HiFiMAN Arya Review - A Planar HD800s?

Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)

Headphones provided for evaluation by HiFiMAN

Introduction

When I first heard the HiFiMAN Arya last year I was immediately impressed with its technical performance - most notably its impressive sense of spaciousness and depth. While I found its frequency response reasonably agreeable for the most part, I did have a few minor issues that I ended up wanting to EQ out. In particular, I found that it had a bit too much energy at 6khz, and it was a bit sharp for consonant sounds like ‘S’, ‘F’, and ‘T’, around 8.5khz. I think for some, this imparted an extra sense of energy and clarity for certain recordings, but for me this was right on the edge of being a bit too hot.

Now, in 2020, I’m told of a few changes that happened to the Arya, namely that the mesh from the pads was instead put onto the headphone side, and this means that a new pad style had to be used with different clips as well. But when speaking with Dr. Fang Bian earlier this year he assured me that while the curve may have changed ever so slightly, the general sound should be the same.

Moreover, I’ve since had a chance to evaluate a number of similarly priced headphones like the Audeze LCD-X, Focal Clear, and HEDD Audio HEDDphone, and so I think it’s about time to see if my initial praise of the HiFiMAN Arya stands up in 2020 as well.

Specs

  • Driver Type: Planar magnetic
  • Design: Open-back over ear (has cup swivel)
  • Sensitivity: 91.2dB
  • Impedance: 41Ω
  • Weight: <400g
  • Price: $1599

Sources

Build, Design & Comfort

While not as sturdy feeling as the Audeze LCD-X, the Arya feels reasonably well-built. There’s plastic on the cups, but it doesn’t feel rickety or have any creaking issues (at least not on this unit). It’s also reasonably lightweight for a planar magnetic headphone, coming in at only 400g. 

The suspension strap for the headband is a welcome design choice, and thankfully the Arya has full range swivel and tilt for the cups. The cups themselves are huge, making use of the egg-shaped design that higher end HiFiMAN headphones are known for, and this also means that there’s lots of space inside the pads for your ears. My one complaint here is that due to the large size and elongated shape of the cup, it tends to protrude down onto my jaw when I position the headphone at an optimal place for my ears. Still, I don’t have any problems wearing it for a reasonably long period of time.

Performance

The Arya is a planar magnetic headphone, meaning that the diaphragm’s pistonic motion that creates sound waves is created by the use of a conductive trace along its surface that’s immersed in a magnetic field (as opposed to typical moving coil ‘dynamic driver’ headphones that have a voicecoil behind the diaphragm). You can read more about the difference between planar magnetic and dynamic driver headphones here. But, the important thing to note about the HiFiMAN Arya is that it uses magnets on both sides of the diaphragm. 

This is a more traditional design choice, since many modern planar magnetic headphones use magnets only on one side in order to reduce the weight. HiFiMAN have achieved a comfortable middle ground, however, by making the magnets asymmetrical, meaning that the magnet structure on the inside of the diaphragm (closer to the ear) is smaller than the magnet structure on the outside of the diaphragm.


Detail Retrieval

The Arya’s detail retrieval is appropriate for its price point in my opinion. Overall image clarity is excellent, and partially enhanced by Arya’s impressive image separation and stage characteristics. I had initially thought that the Arya was better than the LCD-X for detail retrieval but after comparing side by side with an EQ’d LCD-X, I think they’re actually much closer than I had initially thought. But with that said, the Arya’s layering, depth, and image separation capabilities make it stand out a bit in this regard, along with a tonality that’s more optimal for image clarity and detail presentation.

So overall it has excellent detail retrieval, however this quality may be enhanced on the Arya due to other factors like its expansive soundstage and layering capabilities as well.

Speed

Speed is a difficult category to isolate on its own because it relates to so many aspects of the experience, but in general I tend to think of it as the sense of immediacy, tightness and control a headphone gives. And in this respect, the HiFiMAN Arya is one of the best in class. I also get the impression that this quality is made more noticeable due to the Arya’s depth and layering as well, which might seem counterintuitive, but if you imagine the same kind of tightness and control for all aspects of your music, even the elements that would otherwise be buried or obscured within the mix, those elements are more well-defined on the Arya as well. When comparing it to the Ananda for example, the Ananda almost sounds a bit muddied and run together by contrast, even though it’s also an excellent headphone.

Dynamics

The one area where the Arya falters a bit is in the sense of punch and slam, or what some have traditionally called ‘macrodynamics’. While the Arya does do a better job of it than the Ananda, it still lacks the physical impact of both the Audeze LCD-X and the dynamic driver Focal Clear. This may be due to the elongated cup shape that causes the pads to not fully seal around the head - since they protrude down towards the jaw - and in general I don’t find any of HiFiMAN’s ‘egg-shaped’ headphones to have much for punch and slam either.

Soundstage & Imaging

Soundstage and sense of spaciousness is where the Arya really shines. In the past I’ve called the Arya the planar equivalent to the Sennheiser HD800s, and I think that’s still true. So to describe the stage a bit better, you get impressive lateral definition for left and right, along with a huge range for depth forward. I like to describe this as being able to peer farther into the music, and when doing so you’re able to find things in the mix that you either didn’t know were there or were only somewhat discernible.

Moreover, image separation and distinction is also class leading. At around the Arya’s price, I don’t know of another headphone that does a better job of instrument separation and distinction. Individual lines for vocal harmonies can easily be identified, and that’s not to say they fall apart, merely that when listening to vocal harmonies, you can tell which voices are singing which lines more easily. Lastly, the Arya also have a very “in front of me” presentation that has excellent image distribution across the front of the stage. There are no significant gaps for front left and front right and pans from left to right are gradual and evenly spaced. I’ve found in the past that this can be a weakness for some planar magnetic headphones, where the crossover from left to right is much more immediate.

Timbre

When considering timbre, I like to think of it as an analogy to the way different instruments playing the same pitch or tone are still able to come across differently, even though much of what we may think of as ‘timbre’ is represented in frequency response and tonality.

Being a planar magnetic headphone, the Arya does have what I liked to call a kind of ‘plucked’ character to the tones that I typically associate with planar magnetic headphones - and so it does sound distinctly like a planar. However, it doesn’t have the dryness that I’ve associated with older HiFiMAN planars in the past, or like what I found with the recent Deva wireless headphone. In my mind, the Arya has a fairly normal timbre, and I think that’s a good thing for a planar, even if it’s not as natural sounding as something from ZMF.

Frequency Response & Tonality

The following is how the HiFiMAn Arya measures on the GRAS 43AG-7 and KB5000 (KEMAR Anthropometric Pinna). What I’m showing here is the raw measurement along with a few target curves. Note that the two Harman targets pictured below are consumer preference curves, meaning that they aren’t devised with the intention of matching the gain factors of the human ear (pinna, concha, ear canal etc.). This could instead be represented with a traditional diffuse field target, but I don’t think anyone actually wants their headphones to sound like that, so I’m omitting that one for now.


Here’s the Arya compared to the Harman over-ear 2018 target. So it has quite a bit less bass than the target asks for, along with a slight midrange dip. The lower treble has a bit more presence, but that’s basically it.

Here’s the Arya compared to the Harman over-ear 2013 target. I tend to find the bass on this one more appropriate, so it doesn’t deviate as strongly there. Upper mids are a bit closer on this one as well.


And here’s the Arya relative to a custom target that I’m calling ‘enthusiast neutral’. Basically this takes the Harman over-ear 2018 target but ignores the bass shelf (and other features below 900hz). The idea behind this was that while all the features of the Harman target above 900hz are still present, they loosely correspond to some ear-related gain factors (leaving aside the treble roll off for now). There may be some gain factors below 900hz from the head and neck as well but it’s likely not necessary to include them for headphones, and so this eliminates the preference-based features in lower frequencies like the 200hz dip and the bass shelf around 120hz. In a way this target is fairly close to the FR of a Focal Utopia. So on this comparison it has the slight midrange dip and it’s got a bit more energy around 5khz.

In general I find the Arya’s frequency response to be almost exactly what I want. There are a few oddities, but for the most part the Arya has a well-balanced and slightly counter-clockwise tilted sound, meaning that it’s a little bit brighter than the 2013 Harman target. I tend to find both Harman targets to roll off a bit strongly in the treble for my taste, and so I wouldn’t exactly call the Arya a bright headphone - certainly not compared to HiFiMAN’s older planar headphones - but it is still brighter than the consumer preference target indicates.

As far as the few oddities, it’s worth pointing out the slight midrange dip around 2khz, a slight elevation around 4khz, and then a bit more treble energy around 12khz. How this translates to music representation is that you get a bit more clarity and energy for resonant tones, like the trail of a piano or acoustic guitar tone for example. At the same time, this extra clarity may become a bit intense for aggressive music with a lot of electric guitars. It’s a trade off I’m perfectly happy with, especially for jazz and acoustic music - the kind of stuff I like to listen to these days.

Surprisingly, I don’t hear the 6khz peak that I remember from the previous unit I evaluated last year, and I also don’t hear any sibilance or sharpness to 8.5khz on this unit like I heard on the last one either. This may be due to the changes to the dust cover that have happened in the meantime, but overall I think this may have yielded positive results. In the past, I would have EQ’d those two areas, but for this unit - if indeed they all sound like this - I don’t think it requires any EQ beyond slight preference tweaks to the bass. I think there’s an argument for potentially EQing up the 2khz dip, but I also don’t think it’s necessary.

Comparisons

HiFiMAN Ananda ($700)

While I love the Ananda’s tonality, I find the Arya has a more spacious presentation with a better representation of depth, layering, and image separation. Detail retrieval is also a bit better on the Arya. I also find the Arya to have a more immediate and snappy kind of sound - giving an extra sense of speed and control. The tonality for both is fairly similar, with the Arya having a bit more energy in the lower treble, and then also a bit more in the ‘air’ region above 12khz. Other technicalities are similar, but I do think the Arya is an important step up for detail, depth, and stage.

Audeze LCD-X ($1200)

The LCD-X compared to the Arya is very close for detail retrieval. I think the main difference has more to do with tonality than anything else. The LCD-X has a more muted and muffled upper midrange, and so you lose a bit of the information throughout that range, whereas that region is a bit elevated on the Arya. This makes it a fairly strong difference, with the Arya easily winning on image clarity and balance. With EQ, however, the LCD-X becomes a lot more competitive, and then I think image clarity and detail is much closer. The Arya still wins on soundstage, image distinction and depth, and I find the LCD-X has a more intimate center image that’s pulled towards me, while the Arya’s is more evenly spread out in front. But the LCD-X wins on punch and slam, so I think it really depends on what you’re looking for. Still, the Arya doesn’t require EQ, and I really think the LCD-X does (or making use of Audeze’s Reveal+).

Focal Clear ($1500)

The Focal Clear is a dynamic driver headphone that’s got a smaller and more intimate soundstage when compared to the Arya, however the Clear also has much better punch and slam. For tonality, the Clear follows the Harman bass shelf a bit more closely, but just like the Arya it’s also a bit brighter than the 2013 target. Overall I find the Arya to be a bit more smooth throughout the consonant range at 8.5khz (for this unit in particular, the previous one I evaluated wasn’t as smooth), but also with a bit more upper midrange and lower treble energy as well. Both headphones have an agreeable tonality overall, with the Clear having better ‘macrodynamics’, and the Arya having a much better sense of spaciousness, layering and separation.

HEDD Audio HEDDphone ($1900)

To my ear, the HEDDphone is a step up in terms of technical performance. For detail retrieval and textural nuance, especially in the treble regions, I find that it edges out the Arya slightly. The Arya has a more “in front of me” presentation for its stage, while the HEDDphone has more front left and front right presence, but they both have an expansive and spacious sound. Overall I think the HEDDphone is worth the price increase over the Arya, however it also comes at the cost of additional weight. The HEDDphone weighs in the ballpark of 700g, while the Arya is less than 400g. So the question in my mind becomes, is the performance gained worth the added weight that’s required, and that’s something each person may have a different answer to.

Conclusion

The HiFiMAN Arya is an excellent sounding headphone that prioritizes clarity, soundstage, layering and depth. Importantly it’s able to do this without compromising on weight or comfort, being easily usable for long periods of time. For anyone looking for a flagship headphone under $2000, the Arya should probably be near the top of that list. 

The Arya’s only notable drawback is that it lacks the kind of punch and slam that other similarly priced headphones can deliver, but I think this is a trade-off that anyone looking for an expansive and layered soundstage would be willing to make. Add to that an agreeable tonality and frequency response, and this is probably the headphone that I would personally choose at this price. $1600 is a lot of money to spend on a pair of headphones, and the flagship market has gone to some staggering amounts in recent years, but in the case of the Arya, this is one where its price appropriately fits its performance. So I have no reservations about thoroughly recommending the HiFiMAN Arya.

 Andrew Park (@Resolve)

Check out the video review here:

 

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