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In my ongoing project to find some good headphone amps, I sought out a HiFiMan amp for review, but I ended up agreeing to review two different models (both reviews soon). I figured while they were at it, why not throw in some lower-mid-priced open-back headphones? A few years ago, Brent Butterworth reviewed the closed-back version of the Sundara headphones for Solo. At $300 (all prices USD), this open-back design is cheaper. That puts the open-back Sundaras right in the ballpark of some of the heavy hitters of the mainstream headphone market, i.e., the Sonys and Boses of the world. I was curious to find out if the open-back Sundaras could deliver a more “audiophile” experience for the same money.

The Sundaras are a fairly lightweight (342gm) open-back design with a claimed 32-ohm impedance and 92dB sensitivity. Theoretically, they’re easy to drive, and it’s clear HiFiMan expects them to be used with portable gear, as the cable ends in a 3.5mm jack.

I’ve had rather hit-or-miss (mostly the latter) experiences with lower-priced open-back headphones, but HiFiMan has a pretty decent track record. So I figured this would be an interesting review but had no idea what direction it would take.

In the box

In the pleasantly packaged box, you get a 1.5m (5′) cable and an adapter to go from 3.5mm to 6.35mm (1/4″). I like cables this length, as it means you can still move around a bit if the ’phones are plugged in at your desk. I’ve reviewed some headphones recently with cables shorter than 1m, and it’s annoying.

Use

The Sundaras are relatively lightweight. They’re similar to other lightweight open-back headphones but heavier than some actual lightweight over-ears. I tend to notice the weight of headphones more since I’m wearing them for a lot longer, but the Sundaras were light enough that even long sessions with them were fine. The clamping pressure is a little high, but it’s not too bad.

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The foam earpads are soft and comfortable, and the adjustable headband is wide enough to distribute the weight. If you have larger ears, they might not fit well inside the round cups, but overall, the Sundaras are a very comfortable set of headphones.

Sound

The sound of the Sundaras is wonderfully light and airy. While there’s a bit more treble than bass, it’s not overwhelming or biting. I’d just say that the Sundaras lean slightly towards treble from neutral. Overall, they’re extremely pleasant to listen to.

First up was “(I Don’t Need a) New Girl” from Chromeo’s new album Adult Contemporary (24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, BMG/Qobuz). The synth percussion had a great snap without being harsh. The bass line came through, but it wasn’t as strong and hard-driving as with more bass-heavy headphones. It was like turning up the treble to +1 instead of turning the bass down to -1, so to speak.

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Up next was “Rhapsody in Blue(grass)” by Béla Fleck (Rhapsody in Blue, 24/96 FLAC, Béla Fleck Productions / Qobuz), which is a great take on the classic Gershwin tune. Fleck’s banjo had an immediate pluck, and the other instruments filled out the wide soundstage. As you’d expect, the sound was significantly more, well, open than with closed-back headphones. There was a greater sense of space, which the tuning of the Sundaras leaned into. What a great combination.

To check something a bit heavier, I queued up “4ware” from Deadmau5’s W:/2016ALBUM/ (24/44.1 FLAC, Mau5trap Recordings Limited / Qobuz). The initial synth bounced around the soundstage seemingly well out over my shoulders. When the bass finally dropped, it was stronger than I expected. The Sundaras are not lacking in bass, though there’s less deep bass than I’ve heard with other headphones. Said bass was tight and well controlled while using my iFi Audio Hip-dac2 and the Schiit Audio Magni.

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To see how the Sundaras would handle less power, I connected them to my Sony NW-A306 portable media player. The NW-A306 is a great device, though a bit underpowered. At maximum volume I got just slightly higher than a comfortable listening level. So I’d say you could listen to the Sundaras with a mediocre amp, but they benefit from a bit more power. Even a small DAC-amp dongle would suffice. I tried a few connected between the Sundaras and the Sony, and they supplied plenty of power.

Comparison

I thought a natural comparison for the Sundaras would be the HiFiMan Deva Pro headphones. These open-back headphones are currently $100 less than the Sundaras but were originally the same price. They’re not quite as comfortable, with rougher, less cushy pads. I put on “Twice as Hard” from The Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker (24/96 FLAC, American Recordings Catalog P&D / Qobuz), which I think is the best album of the 1970s that just happened to be released in 1990. As you’d expect, the Deva Pros had a similar open sound, given that they’re both, you know, open. I’d say the Sundaras had a bit better bass and a little more airiness. The guitars had more growl through the Sundaras, while the Deva Pros just seemed a little flatter.

Keeping in the same price range but switching to something rather different, I compared the Sundaras to the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones. They’re $50 to $100 more expensive but have become my de facto house headphones, as I use them for just about everything. They’re lightweight and have an OK microphone, and I like their (admittedly bass-heavy) sound. I put on “Civil War” off Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion II (24/96 FLAC, Geffen Records / Qobuz), which sounds infinitely better via Qobuz and these headphones than it ever did on cassette. Axl’s voice was more forward on the Sundaras, and obviously the Sonys lacked openness in comparison, though their soundstage is decent compared to other closed-back headphones. The Sonys have a lot more low bass, though it’d be fair to argue they have a little too much. To use the EQ analogy I used earlier, it’s like the Sundaras are 0/+1 bass/treble while the Sonys are +2/0. Both definitely sounded good, but focusing strictly on sound, I preferred the Sundaras. But the Sonys have Bluetooth and excellent noise canceling. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

Conclusion

As a notorious basshead (and treble hater), I was surprised by how much I liked the Sundaras. While they didn’t provide the powerful low bass I typically enjoy, they have their own character, which I found very easy to listen to. I think it’s the Sundaras’ lack of any serious vices that endeared them to me. They delivered a well-balanced, open sound. Add to that how comfortable they are, and it’s easy to understand why I was reaching for these over other options in my cluttered office. I liked their sound better than the similarly priced Sviga Luan headphones (which, sadly, I didn’t have on hand for a direct comparison), though the Svigas are better looking and a little more comfortable.

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All in all, a great open-back experience for a reasonable price.

. . . Geoffrey Morrison
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Associated Equipment

HiFiMan Sundara Open-Back Headphones
Price: $299.
Warranty: One year.

HiFiMan Electronics
2602 Beltagh Ave.
Bellmore, NY 11710
USA
Phone: (201) 443-4626

Website: www.hifiman.com

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