When the HIFIMAN Sundara released at the end of 2017, it was considered one of the best value headphones you could buy for $500. It was, for many, the point of diminishing returns: you could spend more, but past the Sundara, what you’ll hear for that money will be less and less. On paper, they looked fantastic: HIFIMAN’s acclaimed planar magnetic drivers, an open-backed design to deliver a spacious sound perfect for music and gaming, and tons of detail across an incredibly wider 6Hz to 75kHz frequency range. At $500, they were out of reach for many but with the recent price cut to $349, they’re more accessible than ever before.
For gamers and music lovers alike, are they worth the investment?
- Current Price: $349 (Amazon)
- Frequency Response: 6Hz - 75kHz
- Impedance: 37 ohms
- Sensitivity: 94db
- Weight: 13.1oz (372g)
- Cable Length: 1.5m
- Headphone Connectors: 3.5mm
HIFIMAN has a knack for presentation. The Sundara’s arrive in a typically showy box, complete with gold lettering on the outside. Inside, the headphones are presented on a satin blanket. It’s like opening a jewelry box. Unlike many other headphones at this price, I was surprised to see that apart from the cable, 1/4-inch adapter, and documentation, there was no travel bag. What you see is what you get.
Like the DEVA (reviewed here), the Sundara features HIFIMAN’s circular earcups. Unlike the DEVA, it features a matte black design with silver accents. Its contours flow gracefully together in a way that makes it look almost seamless.
I love the aesthetic, though the large earcups won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I admit to being skeptical about wearing them out of the house (I usually stick to in-ears when traveling) but they’re surprisingly low profile. They’re slimmer than most over-ears I own and don’t look nearly so bulky. I’m a mid-sized guy, so most normal headphones stand out on me, and I really appreciate the extra trimness.
You wouldn’t tell by looking at it or looking at its weight (372 grams), but it seems surprisingly rugged and made for use in the real world. The headband and yokes are made of a single piece of metal that attaches to the earcups with two metal joints. The band is also adjustable along a notched track on its inside. Just beware, because the paint almost immediately started to scratch along these notches. The grilles on each earcup are also rugged being made of woven metal, a bit like a microphone. It’s quite stiff, which is a good trait to protect the sensitive drivers within.
The Sundaras are some of the most comfortable headphones I’ve worn. The cushions are soft and breathable. They’re trimmed in fabric where they touch your skin for comfort and to prevent sweating but have artificial leather on the sides for sound isolation and to preserve the bass response. They’re also angled to match the contours of your head and support its thin profile. The headband seems to be made of the same leather and does an excellent job of distributing its weight evenly to prevent hotspots. The clamping force is also just enough. You won’t want to bang your head with these on or take them running, but they’re perfectly fine for taking a walk around the neighborhood or gaming at your PC. The only downside is that the earcups don’t swivel, so I had to take them right off when I needed a break instead of resting them around my neck.
Inside the earcups are HIFIMAN’s new planar magnetic drivers. The company has made its name on their driver technology and has spent more than a decade developing it. For the uninitiated, planar magnetic drivers function differently than a traditional dynamic in that it’s a completely flat diaphragm as opposed to the cone you’re probably familiar with from speaker technology. The Sundara uses HIFIMAN’s NEO “supernano” Diaphragm (NsD), which is only 1-2 microns thick (hence the protective grille), and allows the headphone to have an incredibly fast, detailed response.
The NsD also allows it to have a ridiculously wide frequency response range of 6Hz to 75kHz. For context, the range of human hearing is typically considered 20Hz - 20kHz and decreases with age. The Sundara can easily produce well beyond what any of us will ever hear with pristine clarity and no distortion. Even with EQs, three different amps and DACs, and pushing different volumes, I was never able to make the Sundara distort. It’s quite a versatile headphone.
The downside to this design is that it takes a bit of juice to really sound its best. Most smartphones and PCs will be able to drive it to an adequate volume, but I found that it was only when I used a separate headphone amp did it really open up and work its magic. That said, it’s not out of the question that your motherboard audio may be able to provide enough. I still prefer my dedicated Xduoo-05 Plus amplifier, but my Gigabyte X570 AORUS Master did a good job too. My Z390 Taichi and the output from my Shure MV-7 microphone did not, so your results may vary.
A Music and Gaming Microscope
The Sundara is the rare product to really and truly surprise me. I know what good audio sounds like. I’ve been privileged enough to try lots of different headphones, earphones, and gaming headsets. It’s rare that an audio product makes me step back and say “wow,” but that’s exactly what the Sundara did. I see now why reviewers raved about it when it was $500. At $350, I haven’t heard anything that sounds as good.
But it’s not even how the Sundara sounds — as in, how it’s tuned — so much as what it does to what you’re listening to. It’s as if it takes your track and stretches it out. Imagine those scenes in old sci-fi movies, where the futuristic hacker takes their holo-PC and spreads their hands to expand a mass of images in front of them. That is what’s happening here. Imagine Adobe Photoshop, clicking to turn on layers on at a time until you can see exactly every piece that makes up a screen of digital art. That is what’s happening here. Take your computer screen, all of that action in your favorite gamer compressed onto that 24 or 27 inches. Now close your eyes and imagine it was stretched across your entire wall. That is what’s happening here and it is absolutely glorious.
I had to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, so I had my wife listen to a song. She had a different explanation. In her words, everything — every single thing — was incredibly clear. Every individual element in the song is distinct and detailed. I agree with that: this headphone takes your 720p song and makes it 4K.
If it sounds like I’m being effusive, I am. I’ve heard and reviewed headphones that cost substantially more and I’ve never heard explode what I’m listening to in this way. The soundstage is wide, but isn’t the widest I’ve heard. Yet, the layers are distinct in a way that is completely atypical in the $500 and less world in which I live in. Maybe this is what more expensive headphones sound like. Maybe I’m naive. But I can’t imagine a headphone sounding that much better than what the Sundara delivers. It truly is that good.
I spent the better part of this week listening to PVRIS’s new album, Use Me. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. I’ve been jamming to it since it came out last month. But, in a way, it was like hearing it for the first time. The acoustic strumming on Loveless has the kind of real-life clarity and detail that makes you feel like you’re there. The bass isn’t overstated, and some people might even find it too recessed for a premium planar, but I found it to be almost electric. I like bass, but what I want more than anything is to hear every part of my music come together into a beautiful (which, is the meaning of Sundara, by the by) cohesive whole. No part should overwhelm any other and that’s exactly what happens here.
I also have been spending my last days in Call of Duty: Warzone. The soundstage and positionality are excellent. As I mentioned, the soundstage is wide but not the widest you’ll find in an open-back. It’s a bit like you’re in a large bubble. That, combined with the outstanding stretching of the different layers draws out the positioning of enemies and really makes you feel you’re in a 3D space and the sound cues are happening around you. It’s immersive and a perfect fit for competitive or RPG gaming.
The only thing I wish the Sundara had was some kind of microphone. But, waste no time, set up a ModMic or take advantage of the detachable cable with a V-Moda Boom Pro, and have the best of both worlds: audiophile sound and stream-worthy vocal capture.
Are the Sundara’s perfect? No, and no headphone is. What I appreciate here, that reference sound that pulls apart each element, may not be your cup of tea, especially if you’re big into bass. But, for me, the Sundara’s haven’t just impressed me, they’ve become my new favorite headphone, even dethroning my beloved Drop x Beyerdynamic 177X Go while coming in $100 less. This is a headphone that is almost addictively good. It has reinvigorated my love of music, given me an edge in games, and put to shame every example of virtual surround sound incorporated into headsets today. If you've never experienced a high-end planar, this is an option that will leave you surprised at just what a good headphone can do. At $500, it would be impressive. At $350, it's shockingly good.
The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.