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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
Review written by Andrew Park (@resolve)
This unit was sent to me on loan for evaluation by a community member from the HEADPHONE Community Forum.
For some time now, I've been searching for the perfect flagship planar magnetic headphone, and while I've been impressed by the technical performance and capability of many of the flagship planars I've been able to review, there always seems to be a trade-off in one area or another.
The Audeze LCD-4 has top tier detail retrieval and slam, but it's also far too heavy (over 700g) for me to comfortably wear for long periods of time and it also doesn't have the best tonal balance for my taste. The Final D8000 Pro (check out my review here) has a better tonal balance and frequency response for the kind of music I enjoy, but it's also not the most comfortable for longer sessions, and its technical ability - while close - isn't quite on the same level as the LCD-4. The HiFiMAN HE1000se has excellent technical performance, is reasonably comfortable, but also has an unnatural amount of treble presence above 12khz.
I'm no stranger to EQ, and so I do think many of these headphones are remarkable achievements and are worth owning, but so far I haven't found a flagship planar equivalent to something like the dynamic driver Focal Utopia - something that's comfortable, has top-tier detail and exceptional tonal balance all in one. My evaluation of the HiFiMAN Susvara has been an attempt to determine if this is that elusive flagship planar that I've been looking for.
- Driver type - Planar Magnetic
- Design - Over-ear
- Weight - 450g
- Sensitivity - 83dB
- Impedance - 60 Ohm
- Price - $6000
It should be mentioned that the HiFiMAN Susvara is the most difficult to drive headphone I've ever reviewed, however it still didn't take me past ten o'clock on the volume dial once I put the IHA-6 into high gain. For anyone considering this headphone, you should also look into high powered amplifiers (potentially a speaker amp).
Build & Comfort
The Susvara is surprisingly well built. It's surprising because there's a common perception that HiFiMAN headphones don't have the best build quality - and I've had my gripes with this in the past, specifically with the lower-end HE-400i. I suspect that this perception has to do with the sub-par track record of those headphones, which were very popular, and this has led to the assumption that the rest of their products wouldn't fair all that well either. But so far, I actually haven't had any issues with HiFiMAN headphones that I've owned, or anything that I've reviewed. It's unclear to me what the failure rates would be on the Susvara, but from a look and feel perspective, it's excellent - far better than what's found on the lower end models.
The Susvara of course uses a planar magnetic design, and if I'm not mistaken this was the first use of their 'stealth magnet' system. Normally for planar magnetic headphones there are magnets on one or both sides of the diaphragm, and the magnetic array can potentially impede sound waves. But with the Susvara (and now the HE1000se), those magnets have been shaped in such a way (with rounded edges) to minimize their impact on sound waves being produced by the diaphragm.
Thankfully, HiFiMAN have managed to keep the weight down (450g), and while it's still not the lightest headphone out there, the Susvara is remarkably comfortable to wear for long listening sessions. It's also considerably lighter than its competition, with the LCD-4 reaching over 700g and the Abyss AB-1266TC reaching 630g.
For technical performance, I like to isolate a number of categories that are important to me. Because many of these elements are related and don't have individual parameters that contribute exclusively to them, I consider these to be experiential categories more than anything else. In other words, this stuff may show up in frequency response measurements, but it's so far still unclear where to look for it. Moreover, there may also be other parameters that aren't captured strictly by frequency response that do contribute to these categories (like driver distance from the ear contributing to sense of stage and space).
For detail retrieval, the Susvara is quite possibly the best headphone I've ever heard. It's certainly the best of any headphone I've reviewed extensively. Textural nuance, structural definition and clarity for the images is incredible with this headphone - so much so that it makes me discover new things in recordings that I've been listening to and reviewing headphones with for years. I often chase these new experiences, but their frequency becomes increasingly rare the more high performance equipment I end up evaluating. The Susvara is one of those experiences that really makes me go "oh, I had no idea that was there".
Score: 10/10 (first time?)
Speed & Dynamics
With high end planar magnetic headphones, you can expect them to be fast, tight, well controlled - especially for bass frequencies. There's often a trade-off here where you lose out a bit on the excursive quality, or that 'slam' and 'punch' feeling that many dynamic driver headphones give you (Focal and ZMF headphones are some of the best in this regard). The Susvara manages to be both tight, well controlled, and hit with authority - much better than almost every other headphone in the HiFiMAN lineup, apart from the old HE-6 (not the new 'SE' model). So while the Susvara is a highly analytic and critical headphone, it's also fun and lively when it needs to be.
Stage & Imaging
The Susvara's stage is quite large, even if not the largest I've heard. But it's imaging is also incredibly precise. Importantly, its instrument separation, layering and sense of depth is unmatched. When you listen to a recording with busy passages or elements that are overshadowing background tones, you hear everything with the Susvara - meaning you don't ever lose the background information. Instead, it's perfectly placed, just at a different distance from the foreground material. Lateral definition is excellent, but I find the Susvara's stage to be more in front of me rather than the super laterally defined HEDDphone or ZMF Verite. Both are just fine but it's just something to notice.
There's nothing particularly remarkable about the Susvara's timbre - which is usually a good thing. It's a planar, and it sounds like one. There's an interesting argument to be made that high end flagship planar magnetic headphones like this one have technical performance that outshines reality - and that the more natural sounding headphones like the ZMF Verite or Auteur are closer to a realistic presentation. To a certain extent I can understand the claim, but at the same time I don't think I'd want to give up the technical performance of a high end planar for the benefits to 'natural' and 'realistic' if these are indeed mutually exclusive traits.
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 these headphones measure relative to the HPN compensation, which is closer to a traditional diffuse field target and doesn't take the Harman bass elevation into consideration.
The following shows how these headphones measure 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 Susvara has a very agreeable frequency response and tonal balance. The bass extends like a flat line all the way into the sub-bass on the HPN compensation. It's important to recognize that this doesn't follow the Harman bass elevation, but to my ear it's exactly where it should be. For anyone wanting a more Harman-like presentation, it's possible to add a shelf by a few dB with EQ, but it's also not necessary.
The mids have a slight dip near 2khz, but then as it transitions into the treble, there's sufficient energy at 3-5khz to provide clarity for female vocals and piano tones. The dip is a matter of taste more than anything else, but I really like that there's enough presence above the dip to properly represent music with instruments (jazz, classical, etc.).
With the treble, the only potential issue is that there's a bit more energy at 7khz than some may prefer, however it's right on the edge. I don't personally have any issues with it, but this does also run the risk of making consonant sounds on certain recordings sound a bit intense at times. Thankfully though it's not a sharp peak, but rather a more gradual elevation, so it's still on the appropriate side of sibilant - just getting close to that edge. Above the consonant range, there's enough air quality to sound open and resolving. Importantly, it doesn't have too much energy above 12khz like many other flagship planars tend to go for. This means the Susvara remains focused, and retains tonal balance for percussive instruments as well.
To me, this is the first high-end flagship planar magnetic headphone that has a tonality that I can confidently say I wouldn't feel the need to EQ. Some may feel the need to adjust it slightly depending on music preference, and in that case it can handle it. But for me, this is a very agreeable frequency response - and importantly everything sounds balanced and appropriate.
The community member who sent me the Susvara to evaluate also sent along a number of different pads, one of which has some custom perforations made to the sides. I'm told this is based on a common pad mod for other HiFiMAN headphones as well, so I tried them out. In general there wasn't a huge difference between the two pads, however with the modded pads I found there to be a bit more upper midrange presence, near where the stock pads dip down, and then I also found it to be a bit brighter at 7khz as well. So personally I preferred the stock pads, but I can understand why someone would opt for the modded ones. In general, it's nice that pad swapping and modding is doable with the Susvara.
The LCD-4 is right up there for technical performance, however from memory, the Susvara has a more spacious presentation and its tonality is more balanced for the treble. Specifically, the LCD-4's upper midrange and lower treble is withdrawn, and then that dip is made more noticeable by an emphasis above 12khz. The Susvara's treble is quite a bit more focused. The LCD-4 has slightly better 'punch', but detail retrieval comes across better on the Susvara because its tonality does a better job at emphasizing clarity and highlighting the detail. The Susvara is also much lighter (450g vs 700+g) and more comfortable as a result.
The HE1000se also has exceptional technical performance, impressively so for such an easy to drive headphone. It's only real drawback when compared with the Susvara is that the HE1000se has a 5-6khz peak, and similar to the LCD-4, has too much energy above 12khz. This can throw off certain percussive sounds, like the splash and sizzle quality for cymbal hits. It's still a great headphone, because it's also fairly comfortable - it just benefits from a touch of EQ, where the Susvara's tonal balance is more realistic.
The Susvara has noticeably better technical performance, for detail, speed and precision imaging (even though the Verite is quite good for a dynamic driver headphone), however I find that the Verite still has better 'slam'. Even though the Susvara is quite good in this area, there are some dynamic driver headphones with extremely high excursive force to them that allow for an added sense of 'punch' and slam. The Verite is also warmer, depending on the pads that get used, and also somewhat more 'colored' with a 3khz dip that takes the edge off of certain guitar sounds. Once again, the tonality really depends on the pads being used. For space and stage, the Verite has more laterally focused, while the Susvara is more forward focused, however they're both quite spacious.
Final Audio D8000 Pro
Another flagship planar, I find the Suvara to do a bit better as far as detail and speed is concerned, even though the D8K Pro is excellent there. The Susvara also has a larger and more spacious presentation, and does better at instrument separation. Both headphones have an agreeable tonality, and they both have excellent tonal balance. The other important advantage the Susvara has is that it's lighter and more comfortable for longer sessions.
At the beginning of this review I had set out to determine if the HiFiMAN Susvara is indeed that elusive planar flagship that doesn't have any of the trade-offs that I've been confronted with so far, and I can confidently say that it is. Granted, it costs a fortune, but if I had that fortune, this is the headphone that I would buy. It's comfortable with a modest weight, extremely detailed and technically proficient, and has an agreeable frequency response and tonal balance that doesn't throw anything off. At the moment, this is my favorite headphone, period.
Check out the video review:
-By Andrew Park (@resolve)
---Join the discussion about the HiFiMAN Susvara at "The HEADPHONE Community".