The extreme upper strata of headphones may be just play toys for rock stars, Silicon Valley titans, Wall Street wizards, and sports heroes who eagerly pony up $55K, £30K, AU$75K for the Sennheiser HE-1 headphones plus amplifier system, or Hifiman's equally expensive Shangri La electrostatic headphone & amp system.
Luckily there are some really interesting high-end headphones coming in at more affordable prices, like this new Hifiman planar magnetic headphone, the $999 Ananda, it's £880 in the UK and AU$1,299 in Australia. The styling and tech have trickled down from Hifiman's $6K (£4,166, AU$7,499) Susvara headphone and their $3K (£2,599, AU$4,399) HE1000v2 headphones.
The Ananda sounds like it's not doing anything at all. That's audiophile speak for transparency, as if you're hearing back through time to the recording session. I used a Mytek Brooklyn digital converter and a Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amp for my listening tests.
The headphone looks very similar to Hifiman's Edition X and HE1000 series headphones, but the headband is different. The older model allowed the ear cups to swivel side to side, Ananda's 'cups do not. That said, I found comfort on par with the older designs.
At 14 ounces (399 grams) it's a bit heavier than average for high-end headphones, and impedance is rated at an easy-to-drive 25 ohms. Build quality is certainly commensurate with the price. Two cables are provided, a 1.5-meter one fitted with a 3.5mm plug, and a 3-meter cable with a 6.3mm plug. I like that the ear pads are user-replaceable.
For the first round of comparisons I pitted the Ananda against a set of Sennheiser HD800S headphones ($1,700, £1,400, AU$1,894). I've run hot and cold with the HD800S over the years, but I'm really enjoying them lately. They sound great, and the comfort is the best of any flagship model I've put on my noggin. Really long listening sessions are a breeze with HD800S; there's no fatigue with these 'phones.
Alexandre Desplat's delicious film score for The Shape of Water was loaded with texture and atmosphere over the HD800S, and the soundstage was broad, so it wasn't confined to my head. Switching over to the Ananda the sound was a few shades richer, but the detail was there. The sound was smoother, more delicate and less bright, which is to say more like the way unamplified music sounds in real life. Ananda's comfort was quite good, but no match for the HD800S.
Continuing with Parquet Courts' new Wide Awake album, which has some great tunes — my favorites are Mardi Gras Beads and NYC Observation — the sound mix was grating and harsh on both headphones. Sadly, that's an all-too-common problem nowadays with dynamically crushed rock and pop recordings. Not all of them of course — Wilco's Schmilco album was pretty decent, especially over the Ananda. It revealed more about what was going on with John Stirratt's bass playing, the HD800S' bass was less clear. The HD800S flattened the sound, made it more two-dimensional than the more full-bodied Ananda.
Soul singer supreme Sharon Jones' final album Soul of a Woman rocks with real gusto via the Ananda; her band with its killer horn section had just the right amount of bite. A set of Audeze LCD2 Classic planar magnetic headphones ($799, £899, AU$999) tapped down the music's high spirits. There was a big difference in the two headphones' clarity — the LCD2 Classic couldn't keep up.
Brian Eno's sprawling Music For Installations' electronica sometimes contrasts apparently close sounds with others that are much further away, and Ananda makes that abundantly clear. You feel more of the musicians' original intent over the Ananda, she takes you there!
I next brought out a set of Hifiman HE1000v2 headphones (the $3K ones, remember?). I streamed a high-resolution 192 Hz/24-bit remaster of the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East 1971 album, one of the best-sounding live rock recordings of any era. I say that because it not only captures the music, but also the sound of being there at the concert venue. Ananda rocked harder, it was more alive sounding than the HE1000v2. Meanwhile, the v2 was richer, more solid, and had more guts than the Ananda. Even so, I preferred the Ananda overall because it was more fun to listen to, with higher energy. The Cowboy Junkies' Notes Falling Slow is a gorgeous album, and the Ananda could do no wrong.
Continuing with acoustic jazz, the tables turned. I preferred the HE1000v2 because the instruments sounded more like they do in real life. Frankly, it was no contest with acoustic music, but the HE1000v2 is three times the price of the Ananda! When I returned to rock, I again preferred the Ananda. It's a leaner, livelier-sounding headphone.
To finish up, I plugged the Ananda into my iPhone 6S' headphone jack, where I streamed Tidal FLAC files. I wasn't expecting much, but the sound was very decent. With M. Geddes Gengras' Hawaiki Tapes album of synth driven ambient music the Ananda projected a massive sound that surrounded my head!
So yes, the Hifiman Ananda is something of a "bargain" to the right audiophile. It's a straight-up high-end headphone at a more reasonable price than what was heretofore available under four figures.