HifiMan Ananda Review

26-06-2019 00:06

INTRODUCTION

My personal open headphone search has pretty much ended.  I have my HD800S, as well as an HD600, and other TOTL’s I’ve tried have been variations on a theme.  The one headphone type I don’t have expansive experience with is Planars, so whenever I get a chance to be part of a review tour, I take it with open arms.  Mark from HifiMan reached out and asked if I’d be interested, and of course I said yes – and especially when the headphone in question is the Ananda.

So, what is different about a planar headphone (from a traditional dynamic)?  Instead of using a moving voice coil (to pull the diaphragm in and out from one ring within the driver), a planar uses an ultra-thin diaphragm suspended between two plates of magnets. This typically results in very low distortion, and fast transient response.  There often is a typical downside – planars tend to be heavier and can sometimes suffer from perceived reduction in soundstage.  How would the Ananda handle this?

ABOUT HIFIMAN

HifiMan Audio was founded in late 2005 by Dr Fang Bian when he was resident in New York. He started Head-Direct, and in 2007 began use of the HifiMan brand. They started initially with in-ear earphones, branched out into building hi-res portable players, and this was followed by planar magnetic headphones. As the business grew, so did the need to expand, so in 2010 Dr Bian started two small factories in China and moved the HQ to Tianjin China in 2011. They are now a well-recognised brand globally – particularly in the field of portable or personal audio products.

I found most of these short facts from a couple of interviews with Dr Bian posted online, and among the interviews were a couple of direct quotes which I found fascinating and illuminating:

I started listening to a lot of music when I was in high school. I used a Walkman and Discman all the time because I had nothing else available to me. They were designed more for convenience than great sound. I wanted both- convenience and great sound so that set the stage for my dream to build the best sounding personal audio products.

 Starting with me, everyone is passionate about what we are doing at HiFiMAN. We may not always do everything perfectly from the beginning, but we try hard to get it right in the end and our track record is pretty good. Most of all, I want our customers to know how much we appreciate them. Their support and feedback are invaluable.

DISCLAIMER

The HifiMan Ananda headphone that I’m reviewing today was provided to me as part of a world tour, and has already been shipped to the next recipient.  I receive no compensation. The retail price at time of review is USD 999.

PREAMBLE

If you haven’t read any of my reviews, I suggest starting here, as it will give you an insight into my known preferences and bias.

For the purposes of this review – I’ve used the Ananda from a variety of devices including my iFi Micro iDSD (with and without the VE Enterprise statement tube amp).  I’ve also used it with various portable devices (including the HifiMan R2R2000) and with portable amps including the xDuoo XP2, Q5 and XRK NHB Portable Class A amplifier.

In the time I have spent with the Ananda, I have noticed no change to the overall sonic presentation (break-in). This is a purely subjective review – my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt – especially if it does not match your own experience.

THE PACKAGE

The Ananda comes in a large retail box with printed outer sleeve.  The box measures 225 x 265 x 140mm.  Inside the box is a form fitting foam enclosure covered with black satiny material (like the HD800S).  The full accessory pack includes:

  • A pair of Ananda planar headphones
  • 1.5m single ended cable (3.5mm jack)
  • 3.0m single ended cable (3.5mm jack)
  • 6.3mm adaptor
  • HifiMan Owners Guide
  • Warranty card




THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

MEASUREMENTS

The graphs I use are generated using the Vibro Veritas coupler and ARTA software. In this case, I used no calibration apart from an adjustment to take the 4k Hz resonant peak of the measurement hardware out.  I don’t have a headphone measurement rig and have no ear simulator – so you can’t use the graph as a representation of how the Ananda sounds.  What I use is a head width simulator coupled with a latex soft face (for the headphones) with a hole so the veritas can sit flush.

My main aim is to take a reference headphone – my HD800S – and then compare the Ananda on the same rig and under the same conditions and show the differences. The graphs are provided merely as a point of discussion.

BUILD

The Ananda is a great looking headphone (IMO).  The headband is a sprung steel dual band which is nice and sturdy and connects with two metal yokes using a ratchet system (easy to feel and hear the click adjustments).  It reminds me quite a bit of the Beyer type yoke to headphone connections – only the Ananda feels a lot firmer.  Suspended under the sprung steel is a wide leather headband, and this is very comfortable with good weight distribution.  The housing around the yoke assembly is hard plastic.


The Yokes attach to the earpieces using two serrated small bolts per side. The cups are large – 130 x 100 mm – and are housed in black plastic (to keep the weight down). The cups have an oval design, but they do not have a swivel mechanism – although this is alleviated (for me anyway) by the angled pads).  The ear-cups are circumaural and are very comfortable for me. The outer surface of the cups has a series of horizontal slats which is both very open (you can see the rear of the planar driver through the mesh) and looks aesthetically well matched with the overall design. HifiMan explains the design of the horizontal slats is to minimise reflections to aid clarity.


The pads are a soft pleather with very comfortable memory foam and angled.  This helps both seal / fit and will benefit the impression of a wider sound stage (simulating HD800/S and Beyer T1/2’s angled driver set-up).  The internal measurement of the pads is approx 85 x 55 x 20mm.  The pads are removable/replaceable.


At the bottom of each cup is a single 3.5mm socket for the replaceable cable.  The sockets are nice and snug and slightly angled forward.  The cable is one of the strangest I’ve come across.  It is essentially a crystalline silver and copper mix which is then encased in an extremely lightweight clear polyurethane sheath.  What feels weird is that the sheath diameter is ~ 5mm, so the internal cables are essentially floating in a cushion of air.  The resultant cable looks somewhat fragile and tends to kink (which makes me fear for its longevity), but the kinks do seem to straighten over time. The Ananda comes with two cables – a 1.5mm” shorter cable” terminated with a 3.5mm right-angled gold-plated jack, and a 3m “longer cable” terminated with straight 6.3mm Neutrik jack.


Internally the Ananda uses a new NEO “supernano” Diaphragm (NsD) which is touted to be 80% thinner than previous designs.  The diaphragm is now only 1-2 microns thick, and this should aid efficiency (ease of driveability), as well as transient response.


COMFORT / ISOLATION

Isolation with the Ananda is (as expected for an open headphone) very light – i.e. it will leak sound out, and allow ambient noise in.

Comfort for me is personally is extremely good.  The ear-pads fit completely around my ears, and the foam cushions provide softness without becoming irritable. The headband is nicely designed to minimise individual pressure points and distribute the weight evenly.  I really haven’t noticed any weight issues even after some quite long listening sessions.

Clamp is moderate – enough to stay in place, but not enough to cause undue pressure. As a glasses wearer there is some slight pressure from the cups (pushing the glasses to the bridge of my nose), but nowhere near as bad as the HD600/650 from Senn.  I know that the clamp can be adjusted over time simply by stretching for a few days across some books.

SOUND QUALITY

My testing for this section was done with Jriver Media Center feeding lossless files to an iFi Micro iDSD (power isolated by an iUSB).  No EQ was engaged.  Tracks used were across a variety of genres – and can be viewed in this list https://www.head-fi.org/f/articles/brookos-test-tracks.17556/

Relativities

  • Sub-bass – very good extension, with practically no roll off into the sub-bass.  The sub-bass rumble in Lorde’s “Royals” is audible and clearly defined, and I find it quite balanced with the rest of the signature.  No bass bleed from the sub-bass.  I would call it neutral and extended sub-bass rather than overly enhanced.
  • Mid-bass – good impact, and very slightly elevated compared to the sub-bass (small mid-bass hump).  There is good impact and it is both quick and clean.
  • Lower mid-range – essentially flat and perfectly balanced with the bass.  Male vocals have good presence and richness in timbre and I’m not finding male vocalists thin or lacking.
  • Upper mid-range – slightly elevated compared to lower mid-range (mainly in the 3-5 kHz area, which helps add euphony in the presence area for female vocals. There is a dip from 1.5-2.5 kHz, but it doesn’t appear to sound unnatural to me (there are no stridency issues).  I think the dip is countered by ear geometrics – so I suspect the Ananda is in fact tuned quite flat, maybe with a slight mid-range emphasis.
  • Lower treble – very good extension without dropping off, even after 10 kHz. Cymbals have good presence with good decay (although there is a hint of extra sizzle in the upper treble – maybe from 8-10 kHz).  This isn’t an overly accentuated treble – and one which I find nicely balanced with the rest of the frequency response.
  • Upper treble – seems to be nicely extended. It’s hard for me to judge this area, because my hearing tops out well under 14kHz nowadays, and the measuring equipment is not accurate enough from about 9 kHz up.  No signs of brittleness, and I personally don’t find anything missing.

Resolution / Detail / Clarity

  • Clarity is excellent, and there is a high level of detail in all my usual test tracks. With Floyd’s “Money”, the micro details from the back-ground cash registers are easily heard. Portico Quartet’s “Ruins” is likewise brilliant with every detail of the cymbal brushes and snare taps present, yet perfectly mingled within the music. I think this is attributable to the nicely neutral frequency response.
  • Cymbals hits (especially hi-hats and crash-cymbals) are present, and the trailing decay is audible and realistic – maybe a slight hint of “tizz”. My test track for this is Pearl Jam’s EWBTCIAST, and the cymbals have a nicely shimmering decay.

Soundstage, Imaging

  • My usual first track for checking width, depth and shape of perceived soundstage is Amber Rubarth’s “Tundra”. There is definite projection outside my perceived headspace (violin), and this would be one of the more spacious planars I’ve heard. Directionally the track is consistent and stage shape has perfect balance of depth and width. Imaging of all 3 instruments is extremely precise with good sense of separation, and the transients are extremely clean.
  • I use the applause sections of “Dante’s Prayer” and Lakme’s “Flower Duet” for a feeling of immersion.  Very good headphones can give you a real sense of being in the audience.  The Ananda is superbly realistic with this.  A great feeling of both space, depth and width.  The presentation is also extremely clean and clear. There is a life-like sense of flow around me.
  • The last track in this section is Amanda Marshal’s “Let it Rain” which has a natural 3 dimensional feel (the way the track was miked).  The Ananda handles it well, the sense of instruments being around you is very good.  I also use this track as my sibilance test (it’s quite a hotly mastered track – and it is present in the recording).  The Ananda does reveal the sibilance, but it isn’t show-cased or accentuated.

Strengths

  • Overall balance end to end in the frequency response – quite exceptional.
  • Bass balance of impact, timbre, speed and definition.
  • Imaging is a strong point – very clean and easy to pick directional cues
  • Very good at lower volumes with extremely good clarity
  • Both male and female vocals display good timbre, and (more importantly) sound realistic.
  • Wide and perfectly shaped perceived soundstage

Weaknesses

  • Sonically I’m really struggling to find anything.

AMPLIFICATION REQUIREMENTS

The Ananda was advertised as being easy to drive, and I guess this is why HifiMan included the shorter 3.5mm cable. The on-line Digizoid Headphone Power Calculator tells me that at 25 ohms and 103 dB SPL/mW sensitivity, it requires 0.63 Vrms, 25.2 mA and approx 16 mW to reach 115 dB SPL (on the verge of pain). This of course indicates that the Ananda is (as stated by HifiMan) a relatively benign load, and most portable devices should have no real issues driving.  The voltage and current requirements double if you want to go beyond 115dB …. but really, who would?

So, let’s have a look at some real-world options and start with the lowest volume output device – my iPhone SE – and work from there.  From my testing (volume matched and compared subjectively to the iDSD) using the track “The Bad In Each Other” from Feist’s album “Metals”:

60-65% volume on the iPhone produced ~70-75 dB.  The iPhone was loud enough and sounded good.  The iDSD sounded slightly richer/more dynamic at the same volume level, but it’s not night and day.

With the FiiO M9 digital audio player, the volume required was approx 75/120 on low gain to achieve ~70-75dB, and again the M9 had no problem driving the Ananda with good control over the drivers.


With FiiO’s new M11 that requirement was almost 70/120 and sounded great.  This was a combo I could easily relax with in the living room on a lazy Sunday! More importantly, adding the A5 amplifier netted no real change in perceived dynamics.

What this means is that virtually all my higher end DAPs are easily able to drive the Ananda to very listen-able levels without distortion or clipping, and without needing extra amping.  This surprisingly includes my iPhone SE – which manages quite nicely at around 65% volume. It would not be my 1st choice though.

So, does the Ananda get better with amping?  For this I used the Q1ii, A5, XRK-NHB, and xDuoo XP2.  With each of the amps I didn’t really notice any audible signs of greater driver control (once volume matched).  What I did notice was that the slight added warmth (2nd order distortion) of the XRK-NHB was a pleasant addition to the tonality. This was also there with the xDuoo XP2 driven from the iPhone over Bluetooth.  In fact, I’d go as far to say that this simple iPhone + XP2 combo would be another brilliantly simple set-up for getting a high-end audio experience with the Ananda.

Does the Ananda need a lot of amplification though?  In my opinion – not really.  HifiMan were right when they said this headphone is an efficient load.

RESPONSE TO EQ?

I like the Ananda’s default frequency response, and TBH I wouldn’t change it.  I did initially think the dip on my measurement rig at 1-2kHz might be an issue with looking at.  But using my desktop set-up and JRiver Media Center’s parametric EQ, nulling this dip out did not really enhance the sound.  I can hear the slight dip in frequency sweeps – but it really doesn’t detract (so maybe its associated with the external ear / pinnae).  Either way – I personally don’t think added EQ is necessary.

I did try to experiment with added sub-bass just to see what the Ananda would do (and knowing this is one area some like to enhance).  The Ananda was able to push sub-bass to head pounding levels if you also give it enough power to avoid clipping.

COMPARISONS

For comparisons, I compared with 2 recognised references (HD600 & HD800S) which should give readers an understanding of how it sounds comparatively.  To give more alternatives, I also used my Brainwavz Alara planar.

In all cases I used the iFi Micro iDSD. With the graphs – please re-read the measurement section earlier in the review.  The graphs show comparative measurements on the same rig – and without an ear simulator. The comparisons were all done without EQ, and volume matched using a calibrated SPL meter and fixed 1kHz test tone first. They are very subjective (my opinion only).

Ananda vs HD600


Build / Design

Both headphones share similar build materials – a mix of plastic and metal.  The HD600 clamp is stronger (when new) but can be relaxed with gentle stretching. Both have detachable cables, and both are comfortable.  Both have replaceable ear-pads, but the HD600 is more modular in design.

Comfort / Ergonomics

Both are extremely comfortable and very ergonomic – with good head bands and circumaural pads. The Ananda is a bit heavier – although I still don’t find it fatiguing over long periods.

Overall Sound Quality

The first noticeable point is that the HD600 needs quite a bit more volume / power (voltage rather than current). The second thing is that the HD600 is airier / brighter, and leaner through the lower mid-range.  The Ananda has far better overall bass extension and impact, more body to the lower mid-range (male vocals sound significantly better) and is more balanced in end-to-end frequency response.  The Ananda also has a better sense of imaging (the HD600 is slightly hazy in comparison). The Ananda is quicker with transients and sounds cleaner. In terms of soundstage, the Ananda has a much larger overall stage.  Both are great sounding headphones with quite similar overall tonality.  The Ananda just has more bottom end and is a lot faster and cleaner sounding.

Ananda vs HD800S


Build / Design

Again, both headphones share similar build materials – a mix of plastic and metal.  The Ananda clamp is stronger but not uncomfortable. Both have detachable cables, and both have very good padding.  Both have replaceable ear-pads. The HD800S has angled drivers to enhance soundstage, where the Ananda creates angle through the earpad shape.  The HD800s has swivels for the ear-cups and feels as if it fits a little better.

Comfort / Ergonomics

The Ananda is heavier, but it isn’t uncomfortable. Both have very good padding and are both comfortable and very ergonomic. The lightness of the HD800S is quite noticeable with quick switching.  Overall though the HD800S is slightly ahead here.

Overall Sound Quality

Again, the first noticeable point is that the HD800S needs additional volume / power. The second thing is that the Ananda is a bit warmer with more noticeable bass although the two signatures are quite similar. Again, the Ananda has better overall bass extension and impact, and again male vocals do sound better to me (although I prefer female vocals on the HD800S). Imaging is close on both headphones – they both give very consistent and clean spatial cues. In terms of soundstage, the HD800S has a larger overall stage, and is more expansive.  Again, both are great sounding headphones with similar frequency signatures (HD800S is brighter and airier, Ananda is a little warmer and richer).  Both are quick and clean in terms of transient response.

Ananda vs Alara


Build / Design

Both headphones share similar build materials – a mix of plastic and metal, but this time the Alara is a lot more compact, while the Ananda is larger, yet feels significantly lighter.  Both have detachable cables and replaceable earpads.

Comfort / Ergonomics

Both are comfortable and quite ergonomic – with good head bands and circumaural pads. With quick swapping the Ananda is quite a bit more comfortable (in terms of weight distribution), although I can use both for extended periods. The Ananda has better extenders and can be used for smaller heads – the Alara lacks adjust-ability for smaller heads.

Overall Sound Quality

This time it is the Alara which is slightly easier to drive (needing just a little more current). The Ananda is a cleaner and slightly brighter. The Alara is a little darker overall and sounds quite closed in. The Ananda has much better sound stage, and better overall tonality also.  Vocals have more sweetness and air. Bass extension and impact is great on both headphones (as you’d expect from a planar), and the real difference here is in sound-stage presentation and upper-mids.  The Alara has a quiet noticeable notch and with some female vocals just sounds a little rough.  Comparatively the Ananda is just cleaner and more coherent.  The Alara is a great price for a Planar – but here, the additional you pay for the Ananda is absolutely justified.

VALUE

The Ananda is not a cheap headphone, and the price of $999 sits it with other great flagship headphones (you can easily pick up a 2nd hand HD800S in this price bracket).  There really isn’t a lot of difference in sound quality between the Ananda and HD800S, and for bass extension the Ananda has the edge on Sennheiser’s great flagship dynamic.  Would I sell my own HD800S to buy the Ananda?  Probably not.  But conversely, if I didn’t own the HD800S already, would the Ananda now sit on my list of possible.  The answer to that is yes, and at $1000 USD (new), that is pretty good value in my books.

HIFIMAN ANANDA – SUMMARY

I’d always toyed with getting a decent planar at some stage, and I’m very grateful to Mark and the team at HifiMan for giving me the chance to use these for a few weeks (at home with my own gear).

The Ananda has been an instant hit for me.  A beautifully balanced headphone sonically, with a depth of bass extension which is highly addictive and subtly different to my experience with dynamics.  Couple this with a genuinely natural and reasonably neutral end-to-end frequency response, and you have a headphone which I can listen to for hours (critically or in a relaxed setting). The icing on the cake for me is that for a planar its relatively easy to drive, so I can use it around the house easily.  The other great thing with the Ananda is that it is fantastic for casual gaming (great soundstage and imaging).

The overall build quality seems very good (maybe a slight question over the that cable), and the comfort is excellent considering the overall weight.

The asking price of $999 is not cheap, but for me the Ananda more than justifies the expense and for the overall package, it competes extremely well (if not better than) other headphones in similar price brackets.  If my HD800S somehow became damaged, it would be a hard decision for a replacement and considering the price difference – just maybe I’d be going home with a HifiMan box.

I’d thoroughly recommend these.  One of the best full-sized open headphones I’ve heard.


Read more...