A Big Sound With A Not-So-Big Price
Hifiman makes some pretty darn good audiophile-grade headphones. Some of my first headphones venturing into the world of audiophilia were the HE1000 V2. It's really game-changing when you experience something like that for the first time. The unfortunate thing is that at the time I would have never paid that much money for a pair of headphones. But, what if you didn't have to?
Many times the big turn-off about being an audiophile is the price of some of the gear. Yeah, I get it, stuff can get pricey. But it's also my job to educate those of you who might be on the fence that there are other options worth investing in a little more. You don't have to go out and blow your paycheck to do it either. I'd even argue that those starting out will get more return on their investment if they take incremental steps rather than cashing out twenty grand on a complete system. Taking these steps is crucial in not only understanding but appreciating what more expensive gear can offer if you choose to go that route.
So, if you're on the fence about taking that next step, or if you want a daily driver headphone that will offer much more than a high-end consumer-grade headphone, then let me tell you more about the new closed-back Sundara headphone from Hifiman.
- Great planar sound; stealth magnets
- Build quality & durability
- Isolation could be better
- Packaging is lackluster
- Minimum accessories
Materials, Quality & Comfort
Hifiman has a pretty distinctive design aesthetic, and the Sundara doesn't depart much from the cues of the original open-back Sundara matched with the cup designs of the R10 series. I like the wooden ear cups as they also serve an equal role in the tuning and sound of the headphone themselves. There's something about the wooden chamber that creates a more refined and larger soundstage in closed-back Hifiman headphones. Wood has natural reverberation qualities and the shape of the cup determines the angles and space for the sound to bounce around before it eventually hits your eardrum. Don't make the mistake that they create them just to look nice. That would be a disservice to the engineers that work hard to make the headphone sound great through a rigorous development and tuning process.
The packaging is nothing to write home about, and it shouldn't be for a $399 headphone. You'll find the headphone safely held in a foam insert, and the single box inside contains your cable and quarter-inch adapter connector. There's not much more I would expect, but it feels a little rough around the edges for a brand of this prestige.
What DOESN'T feel rough around the edges, however, is the headphone. It very much feels like the same build quality of the R10D and R10P with the metal headband design, earcup articulation, and the obvious design influence of the more expensive headphones. The headrest is just a strap of leather, but the way it's connected to the band allows for easy adjustment to various head sizes. The ear pads on the cup are nice and plush, with leather on the inside and outside of the padding while the part facing your head is a soft fabric. The pads themselves are angles, letting the driver angle inwards towards your ear canal, like the Sundara open-back 2020 model had. Personally, I wish the seal was a little tighter, as the isolation was less so than I was expecting, but that didn't play any part in the overall sound quality and great comfort during my listening experiences.
The Hifiman Sundara open-back headphones(original) were quite heavy, but the closed-back version doesn't suffer the same fate. They're relatively light and comfortable, with a fairly moderate clamping force compared to other Hifiman headphones.
The new closed-back Sundara brings some of Hifiman's high-end stealth magnets tech to the lower-tiered price points. For my testing setup I used the HiFiMan Sundara Closed-Back Headphone with the iFi Gryphon DAC Amp and a Black Dragon Premium Cable for HiFiMan Headphones.
HiFiMan's proprietary Stealth Magnets were designed to solve a problem typical of headphones with magnets: sound waves passing through the magnets generate interference. Unlike sound waves generated by conventional magnets, Stealth Magnets feature a special shape that allows sound waves to pass through without generating interference. HiFiMan's advanced magnet design is acoustically transparent, dramatically reducing wave diffraction turbulence that degrades the integrity of the sound waves. The reduced distortion yields pure sonic output that is accurate and full-range.
Also of note is the advanced asymmetrical magnet circuit. HiFiMan says it took years to obtain the optimum balance between high driver efficiency and high sound quality. The innovative design of the double-sided, asymmetrical magnetic circuit is the perfect marriage of the nanometer-thick diaphragm and its magnetic partners.
“Stealth Magnet technology improves upon earlier magnet designs by reducing interference beyond a point that wasn’t thought possible only a few years ago. As much of an achievement the original Arya may have been, the Arya Stealth Magnet version takes its performance to a higher level: easier to drive, better imaging, solid build quality, and a more accurate soundstage."
-Dr. Fang Bian, President and CEO, HiFiMan Electronics.
Hifiman's Stealth Magnets
In a conventional planar magnetic headphone, magnets can get in the way of sound waves, degrading the sound quality.
The special shape of the Stealth Magnets enables waves to pass through the magnets without generating interference, so sonic purity is maintained.
I'll be honest, the Sundara sounds great for a $399 hifi headphone. The drivers are incredibly efficient and I have no trouble whatsoever running this thing off my smartphone with plenty of headroom. It's a crisp and precise-sounding headphone, offering some good bass response - tight and responsive - though not particularly boomy. The low and high midrange is articulated very well - combined with the wide soundstage provided by the ear cups - there's a great representation of the frequency spectrum. Brian Wilson's solo stuff is a great choice to really stress-test the midrange and tonality on any headphones. He uses large choral sweeps throughout his arrangements, which will be familiar for Beach Boys fans. The issue that arises in headphones not up to the task however is that most of the choral parts are layered tracks that he does himself, so combined with his lead vocals and the range of octaves, you can get overloaded quickly with competing frequencies and it can sound like a jumbled mess. The stealth magnets don't even flinch, providing plenty of space and definition for each of his different vocal parts. I would expect this kind of performance from a headphone twice the price.
by Brian Wilson
Whole Lotta Love
by Led Zeppelin
(Led Zeppelin II)
by Attila (feat. Billy Joel)
We'll Meet Again
by The Byrds
(Mr. Tambourine Man)
HiFiMan Sundara Closed-Back vs. Meze Audio 99 Classics
So there are many Hifiman headphones that use stealth magnets technology. It started with the Susvara, then came down the price ladder to the Arya, then the Edition XS, and now finally the Sundara closed-back. However, all things considered (sound, price, etc) the 99 Classics from Meze Audio is a great comparison. Roughly around the same price, the 99 Classics are Meze's entry-level full-size headphone and sounds pretty amazing for what you get. The 99's use a dynamic driver, so it sounds quite different than the Sundara. It's more energetic, smaller soundstage, and there's definitely better bass response than the Sundara closed-back. I think it's tuned well for most genres, and will appeal to listeners of all types. The Sundara, on the other hand, is more accurate, defined, and tailored to a more analytical listening experience. The soundstage is more expansive than the 99 Classic but doesn't have as much low-end kick either. Due to the higher detail and larger soundstage, the Sundara closed-back is going to be great for large ensemble music, or even wanting to make smaller performances seem intimate, with the nuances shining through the mix.
Now, just because I say that the 99 Classics are energetic, this does not mean that the Sundara is boring by any means. I say it in all my reviews where it applies because some of my favorite headphones are closed-back planar magnetics. They have a different energy than dynamic drivers provide, but what I like most is that they retain their clarity and detail much better than dynamic drivers. Depending on the ear cup design too, they can sound incredibly expansive in regards to a soundstage for a closed-back headphone. For me, it's hard to go wrong with a closed-back planar. Of course, that is according to my listening preferences. Yours may be very different - and that's okay - because everyone hears differently.
Due to the analytical nature of the Sundara drivers, the Black Dragon Permium Headphone Cable for HiFiMan Headphones was a great match to roll off some of the higher-frequencies and to provide a little more emphasis in the low-range. If you want some more body and weight to your music, or if you're pairing with a more analytical-sounding headphone, then the Black Dragon is the cable for you.
Generally, stock audio cables are manufactured with subpar materials, metals with impurities, poor geometries, and an overabundance of layers to make them look and feel like a fire hose. Inconsistency and lack of quality control in stock cables can lead to poor sound quality and a veiled sound vs what the musician intended for you to hear and feel from the music. Dragon cables are handcrafted with the highest standards and made to order according to your specific needs. At Moon Audio, we create a custom cable for you using the highest quality UP-OCC silver or copper conductors that can be manufactured. UP-OCC metals are void of impurities and are optimized for signal transfer and sound quality. We have one of the largest collections of audio and headphone connection options available online and we create limitless audio cable options depending on your specific gear and needs.
Silver Dragon Sound Signature: The Silver Dragon is the original cable. Silver strands clarify instrument separation, increase the soundstage, and find previously lost high and mid-frequency sounds. Transients appear more cohesive and the bass tighter for a more controlled sound. The detail and clarity of the Silver Dragon make it a perfect match for classical music and other genres with many nuanced instruments.
Black Dragon Sound Signature: The Black Dragon is warm and smooth with a musical presentation. Copper strands enhance the body, shape, and immediacy of the music. The detail and expansiveness of the Black Dragon make it a flexible fit where a broad range of musical genres are played. It can also improve bass frequencies on bass-light headphones. The smooth, musical quality makes it a perfect fit for headphones that tend to sound a bit edgy or bright. Despite its warmth, the Black Dragon does not have a laid-back, lush sound. It is much closer to neutral, making it a very natural-sounding cable. For more information on finding your signature sound, visit our Sound Signature Guide.
The Sundara closed-back headphone brings Hifiman's proprietary stealth magnets driver design to an even lower price point, so even consumer-level music lovers can appreciate the audiophile-grade sound quality. I'll be honest, from looks and build quality alone, it wouldn't be out of place right beside the R10 series. But what is most impressive is the great sound quality coming from the drivers. Hifiman's stealth magnet technology is truly great sounding tech - accurate, dynamic, clear, detailed, tight bass response (but a little lacking in bass for my preferences), it's everything you're not going to find in a consumer-grade headphone. That being said, Hifiman has finally brought their audiophile-grade sound and design down to consumer-grading pricing without sacrificing much, and that's a win for everyone. Looking for one of the best headphones under $500? I’ll put the Sundara closed-back on the list.
What's in the Box
- HiFiMan Sundara Closed-Back Headphone
- 3.5mm Headphone Cable
- Quarter-inch Adapter
- Frequency Response: 6Hz - 50 kHz
- Impedance: 20ohms
- Sensitivity: 98dB
- Weight: 432g