HifiMan Sundara Review — The Easiest Headphone Recommendation in 2021
An audio engineer’s perspective on an audiophile headphone
There are two typical driver technologies found in modern headphones. There’s the more traditional ‘dynamic’ driver and then there’s the relatively obscure ‘planar magnetic’ driver. Dynamic drivers are what you’ll find in most speakers and headphones usually involving a speaker ‘cone’ in front of a ‘voicecoil’ that vibrates forwards and backwards based on an electrical charge supplied by a magnet behind the voicecoil. Or something like that 😹 …
The Hifiman Sundara sports the more ~alternative~ ‘planar magnetic’ driver technology. Instead of a cone and voicecoil, planar magnetic drivers involve a flat planar diaphragm which reacts to magnets on either side of said diaphragm. At some point during the 2020 pandemic lockdown, with a lot of help from the subreddit r/headphones, I convinced myself that I needed to hear some planar dynamic drivers for myself. I was especially interested in hearing “that planar bass.” After much research (reading heated arguments on Reddit and other headphone forums) I decided on the Hifiman Sundara because of its cost and relatively neutral tonality.
Build, Design, and Comfort Grade: B
Hifiman gets a lot of flack on Reddit for their shotty quality control and pitiful customer service. My Sundara arrived with no apparent defects and has remained virtually and sonically brand new since it arrived eight months ago.
The Hifiman Sundara has a very industrial look and feel to it. Not that I’d try it out myself, but they look and feel like headphones that would survive an otherwise devastating fall. Despite being mostly metal, they feel relatively light-weight on my head at 372 grams. For reference, that’s right between the Sennheiser HD 560S that I reviewed (240 grams) and the Focal Clear that I reviewed (450 grams).
The Sundara is pretty comfortable. The pads feel luxuriously soft and the clamp strength feels just right for the headphones to stay in place without squeezing my big head. Compared to the Sennheiser 560S and the Focal Clear, the Sundara feels more like a closed-back headphone. I don’t know if it’s the physics of the driver or the material of the ear pads (or some combination) but there’s definitely less air flowing to my ears. Consequentially, it does get a little hot/cramped after long sessions unlike the Focal Clear which I can wear all day long.
Note: These are open-back headphones. This means there is no isolation between you and your surroundings. These are useful for listening critically at home in a quiet room. They would be totally inappropriate for use in public spaces because 1. everyone would be able to hear what you’re listening to and 2. the noise of your surroundings would make it difficult for you to hear what you’re listening to.
Reference Tracks | Jake Cheriff
pictured: my reference tracks for evaluating speakers, headphones, and room acoustics
Frequency Response / Sound Grade: A
I think the best word to describe the way the Sundara sounds would be “Crisp.” It’s hard to say whether that ‘crispness’ is a symptom of the Sundara’s frequency response or a character trait of it’s planar magnetic driver. Having listened to some of Hifiman’s other planar magnetic offerings, I would speculate that it’s a little of both.
Measurements above are conducted by Crinacle and can be found via their amazing and generous free headphone comparison tool.
The bass is really special. Looking at the graph above, it looks like the Sundara ought to have significantly less sub bass than the Focal Clear. But subjectively, this is not the case. The Sundara sounds like it extends far deeper than the Clear - almost as deep as the HD 560S. There is a weight to the Sundara’s sub bass that’s a lot of fun and very enveloping compared to dynamic driver headphones that I’ve listened to.
EDIT: According to Andrew Park (@Resolve) in an article he wrote for Headphones.com, Hifiman changed the Sundara’s pad structure in mid 2019 resulting in a frequency response with increased low end. The pads are noticeably thinner at the front part of the angle — so where the pad is closest to the cheek. And this might not sound like a good thing, given that they feel less sturdy in the front, but I promise that it is. Not only is the Sundara more comfortable, it also has an even better frequency response as a result (if it is just the pads that were changed). — Andrew Park (@Resolve)
In terms of dynamics, the Sundara is just about on par in the low frequencies with the Focal Clear. They both have a very satisfying, very speaker-like ‘punch’ to the low end. Bass texture is where the Clear and Sundara depart substantially. The Sundara’s bass texture is very rich. It’s much easier, with the Sundara, to differentiate between sonic elements in the low end happening simultaneously — like the sound of of a kick drum beater, a kick drum’s resonance, and the attack of a bass guitar string. Listening to “Right Side of My Neck” by Faye Webster, the bass guitar and kick drum are both massive, deep, and heavy without getting in each other’s way.
Listening to “Come Home” by Fell Runner, it’s a similar phenomenon. It sounds like the Sundara is really nailing the kick drum sustain (and decay) in a way that typical speakers just can’t even touch. Even in my treated studio via studio monitors, the low end sounds dull in comparison to the textured bass on the Sundara. I believe this is what my fellow nerds on r/headphones refer to as “that planar bass.”
The midrange tuning is phenomenal. Looking at the graph above, there appears to be a dip around 2 kHz a couple decibels below ‘neutral.’ I tested out a 1.5 dB boost at 2 kHz using Rogue Amoeba’s SoundSource desktop application (which I love) and while I did like the effect it had on the overall sound for certain songs, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily better or worse. I’ve found that any deviation from ‘neutral’ on a headphone’s midrange tonality that’s within 2 or so decibels is pretty forgivable — if at all perceivable. The timbre of the Sundara’s midrange is definitely not as organic/natural/pure sounding as it is on Sennheiser’s HD6- series or the Focal Clear. But what the Sundara’s midrange lacks in purity, it makes up for in detail and speed. Perhaps the slightly more artificial timbre, increased detail, and faster speed are all typical character traits of planar magnetic technology versus Sennheiser and Focal’s dynamic driver technology.
The Sundara’s high end sounds more extended than any other headphone I own. This doesn’t necessarily make sense based on Crinacle’s measurements, so I would speculate that the perceived extension might be specific to planar magnetic drivers. I think the tuning of the Sundara’s treble will be its most polarizing characteristic. While I don’t find it any brighter than ‘neutral,’ I do think it’s potentially a little sharp for anyone intending to multitask. With some headphones, I can listen to music while sending emails and doing other administrative tasks. Not so with the Sundara. The Sundara’s fast and focused treble really demands attention — perhaps because the planar magnetic driver is delivering more ~information~ than the typical dynamic driver.
pictured: Hifiman Sundara, Avantree Universal Headphone
StandSoundstage / Imaging Grade: A
The Sundara’s soundstage, more than any other characteristic, is what sets the Sundara apart from any other headphone I’ve reviewed so far. While I was in college, I worked as a sales rep at a headphone / lifestyle shop in the East Village called AC Gears. Sadly, AC Gears closed down a couple years ago. People would travel from all over the state (and farther) just to come demo our Hifiman offerings. The first time I tried on a pair of Hifimans at the shop. I remember thinking that I was hearing, for the first time, an entirely new dimension to songs that I had been listening to for years. The Sundara didn’t exist yet so it must have been a pair in their he-series. But the Sundara’s soundstage feels like a reentrance to that dimension that I haven’t experienced since. The sound is wider and taller than ‘normal’ headphones and subsequently more engaging. If the Focal Clear puts you in the first row of the concert, the Sundara puts you on stage in the band.
Imaging is also superb. I’m not a big gamer but my friend BD swears that the Sundara helps him to “find the loot boxes in Warzone more easily.”
pictured: Muji, Hifiman Sundara, Avantree Universal Headphone Stand
Value / Conclusion Grade: A+
At the time of their original release in 2018, the Hifiman Sundara was listed everywhere at $500. Even at their original price, I think the Sundara would be an incredible value. At their current price, the Sundara is the easiest open-back headphone to recommend. Full stop. Between their solid build, agreeable tonality, and superior soundstage, Hifiman is raising the bar for sonic satisfaction while putting similarly priced options to shame. If you’re planning on picking up a pair for yourself, please consider using my Amazon Affiliate link below so that I can afford to get my partner her own pair so she stops stealing mine 😸… Thanks for reading. -J
PS I made this Spotify Playlist of songs that I think sound particularly badass on the Sundara.