From across the ocean to the broad expanses of Tianjin, a company by the name of HiFiMAN have continually been raising the benchmark within the field of audio. Headed by Fang Bian, HiFiMAN’s use of innovative nanotechnologies in headphone design have helped the company garner notable acclaim amongst the most serious of critics. Their vision to redefine standards is certainly an admirable trait and has seen the company release a plethora of hi-end offerings within the last triennium.
The foremost of which was the HiFiMAN HE-1000, a planar headphone which employed the world’s first in nanometer-thickness diaphragm technologies. Despite the company earning a CES 2016 award for innovation, HiFiMAN did not rest on their laurels and were quick to release a refined iteration touted the HE1000 V2 which improved on the former headphone’s ergonomics and sonic performances. The HiFiMAN Edition X soon followed and captivated consumer interest by utilising ultra-high sensitivity to render unparalleled sound from any portable device. In late 2016, the Shangri-La was released as a competitor to Sennheiser’s HE-1 and the company’s first stab at a premium electrostatic headphone system. While the Shangri-La represented the company’s flagship electrostatic model, HiFiMAN have now gone on to release their latest flagship planar headphones – the HiFiMAN Susvara.
More in keeping with their recent take on descriptive nomenclature, the name ‘Susvara’ translates to ‘melodious’ or ‘harmonious’ from the ancient language of Sanskrit. However, the HiFiMAN Susvara is far from ancient in its design philosophy and incorporates new ‘stealth magnet’ technology which suspend nanometre-grade diaphragms (< 0.001 mm) between rows of magnet-covered metal plates. The new magnets are said to be inspired by fighter aircrafts such as the F-117 by producing undistorted sound without the acoustic turbulence caused by conventional magnets. Coupled to this, HiFiMAN have used high-resistance 24K gold voice-coil traces to lower both the weight of the already thin diaphragm as well as the sensitivity of the device.
Akin to its predecessor, the Susvara uses the same window-shade grill system, headband and mechanical adjustments. However, the drivers are now much more rounded and feel more comfortable on-ear than the rather large HE-1000 V2. The more expensive wood trimmings and premium metal alloy design are also much more refined materials than the previous HE1000 flagship. With that said, the Susvaras sell for a princely $6000. While this represents a considerably large purchase, it should be noted that consumers are unlikely to have value at the forefront of their minds at this price point. Therefore, the decision ultimately lies with the well-off audiophiles to choose to invest in a top-of-the-line audio experience.
The outer Susvara box is premium in appearance, featuring an anodized aluminium plate amongst a leather-trimmed hard exterior. A metal latch opens to reveal the same foam interior which can be seen in the previous HE1000 V2 and Edition X models. Perhaps one area of criticism would be the inclusion of a felt headphone case which does not coincide with the rest of the luxurious packaging.
Some customers may be disappointed to know that the Susvaras arrive in the same rubber cables used with the HiFiMAN HE1000 V2s. However, Fang Bian has noted that the Susvara is unlikely to be a consumer’s first headphone purchase and aftermarket cables are a probable part of their inventory. While this may idealistically keep cost materials down, the company should have used superior topology cables to really sell the out-of-box experience from a $6000 product. The cables which use a three-core crystalline copper with silver plating come in both a 4 pin balanced and 6.3 mm termination.
HiFiMAN have upped the ante with their hard-bound illustrative manual which incorporates high-definition pictures in a high-gloss finish. The book features various opera houses and theatres which pay homage to the Susvara’s intended listening experience. A minor point to add would be that like with the HE1000 V2s, a hard-shell carrying case would not go amiss.
The Design & Build
The HiFiMAN Susvara adopts the same window-shade grill design of the former HE1000 and Edition X. The trimmed wood finish coupled with the metal exterior give off an exotic look which is distinctive to HiFiMAN headphones. Their use of CNC-machined metal coupled with a plusher wood fitting, however, give the Susvaras a more refined look. In addition, the smaller ear-cups fit more in line with conventional headphone form factors. In my opinion, this was a good move as the large ear-cups of the HE-1000 V2, despite being comfortable, often felt like they were weighing down after long listening experiences.
Unlike the asymmetric magnetic circuit used in the HE-1000 V2, the Susvara uses double-sided magnets with nanometre-thick diaphragms in between. While this has added marginal weight to the Susvaras, the latter now achieves a better dynamic moving mass while still retaining the lightweight qualities of the ultra-thin diaphragm.
The headband and head support system still remain the same and use the same special metal alloy and soft-grade calf-skin material as in the HE-1000 V2. This time, however, the headphone sits plusher on the head owing to the smaller ear-cups and better suspension system.
The ear-cups themselves are fully rotatable in both vertical and horizontal plane allowing the listener to achieve an optimal fit.
Despite weighing 30g more than the HiFiMAN HE-1000 V2, the Susvaras offer a more comfortable listening experience. As already mentioned, this is largely due to the more rounded ergonomic ear-cups which now feel completely weightless as opposed to the large HE1000 V2 ear-cups. The contoured pleather earpads are also slightly thicker and offer more ear space from the drivers compared to the relatively shallower HE-1000s.
Overall, the combination of materials has allowed the Susvaras to be one of the most comfortable listening experiences ever.
NB: Owing to the nature of the design of the headphone, some time is needed to obtain the most optimal sound (100 – 200 hours). This is because the taut diaphragm which is initially stiff loosens with more use which improves dynamics and soundstage. It is for this reason that HiFiMAN have pre-burn in stations at their factories for planar models so that the user is not completely flustered with the out-of-box experience.
The lower frequency spectrum of the Susvaras is very tastefully done combining the best traits of the agile and accurate HE-1000 while still retaining the impact and macro-dynamics of the HE-6. To this extent, the bass neither overwhelms nor detracts from the higher frequency ranges. Instead, the articulation, texturing and sheer feel of the lower-frequencies are immensely enjoyable. This is likely due to the clever implementation of the double-sided magnets with nano-metre thick diaphragms in between. In “Money For Nothing” By Dire Straits, the Susvara’s capabilities become evident with bass which stops on the dime with incision and impact. This is particularly even more impressive when the track calls for a complex passage of drums and vocals. Similarly, in CeeLo Green’s “Living Gain”, the Susvaras offer generous bouts of extension and drive. What can be said about these flagship planars is that they are incredibly versatile – handling both nuanced and powerful tracks with ease. The sound signature is very balanced and the basslines certainly abide by this. For example, neither sub- or mid-bass are artificially boosted but instead work in tandem to portray a capably life-like sound. Overall, an excellent start from HiFiMAN’s top planar model.
The midrange of the HiFiMAN Susvara extends from the strong low-frequencies with a lifelike, articulate and tactile signature. Compared to the HE-1000 V1 and V2, the Susvara renders vocals with more cohesiveness and weight while straying away from the former headphone’s more diffuse-sounding presentation. Technicalities are outstanding with this headphone outputting great amounts of detail and speed. Often at times, the Susvara could be mistaken for an electro-static headphone but with more body and presence. In Mark Wilkinson’s ‘Best Thing’, the Susvara does an excellent job in capturing reverberation in vocals while maintain great contouring, texture and organic tone. As with the Edition X, the Susvaras render a tonally agreeable signature that can be listened to for hours on end. Furthermore, the versatility of these headphones allow multiple tracks to shine which is a welcomed addition given its balanced and technical nature. The slight dip in the 2 kHz frequency range allows some warmth and space to be worked in the lower midrange while also evading a forward and more aggressive sound. One of the most impressive aspects of the Susvaras is its propensity to handle micro-dynamics without ever sounding harsh or strident. This, coupled with the immersive and resolute sound signature make this a world-class listening experience.
The Susvara’s top-end remains much in line with the rest of the frequency spectrum – that is, without artificial boosting or dampening. Instead, highs are refined with perceptively fast leading transients. In contrast to the original HiFiMAN HE-1000, the flatter and more even frequency response makes the Susvara an easy listen. That is not to say that the high frequencies are laid-back, however, as the Susvara very capably adopts micro-detailing and control to make snare drums and cymbals sound vibrant. This is an area where the Susvara indefinitely shines as the immersive, precise and delicate nature of the high section brings a new sense of energy and refinement to tracks. Compared to the Sennheiser HD800 and HiFiMAN HE-1000 V2, however, the Susvara has a slightly less extensive treble section but its fast and even frequency response makes for a more natural listen.
Overall, this pairing provides great synergy with the Susvaras and is relatively good value for money. They help to render fast leading transients amongst a black backdrop with good amounts of speed and incision. Despite the good levels of detail, the signature is not strident or analytically cold. Instead, this combo works well to provide strong micro-dynamics and an immersive sound. With the Telefunken E18CCs, the overall sound becomes more expansive with better low-end sensibilities. However, some detailing and precision is lost with the tubes and sacrificed for rich harmonic distortions that makes the Susvara’s midrange appear more emotive. However, with both devices inserted, the sound is very holographic and multi-layered allowing the Susvara to shine in instrument separation and sonic projection.
With the Jotunheim, the sound leans more towards the Mjolnir 2 (w/LISST) than a tube implementation. However, the Jotunheim provides more speed, attack and high-end tilt compared to the Mjolnir 2. This does come at the expense of a bit of soundstage depth and sheer macro-dynamic ability which the Mjolnir 2 very capably provides. Fans of the upper mid and lower treble category may be more swayed by the Jotunheim whereas fans of a larger soundstage and a more smooth/rich tonality may be more tempted by the Mjolnir 2 (w/ tubes). For its price, though, the Jotunheim renders fantastic levels of clarity, attack and resolvement.
With the addition of the Schiit Freya as a pre-amp, the overall sound becomes more tonally palatable. For example, the slight glare experienced with the Jotunheim is gone and replaced with equally fast leading transients with a more rounded and harmonious presentation. Soundstage increases significantly in both width and depth and there is a higher level of holographic imaging projected from tracks. While the Schiit Freya takes away a bit of transparency from the Jotunheim, there is a considerable increase in musicality due to the harmonic rich distortions. Overall, the Schiit Freya with the Jotunheim is a great match for those seeking the clarity and speed of the latter with a bit of added tube characteristics of the former.
The MicroZOTL2.0 is able to drive the Susvaras to decent volume levels with its 6.35 mm jack input. Unlike many other tube amps, it is quite unique in its stock tonality with a very liquid but resolving sound. With this combination, the Susvaras render a midrange which is sweet and slightly more recessed than usual. However, the pleasantly fast leading transients and tactile sound really combine the best of the solid-state and tube amp world. Dynamics are not as great as with the Mjolnir 2 for example but the MicroZOTL2.0 works outstanding for fast tempo and drum and bass type tracks.
Although evidently expensive, this set-up intended to maximise the potential of the Susvaras.
To that extent, this combo certainly achieved with easily the best sound I have heard out of any headphone systems I have tried. The Golden Questyle CMA800Rs helped deliver the resolution, depth and powerful imaging which the tubes of the Freya seemed to enhance without resorting to that bloomy tube sound. Compared to the Mjolnir 2 as an amp, the CMA800Rs delivered better layering, micro-detailing and attack. The overall signature could be best described as majestic with incredible detailing, a vast soundstage, zero harshness and an indefinitely pleasant tonality which worked with both the Susvara and the HE1000 headphones. With this system, the headphones seemed to disappear and come closer to speaker territory with the added benefit of quick transients and accuracy that over-ear transducers have the ability to offer.
The Soundstage & Imaging
The soundstage of the Susvaras is excellent with wide projection of cues in both depth and width. Compared to the HiFiMAN HE-1000 V2, the height of the Susvaras is less tall but makes up for this in field of depth. Overall, the sonic performance of the Susvaras is much more cohesive and holographic than the HE-1000s which sound relatively more diffuse and less rounded. To this extent, the Susvara does extremely well to create an immersive soundscape with seamless transition between both left and right pans.
Imaging is incredibly precise and even bests the HE-1000s in this category with pinpoint accuracy of instruments. Again “Money For Nothing“ by Dire Straits is a track which best highlights this. With less optimal headphones, this track is eaten up with smearing of details and congestion. Not with the Susvaras, where the precise localisation of instruments and vocals makes for a very involving and enjoyable listening experience.
Lavricables is a store run by an audiophile with an interest in pure silver cables for hi-reference headphones. In this review, I had the opportunity to test their Master Silver HiFiMAN Susvara/ HE1000/ Edition X Upgrade cable which costs $334 by the 2 metre-cut. The cable itself is made of 12 separated cores of 6N purity silver braided together with the aim of reducing capacitance levels and skin effect on higher frequencies. Joints are soldered with silver and a Teflon insulation used for the bare wires.
Much like with the HE1000s, the Master Silver cable instils a fuller and weightier sound with better extensions in both low and high frequencies compared to the stock cable. Soundstage is also improved with an added sense of musicality (more rounded bass). The link to purchase can be found here.
Double Helix Cables is another store run by audiophile Peter Bradstock. With a background in microbiology and genetics, Peter has utilised the concepts of revision (accepting and rejecting hypotheses/cables) to truly refine and improve upon each of his creations. Each cable is developed with high-quality litz wires, durable sheathing and is remarkably stunning to boot.
In this review, I had the opportunity to test their flagship cable – the Prion 4 which is priced at $1799 minimum (for 4 feet length). These cables are currently the most complex headphone cables produced by anybody employing a staggering 19awg OCC silver litz – the limit of which can be practically fit and soldered to a headphone connector.
One word comes to mind when listening with this cable – and that is effortless. With such a sonic improvement to the stock cable, I am surprised that cables could make this much of a difference. Not only is transparency brought to the forefront, along with outstanding micro-detailing, separation and accuracy but macro-dynamics are also strong with extensive top and bottom range contributing to a highly engaging side that combines powerful precision with dynamism and emotional involvement. In addition, the expansive nature of these cables works wonders for the already capable Susvaras. If that were not enough, recordings sound alive with lack of grain, nuances and fast decay speeds. While the Prion 4 headphone cable is not cold or irritably bright, it does benefit from a tube stage which adds even more staging width as well as some welcomed midrange bloom. Overall, these are most transparent, refined and involving cables I have ever come across. For that reason, these should be considered as a reference headphone cable for anyone without a budget in sight. The link to purchase can be found here.
The HiFiMAN Susvara represents HiFiMAN’s next venture into flagship planar territory. At $6000, however, the headphones are by no means cheap and therefore represent a huge investment for any potential audiophile consumer. Having said that, while it may be easy to dismiss these headphones owing to their price, the target demographic are unlikely to place value at the forefront of their priorities and hence sound would be the determining factor. With this in mind, the Susvaras live up to their expectation producing an honourably resolute and accurate sound while still maintaining outstanding transient production, separation and sonic imaging. Build quality, while better than its predecessor, could have been upgraded to match the price tag with even more premium materials and perhaps a more exotic wooden rim. Comfort, however, is outstanding and is one headphone which can be worn for hours on end without fatigue and stuffiness. To get the best out of this product’s potential, the Questyle CMA800R golden stack amps and Double Helix Prion 4 cable are highly recommended. In summary then, the Susvaras are recommended purchase for anyone considering to get a taste of world-class audio reproduction without a budget or value in mind. Stay tuned for more…
HiFiMAN Susvara headphones
Available from: HiFiMAN