I’ve been “stuck” in the land of mid-fi for many years now, going back and forwards between a number of different dynamic headphones that suit a certain price point, y’know the price point of someone not so responsible with his money. Last year I tried my first Planar Magnetic headphone, the Massdrop x Hifiman HE4xx. An entry-level planar that is interesting if not particularly stellar. I was impressed with the rather different characteristics to the usual dynamic headphones I was used to. So for a while now I’ve been dying to try something a little more high end but Planar headphones tend to be just out of my price range. When Hifiman offered to loan me their Sundara to review, of course, I said yes, please. The Sundara is certainly a big step up from the HD4xx, but what shocked me the most was the price. At sub $500 this is very affordable for a Planar Magnetic headphone. So is it any good? Well, let’s get into it.
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As I mentioned in the intro, Hifiman did loan these to me for my honest review. As always whether I purchase something myself or get sent a review unit, I’m always going to give you my honest take on them.
Specs, build and Comfort
The Hifiman Sundara is a 37 Ohm and 94 dB sensitivity Planar Magnetic headphone that RRP’s for $500, however, their street price seems to be around $/ €350 or about £320. That’s a fair bit less than I paid for my DT 1990 Pro.
94dB sensitivity means they require a fair amount of juice to drive, perhaps more so that my HD6xx, but I can drive them off of my phone. As always, run these with a good source to get the most out of them.
Hifiman says that the name Sundara is a Sanskrit word that literally translates to “Beautiful”. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I’m not sure if beautiful is the word I would use for the Sundara, yes it’s a very good looking headphone, but in a more functional way than that of opulence.
The Sundara’s Planar Magnetic driver uses Hifiman’s Neo Supernano Diaphragm which they claim is 80% thinner than previous designs, somewhere between 1 and 2 microns thick which allows it a very fast response. I think I have to agree, this is a very quick headphone but more on that later.
Let’s take a closer look at the physical features of the Sundara. Firstly they weigh 372g which is not particularly light, but not especially heavy. It’s the kind of weight that would give your head something to moan about if the headband doesn’t distribute the weight very well. I am happy to say that I find this headband to be exceptionally comfortable even for extended listening sessions. I’ve never been much of a fan of suspended headband designs but this thin and flexible leather strip is supremely comfortable.
One point of complaint is the lack of earcup swivel. I don’t understand the omission of this feature. However, once on my head I don’t actually miss it at all. The Sundara fits my head like a glove, honestly one of the more comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn.
Height adjustment is a ratchet mechanism and is plenty tight to prevent them from adjusting themselves which is good. I like a good solid adjustment.
The earcups have some vertical movement, however just like on the HE4xx they are a little stiff so might not adjust to your head automatically, you may need to give them a little tweak to position them right once you have them on the head. They don’t have any lateral rotation which is an odd design choice. But I thought it would bother me more than it did. The headband seems flexible enough and the pads plush enough that I don’t notice the lack of rotation.
Over on the back of the earcups is this wide wire mesh covering the back of the driver. The earpads are a hybrid pleather and velour material with a wedge shape that is thinner at the front. They have a decently plush feel although they don’t have the super soft and springy feel of memory foam. I find these earpads to be excellently comfortable.
Clamping force is fairly tight, on a similar level to the DT 1990 Pro or a new HD6xx/650. I don’t find it uncomfortably tight, but it has a good secure grip on the head.
All in, I actually have no complaints in relation to comfort which is unusual for me. And in terms of their build, they are almost entirely metal which gives them a premium and tough feel. A really excellent looking and feeling headphone.
The supplied cable is 1.5m and connects to each earcup with a 3.5mm mini-jack. At the source end, this terminates in a right-angled 3.5mm jack with a push on ¼ adapter. It’s not the most flexible cable but its not too stiff either and the good news is that it’s not microphonic.
There’s no carrying pouch or case and but whilst the box isn’t quite the same quality as the presentation case that comes with the HD6xx, this box is pretty nice with this velvet lining.
And that about brings us on to their sound.
And before we get into that, I’m certain I will get questions asking which revision I have as there have been rumours online of stealth revisions of the Sundara. Hifiman has told me that the only change made to the Sundara was a change to the earpads, particularly in the glue to improve their durability, basically to stop them from falling apart before their time. How much if at all this has affected the sound, I have no reference to tell you.
I have measured this pair with my MiniDSP EARS and they measure the same as the graphs you will find from Inner Fidelity, Rtings and Oratory1990.
All listening was done from my PC using lossless sources through an O2/SDAC. I am going to be making comparisons with the HD6xx which is my reference headphones and the HE4xx as the other Planar I have here for comparison. I might make a few references to the DT 1990 Pro as well.
Unlike the intimate soundstage of the HD650, the Hifiman Sundara has an impressive sense of staging. It’s still not a huge staging and falls short of the likes of the AKG K712 Pro and the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro but it is good in its own right.
Imaging on planar magnetic headphones feels quite unlike on a dynamic headphone. I should clarify that the only planars I have tried so far are from Hifiman so I can’t say if this is a phenomenon experienced universally on planar magnetic headphones but it is something I noticed when I first tried the HE4xx as well as the Sundara. If you excuse the metaphor, I experience the imaging of the Sundara like layers upon layers, almost like peeling back an onion. I am surrounded by an almost holographic sense of sounds separated and layered around me. I have no idea if I am putting this into words very well, but it is unlike anything I have ever heard on any dynamic headphone. Does that make sense?
Normally, as a gamer myself, I would add to the soundstage and imaging section with a discussion on gaming performance. However, I tried playing some games with the Hifiman Sundara and a lot like the HE4xx before it, I enjoyed them casually but I didn’t find them to be a particularly special experience for games. I’ll still reach for the K712 Pro for those open-world casual titles and the DT 1990 Pro for first-person shooters.
Maybe that says something about the difference in imaging between the planar magnetic headphones I have tried and dynamic headphones. I am much more able to focus on and be accurate with positional queues with the DT 1990 Pro than I am with the Sundara. Yet with the Sundara, I feel as though I am surrounded by sounds from all directions in their own places in that holographic way but reach for them and it’s a mirage. Having said that, whilst I wouldn’t opt for the Sundara for gaming, I’d take the Sundara’s imaging for music every time.
Again, I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but this is the only way I have been able to explain it so far. Does anyone else get this sense with planars? Am I crazy?
A great example is Deep Jungle Walk by Astrix which has a lot of psy elements that move around you. The Sundara provides the most fluid and immersive reproduction of these sounds that I have ever heard on any headphone.
Bass is interesting on the Sundara in that I feel like the low bass sounds more elevated than it measures. I felt similarly about the HE4xx when I first heard it too. However it does seem to roll off similarly to both the HD650 and the HE4xx ending up only slightly above the HD650 in the sub-bass. The HD650 has more of that midbass energy which leads to them sounding a little warmer in the low end than the Sundara. I think I prefer the extra low-end clarity provided by the Sundara here which seems to give a better sense of punchiness to the bass.
Out of all three, the Hifiman Sundara has the quickest, most punchy and articulate bass performance. Despite the lack of full extension, there is plenty of bass on offer even for bass-heavy tracks such as the aforementioned Deep Jungle Walk. Perhaps the quick and punchy quality makes up for absolute volume in added energy and excitement. I’m finding the drums, particularly the snares and toms on 7estament by Tool to be incredible. Each section of the kit is clearly defined and each hit comes with a punch and a force, unlike any other headphone I’ve heard before. Some of that also comes from the upper midrange as well, adding some of that whack but I’ll get on to that later. I don’t feel wanting for quickness at all but for absolute raw power and slam such as in the kick, they fall a little short. Having said that, neither the HD650 nor the HE4xx are particularly good at this either with the DT 1990 Pro faring a bit better. This is pretty normal for open headphones, but for that absolute excursive slam, I‘m probably going to reach for a closed-back dynamic headphone.
Midrange is also rather excellent, I almost have very little to say because there is nothing wrong, nothing to complain about. There’s a little bit of low mid energy that gives them a good warmth but not as much as the HD650 and I appreciate the added clarity the Sundara has over the HD650. There’s a slight rise at 1kHz but not one that stands out. And actually, this rise might be partially responsible for bringing those snares and toms out of the mix. Vocals are also excellent, on Hotel Californa I found them to have a bit more presence than the HD650. I also much preferred the sparkle of the 12 string on the Sundara versus the HD650. I never find vocals to be shouty on the Sundara, even on Automaton by Jamiroquai which I find really difficult to listen to on some headphones. I also never find them to sound recessed either but maybe a little sweet at times. Pretty much goldilocks as far as I’m concerned.
There is a bit of a recess in the upper mids between 1kHz and 3kHz. Perhaps this is the reason for the vocal sounding sweet at times. I thought this would be more noticeable than it is, and that it would cause the Sundara to suffer in terms of clarity but actually, it just comes off as more relaxed. From 3kHz things are back on track and you’re still getting that crunch and attack from electric guitars but not to the point of it being sharp and painful. Actually, this is an area in which the HD650 does have a bit of energy and heavily distorted guitars can sound quite aggressive and sharp compared to the Sundara. I have to say I never really noticed it all that much until I heard the Sundara and it wasn’t there. Now I can’t unhear it in my HD650. Thanks, Sundara, you ruined the 650 for me. I’m kidding I still love the HD650.
The Sundara’s treble is simply top-notch. Where the HD650 starts to roll off the Sundara maintains a certain energy. I think this is partly why the vocals seem a little more forwards than the HD650, despite their sweetness on some tracks. Where the HD650 rolls off some of that upper-frequency definition and air, the Sundara allows that to shine. Looking at the graphs there is a bit of energy in the sibilance region, however, there are no issues with sibilance to my ears but then I am sorta used to Beyerdynamic treble. Broken by Sleater-Kinney can often highlight issues with sibilance and I didn’t notice much on this track, on the whole, very excellent.
All in, the Sundara seems to ride the line of being somewhat laid back and relaxed whilst also having enough energy and sparkle to sound lively and exciting. A true Goldilocks tuning.
Detail and resolution
Without getting too deep on the philosophical question of “what is detail?”, I think most people can agree it is, somewhat obviously, the ability to reveal and pick up on the ‘details’, the slightest intricacies and elements of a recording. I’m a mid-fi guy and I haven’t heard $1k+ headphones, but in the mid-fi space, the Sundara are perhaps the best headphone I have ever heard. That’s if you go in for such labels, in fact, is this even mid-fi any more? It’s certainly top of mid-fi pricing but this is without a doubt, a hi-fi headphone.
I think I will have to talk about the DT 1990 Pro here which many people believe to be incredibly detailed, although there is debate on the reason why it is detailed. Until the Hifiman Sundara, the 1990 was the most detailed headphone I had ever heard. I stand by the fact that it is able to resolve detail incredibly well. I think the major complaint most people have with the 1990 is a question of whether or not its price is worthy of its level of detail. Also, the 1990 has a significant emphasis in upper treble in its frequency response that pulls certain details to the front of the mix and that is what some refer to as artificial detail. When you consider that the 1990 is a more a tool than a toy, that becomes more understandable. The 1990’s job is to resolve detail, specifically flaws in a mix and bring it forwards in the mix to highlight it and make it obvious. That’s not an ideal quality for a HiFi headphone, most people won’t find that enjoyable to listen to, but you can argue that it’s a fantastic quality as a professional tool in the studio. The Sundara, on the other hand, resolves detail very well but doesn’t bring it to the front of the mix. It simply handles detail with a deft musicality and moves on. Recently one of my Patrons, Alberto put me on to a string quartet album, ‘Beethoven around the World’ and I’ve been listening to a lot of that on the Sundara. The sense of staging and of imaging is fantastic and the detail, as if I was in the room. The sound of a foot being dragged along the floor as one of the players gets a bit energetic with his playing. The sound of a bow sliding, ever so slightly sideways against the strings, a slight breath inwards, fingers making contact against the strings. This is a live recording, flaws and all, all presented as part of the recording in a sense of musicality I’ve not heard on any other headphone.
Frankly, this headphone has made me fall in love with classical.
Value and Conclusion
The cost of the Sundara is reaching the upper end of my experience, I’ve not tried any kilo buck headphones, so we have to factor that in. But I paid a fair bit more for my 1990, and this Sundara is certainly putting that purchase into perspective. At a street price of $350, this is the same sort of price point as the HD600, HD650 and K712 Pro along with a whole host of other headphones. And there’s a lot to be said for the value of the HD6xx. However, there is not a lot else in this $350 range to really compete.
When I tried the HE4xx I was impressed with its different planar magnetic qualities compared to dynamic headphones. But I don’t think it stood out from the rest of the mid-fi space. There are a lot of headphones in the mid-fi space all of which you can be happy with. All have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them really stand above the others in the same way that the Sundara does.
Currently, my top 3 open headphones are the K712 Pro which is my goto for most gaming as well as music. The DT 1990 Pro, my goto for competitive gaming and the HD6xx, my main goto for listening to music. I’ll stick with my picks for gaming for now. But for the enjoyment of music, the Hifiman Sundara takes the cake, I’ll take it over anything else that I’ve heard. At this price point, I don’t know what else there is that can even try to compete.
And you know what that means, Hifiman? You ain’t getting this back! I’m joking, I’m joking! You can have it back, but I think I’ll have to pick up a pair of these for myself.
So where would you go as an upgrade from here? The Hifiman Ananda? DCA ÆON 2? Audeze GX / LCD-2? Leave it down in the comments!