Welcome back to Golden Ears, our column dedicated to all things high-end audio. In this series, we take a look at the upper crust of audio products to see what makes them special and worth the high cost of entry. Today, we’re looking at the HIFIMAN Ananda, a $699 open-back planar magnetic headphone designed to scale from smartphones to audiophile amp/DAC setups. The Ananda is incredibly popular among audio enthusiasts and I’m out to find out why.
- Current Price: $699 (Amazon)
- Driver: Planar Magnetic
- Design Principle: Open-back
- Frequency Response: 8Hz - 55kHz
- Sensitivity: 103dB
- Impedance: 25 ohms
- Cable: Detachable, single-ended, 3.5mm and 6.3mm versions included
- Ear Cushions: Hybrid pads, leather exterior, fabric face
- Weight: 399g
- Warranty: 1-year
Overview and First Impressions
Like much of HIFIMAN’s line-up, the HIFIMAN Ananda is an open-back planar magnetic headphone. I’ve gone into detail on the differences between more common dynamic drivers and planars in past articles, so I’ll borrow a bit of explanation from my review of the Drop + HIFIMAN HE-X4:
Rather than use conical dynamic drivers — think: speaker cones — planars use a flat sheet traced with conductive filament. On one or both sides of the sheet are arrays of magnets. These two elements work together to move the sheet and produce sound. Planar magnetic drivers often require more power to sound their best but are popular due to their excellent detail, particularly in the upper register, but are also known for their excellent bass performance (when tuned for it). It all comes down to how the driver is implemented but broadly speaking, a planar driver usually offers a level of crispness, detail, and “feel” than dynamic drivers. Planars tend to be more expensive, however, and often require extra power to sound their best…
The Ananda’s step up this generalized design with their own Neo Supernano Diaphragm (NsD). Even though planars are inherently super thin, HIFIMAN says its design allows the Ananda’s diaphragm to be 80% thinner than previous designs and comes in at only 1-2 microns thick. This allows it to be incredibly fast, detailed, and well-suited to deliver on its wide 8Hz - 55,000Hz frequency response range.
While human hearing is only 20Hz-20,000Hz, typically, it’s relatively common for high-end headphones to push outside of these bounds. The reason is that drivers are most likely to distort at the fringes of their capability: push a driver too far and it will begin to sound nasty. Wider-than-human-hearing frequency responses are not only a mark of quality by virtue of capability, but they also help to ensure that this behavior will only happen outside the realm of human hearing, if at all.
Beginning with unboxing, HIFIMAN gave the Ananda’s the full “premium headphone” treatment. Rather than go for standard cardboard and plastic packaging, these arrive in a large leather storage box. The inside is trimmed in silken fabric like a fancy jewelry box. There’s plenty of foam to keep the headphones safe in transit and a center cut-out for the two single-ended detachable cables that come included. One of these cables ends in a 3.5mm jack with a pre-installed 6.3mm adapter and is short enough to use with a smartphone or desktop setup. The other cable is much longer and ends in a set 6.3mm end. Both cables attach to the headphones with a pair of 3.5mm jacks, one for each earcup. HIFIMAN also throws in a nice glossy product book that describes the unique features of the headphone.
Turning to the physical build, the Anandas use an oval-shaped ear cup design with tall drivers and wide, open backs. This is a similar design to some of the company’s highest-end headphones and definitely plays a role in the overall sound, imaging, and perception of space, though it hampers how portable they might be (though, if you spend $699+, it may be a good idea to leave them home or in one set place). The headphones feature a metal headband and lightweight ear cups that feel like plastic. At this price, that’s rather surprising, but the Anandas are already moderately heavy at 399 grams, so using metal would likely have compromised comfort.
The headphones use a new headband design from HIFIMAN. It uses a flexible metal frame with a leather support band that’s tuned to even distribute the weight. I’ve had headphones that wear more than 100 grams less than the Ananda cause head pain but that never happened here, so the suspension system really is very good to balance cans as big as these.
The ear cushions are also excellent and enhance the comfort. They’re a hybrid pad with leather outer and inner rings and fabric where it touches the skin. This works to enhance the bass while also preventing excess heat build up and sweat, though as an open-back headphone, trapped heat is much less of an issue than with closed-backs. The pads are asymmetrical and become narrower approaching your face to match the contours of your head. The foam is soft and feels great, though — open-back — so don’t go expecting sound isolation. You’ll hear people around you and they’ll hear what you’re listening to.
At the same time, this is one of the big selling points of the Ananda: soundstage and imaging. We’ll get to that a bit more in the listening impressions section.
Fit and Comfort
The Anandas are a big headphone but they’re remarkably comfortable to wear over long periods of time. The headband design is excellent and avoided hotspots on my head, even throughout multiple hour listening sessions and gaming. The grip force is fairly strong and kept the headphones in place well but isn’t strong enough to cause headaches or jaw pain. These are headphones designed to allow you to get lost in your music or game comfort is a huge part of that. HIFIMAN did a good job here. My only wish is that the headphones offered some kind of swivel to lay flat on your chest when you need a break. As it stands, you’ll be bumping them with your chin if you turn your head with them around your neck.
My first impression on listening to the Ananda for the first time is “wow.” I can see why so many people consider this an endgame headphone. They have a sound big enough to match their big design and that’s a great thing for your sense of space and imaging when listening to music and games. The other thing that struck me is just how tight and high resolution the bass is. There are times when it feels like there’s a subwoofer playing under the track. These are, without exaggeration, on of the best headphones I’ve heard for detail, tone, and dynamic range.
Having loved the HIFIMAN Sundaras, I expected to experience a big soundstage. What I didn’t expect was how tall it would sound. There is a sense of verticality to listening I haven’t experienced in a headphone before. If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably related to how tall the headphones are, but it literally sounds as if there is elevation to the sound surrounding you.
As you might imagine, this makes the Ananda’s an outstanding choice for gaming, too. Now, I wouldn’t recommend anyone run out to buy a $699 headphone just to play video games but I can see now why so many audiophiles have raved about these cans. They’re a multi-faceted threat for different kinds of content and are great for slipping away into whatever you’re listening to.
But let’s dig in just a little bit more, shall we? The level of detail these headphones deliver is simply excellent. I’ve described other high quality headphones as seeming to pull what you’re listening to apart, giving every audio source space to breathe. That is absolutely the case here. The level of fine detail you can hear is outstanding, particularly in synths and electronic instruments. You can hear fine detail in trails as notes reverberate through what you’re listening to for longer than a standard headphone, and since the dynamic range is so good, details that might otherwise be lost due to being too fine or too quiet come through here. It’s as if you’ve jumped from standard definition to full HD.
I also have to remark on the bass. It is simply some of the tightest and most responsive I’ve heard. It extends low. Where lesser headphones might peter out — where you’re getting into bass you can feel as much as hear — the Ananda’s don’t miss a beat. Songs and games have a presence and impact you wouldn’t normally perceive.
It’s also important to note that the dramatic sound quality improvement isn’t just limited to lossless high-res tracks you need to scour the internet to find. This is a jump you’ll hear even streaming music from YouTube. It really is that good.
The only other thing I would note is that though you can play these using a smartphone, I would recommend amping them. They scale very well with added power and really sound their best with proper amping behind them. It’s not explicitly necessary, especially if you have a reasonable source to behind with (like a good audio interface or GoXLR connected to your PC), but it stands to reason that if you’re looking at such a pricey headphone, you would want to drive them appropriately.
The HIFIMAN Anandas are a headphone I had heard nothing but good things about ahead of this review and now I see why. It’s hard to imagine headphones getting much better from here, which I know sounds a bit gushing. But, even compared against HIFIMAN’s R10D I reviewed back in April, I would choose the Ananda’s every time. This is just an outstanding headphone worthy of the Golden Ears title.