Nowadays, it can be a challenge trying to find the right headphones to buy.
The world is becoming ever increasingly over saturated with STUFF. This is especially true in audiophile land with regard to Amps & DACs.
The differences are so subtle that it becomes hard to discern any real discrepancies. A lot of the time you’re left wondering if it’s all in your head; that you’re trying to systematically come up with something just for the sake of a talking point.
I can empathize a little more with having an over abundance of headphones; they all have different sound signatures, and thus make for an easier and more fun time comparing.
In the case of HiFiMan, there are many to choose from (perhaps too many), but should you be concerned with every single one of them?
In my mind, no.
A lot of them are way beyond the point of being expensive. We’re talking like a brand new car, a mortgage, a Mediterranean cruise out in the middle of nowhere, a brand new Yacht, your own private Jet. You know, sh** that actually kind of matters. Lol. Kind of.
Does music matter? Surely, but not for 20 grand homie. Not by a damn sight.
I’ve demoed close to 100 headphones at the time of this article, and I can tell you that with models in the upper upper echelon (over $1000), it’s rarely worth the investment due to The Law of Diminishing Returns.
A couple of exceptions are the Focal Utopia and the HiFiMan Ananda, the latter of which we will discuss today.
I also don’t think we should over complicate things. For most people, the options I’m about to discuss will serve you just fine if you’re looking for a quality set of headphones from HiFiMan.
With that, who’s first up?
One of the first headphones you’ll likely come across when searching is the 400S.
This is a phenomenal first foray into the world of Planar Magnetic’s. It’s really affordable, has a wonderfully crisp sound, and feels pretty comfortable. What is a Planar Magnetic Driver?
Check out what Neil Mitchell had to say about me helping him to decide on this bad boy.
Thanks for the response Stu, I totally enjoy your reviews! I have gained as much or more knowledge and insight from your site as I have from any other I have seen. I am a true fan, and although I have most certainly perused and totally enjoyed your headset reviews, when I upgrade to a fancier planar headset I’ll be asking your advice for sure. The HE400S may be my first planar, but it won’t be my last!! Thx again…Neil Mitchell
What I love about the sound signature of this headphone is that it’s crisp, light and detailed. You’re getting a fairly balanced sound that works well for a wide variety of genres.
It has a little bit of emphasis around 1k which makes vocals and instruments really come to life, a slightly rolled off bass, and a crisp treble that doesn’t really get out of line. The sound signature is done in such a way that it’s not really intrusive or harsh for the most part.
Tyll’s graph portrays the perfect snapshot of this headphone.
With that said, there are some things to keep in mind:
The headphone in comparison to the 400i has a tendency to sound kind of grainy, and maybe a bit too in your face like that obnoxious ex-girlfriend.
The build of the headphone isn’t the best I’ve ever handled, but it gets the job done.
Comfort is good overall, but the pads sometimes slide down onto the tops of your ear lobes causing discomfort.
It represents what a planar headphone is all about, but isn’t quite as good as our next option.
Let’s take a look!
The HE400i will always hold a special place in my heart.
I tell this story often here on the site, but the first time I really had my eyes opened to upper echelon sound was with the 400i paired with Bryston’s BHA-1 Headphone Amplifier.
I was at Audio Advice demoing a mix CD with FLAC/Lossless files, and Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” came on.
“I’ve heard this song a thousand times so what could possibly be different here?”
Those were my thoughts as the iconic opening guitar lick played familiarly in my ears.
As the build up began, I noticed details emerging from everywhere that I had never heard before in my life. Small stuff. Subtle nuance. Guitar plucks. Fretboard sounds. Breathy noises. You know, things that you never really hear with crappy headsets.
Everything sounded so incredibly natural. For the first time in probably 14-15 years, I was so excited for the drums to come in that I could hardly stand it. The anticipation was almost too much.
“The suspense is terrible! I hope it’ll last.” -Willy Wonka
One thing I cannot stress enough is how different Robert Plant’s voice sounded. It was so crystal clear that it was almost like I had never actually heard him sing before.
The song itself took on an unfamiliar quality, as if it was the first time I had actually sat down and listened to it.
This is a common phenomena with regard to audiophile headphones. It’s why people end up going deep down the rabbit hole while blowing all of their hard earned money and whoring street corners to make ends meet.
When the drums and bass finally came in, I was in pure ecstasy. It’s a moment that hasn’t really been replicated since.
Every hit was so natural and smooth, but it still had this incredible sense of impact and weight that’s hard to describe. The articulation of the kick drum itself was so realistic that it almost made me want to cry tears of joy.
It’s so hard to put into words.
It felt like the members of the band were so in tune with one another. Like they were soulmates. Like they understood each other on a level that few artists ever achieve.
It has been said that John Bonham was the heart and soul of Led Zeppelin. After he died, I had read somewhere that the other band members refused to go on without him.
In listening with this headphone, I finally realized why.
The intricacies of his drumming were truly spectacular, but it took something like a 400i, a good amp, and good source files to finally reveal that.
There’s a reason why old headphones continue to stand the test of time even despite new ones flooding the market daily.
The 400i is a prime example.
Like the 400S, it’s incredibly detailed and smooth, but improves upon the issue of grain that we discussed earlier.
This time around, the sound is a bit warmer and less brash. It’s not really trying to impress you, but ends up doing just that because it’s a bit more laid back and thus more enjoyable over a longer listening period.
Like the 400S, there are some things to keep in mind:
The build of the headphone is a bit better than the 400S (370g vs. 346), but the newer models have been known to break down due to a headband issue with the yokes. The model pictured above is one of the older ones. It’s been demoed hundreds (if not thousands of times) and still functions beautifully. I’ve been demoing it on and off since 2017 with no issues.
Like the 400S, the pads sometimes slide down onto the tops of your ear lobes causing discomfort. Comfort is still good overall though, and very similar to the 400S.
The sound this time around is warmer, but still retains that amazing sense of detail present in the 400S. There isn’t a hint of grain here.
Our next headphone kind of takes the crisp nature of the 400S and combines it with the laid back presentation of the 400i. Does it arrive at that perfect middle ground? Stick around to find out!
While you’re at it, you can also get my high end headphone course for the low low price of $999.99. Act now while supplies last!
Just kidding. Let’s talk about the Sundara.
What I like about HiFiMan as a company is that they seem to use community feedback to their advantage, by improving the product line and responding well to criticism.
The Sundara was a giant leap forward when it came out in 2018, which showed they took our concerns into account.
I remember being extremely impressed holding it for the first time in my hands. It was built better and felt more substantial than it’s predecessors. It was an instant level up.
The design is now more utilitarian and streamlined, while still retaining a sense of beauty and elegance.
You’ll really know where your money went when you finally get your paws on it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel overjoyed at the way it feels and looks (to the point of treating it like a hamburger).
In fact, the term Sundara in Sanksrit actually means beautiful. It’s a wonderful design all around but also improved on the shortcomings of it’s older brothers.
What does it do better?
The headband yoke pieces are now made of anodized aluminum and feel much more rugged. It’s the piece pictured below with the logo and “HIFIMAN” text.
The headband itself is rounded this time. Before it looked like some weird Alien design or a kind of deformed rectangle.
The headband adjustment itself is more streamlined, thinner, but stronger. It feels amazing to the touch and the matte black is a welcome change as well. The entire unit contrasted against the 400i feels and looks extremely professional.
The termination’s into each of the ear cups are now 2.5mm vs. the coax of the 400i.
The thin headband pad seems to be made of a different material. It feels better to the touch, but at the end of the day the difference is marginal in the grand scheme of things.
The grilles on the Sundara are now a stronger lattice design vs. the older honeycomb configuration on the 400i and 400S.
Also of note is that the Sundara’s cups cannot fold flat this time around like the 400i’s and 400S’s. I’m not entirely sure how I feel one way or the other. I’m a bit indifferent about it, but it should be mentioned. The weight of the Sundara is about the same, coming in at 2 lbs. heavier than the 400i (372g vs. 370).
Aside from that, the sound is improved to a degree.
I would say that overall, the Sundara combines the 400S’s crisp signature with the warmer sound of the 400i to create and provide a better listening experience.
As good as the 400i is, there were times I felt it was a bit too warm and syrupy, as if it was almost lulling you to sleep. This could be due to it’s ever so gradual drop off after 1k going into the treble.
The Sundara sounds crisp, but it also has a hint of warmth this time around.
It’s not overly cold and clinical like the 400S, nor is it sometimes too gooey like the 400i.
It strikes that perfect balance.
Comfort is about the same as the others. We’ve got the same protein leather/velour combo, and they feel great on your head with just enough clamp pressure to remain stable.
Like the others, there are some things to keep in mind with the Sundara as well:
The focus pads will wear out over time, but are replaceable.
The headphone still has a tendency to slide down a bit, touching the tops of your ear lobes and causing some minor discomfort.
A guy I frequently chat with on Facebook didn’t seem to have that issue, so your mileage may vary. I did find the Sundara overall to be a bit better in the comfort department, but the difference is slight.
Our final headphone today comes in the form of the Ananda, or just about the ceiling of what I would personally spend on a pair of audiophile grade cans.
There aren’t too many instances where a significantly more expensive headphone is a true upgrade from a cheaper one, but this is a rare exception.
The Ananda continues the fantastic build of the Sundara, but the cups are shaped a bit differently and it’s a bit heavier at 399g. It doesn’t feel heavy though!
This design takes the Alien look of the 400i and amplifies it tremendously. Some people are going to despise the look of this Super Mutant Behemoth, but it really is beautiful in person. Was that an oxymoron? Maybe.
Noo more games … time to die!!Super Mutant
The cups actually kind of mimic the shape of your ears and are bigger, thus providing a lot more room for them to breathe.
Everything sounds more open this time around. There’s more air, more space, more width, and more depth. As far as sound goes, it’s a true upgrade from the Sundara.
The Sundara has good spacing and instrument separation, but the Ananda’s is great.
Minus the Bears’ “Pachuca Sunrise” sounded better than I ever remember. This is a song that I’ve heard many times over the years, but the tone and resolution coming through the Ananda was breathtaking to say the least.
The bass here is exceptional, and one of the headphones’ best qualities. It’s fairly flat, doesn’t roll off, and provides a ton of impact and slam without feeling bloated or cheap.
Here I did a sweep using the Mini DSP Ears. Keep in mind this isn’t a professional measurement system, but it provides a fairly accurate portrayal of the sound signature.
You can see the bass is nice and flat, with a great mid-range, and a bump at 3k and 10k.
I find this type of sound to be nearly perfect; Everything sits in the mix as it should, and I’m not finding any one thing over powering the other.
The only caveat here is the Treble. 99% of the time it’s going to sound great. I love it. But there are instances in which is comes across as kind of bright and perhaps slightly hot.
It’s a very minor nitpick, but should be pointed out.
Aside from that, there are some things to keep in mind about the Ananda:
The piece that connects to the ear cup is shaped a bit differently than the Sundara, but both are made of the same material.
I was having some issues with the wire terminations going into each of the ear cups. The sound was cutting out intermittently, but Audio Advice has since fixed the issue. It seemed to be only happening with one particular model inside the store.
To recap, just think of the sound of the Ananda like Winterfresh Gum or Lipton Brisk Iced Tea. I know it’s abstract, but work with me.
You’re going to feel this crisp, brisk sense of detail in yo ear canals, but it’s not really cold in a negative way if that makes sense. It’s refreshing asf! It’s a bit more sterile and clinical sounding than the Sundara, but it’s not a chore to listen to.
It just feels right, man. It feels good.
With that, what about amplification? Will you need something to power all of these puppies?
The short answer is yes, with the exception of the Ananda. It’s Impedance is 25 Ohm with a Sensitivity of 103dB/mW.
If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, don’t fret! It’s really simple.
Impedance is a measure of resistance. The higher the number, the more it will resist any power being fed into it. What is Headphone Impedance?
Sensitivity is a measure of efficiency. A higher number means it’s more efficient at using the power that it receives. Generally anything around 99-100dB and over is pretty efficient. What is Sensitivity in Headphones? The lower the number, the less efficient.
So in the case of the Ananda, the headphone is both efficient and does not resist. Therefore, we can probably pair one with a phone and be perfectly fine. For me that’s still not an option since my phone is lame and has a poopy DAC chip. I need at least something like a FiiO E10K or K3 to get the most out of an Ananda. Your mileage will vary depending on the type of phone you have.
My advice is to just try it with your phone first and see how you like it. If you’re not satisfied, invest in an entry level Amp/DAC.
My Video Comparison
Leave me some love!! <3
Generally speaking, it doesn’t really need separate amplification but you should definitely consider some anyways. Who doesn’t love a good Amp/DAC?! 😉
For the rest of the headphones, we’ll need something beefier.
HE400S:22 Ohm, 98dB Sensitivity
HE400i: 35 Ohm, 93dB Sensitivity
Sundara: 37 Ohm, 94dB Sensitivity
Out of those 3, the 400S is more efficient and has a lower impedance. You could probably get away with just using your phone, but why not invest in something like an Audioquest DragonFly Red? You’ll get an upgraded sound and it’s super portable. Use an adapter with your phone or just plug that bad boy into your laptop.
For the other two, we’re going to need more power regardless. Both the 400i and Sundara are going to sound much too quiet out of a mobile device.
Have no fear, JDS Labs is here! They make fantastic amps at affordable prices, and all of them provide an insane amount of power. The value is through the roof and I can’t recommend them enough. The Objective 2 or Atom would be a great start with something like a Sundara!
With all that said, what’s my recommendation today?
Out of these 4, I would go with the Sundara.
It strikes the perfect balance between the 400i and 400S, improves tremendously on build, and sounds fantastic.
Pair it with the Atom and you’ve got a phenomenal home listening set up for around $500-600. Do keep in mind that both the Atom and Objective 2 are standalone amps. The Objective 2 can be bought as a combo Amp/DAC, but the Atom needs a separate DAC to function. What is a USB DAC?
Really anything will do. Because it has a 3.5mm line in, you can plug it into anything that has line out. I was testing it with the E10K,K3, and DragonFly Red and it sounded amazing.
Heck, you could even just plug it straight into your Laptops internal Soundcard and use that as a DAC depending on the quality of said Soundcard (A Soundcard is just an internal DAC). What is a Soundcard?
This is what I would do:
Get a Sundara. If you don’t care as much about build or don’t mind a bit less bass, then yes, the 400i is cheaper and sounds just about as good. You are risking the yokes breaking like Peter’s did though, so be forewarned.
Get a K3. The reason is three-fold. One, you can use it as a DAC or as a Headphone Amp + DAC. It’s extremely versatile. You can also use it to add more gain to the Atom if you need to (while it’s hooked up).
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.