Sundara Planar Magnetic Headphone Review
An Evolution of the Best-Selling HE400 Series.
THE HIGH NOTES
- Price/Performance Breakthrough
- Full Sound, Full-Size, Great Comfort
- Amazing Resolution
Company & Product Overview
HiFiMAN arrived on the audio scene just a mere ten years ago with the introduction of a portable audio player, followed up in 2009 with their first planar magnetic headphone, the HE5. Since then, they have produced a whole family of planar magnetic models ranging in price from $299 to $6,000. Their HE1000, now in the V2 version, is considered by many to be a true reference headphone, only surpassed by their $6,000 Suvara.
We were lucky to get a pre-production sample of the Sundara planar magnetic headphone from HiFiMAN, which we will be reviewing today.
While planar magnetic headphones have been around for a while, but have always been known to be difficult to drive. This is common with planar magnetic speakers as well. HiFiMAN changed all of that by building planar magnetic headphones with super lightweight drivers as compared to conventional drivers. They can move extremely fast, with amazing accuracy, and are most are easy to drive, even with a smartphone!
Dr. Fang Bian, the company’s founder, is a passionate audiophile whose enthusiasm has infected his entire company, driving them to push the envelope further and further and taking planar magnetic headphones to a whole new level.
The Sundara is their latest product, and when you consider its price/performance/comfort ratio, we consider it amongst their most impressive work to date!
Packaging, Design & Build Quality
Interestingly enough, Sundara is a Sanskrit term meaning “beautiful” or “lovely.” These well-made headphones come packaged in a solid cardboard box. Inside you will see a nice owners manual as well as a soft black cloth. Lift it and the Sundara is inside, nestled snugly in a solid custom foam insert for protection. Tucked in at the bottom is the detachable headphone cable.
The Sundara is an open-back headphone with large, perfectly round earcups. You will easily be able to identify the left and right earpiece — just look for the black R and L imprinted into the aluminum headband. The detachable cable is also very clearly marked.
The two small cables for each earpiece come together about 18” down and connect into a single cable with a 3.5mm miniplug on the end. The total cable length is a comfortable 1.5 meters. We like the way they point the cable out towards the front of your body, allowing the cable to gently drape across your chest rather than tugging like some other headphones tend to do.
The large ear cups should completely cover just about any set of ears. They are wrapped in a black microfiber material on the flat part of the pad that touches your head. Underneath that material is a conforming memory foam covered with a black leather-like material. Like the cable, the ear cups are removable and replaceable, eliminating any worry about your long-term investment value.
As with all HiFiMAN products we have tested, the Sundara is extremely well made. We liked the contrast of matte black, dull aluminum, and shiny black.
When we first put these on, we did not have them properly adjusted and it felt like our head was in a vise! We almost punted right then but are glad we did not.
It turns out the earcups adjust in and out of the metal headband. The soft and thin band that touches your head will be tight or loose on your head depending on how far out you pull the earpieces from the headband. They are very tight in the way they move in and out (that’s a good thing as they stay put) and have very fine click adjustments so you can get each one to the same spot.
Once you get all this just right, they are very comfortable and completely seal you in. We found the Sundara to be most comfortable when we angled them slightly forward. They weigh in a shade over 13 oz, so while they are not the lightest headphones you will ever put on, you have to remember that those great magnets come with a bit of weight. We had tested them for as long as 3 continuous hours and they still felt great!
Features & Technology
The planar magnetic driver used in the Sundara is only a fraction of the thickness of a human hair! It is actually 80% thinner than the one used in their very popular HE400 series. It has the ability to deliver a sound that is incredibly low in distortion with lightning fast speed. This new design also extends both above and below the range of hearing. HiFiMAN boasts a frequency response of 6Hz to 75 kHz (although there is no plus or minus dB rating included).
We love the fact they are only 37 ohms and have an efficiency rating of 94db. While they will give you better performance with a separate headphone amp or DAC, most smartphones should be able to drive them just fine.
They also developed a new type of outer grill, which protects the driver. It is a very open screen-like design with about ¼” spacing on the reflective black wire. If you hold them just right, you can see the driver beneath a very thin sheet of black, acoustically transparent cloth.
Finally, HiFiMAN paid attention to the materials used in the connecting cable as well. They used a crystalline copper wire that has both great audio qualities and high resistance to stress, so you should get a lifetime of use.
HiFiMAN recommends about 150 hours of burn-in time to get these up to speed. To test the Sundaras, we set them up with a Windows desktop running Roon. We then ran that through a Chord Mojo. The source material was all Hi-res audio files and Tidal. We also tested them on a standard smartphone using Tidal, for a more straightforward setup.
We went through our normal playlist of headphone testing tracks and were just blown away. The amount of information we were hearing for $500 was staggering.
On one of our favs, the “William Tell Overture Finale” by the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra, the speed and accuracy of these really shown through. Each and every instrument is totally separated and the way you can hear the acoustic space is just stunning. They do not color the audio, allowing you to pick out each distinct sound and envelop you in the music.
We like to use “Pink Houses” by John Cougar to test rhythm and pacing. The Sundara passed with shining colors, sailing through effortlessly. The dynamics of the drum kit are impressive in the song and it came through clear as day with the Sundaras. The planar magnetic transducers do an amazing job of capturing the fast percussive sounds. As we expected, you can hear every pluck of the bass guitar. It reaches down deep with no booming.
We dove into the Roon settings for the Mojo to see how they would do with crossfade, which can be quite interesting on simpler, older recordings. The differences we heard when switching through these modes was huge and fun to play around with. Of course, this relates more to Roon and the Mojo, but nonetheless, the Sundara had no trouble showing off the differences that these settings can make to the listening experience.
We then switched over to the phone from the Roon/Mojo combination. With our brand new Pixel 2, we found a flaw immediately in contrast to our old iPhone. The Pixel does not seem to be able to drive headphones very well. The sound was fine, but at a very reduced volume, even with the volume turned all the way up. We then tried another user’s iPhone with Tidal and got great results.
Regardless of how you listen, if you’re considering the Sundara, you should think about picking up a good headphone amp/DAC combination to pair with them. They reveal the improvement easily. We think an AudioQuest Dragonfly Red would do very well, or if you want to step things up, consider the Chord Mojo.
During the course of testing the Sundara, we compared them directly to some other headphone models in a similar price range. Every comparison we did left us with the same question — “Where did all the music go?” We don’t think you will find anything that gets you this much detail for $500, period.
What you will give up, like with all headphones in this category, is portability and the types of environments you can listen in. Due to their open-back nature, your neighbors at the office will hear your music and these do not fold up for travel. But if you’re looking for a reasonable pair of headphones meant to sit and enjoy your favorite tunes at home, in a hotel room, etc, the HiFiMAN Sundara is simply amazing for the money. Pair them with a good headphone amp/DAC and enjoy!
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Price / Performance Breakthrough
Never before have we heard a headphone sound so good for the money. It is incredible what HiFiMAN did with the new Sundara.
Full Sound, Full-Size, Great Comfort
In many large-scale headphones, you give up some comfort for big sound. The Sundara is very comfortable and still gives you that big planar sound.
Most very high-performance planar headphones provide great resolution allowing you to hear deep into the music.