HIFIMAN Sundara Review

HIFIMAN Sundara Review

19 November 2020 0 By Petros Laskis

The King of Neutrality

Pros: – Neutral tuning
– Transparency
– Technically potent
– Great headstage
– Comfortable
– Sturdy build
– New lowered price

Cons: – Needs amp to get the most of it
– Complete absence of accessories
– Poor cable
– Could use a little more body

Preface

The headphone was kindly provided by Hifiman after our request and is a long term loaner for future reference.
Hifiman never asked for any kind of a favourable review.

You can buy it from Apos Audio – https://apos.audio/products/hifiman…id=c95e32681&_ss=r&&sca_ref=676352.9NrkRMN27k

Hifiman Sundara isn’t exactly a new model and we are a little bit delayed to post our impressions but it’s never too late to review a good headphone so here we are!
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Technology and physical

The Sundara is an open back planar magnetic headphone with a specially designed driver.
The driver is featuring the brand new NEO supernano diaphragm which is 80% thinner than previous designs resulting in a faster and more detailed response.
The new driver design is of higher sensitivity resulting in an impedance of 37Ω with 94dB sensitivity making the Sundara able to be powered from medium output portable devices.
The ear cups feature the new 3.5mm cable plug that is very easily swappable and offers plenty of aftermarket choices.
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The headphone was originally released circa 2017 and since then some early production issues have been successfully addressed.
Sound and drivers are exactly the same but quality control and pad structure has greatly improved plus adding some minor cosmetic updates.
The original price was 499$ but now it sells heavily discounted at 349$.
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Sundara in Sanskrit means beautiful and it really is with a modern and unique design in a cool mat black look.
The Sundara is one of the sturdier built headphones in the market with a full metal body.
Not only the headband with its yokes and joints but even the ear cups are made from lightweight aluminum.
The headband design is a hybrid one with the shelf adjusting leather belt attached in an aluminum frame.
That kind of headband is more to our liking than the new padded one but unfortunately it doesn’t allow for ear cup swivel.
The user replaceable angled cut ear pads are made from a combination of microfiber and leatherette with memory foam inside.
The weight of the headphone is 373gr pretty light for a planar and comfort is truly great thanks to the medium clamping force and the roomy , large and well ventilated ear pads.
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Build quality is typical Hifiman that is quite good but still slightly lagging behind the competition.
Our sample was in perfect shape without any kind of deficiencies but ear cup adjusting was a little stiff.
After opening the containing box the lack of provided accessories becomes apparent as the only thing we get is a 1.5m quite microphonic cable of typical quality.
Nothing to write about but still better than the older transparent one.
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Now on to the most important thing

Sound quality

A few thoughts about amping

We have tested the Sundara with various desktop and portable devices in order to assess sound quality and driving efficiency.
After extensive listening tests we have come to the conclusion that the need of an external amplifier or a powerful portable device is very desirable although not absolutely necessary.
The Sundara can reach adequate volume levels through portable devices but they still sound underpowered.
They feel lean and anemic with a loss in bass extension body and impact plus the higher frequencies sound thin , more pronounced and rather irritating.
Feed the Sundara with enough current and they instantly transform to a better headphone as weight and dynamics are added to the bass plus they become more tonally balanced.
Higher frequencies are portrayed more full and the driver responds better with the result of an increased naturalness of the decay.
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On a side note believe it or not the Sundara require a long burn in period to sound at their best.
We have mainly used iFi ZEN CAN plus Erzetich Perfidus and FiiO M11PRO.
So sound impressions are given assuming that the Sundara are properly amped and burned in.

Listening

We are dealing with one of the most neutral and evenly balanced planar (and not only) headphones out there.

Bass extends very well down to almost 40Hz but it can handle even lower material without any hassle.
Of course this is not a bass-head lover bass as it is perfectly linear and with audiophile qualities.
It is very tight and well controlled with enough layering to portray even the most complex passages.
It is fast with a clear priority in detail rendering it with great clarity and the only downside being the lack of body.
It is more of a lean presentation without added weight but it nevertheless sounds very dynamic and impactful.

Transition to the mid bass and lower mids is exemplary at a straight line up to the mids.
As a result we don’t get any extra warmness unless it is there in the recording.
The Sundara is not a warm sounding headphone but it surely doesn’t sound cold either.
It is a kind of a distanced view of the raw material letting the music flow without much interference from the headphone itself.
Dynamics and micro detail retrieval are excellent and the driver can rise from silence to forte and back forth with lighting speed.

Mids too are the definition of neutrality getting only a very slight emphasis in order to sound just a little forward.
They are crystal clear and full bodied with excellent timbre and pitch without lacking in definition and detail.
Voices and various instruments are lively portrayed with a lifelike quality to them without being over excited.
It’s a reference presentation one of the best out there with the ability to remain true to the source and sound very engaging at the same time.
Solo voices or Opera arias and choruses sound magnificent and addictive through the Sundara.

Upper mids and presence area get an extra emphasis but they are not overly cooked and after that the headphone gradually rolls off.
As a result we hear a desirable extra clarity of great quality and excellent detail retrieval without being overly irritating or harsh.
It’s smooth enough but still users particularly sensitive in that area may be a little fatigued depending on the listening material.
Timbre is mostly done right but higher pitched instruments can sound lean and off tone with a metallic timbre to them.
Decay is on the right timing for the whole audio band but again higher percussion instruments may fade away too quickly.
As a whole a mostly well done presentation without sounding harsh or sibilant with a few issues here and there.
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Soundstage of the Sundara is excellent for the category better than most rivals.
It is wide enough with plenty of air for the instruments to breathe and accurate positioning of individuals and groups.
It can communicate for us the recording venue with great success aided by the good depth layering.
The Sundara is a beautifully transparent headphone that responds very well to gear upgrades.
It will highlight the best parts of gear used and at the same time will ruthlessly reveal all the downsides.
A very satisfying experience not far behind from the more expensive offerings.

Hifiman mid price comparison

Now let’s have a look how they compare against the other in house rivals offered by Hifiman.
If you don’t care for this lengthy section then jump straight ahead to the conclusion.

Versus the HE400i 2020 version

The brand new HE400i 2020 retails at 169$ so it is half the price of the Sundara.
Weight and comfort are more or less the same as the overall appearance but we think the Sundara is the better looking headphone although this is purely subjective.
The HE400i 2020 headband is the new padded one which allows for cup swivel and offers a slightly different fit at the head.
Build quality is way better for the Sundara with a bombproof full metal construction which makes for a more bulky headphone compared to the HE400i 2020 which is more discreet.
Impedance and sensitivity are almost identical and they both require an external amp to sound at their best although they can be successfully used with portable devices.
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Frequency response and overall presentation are almost identical.
Presence area is a little bit more emphasized at the Sundara adding more clarity and detail retrieval at the cost of being a little more sharp or harsh compared to the HE400i 2020.
Difference is not that huge but the new version of the HE400i is smoother in this area although more coarse but some users may prefer it for being less fatiguing.
Frequency response of course doesn’t tell the whole story and in the case of the Sundara we get a way more refined and technically potent and full bodied headphone.
It is better articulated with added layering to the bass plus far greater dynamics and speed.
Clarity is of higher quality so micro detail retrieval is better as for the headstage is more holographic and engaging compared to the two dimensional and cramped scene of the 400i 2020.
The Sundara is definitely the HE400i 2020 evolved to a technically advanced and more sophisticated headphone.
Truth to be told you pay two times more but you don’t get two times more performance.
So if your budget is limited then the HE400i 2020 is an absolute bargain and for 169$ you buy an excellent sounding neutral planar headphone not that far behind from the Sundara.
(Original HE400i 2020 version is here
https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/hifiman-he400i-ver-2020.24702/review/24488/)

Versus the Deva

The Deva is 299$ and you get as a bonus the BlueMini or you can have it for 209$ without the BlueMini but we are not certain if the latter option is still available by Hifiman.
The ear cups are made of plastic and it is 13gr lighter.
The headband is the new style with overall build quality still in favor of the Sundara by a fair margin.
Design and looks are subjective but comfort and fit aren’t with the Deva being more comfortable due to the larger and more roomy ear pads that add extra bulk to the headphone.
Impedance is 18Ω with a 93.5dB sensitivity and while we still recommend an external amplifier it is not as necessarily as in the other two models and the Deva can sound sufficiently good from portable devices.
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Overall sound signature is quite the same and despite differences being marginal we can talk about two different presentations.
The Deva gets as a starting point the great neutrality of the Sundara and then adds a little spice to the sound with a more hifi tuning.
Bass extension and quality is about the same and both headphones sound clear and well layered.
But the Deva is willing to sacrifice a bit of detail and information in order to sound more visceral with greater impact and slam at the cost of ultimate control where the Sundara reigns.
Transition is in the same linear manner and then the Deva becomes a little rounder and more forward at the mids adding a touch more excitement and fuller performance in that region.
This combined with a rather more conservative approach higher above makes for a warmer and more easy going sound without any hint of hardness.
Timber and decay are more natural but there is a loss of micro detail retrieval and sparkle.
So the Sundara is the synonym of neutrality with a luminous and detailed presentation and the Deva is more natural and warmly tuned slightly lacking in ultimate technical performance.
Regarding soundstage both are exceptionally good and way better than most of their rivals but the Deva is the winner with slightly more wide and layered presentation.
You can’t go wrong with either as both are great and a bargain for their price and only personal sound preference will tell which one to choose.
(Original Deva review is here
https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/hifiman-deva.24334/review/23957/)

Comparison verdict

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Hifiman have nailed the budget and mid price categories with three remarkable headphones at very competitive prices.
According to your budget choose either HE400i 2020 or Sundara if you fancy a neutral headphone that still sounds engaging and not boring at all or stay with the Deva if you are after a more natural easy going presentation.

At the end

Hifiman Sundara is one of the best headphones for critical listening no matter the price and the king of neutrality while still sounding engaging and enveloping.
We think of it as the sweet spot in the Hifiman catalogue and a classic planar magnetic headphone that truly deserves to be in everyone’s collection.
At the new 349$ price is an absolute bargain and if you can afford it then go immediately and grab one to discover what you have been missing till now.

The test playlist – http://open.qobuz.com/playlist/5669033

Copyright – Laskis Petros 2020