HIFIMAN Sundara: Benchmark
Today we’re checking out one of HIFIMAN’s more affordable new planar magnetic headphones, the Sundara.
HIFIMAN was founded in 2007 in New York, and in 2009 released their first product, the HM-801 portable media player. Since then they’ve expanded their portfolio to include a wide variety of headphones, earphones, DAPs, and various accessories. Their lineup of planar magnetic headphones is their bread and butter though and it is packed with industry leading products. That won’t be changing with the Sundara we’re checking out today.
At 499 USD the Sundara offers up some pretty spectacular performance while improving on the build quality of past products. Let’s take a closer look at why this is my new 500 USD benchmark.
Thanks to Mark at HIFIMAN for arranging a sample of the Sundara for review. The thoughts here are my subjective opinions based on my time listening to the Sundara. They do not represent HIFIMAN or any other entity. At the time of writing the Sundara retailed for 499 USD. You can check it out here on HIFIMAN.com: http://hifiman.com/products/detail/286
Who doesn’t enjoy perusing a good manual?: http://down.hifiman.com/manual/SUNDARA-Owners-Manual.pdf
The Sundara spent it’s time paired up to my TEAC HA-501 desktop amp, a ZiShan DSD or HiFi E.T. MA8 providing music. The Sundara is a little more difficult to drive than the specs would suggest, likely thanks to the slightly low sensitivity. My TEAC was more than up to the challenge though. It could easily bring the Sundara up to my fairly low listening volumes, and well beyond, without coming anywhere close to tapping out the volume pot or running into distortion or clipping.
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. My preferences for earphone tuning are quite relaxed and as such their is no one signature I look for. The HiFiMAN RE800 Silver, Brainwavz B400, and Massdrop x MeeAudio Planamic are examples of earphones with wildly varied signatures that are enjoyable for different reasons. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when perusing my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
- Frequency Response : 6Hz-75kHz
- Impedance : 37Ω
- Sensitivity : 94dB
- Weight : 372g
Packaging and Accessories:
The Sundara comes in an environmentally friendly cardboard box that feels dense and tough, offering plenty of protection during shipment. The dark tones of the package contrast nicely with the macro shot of the Sundara found on the front, along with your typical HIFIMAN branding and model designation. Flipping to the back you find some basic specifications and contact information for HIFIMAN.
Lifting off the lid you find the manual and warranty card sitting on a thin foam sheet meant to protect the headphones from being scratched. Lifting out the sheet I was pleased to see the Sundara tucked tightly into a foam insert covered in a loose, flowing, premium feeling fabric. For additional scratch protection, a slip of plastic was set over top the metal pivot points on the earcups. Dead centre was the cable, neatly wrapped and tucked into a recession with the 1/4″ adapter in place. In all you get:
- Sundara headphones
- 3.5mm cable
- 1/4″ adapter
Overall this is about as basic as an accessory kit gets. No carrying case or baggy, no alternate cable options, etc. You get only what you need to start listening and nothing more. Some might be disappointed at first but once they start listening to the Sundara, they’ll understand where the money went.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The Sundara is crafted almost entirely from aluminum and looks simple but striking with it’s black and silver color scheme. Plastic is limited to reasonably small sections on the base of the headband where the extensions reside and the leatherette head pad attaches. The plastics feel pretty decent with a pleasing matte finish, and flicking them with your finger nail doesn’t result in the cheap sounding click you find on some other products.
The metal found everywhere else is neatly painted and is quite sturdy, especially the yolks which are twisted for some additional strength. The weaved metal grills are quite firm and resistant to pressure and should do a good job of protecting the drivers, though it should be common sense to not deliberately crush or put unnecessary pressure on them. At the base of each ear cup is a 3.5mm input for the left and right cables. I appreciate that HIFIMAN positioned them so that when the headphones are in place on your head, the cable are angled forward slightly. This keeps the plugs from poking your shoulders if you turn or tilt your head. The move to 3.5mm plugs might disappoint some users since other products in the range use 2.5mm plugs and without an adaptor your upgraded cables for those models won’t fit. The adjustment slides for sizing are a little rough during movement, but that’s the kind of thing you set and forget. Plus, once you’ve picked a size it holds it firmly with no risk of it sliding or and need for readjustment, something I can’t say about the Brainwavz HM100. That is designed to let the sliders move freely requiring constant readjustment. Annoying…
The cable is admittedly not my favorite, but it works well enough. The sheath is made from a fairly stiff rubber that is larger than the wiring within. If you squeeze it there is a fair bit of air before you reach the wires. This allows it to kink if you bend it sharply enough, though the cable dissuades you from doing that thanks to the stiffness. The cable also has a default state of being semi-curled, even after having been unpackaged and hanging for a while to try and straighten it out. The main 90 degree angled jack is quite reminiscent of what HIFIMAN used on the RE800 and RE2000 (gold versions) with a chunky, squared off, gold and black coloured plug. Not great for portable use, but fine for desktop amps which is likely what the Sundara will find itself plugged into most often. The 3.5mm plugs for the headphone end are also metal and quite compact with some mild strain relief in place to protect from bends, though the sheath is probably stiff enough to do that by itself. Prominent L/R markings are written in white letting so you can easily determine which chanel is which. The y-split is the only part that feels built to a budget being that it is two pieces of plastic pressed and glued together (I assume). It doesn’t feel particularly durable, so take care not to put too much pressure on it.
Comfort is lovely despite the limited range of motion of the ear cups. The extremely lightweight aluminum construction combined with a wide, flexible leatherette head pad and HIFIMAN’s well-cushioned hybrid, angled pads makes for a headphone that sits naturally with a fairly even weight distribution. The only thing that would make it better is some forward and backward pivoting motion to fine tune how the pads interact with your head. Even something as minimal as what Brainwavz did with the Alara would go a long way. Still, without that I have no issues wearing the Sundara for hours. Heat buildup isn’t an issue during that time either given the Sundara is open back and the velour portion of the pads is quite breathable.
Isolation is, well, non-existent. The Sundara is very much an open headphone to the point where you can put your ear up to the back of the cup and have a half-decent listening experience. All outside sound bleeds in, and whatever you are listening to bleeds out as well. This isn’t the type of headphone for discrete listening on the bus or in a library, or in bed when your significant other is trying to sleep, that’s for sure.
The Sundara is the most balanced planar in this price range I’ve come across. While not neutral, there is no particular frequency that fights for top billing which is something I cannot say for the competition.
Treble here is very tidy and well controlled without any extreme peaks that often end up causing strife among the treble sensitive. Measurements show a small peak around 5k which is good for improving clarity and it’s apparent. The Sundara isn’t veiled or muffled whatsoever with notes having strong definition and control. Another calculated peak is present in the brilliance region giving chimes and cymbals some lustre. It’s not overdone though so unlike on some other headphones where such elements can overstay their welcome with unneeded aggressiveness, through the Sundara they sound natural. Or in the case of the screeching that not to subtly works it’s way into The Crystal Method’s “Grace feat. LeAnn Rimes”, it sounds as natural as it can. The Sundara is one of the few headphones that makes that song perfectly listenable despite the introduction of such a questionable element.
The mid-range is to my ears very even from lower to upper with no area taking any precedent, nor any bias towards male or female vocals. Sarah Barthel and Big Boi share equal presence on Big Gram’s “Run For Your Life”, though I personally am partial to Sarah’s sections. The Sundara encapsulates her hypnotic voice perfectly and I find myself repeating her parts. The same can be said on “Born To Shine” which also introduces the RTJ boys, EL-P and Killer Mike, for a few swagger filled lines. The Sundara let’s this track ooze character which is always appreciated, especially when listening with the accompanying video running in the background. The Sundara isn’t all about vocals though. The acoustic guitars on Porcupine Tree’s “Baby Dream in Cellophane” sounds so intimate and crisp, like I’m sitting across from the artist. Close my eyes and I’m transported back to university listening to my buddy Mitch practice for open mic night at the campus pub while I play Halo:CE online over XBConnect. The timbre is just right, the attack and decay of each strum reverberating as it does in person. Throwing on recording of a live performance like King Crimson’s “Indiscipline” from the ‘On Broadway’ album further highlights just how natural and accurate the Sundara can be.
The Sundara’s low end feels pretty endless with outstanding extension well into regions you feel, not hear. While it lacks the unique growl of the Brainwavz Alara’s planar drivers, the Sundara can be just as impactful and visceral. Take the opening drum sequence on the aforementioned “Indiscipline”. You feel every punt of the bass drum, every stab at the snare. It’s pretty awesome, especially when you take into account how the drumming swirls around you from channel to channel. Quite the experience without a doubt. Switching gears to The Prodigy’s “Thunder”, the pounding beat the track opens with hits hard and at high volumes creates a solid sense of pressure. The texturing is excellent too with the crunchy notes introduced later on feeling every bit as dirty as they should. Speed isn’t an issue, no surprise given we’re working with a planar, with the Sundara tackling the rapid fire double bass with ease. There is no smearing or muddying of notes with each beat coming through clear and distinct, even at higher volumes. The Sundara is actually quite well suited to thrash thanks to it’s speed and clarity.
The Sundara’s sound stage is fairly open and spacious with the mid-range acting as a central leaping off point. Jacob Collier’s “Hideaway” is a song I’ve seen recommended in a few places so I picked it up and have listened to it over and over the last few weeks. It really shines on the Sundara. Jacob’s main vocals sound front and centre with instruments blossoming out all around him. The imaging quality is stellar allowing you to pin point locations, while the layering and separation keeps everything clear and distinct. Taking this down to a more casual level, the Sundara is fantastic for gaming. I really enjoyed them with World of Tanks. Sitting in a heavy armoured Russian heavy tank and listening to rounds ping and ricochet off the hull, or a tank destroyer firing a massive shell on a nearby ridge really added to the experience. Never underestimate how much more immersive a quality set of headphones can make gaming.
Advanced Alpha (499 USD): The Alpha has a leaner, lighter and brighter presentation than the Sundara with a stronger upper mid presence that can occasionally make female vocals a bit strident. Treble is a bit less sparkly on the Sundara but feels more even in presence top to bottom. Mid-bass on the Alpha has more kick and impact but sub-bass doesn’t seem to have the same extension and emphasis. Sound stage on the Alpha is a hint larger but falls behind in terms of imaging precision and layering. Clarity, detail, and texture are all more prominent and clean on the Sundara. I quite enjoy the Alpha but the Sundara is more consistent in it’s tune. It simply provides a better listening experience across a wider variety of genres.
Build is very similar with the Alpha seeing metal used on all the pivot points and moving parts. Plastic is only found on the ear cups. Weight is extremely similar with the Alpha feeling very slightly more weighty. While they both use wide pleather head bands, the Alpha’s auto-sizes to the head while the Sundara uses more traditional stepped extenders. I personally prefer the Sundara’s setup. While it takes more effort to set up, I find the weight distribution more even and consistent. The Alpha tends to droop after a while requiring adjustments. Alpha gets some points back for the fully articulating cups. The Sundara’s cable is better as well, or at the very least more suited to the style of headphone. The Alpha has a very short, iem-like braided cable that feels very out of place on a full-sized planar. Alpha’s packaging has a nicer initial presentation with a big case similar to what HIFIMAN provided with the Susvara, sans the velour fabric insert. Foam only. ADVANCED also tosses in some spare hybrid pads which change the signature up slightly.
Brainwavz Alara (499 USD): This is a more even fight. The Alara is a bit darker and more heavy-handed in the bass but otherwise is also very well balanced. The Alara’s treble is a bit less emphasized but even more detailed and a touch tighter. The Sundara’s mids aren’t quite as forward, either in emphasis or how they are presented physically. The Alara’s low end is it’s claim to fame. While a little slower than the Sundara’s, it gives up nothing in terms of impact and depth and introduces an addictive growl and impressive texturing that makes listening to low notes an absolute joy. That tuning balance combined with a much more intimate sound stage and slightly improved technicals (imaging accuracy and separation in particular, Sundara layers better) makes the Alara feel more immediate and as if they were intended to be a tool for monitoring purposes. The Sundara is more open and playful and doesn’t sound quite as serious. The much wider, deeper sound stage of the Sundara has me choosing it over the Alara. That and the way it portrays guitars.
In terms of build, both use a mix of plastic and metal but the Alara is much beefier. It weighs a lot more and gives off a greater sense of durability, though the plastic yolks are a question mark in the long term. The Alara’s ovular pads also have a hybrid velour/pleather setup but are much smaller. While my ears fit within them no problem, someone with larger ears will find the Sundara’s more spacious pads offering greater comfort. The Alara’s ear cups fully articulate which makes a noticeable difference in how they sit on the head when compared to the Sundara. The headband padding is a bit on the thin side though. Also keep in mind the Alara is really only suited to those with medium to large heads. I had to add extra padding to the headband so they would fit me. This isn’t an issue on the Sundara. Packaging for the Alara is a basic cardboard box but you get la bunch more extras, such as a compact carrying case, spare pads, a gorgeous fabric cable, carrying strap, and a 1/4” adapter.
Outside of the limited articulation of the ear cups, there is little to criticize about the Sundara. I thought the HE-350 was fairly well built, but compared to the Sundara it feels like a toy. The new, mostly metal design is very lightweight, surprisingly low profile, comfortable, and I think it looks fantastic. While time will tell, it seems quite durable and as if it will stand the test of time.
The nice build quality and comfort is supported by outstanding sound quality, the most important part of any headphone. The Sundara’s balance and clarity is breathtaking and shines with anything you toss at it, from acoustic jams to EDM bangers. It extends well in both directions, sounds natural and realistic, and is very crisp and clear. A product like this really begs the question, “Why pay more?”. It does everything so well. If you’re in the market for a premium, full-sized open back but don’t want to dip your toes into the kilobuck+ models, this is probably the one to get. HIFIMAN did a fantastic job with the Sundara.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – Skelethon (Album)
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (Album)
Elton John – Yellow Golden Brick Road (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Converting Vegetarians (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bone) (Album)