyone is entitle to their opinion, but just because you're entitled to it doesn't mean you're centered on the Bell curve. Interpreting a less-bright-than-usual HiFiMAN headphone as the company pandering to reviewers is a poor thinking. A more sensible conclusion is that HiFiMAN headphones were often too bright (even though preferable for the poster) and they are now dialing them in closer to a neutral target response, which just happens to be what reliable professional reviewers will likely also prefer. It's easy to mistake the right to an opinion, for one's opinion being right.

I hope and strive to walk a middle way in my reviews. I try to advocate for neutral, but I know my taste runs a bit warm. My opinions are just one man's opinions, but they are opinions of someone with long experience. I work hard to ensure they're a useful and stable marker for people. I don't think InnerFidelity's reader experiences will be the same as mine, but I do think my reviews are centered, fair, and provide good advice for the average listener.

"What the Hell does all this have to do with the Sundara!?"

Good question. All that above dialog is so that you know exactly what I mean when I say: I find the Sundara to be close to neutral but leaning towards slightly bright. I don't mean the Sundara brighter than I like and therefore brighter than neutral. Neutral is a bit brighter than I like, and the Sundara is a bit brighter than that. But it's not errantly bright, it is close to neutral. I actually think it's a damned good sounding headphone, especially for folks who like a slightly cool response, and I think it's a significant step forward for HiFiMAN. But, no, it's not really my cup of tea.

Like most open planar magnetic headphones response is essentially dead flat from 600Hz down to 20Hz. While I like some bass boost, many people familiar with the sound of most planars will find the bass response well extended and at a good level. The dynamic impact of the bass through mids is somewhat soft (as opposed to dynamically punchy)...and, somewhat surprisingly, I mean that in a good way. I find it interesting that soft dynamics doesn't necessarily mean mushy or slow; I remember reviewing the HE-1000 and finding their soft character made them an "incredibly pleasant headphones to experience." I think the Sundara has some of this character.

I hear the presence region (say 800Hz to 3kHz in this case) of the Sundara to be a bit laid back. Combine this with the soft character mentioned above and I hear the Sundara as a remarkably relaxed listen. Vocals are a bit distant sounding, but not excessively so, which seems, in the end, to deliver a spacious image in the head—both modestly wider and deeper than normal.

Treble above 3kHz sounds a bit hot to me, but I think this may be, at least in part, due to my perception of a lack of enough bass weight and a laid back presence region. My measurements show this area almost perfectly lines up with the Harman target response. I felt the treble quality was quite good—not astonishingly smooth, but not grainy or peaky either. Just kinda competent and right down the middle. Here's the EQ I set for the Sundara.


You'll notice the magnitude of all the settings is pretty small...the Sundara is quite close to neutral.

Some Comparisons
I know a lot of folks want a comparison to the HE-560. Unfortunately I don't have a pair here for comparison, but from memory, the HE 560 was similar but harsher sounding than the Sundara. The HE-400S is one of my favorite HiFiMAN headphones and I have a pair on hand. Though they lack bass extension they do a lovely job of giving vocals balance. They also play to my preferences with a slightly laid back treble response, but I do hear the presence and treble response as more uneven and a tad grainy compared to the Sundara. Though my personal preferences cause me to feel this a close call, the Sundara is pretty clearly the more technically capable headphone.

It's a rather odd comparison, I know, but because of my impression that the Sundara sounds a bit like it, I spent a bit of time switching back and forth with the HE1000 V1 (sorry, no V2 in the house) and also the Focal Clear—two very different headphones. The HE1000 is wispy, soft, and relaxed, while the Clear is immediate, present, and...well, clear. Interestingly, the Sundara seemed to split the difference almost perfectly, a love child blend of the two. Personally, I think I prefer the Sundara over the HE1000 V1 for it's somewhat meatier response, but the Clear easily bests the Sundara by going further in delivering immediacy and presence—as it should at three times the price.

In the real world, the Sundara's natural competitors are the MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open and the Audeze LCD2 Classic, both of which are $300 more expensive. Well, the Sundara surely holds its own in this company. While the LCD2C has quite a bit more dynamic punch and better tonality through the presence region giving voices more heft, it's also got some missing energy 4-8kHz and can sound somewhat muted or dull as a result. By contrast the Sundara sounds light and soft with it's cool tilt, but also more more balanced and even overall, giving me a better impression of the music as a whole. The MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open is clearly the more colored headphone with its overly warm upper bass/low midrange emphasis, but it's also smooth as butter with a lovely, musical, smooth treble response.

My preference? Boy, that's tough. I'm pretty sure I like the MrSpeakers AFO most, but I have to listen at least ten minutes to mentally accomodate to the tonality. I know it's off a bit, but it's off in a way that's right up my ally. I love the dynamic punch of the LCD2C, I think it makes for a killer rock headphone, and that missing 4-8kHz can be a real advantage with the often found harshness of rock recordings. And I do appreciate the clarity and ease of the Sundara—it seems to do very well with acoustic music—but it could never be my daily driver. It just doesn't suit my preferred sound signature...but it might suit yours!

Bottom line: HiFiMAN has done a terrific job of producing a very competitive headphone in this category. Not better or worse than the AFO or LCD2C, just different and valid in its own ways. It provides a solid alternative, broadening the potential appeal of planar magnetic headphones in the category.

I think this may be the best HiFiMAN headphone to date. Maybe not in absolute terms, but in terms of being a very well balanced product offering. It looks good; it feels good; it appears to be well built; I think it's priced fairly; and the sound—though a tad cool—is well behaved top to bottom and delivers a coherent musical picture.

I could nit-pick and complain the headband adjustment is a bit gritty, and a small carry sack should have probably been included, but I'm going to stop right there. I think this is a solid product offering from HiFiMAN.

Yup, the Sundara is going to make it onto the Wall of Fame for not only providing a slightly bright, and probably better balanced, worthy alternative to the slightly warm Audeze LCD2C and the even warmer MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open, but also for doing it at a little over half the price! Well done, HiFiMAN!

View on YouTube here.

HiFiMAN home page, Sundara product page, and manual.
Head-Fi thread here.
Superbestaudiofriends thread here.