This is not for the faint of heart, or wallet. If you think headphones have reached overwhelmingly high prices spare your time and don’t read this review. You have been warned.
Walking down the Munich High End corridors
Bumped upon Riccardo Yeh, talented musician, opera lover and HiFiMan’s international sales director. Come in he said, we have both Susvara and Shangri La playing side by side. I was sold.
Fast-forward a couple of months
Early summer, I couldn’t get those lush tunes out of my head. Went on and contacted Riccardo, a few weeks later a pair of Susvara was in my place along with an HE-6 adapter. I’ll get back to the adapter later on, for now let me wax poetic on the “package”. If you want to play with the big boys you must throw in something more than just a good pair of headphones. I’ll obviously get back on that too, but for now check out the Susvara case, dressed in velvet, with a tiny hidden compartment for cables, a luxurious book that makes other instructions manuals cry like small babies, check the cables in silver and copper with both balanced and 3.5mm jack, you know just to be sure you have everything you need.
Took the Susvara on my summer house, along with the Chord Mojo. My initial enthusiasm was quickly re-dimensioned,there was no doubt tonality was spot on but the rest was missing. No top extension, no bottom extension, anemic sound and no cure in sight. The Mojo, despite being a personal favorite, was unable to tame the very low efficiency HiFiMan headphones. I was on the ropes.
Initial dissapointment left aside, I knew who to call. Enter the Metaxas and Sins magnificent and quite powerful, full A class, Memento Mori headphone amp. Voltage swing of 15, translates into something like 3.75Watts @60 Ohms. I started seeing the light, took a deep breath and let the Susvaras sink in, for days and days and then some more. Every now and then I was giving them a quick listen, just to witness the evolution, the blending of the frequencies.
Not sure if you some times get this feeling of needing more. I do. And there is no replacement for displacement. Brought in the Schiit Mjolnir, a small beast of an amp with only a slight drawback, a tad fo harshness on the upper registries. I used it for days and days and on the occasional listen I could easily grasp that small harshness, which was a good thing on my book. I had this initial impression that the Susvara was rather gentle with less than perfect recordings and I couldn’t stand the idea of a reference headphone that embellishes the source material. After more than 6 weeks of trial and error I was in the error area, still. The specs were ruthless, HFM declares the lowest sensitivity I have seen in recent years, 83dB/1mW which makes my notoriously hard to drive Abyss 1266 seem like iPhone friendly cans, and trust me, they are far from that.
I wasn’t running out of ideas, not yet. I had this hidden audiophile secret called Air Tight Acoustic Masterpiece 201H integrated amplifier waiting for me. An eight el84 tube, push pull, Japan made little monster with a headphone section that draws straight from the output circuit without use of transformers. All this translates into a ton of power, and I am guessing hear as Air Tight won’t divulge much of nothing, a low-ish output impedance. Thing is, this was the best combo I had laid ears onto since ages, headphones wise that is. It was even better than the ASR Emitter driving the Susvara through the speaker output, connected with the HE adapter box. This little circuit was first introduced for the now legendary HE-6, a beast in terms of power demands with many headfiers ending up using power amps to properly drive it. Besides offering a painful sight to my wife, watching me use 85Kgr of amplification to push a pair of cans, the sound was not as full or harmonically balanced as with the Air Tight integrated. Since the cost is minimum the HE adapter could be a good if not excellent solution for those who don’t care about size and crave for the ultimate in driving a nice Krell KSA or a Pass Aleph wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.
Not sure I have the words to describe the exquisite sound of the Susvara. Lush, in a good way. Rich, full-bodied, mature sound. You know how cheapo, dynamic headphones tend to sound? Squeaky and thin? Nothing like that. Susvaras have a “suave” mid range, you must hear how Luz Casal and Cecile Verny sound like through them. Smooth and sensual, not a hint of added sibilance, no sign of glare, no metallic finish, nothing. One night I ended up listening to the entire Pecheurs de Perles by Bizet, and despite the Pretre recording made for the French EMI is nothing special there was magic in the Je crois entendre encore.
What was even more intriguing was that mid octaves were not sitting in front of the rest of the audio band. I hate mid-rangy products, they only play well with voices, female voices mostly and there is much more than that in music. You get to understand more once you widen the recordings, from those voices to small scale orchestras, maybe with more accentuated percussions where the Susvara managed to keep the energy alive. I could hear snare drums and cymbals projected on top of the orchestras, flying above strings and voices, vividly.
And the coda, not just from piano notes but also from cellos and even violins, it was long, it was right. Highly damped transducers tend to sound clean but un-involving, the Susvara have a way of reverberating in time that was just natural. There, I’ve said it. Natural decay, the one you would expect from a live instrument, not so much from a recorded one. The problem is not on the recordings but on the transducers part, few can make pianos sound like pianos. If all goes well a bosendorfer sounds like a crappy $800 standing piano, the Susvara made Richter’s Bosendorfer sound like a Bosendorfer.
Oh well, if I must. Over the last couple of years my go to headphones have been the Abyss AB-1266 (not the Phi version, the original one is closer to my taste so I’m keeping it as it is) and the Sennheiser HD800 (moded, close to the 800S sound wise, still tops my preferences for dynamic cans, sorry Focal, the Utopia is almost there but not 100% there).
The Abyss easily packs the most impressive bass slam, it goes deeper than the Susvara and way deeper than the Senn. A good thing? It comes down to personal taste and I do like the abyssal bottom of the 1266, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Decca with Zubin Mehta is an absolute reference) must be heard to be believed. Heck, my 12″ ATC speakers are the only thing that comes close to that bass, the Susvara on the other hand have more than sufficient bass, one that I could call more realistic than the Abyss, those cans are almost unnatural at times.
Soundstage has always been the strong point of the Senn 800s and the Abyss comes oh so close. The Susvara is wide, maybe a bit less than the 800, and deep, immersive with positioning pretty much on par with the 1266.
Where the Susvara trully shine compared to the other two reference cans is coherence. They pack the most convincing top to bottom extension, with exemplary uniformity throughout the range. Now this is the trickiest part. Most headphones are single driver designs but they still sound like made from various drivers, a woofer paired to a tweeter, with several octaves being out of phase. You might get a V shaped pattern or the mids in front and the bass recessed back, the Susvaras have the best woven musical fabric out there. Not sure how much of all this has to do with the ultra thin membrane or the sophisticated magnets but do I care? Not really, after all we pay the technology but we buy the sound.
And they are comfortable. Like really, very comfortable. I love the Abyss 1266, they have shear detail that few transducers can match, let alone headphones, but after an hour or so my neck begs for ice-packs. I had the Susvara fitted on my head for entire Star War films, they fit my head like nothing. Literally, like having nothing on it. No sweat, no pain, pure bliss.
For the saddest part, the price is steep. Depending on the points of view because $6.K might seem like a lot for headphones. I don’t agree, we have interconnects that go for more than 10K and MC cartridges that easily top that. Why the absolute state of the art in headphones shouldn’t cost as much. Oh yes, because not many can afford it. But that’s not a valid argument, I can’t afford a Pagani Zonda but this doesnt make me hate those few who can. Envy them? Maybe.
Another point that needs to be addressed is the paraphernalia issue. You don’t buy the Susvara and play them with a Chord Mojo. They will play and actually make nice music too but for them to properly sing you need gear with cojones the size of coconuts. Quality amplification is one thing, quality combined with quantity is another and don’t even think of playing the Sus with a single flimsy A class watt, no matter how good it is, it wont cut it. The Metaxas Memento Mori was fantastic but did not pushed them to the limit, the Air Tight was much more like it and the Viva Egoista 845 would have been great. Think Woo Audio, think Cavalli, don’t come with a knife on a bazooka fight. Trafomatic Audio has a new over the top headphone amplifier, the Primavera and I’m guessing this would be an out of this world good combo.
Same goes for sources, I tried several mid-level DACs including the Questyle 800i and the Brooklyn DAC+ but it was my Rockna Wavedream that showed their full potential. Even better, my ZYX 4D Ultimate with Kuzma 4point and ASR basis exclusive phono stage gave me the goosebumps. Cables are also an issue, the ones that come with the Susvara are fine and all, they will get you started for sure and for some they will be more than adequate. Still, if you care to see those fantastic planar magnetic membranes reach their true potential go for something even more sophisticated. I had a pair of Signal Projects custom made headphone cables commissioned for the occasion (a prototype, not yet on the company’s catalogue) and it helped me
spend an extra couple of thousand $$$ retrieve that last bit of detail while adding speed on the whole.
So, yes, this is what HiFiMan can do, a full blown assault on the state of the art in headphones. Remember, you pay for the technology but what you buy is the sound, and what a sound this is. Susvara!