Originally published on SoundStage! Xperience
HiFiMan Susvara headphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Trying to judge the HiFiMan Susvara headphones on the basis of only their performance and design is as hopeless as trying not to think of an elephant. Once you see the Susvaras’ $6000 USD price tag, there’s no way to banish from your mind this question: “How can a set of headphones be worth so much?”
The Susvaras resemble HiFiMan’s HE1000 V2s ($2999). The headband and strap are essentially the same. Both have minimalist metal grilles on their sides, intended to allow the freest possible flow of soundwaves from the backs of the drivers. Both have detachable cables, and include cables for unbalanced or balanced connection, with separate ground connections for the right and left channels.
The biggest technical difference is the Susvaras’ planar-magnetic drivers, which work by suspending a thin diaphragm of film covered with a wire voice-coil between metal plates covered with rows of magnets. Most HiFiMan headphones have such drivers; the Susvaras are different in using magnets with a rounded shape, claimed to reduce air turbulence and audio distortion.
Another innovation is the Susvaras’ “nanometer-grade” diaphragm, which is claimed to be less than 1µm thick. (A typical human hair is about 100µm thick.) In theory, this means better high-frequency response and more sonic detail.
A microscopically thin diaphragm isn’t much use if it’s weighed down with a heavy voice-coil, so HiFiMan used voice-coil traces of 24K (pure) gold. The gold’s softness makes it possible to create extremely thin, light voice-coil traces, but the traces’ extreme thinness raises their resistance, which greatly reduces the Susvaras’ sensitivity.
HiFiMan has been steadily improving the sensitivity of its headphones, to the point where most of them can produce decent sound even when plugged straight into a smartphone. But the Susvaras hark back to HiFiMan’s earlier headphones, such as the HE6 from 2010, whose low sensitivity made them notoriously difficult to drive. Even HiFiMan’s own beefed-up amp, the EF6, could achieve loud listening levels with the HE6es only with the volume control turned full up. Knowing that headphones costing in the mid-four figures would likely be used only with high-quality headphone amps, HiFiMan decided to focus entirely on the Susvaras’ sound quality and not worry about their sensitivity.
The company even created an amp specifically designed to drive the Susvaras: the EF1000 ($15,000), a tubes-and-transistors design specified to deliver 20Wpc into 35 ohms -- about 100 times the power delivered by typical headphone amps. You can get the EF1000 and the Susvaras in a package deal for $18,000.
In the box
Like HiFiMan’s other high-end headphones, the Susvaras come in a beautiful presentation box. Inside are two cables: one with a standard stereo 1/4” plug, and one with a four-pin XLR connector for headphone amps that offer balanced connection. The manual is one of the nicest I’ve seen: rather than a stapled pamphlet, it’s a small, hardbound book.
At the time of this writing, HiFiMan was offering a free B-stock (i.e., returned or reconditioned) EF6 amp with the first ten orders of the Susvaras.
I laughed out loud when I first plugged the Susvaras into my Musical Fidelity V-CAN headphone amp. The V-CAN is a well-engineered amp that I use for most of my measurements, but it was clearly overwhelmed by the challenge of driving the Susvaras. The volume level was almost loud enough, but the bass distorted badly. I switched to my Audio-gd NFB-1AMP, specified to output 8Wpc into 40 ohms, and the sound was impeccably clean. Despite the NFB-1AMP’s exceptionally high power rating for a headphone amp, with about half the recordings I listened to I had to turn the gain up full to get a satisfying volume. (The NFB-1AMP’s very conservative maximum volume setting doesn’t allow the amp to clip, at least not with any headphone I’ve tried.) Thus, most headphone amps -- almost all of which are rated at a maximum output of 1Wpc or lower -- won’t be able to deliver satisfying results with the Susvaras. If you don’t want to pop $15,000 for the EF1000, you’ll have to exercise great care in choosing an amp.
Obviously, the Susvaras are entirely unsuited for use with smartphones and tablets. I can’t think of any practical way to use them on the go, unless someone decides to make an ultra-beefed-up portable music player powered by six D-cell batteries.
I found the Susvaras even more comfortable than the HE1000 V2s, which rank among the most comfortable headphones I’ve tried. The clamping force is light, and the Susvaras’ rounder earpads made for a more natural fit around my ears than the HE1000 V2s’ oblong pads.
After breaking in the Susvaras for ten hours, I decided I wanted to hear what a $6000 pair of headphones sound like with some of the music I first fell in love with when I was using $15 Panasonic headphones, back in the mid-1970s. So I put on the high-resolution version of Yes’s Fragile (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Atlantic/HDtracks). Right away, I was struck by how real Steve Howe’s guitar sounded in the opening melody of “Long Distance Runaround”; it was as if I were sitting next to a real Fender amp connected to a real Gibson ES-175 guitar in the real 1970s. (I had a somewhat similar rig myself at the time, but with an Ibanez Les Paul copy instead of the ES-175.) I could also tell clearly, for the first time, that Rick Wakeman was doubling the melody on piano, and not on one of his electronic keyboards. It was always clear to me that he played piano on most of the tune, but on the countless other audio systems I’ve listened to this track through, the notes in the opening melody sounded kind of “klacky” and percussive, more like a second guitar overdubbed -- through the Susvaras, I could definitely tell that it’s a piano. As with the guitar, I felt I was in the studio, sitting a few feet from Wakeman’s piano. Same with Bill Bruford’s kick drum. I’ve been in dozens of recording studios, so I know what it feels like to really be there -- and this was it.
“The hi-hat sounds a little crisp,” I noted, but after considering what the hi-hat on my own drum kit sounds like, I added, “or maybe not. Jeez, it’s hard to think of something about this sound that’s not perfect.”
Was this just the predictable reaction of hearing a familiar recording on better headphones than I’m used to? To find out, I plugged in the HE1000 V2s. Great as the HE1000 V2s are, the Susvaras were a good deal better. Much about the two was practically the same: the spatial presentation, the precision of bass notes, the seemingly limitless treble extension. But the HE1000 V2s sounded comparatively bright, making the snare drum sound, again, “klacky,” and lacking in natural body. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big difference, but to me it almost seemed like the difference between hearing an unamplified jazz band and one whose sax player uses a PA system.
Of course, “Long Distance Runaround” was recorded in 1971, on an early multitrack analog tape recorder using multiple overdubs, so even in 24/96 it’s a long way from an audiophile recording. To hear what the Susvaras could do with something better, I played “But Beautiful,” from We’ll Be Together Again (24/96 FLAC, Chesky), a minimalist stereo recording of Three’s Company, a trio comprising saxophonist Javon Jackson, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Drummond. Again, the Susvaras sounded shockingly flat, neutral, and uncolored. Carter’s double bass, which I’ve heard live in clubs small and large, sounded like Carter’s bass sounds, with a perfect mix of fullness, body, definition, and detail. As I’d expect from a Chesky recording, the ambience was huge.
Once again, I went back to the HE1000 V2s, and once again, the difference was obvious. The HE1000 V2s made Jackson’s tenor sax sound breathier and thinner, and overemphasized Drummond’s brushed cymbals. This time, I also threw in Audeze’s LCD-Xes ($1799), a well-regarded open-backed, planar-magnetic design. The LCD-Xes gave me a much different sound. It was punchier, with stronger bass and treble -- more dynamic, more kick-ass, but also more like a typical multimiked, multitracked jazz recording than a Chesky recording.
The Susvaras also beat all comers on a very different version of “But Beautiful,” from singer Valerie Joyce’s Blue Coast Special Event 21 (DSD64, Blue Coast), in which she’s accompanied only by acoustic guitar. All the headphones sounded good with this track, but the Susvaras were the least colored and most natural. The HE1000 V2s sounded much like the Susvaras, but with an added sibilance that was an unwelcome addition to Joyce’s ultra-deep, ultra-smooth voice. The LCD-Xes gave me less of a sense of air and space than either HiFiMan, and more of an uneven response in the upper frequencies of her voice.
Another favorite from my youth, the title track of Metallica’s Master of Puppets (320kbps Ogg Vorbis, Elektra/Spotify), also gave me that singular Susvara sensation: as if I were in the studio with the musicians, their instruments right there next to me, much as if I were the band’s producer listening to them at close range and hearing every little detail, every little flaw, every subtle triumph. It felt like a radically different way of listening. I could hear tiny, previously imperceptible imperfections in the abrupt, practiced starts and stops in this track’s intro, which made the rhythm guitar, bass, and drums seem no less precise but far more human and musical.
Another Chesky recording -- “No Flight Tonight,” from Larry Coryell, Badi Assad, and John Abercrombie’s Three Guitars (16.44.1 WAV, Chesky) -- gave me a different perspective on the Susvaras. There was no question that their tonality made the Susvaras the most natural-sounding of all the headphones; it got the twang of the acoustic guitar strings exactly right, something almost no headphones I’ve heard can do. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily liked them best. On this recording, the LCD-Xes’ more dynamic sound simply made them more fun to listen to; though there was much less sense of air and space, I loved the way the LCD-Xes pumped up Coryell’s percussive, aggressive playing.
I had a similar experience when listening to the primordial groove of “Immigrant Song,” from Led Zeppelin’s III (16/44.1 WAV, Atlantic). Again, the Susvaras got everything right: no instrument sounded unnatural or out of balance, and there were loads of detail with no hint of brightness or fatigue. But the LCD-Xes’ stronger bass made the tune slam a lot harder.
This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t prefer the Susvaras to any other headphone I’ve ever tried. It’s just to point out that you might find music with which you like other headphones better. I guess even a $6000 set of headphones can’t be everything to everyone.
I went into this review expecting that HiFiMan’s Susvaras might be just slightly better than their HE1000 V2s: maybe $500 better, but not $3001 better. I worried the Susvaras might actually be worse, placing unnatural emphasis on a few audio bandwidths to make them sound more spectacular. All of my fears were completely unfounded.
From a technical standpoint, the Susvaras are just substantially more refined HE1000 V2s, with what sounds like a flatter frequency response and a smoother sound overall. But that description doesn’t convey what it was like for me to listen to music through these headphones. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of audio products claim to bring you “closer to the music,” and when I see those claims, I always roll my eyes -- it’s just a meaningless marketing statement, possibly written by someone who’s never even heard the product. But the Susvaras really did bring me closer to my music. Lots of audio products can uncover previously unnoticed details in your favorite recordings, but they usually do it by emphasizing some part of the audioband. The Susvaras gave me new, more intimate insights into my favorite recordings simply because they’re better.
Not many of us can afford to spend $6000 on headphones, let alone thousands more on an amp to drive them -- but I think if you try the Susvaras at a hi-fi or headphone show, you’ll at least understand why some people would.
. . . Brent Butterworth
- Sources -- Apple iPod Touch (sixth generation), Musical Fidelity V90-DAC
- Headphone amplifiers -- Audio-gd NFB-1AMP, Parasound Halo P 5, Musical Fidelity V-CAN
HiFiMan Susvara Headphones
Price: $6000 USD.
Warranty: Three years, replacement (customer pays shipping).
Phone: (201) 443-4626