A Review of the HIFIMAN Sundara: technicalities...
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Hi all! Welcome back to the Neighborhood. Its Your Friendly Neighborhood Reviewer here again, taking a look at another HIFIMAN headphone today: the Sundara. The Sundara has received the nod from a number of audiophile reviewers as the headphone to get at, or under, $350 dollars, but it didn’t make my Top 5 headphones under $500 list? Should it have?
Let’s, get InToit!
Starting off with the build, this isn’t the heaviest headphone in the world, but its sold, metal construction does have some weight to it. On the head over time, it does fatigue my neck muscles somewhat. The grille, cups, and yolks are made of a black, anodized metal, and are connected to a spring steel headband piece by two plastic connecting joints on the right and left side. The rather supple, suspension strap is dovetailed into these plastic connecting joints on the inside of the headband, and extension of the yolks is controlled by a locking pin mechanism. Some draw-backs to the build are that the pins on the slider scratch the black, anodized metal on the inside of the extension of the yolk, and the fact that the earcups and yolks do not swivel for comfort. There is some mild play in the yolk, but less so than in the Deva, and this could affect one’s ability to get a good fit and seal with this set if they have an irregular head shape.
The pads of this set are similar to that of the HE400i 2020 that I just reviewed, in that they are a hybrid pad consisting of solid leatherette on the outside and fenestrated leatherette on the inside. Unlike the HE400i 2020, however; the material that touches your face is comprised of a much more comfortable jersey mesh material instead of velour. Like other HIFIMAN pads of the round variety, these have an affixed plastic ring with four clips that fasten the pad to inside of the cup of the headphone. Third party pads for the He400 series from companies like Dekoni will fit this set as well. And this turned out to be a good thing, because the stock pads were a bit squishy and my ears did touch the inside of the driver without a pad adjustment.
Uniquely, at this price point, the Sundara comes with both a balanced and unbalanced cable; one of which is lined in black cloth (the balanced cable), while the other (the unbalanced cable) is sheathed in rubber. The unbalanced cable terminates in a 3.5 mm with a quarter inch adapter, while the balanced cable terminates in a 4-pin XLR. Each cable initiates in 2-pole, 3.5 mm at the base of each ear cup. These new cables get a bad rap in my opinion. Older HIFIMAN cables were straight garbage, but I actually find the cloth-lined cables to be quite nice, even if they might be a tad stiff for some.
Overall, I found the comfort to be above average, the suspension strap was cozy, but I wish it were a tad bit lighter on the whole, and the pads could be a bit deeper. From a quality perspective, these are well built overall, and appear like the will stand the test of time, and perhaps even some mild abuse due to their solid, mostly metal frame.
With regard to the sound, there’s a lot to love here. There is a richness to the sound that rivals other stand-outs in the price range. Articulation on this set is mostly impressive, but sonics can become cluttered on busier tracks. Timbre is dry, moderately bright, and crisp. Sonics do have a tendency to sheer here or there, and as a result they can become strident at times. For example, horns and harmonicas come across as particularly harsh, pitched, or tinny. Vocals also often seem as if they have been mildly over amplified, at least by a Db or two. While resolution is above average, ultimate resolution and this headphone’s resolving capacity is negatively impacted by imperfections such as these within the soundscape. The general presentation is also somewhat artificial and on the more intense side of things, and, as such, it does become fatiguing for me to listen to over time as my brain becomes more and more saturated by its sound.
Soundstage width is decently narrow, and vocals are rather large. This makes for a rather intimate experience on the whole. To the listener, sounds appear captured by mics within close proximity to the instrumentation. Where these excel in their stage, is in their layering proficiency. The stage also has above average height and decent depth to it; resulting good dimensionality to the sound, and producing more of a 3D effect in comparison to its younger siblings the HE4XX and the HE400i 2020. Detail retrieval stands out as a strength of this set, and these also tend to presents transients well. But, while components of decay are readily observable, they do resolve relatively quickly due to the speed of the driver. The Sundara uses HIFIMAN’s Neo “supernano” diaphragm, which is only 1-2 microns thick. HIFIMAN claims that this makes the Sundara faster and more detailed compared to its predecessors.
And, although the overall presentation is enjoyable, I would not call it holistically accurate either, and the Sundara lacks musicality on frequent occasion. There is definitely what I would describe as “hifi magic” going on here, and a cohesive presentation is also not the Sundara’s strong suite. Having said that, imaging is excellent regarding both centered vocals and a other centered sonics, and instrument distinctiveness and separation are also above average. Where the Sundara also struggles is with accurate image placement within its sound field at times. For example, accuracy of particular image depths varied widely from recording to recording, resulting in a number of recordings not sounding like themselves on the Sundara’s playback.
Nevertheless, a lot of people will be drawn to this headphone because of its bass response. The low-end here does dig relatively deep, and has respectable visceral impact, thanks, in part, to its midbass hump and emphasis. In general, the bass is tight, speedy, punchy; mostly without bleeding into the mids or overwhelming the rest of its sound profile. Aside from its midbass, the Sundara’s low-end profile is rather linear to the ear. Having said that, I will note that there is actually more of a sub-bass roll-off here if one compares it to the Sundara to the 4XX. And while, macro dynamics are decently good, especially with its price in mind, this headphone is afflicted by mild compression issues overall. Such compression primarily affects the Sundara's microdynamics, but it also does impinges upon the low-end, here or there, as well. Nevertheless, I actually think that the Sundara should be viewed as the foremost entry point for tried-and-true planar slam, at least right now within the marketplace.
The midrange is fairly neutral in its presentation overall, but has a small, but defined peak at 4k, and later, escalates into the treble as one moves up the frequency response. And, I have confirmed that this is the 2020, silent revision of the Sundara, which measures more linear than the original variant of this headphone. Still, given its tonal characteristics others may still perceive this set to have shouty upper mids, and I did find the Sundara to test my tolerance for shout on occasion.
Prior to the 2020 revision of this headphone, the treble is where I thought that the Sundara shined. It had great splash and sparkle when I sat with it for hours at Can Jam 2019. Its presentation was interesting, and it held the listener’s attention. In other words, it was the Sundara’s treble, which made it a stand out, and distinguished it from the rest of HIFIMAN’s lineup. Unfortunately for the revision, I no longer think the treble is as super special as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds ostensibly fine, but it is notably scant of the energy and brilliance, which garnered my respect and made me excited to review this headphone in the first place.
Of additional note, there seems to be less air in the mix with the revision than there was before as well. Having said that, HIFIMAN seems to have beefed-up the Sundara's treble presence and thickness a bit too, and it appears less thin in comparison to my memory of the original Sundara as well. From a technical performance perspective, most will still say that the treble is still great, I’m just somewhat disappointed having heard the original variant, and I feel a bit “let down” by the revision here.
With regard to amplifier matching. I can’t say that I enjoyed these on many amps, as I found them to be somewhat amp picky, and overly crisp, sterile, or simply “Plain-Jane” sounding on the wrong amp. Amps that I thought paired well with the Sundara were the THX AAA 789 and the iFi ZEN CAN Signature. The 789 offers a slightly cleaner, more clinical tone, and its amplified character aids this headphone by exhibiting its capability for distinctiveness and disparity amongst the sonics within the Sundara’s somewhat congested sound field. Although less technical, the ZEN Can Signature was also enjoyable, and this amp came to party with its XSpace button. The XSpace button opens up the staging for the Sundara to more spacious levels like a breath of fresh air.
So… will the Sundara usurp the 4XX atop my list of 5 headphones under $500 dollars? Unfortunately for the Sundara, no, no it will not; not this day. As, at the end of the day, the Sundara is far from a perfect headphone, and I find its silent revision less engaging and lacking uniqueness compared to my memory of the original. What one gains from the Sundara in terms of separation, layering and detail retrieval, does not make up for its soundstage impediments, nor its less than stellar timbre, at least, not in this reviewer's book.
And, while I can respect the Sundara from number of technical standpoints, I ultimately find myself tiring of its presentation rather easily. And, I know I’m not alone in this opinion. I have spoken to a fair number of people over the past few years who have purchased the Sundara, only to end up selling this set a short time later in favor of another that is more enjoyable and easier to listen to over the course of time. But if you’re willing to look past its timbre and staging issues in favor of "audiophile neutrality," driver speed, and its more prototypical, planar magnetic, bass response, then the Sundara could be for you. It’s just not "for me."
But, before I go, I just wanted to give a shout out to the Neighborhood say that I appreciate all your support as of late. I also wanted to give a thank you to Dave from DBS Tech Talks for sending out the Sundara for review.
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