Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Review unit provided on loan for evaluation by headphones.com
I had the opportunity to evaluate the HiFiMAN Ananda and Arya last year, but there are two reasons why I'm revisiting the HiFiMAN lineup in 2020. The first is that some of them have seen price drops along the way, namely the Sundara is now priced consistently at $350 and the Ananda's current sale price of $700 puts it in a much more aggressive price bracket than its previous pricing did at around $1000. At the moment it's unclear if this is just a sale price or if it's going to stay discounted for a long time. I've had the opportunity to review numerous other headphones in the meantime as well, so it's important to consider where the Ananda fits now - especially at the lower price tag - for anyone looking to potentially make a purchase. To me, there's now an important question for prospective audiophiles looking to get into a HiFiMAN planar magnetic headphone: Is the Ananda worth the price increase over the entry to mid-level Sundara?
The second and perhaps more important reason to re-evaluate the HiFiMAN lineup is that some minor changes to the Sundara's pads (which likely happened some time last year as well) yielded an improved frequency response. This has had me wondering if similar changes made it to other headphones in the lineup. During an interview with HiFiMAN CEO Dr. Fang Bian at the recent CanJam NYC 2020, he explained to me that while there are no official revisions for any of them, there may have been some efforts made to improve reliability and aesthetics - small tweaks to the dust cover look, and removal of paint on magnets and so forth. He assured me that none of this should impact the sound, but I wouldn't be a very good reviewer if I didn't investigate for myself as well.
- Headphone type: Over-ear, open-back
- Driver: Planar magnetic
- Sensitivity: 103 dB
- Impedance: 25 Ohms
- Cable Length: 1.5 m
- Weight: 399 g
- Price: $700
Build, Design & Comfort
The Ananda (and other similar HiFiMAN headphones) has a very recognizable design style and aesthetic, opting for HiFiMAN's egg-shaped cups, rather than the circular ones found in the Sundara. This is similar to their higher end headphones pioneered by the HE-1000 and Edition X from several years back, and is markedly different from the more traditional designs found in the HE-500 and HE-400 series that put HiFiMAN on the map.
For anyone wondering about how the design trajectory works for the various different headphones in HiFiMAN's lineup, this tree illustrates where some of the influences stem from:
The Ananda feels fairly sturdy for most of it. I'm not a huge fan of the plastic arm extension pieces on the sides of the headband, but they do the job and keep the weight down. Thankfully the Ananda comes in just under 400g, so it's one of the lighter planar magnetic headphones out there. That's often the trade off we have to endure in order to get the excellent performance planars often come with, but HiFiMAN seem to have solved the weight issues reasonably well.
My biggest complaint for comfort is that there's no swivel to the cups. This is mitigated by the fact that the Ananda is generally quite comfortable in its default position. However, I was hoping HiFiMAN had been able to update this headband design to include the small notches found on the Ananda-BT (the newer wireless version), which does allow for a small amount of swivel. Nonetheless, it's very easy to get it to fit right and be comfortable, and I think most people will find the Ananda easy to wear for long listening sessions. I was able to wear it over the course of a full work day - nearly 8 hours - without any issues.
As mentioned, the Ananda is a planar magnetic headphone, so many of the hallmarks of planar magnetic headphones show up in its technical performance. For the Ananda, HiFiMAN have implemented what they call their 'supernano' diaphragm, meaning it's one of the thinnest materials being used. My guess is that this allows the headphone to be both lighter (without the need for heavier magnets), and also more efficient with a lower power requirement.
The HiFiMAN Ananda has exceptional detail retrieval. When considering detail retrieval, I like to borrow the 'image clarity' analogy expressed by a friend of mine. If you're looking through a window at a scene, how clear is the window? Even in a semi-opaque or translucent window, the images are identifiable, so it's not that all the various pieces of the music don't come through on lesser headphones, it's just that all the details about the musical elements are that much more clear and well-defined on a headphone like the Ananda. In other words, the more clear that image, the better detail retrieval the headphone has. This also redounds to improved representation of textural nuances and image structure in the music.
At $700 the Ananda is one of the best at doing this. It's a very transparent window - not quite on the level of far more expensive flagships like the higher end Arya, or the HEDD audio HEDDphone - but still better than most if not all of the competition under $1000.
Speed & Dynamics
This is an interesting category, because while the Ananda does well for speed, immediacy, and 'tightness' (it has that somewhat plucked quality for all the tones that come across that I typically associate with planar magnetic headphones), the Ananda's punch and slam quality is a bit lacking for most of its frequency response. I say most of its frequency response because whenever I listen to music that tokens sub-bass frequencies, the punch comes back a bit. This is something that I also found with other HiFiMAN headphones that use this same 'egg-shape' design, and it makes me think this is just the nature of that parameter.
This means that the Ananda has a somewhat softer presentation overall, lacking some of the visceral impact that some highly excursive dynamic driver headphones like the Focal Elear or Elex offer. I think the argument could be made, however, that this softer presentation is more of a refinement, and that for certain types of music it's actually more desirable. But for me I do miss a bit of that slam quality for music that doesn't token the sub-bass frequencies as much.
Soundstage & Imaging
The Ananda gains some ground back when it comes to soundstage and imaging. Not only is the stage large and spacious, the Ananda presents everything very evenly in front of me - something I don't normally associate with planar magnetic headphones. So while lateral definition is good, it's not as much of an "all around you" kind of experience like some headphones have but instead more like being at a concert with the music in front of you. The center image is also well defined as a result of this. I often have concerns about planar magnetic headphones losing a bit of the center image where it collapses towards you, or when sounds pan from left to right, the switch over is so immediate that there almost is no center image, but with the Ananda that's thankfully not the case.
Moreover, the Ananda also has excellent instrument separation and distinction - once again, very 'planar-like' in this regard. It's very easy to isolate and focus on individual instrument lines or specific parts of harmonies coming through. On many other headphones, even more expensive ones, these can tend to blend together.
The Ananda doesn't have the kind of dry planar bass that I sometimes worry about showing up, and it's also not particularly artificial or metallic sounding either. But at the same time it's not as natural sounding as some dynamic driver headphones. It's a minor trade off, but it once again underscores the importance of that question of "natural and realistic dynamic driver headphones vs detailed and 'plucked' planar magnetic headphones" that prospective listeners will need to answer for themselves.
Frequency Response & Tonality
These measurements were taken with the MiniDSP EARS rig, using both the HEQ and HPN compensations. This measurement system is not industry standard and should not be compared with other measurements that are. Note that there is a coupler artifact at 4.5khz that shows up on just about every headphone.
The following shows how this headphone measures relative to the HPN compensation, which is closer to a traditional diffuse field target and doesn't take the Harman bass elevation into consideration.
Ananda = Orange; Sundara = Green
The following shows how this headphone measures relative to the HEQ compensation, which is based on the Harman target and does add a bass shelf. Headphones that show flat bass extension on this compensation will have more bass than headphones that show flat bass extension on the HPN compensation.
The Ananda has possibly my favorite frequency response so far, and it's also remarkably similar to that of the Sundara pictured in green. The Ananda is a little bit more elevated in the bass, but mostly just in the sub-bass. This means that the bass shelf stops at the appropriate place, coming back down before 200hz. This is one of the reasons why it looks so linear on the HEQ compensation, which assumes this kind of bass elevation is normal. Personally, I really like the way it's done on the Ananda.
The mids for both headphones are quite linear, however around 1.5khz the Ananda drops down a bit, while the Sundara doesn't, and then around 3khz the Ananda has a bit more energy compared to the Sundara. This means that for certain resonant tones from instruments like pianos or acoustic guitars you get an extra sense of clarity on the Ananda, which I really enjoy. But it's such a minor difference that this will likely end up being a matter of preference more than anything else. Anyone who prefers modern genres like pop or EDM may prefer the slightly more relaxed upper mids of the Sundara.
The other notable difference here is that the Ananda has more treble energy throughout the primary treble region. This looks like it could be fatiguing, but really it doesn't sound like that at all. The Ananda has such good detail retrieval that it's quite smooth sounding in that range, which I think on lesser headphones could cause issues with sibilant sounds coming across a bit too aggressively. The Ananda does this region so well in fact that I think this graph is a bit misleading, because when you compare the Ananda to the Sundara, it almost sounds smoother on the Ananda for the 'S', 'F', and 'T' sounds, despite the Sundara measuring like it has less energy in that region. That's also not to say the Sundara does it poorly either, they're both close to perfect for that range.
So while both the Ananda and the Sundara have a somewhat 'neutral' tonality, the Ananda is the perfect blend of neutral and fun with slight bass and treble emphasis. I think the Ananda may even have my preferred sound signature overall, even more so than many headphones that cost thousands more. Therefore it gets top marks from me in that department. I think the only thing I could ask for would be a touch more air up top around 12khz, but that's just nitpicking. I don't EQ the Ananda at all.
The question of "is it worth it over the Sundara" in my mind comes down to whether or not you already own the Sundara. If you do, then I think the answer is probably not. The Sundara has a similarly excellent frequency response, has slightly better punch and slam, and is very competitive at half the price of the Ananda. If you don't already own a Sundara, however, then the notion of spending more money for the Ananda means it's worth considering what you gain by doing so. In my opinion, the main advantages of the Ananda are a larger and more refined soundstage, better detail retrieval, and a bit more bass energy (if you like that sort of thing). So maybe if you don't already own a Sundara the Ananda is worth saving up for instead - if the aforementioned advantages are what you're looking for.
The bigger brother, the HiFiMAN Arya, also has a similar frequency response, however I find it's not quite as smooth as the Ananda at around 6khz and 9khz. So for certain types of music, there's a risk that the Arya can occasionally sound a bit more aggressive. However the Arya also has much better depth capabilities, and it's also a noticeable step up for image clarity and separation qualities - appropriate for its higher price tag. So in my mind, if you don't want to EQ anything and you listen to a wide variety of music, the Ananda may actually be the sweet spot. Otherwise, the Arya is definitely the more capable headphone of the two, and in my mind it is worth the upgrade, especially if you're comfortable making small adjustments.
I went into this review wondering if there were any secret revisions or differences between this unit and the one that I had previously evaluated, and I can report that nothing jumped out at me to indicate noticeable changes. It looks like if anything was improved, it was merely cosmetic, and this didn't impact the frequency response or the way it fits. And so just like my previous evaluation, it's my pleasure to thoroughly recommend the HiFiMAN Ananda. It was great at $1000 and it's just as good on sale now at $700. In my mind, the Ananda is so good that I consider it a bit of a benchmark headphone at this sale price - if indeed it stays there.
Weighted Score: 8.6/10
Weighting prioritizes detail, frequency response, comfort and image distinction
-By Andrew Park (@resolve)
Check out the video review as well: