You never forget your first. We’ve owned and reviewed a lot of headphones over the years — some good, some bad, some expensive, some cheap — but there are very few to which we have an emotional connection. The Hifiman HE500, an open-back planar magnetic headphone originally released in 2011 for $899, was our first true audiophile headphone. It is a large, heavy headphone, its headband is not comfortable, its cable connectors are annoying to use, and it requires a ton of power to drive properly. It’s perhaps the least convenient headphone we own, but we’ll never sell it — the HE500 is the headphone that introduced us (and our friends & family) to true hi-fi headphone sound. Today we’re trying out a headphone that seems to be, in some ways, a spiritual successor to the HE500 in a more advanced, more versatile package — the Hifiman Ananda.
To appreciate where Hifiman is with the Ananda, we have to look back to where the company has been. Hifiman has come a long way since the HE500, but it hasn’t been an easy road. If you’ve been active in the headphone enthusiast community, you probably know what we mean: The entry-level HE400i saw great success among those new to the hobby, but was plagued by QC issues in its headband assembly. Hiifman pushed the envelope of planar magnetic driver design with its high-end HE1000, but was criticized for using materials not befitting of a $3,000 headphone. When Hifiman released their $50,000 Shangri-La electrostatic headphone, many complained about the company’s offering of headphones priced unreasonably far out of their reach. Those caught up in the drama may have missed what’s really important here — that with each iteration, Hifiman was moving planar magnetic headphone technology forward, producing one excellent-sounding headphone after another. With the Ananda, we seem to be seeing not only a trickle-down of the features from their more expensive headphones, but also a further refinement of Hifiman’s recent design language.
The Hifiman Ananda is a full-size open-back planar magnetic headphone; we’ve seen plenty of those, but the Ananda is “full-size” in a very uncommon way. The Ananda’s driver housings are huge and shaped like an inverted teardrop, following the shape of the ear. Its pads have very large openings, and are just deep and soft enough to make for a headphone that is truly circumaural — our ears usually fill headphone pads, but they were swimming in the Ananda. The Ananda’s drivers are equally large, running almost the full length of the housing — the effect of this, it seems, is to coat the ear in sound in a way that’s probably closer to the way we hear in real life than that of smaller headphone drivers. The Ananda’s headband is miles ahead of the old HE500 — where the original Hifiman headphones used a relatively narrow, stiff headband that caused hotspots during prolonged use, the Ananda uses a leather suspension strap, separate from a metal band that arcs over the head to provide clamping force. The entire headphone weighs only 399 grams; that’s 100 grams less than the HE500, and the weight is better distributed by the wide headband. The only detractor from the Ananda’s comfort is that its cups rotate on one axis only — they pitch, but do not swivel. This might be an issue for some users, but we found that between its large driver housings, plush pads, and improved headband system, the Ananda is extremely comfortable. Its materials are also an upgrade from prior Hifiman models, with less plastic than the HE500, metal with higher-quality finishes, and a hidden headband sizing mechanism that, at least for the length of our testing period, felt secure. One caveat, however: the Ananda might not be ideal for small heads; we needed the Ananda headband to be in the smallest position.
Two cables are included with the Ananda: one short cable terminated in a right-angle 3.5mm cable (1/4-inch adapter included), and one long cable terminated in a 1/4-inch jack. The cables are otherwise identical, with wires sleeved in rubbery tangle-proof tubing. Though these cables don’t feel particularly high-end enough for a $1000 headphone, they look cool and do their job. We think there’s a bit of a missed opportunity here; rather than include two nearly identical cables, at this price point we would have liked the inclusion of a balanced cable. The good news, however, is that the cables connect to the Ananda with flush-mount 3.5mm jacks which, unlike many of the Ananda’s competitors, should make it easy to experiment with aftermarket cables. The Ananda comes in an exquisite box covered in faux leather and lined with silk — clearly more about display than storage.
The most important aspect of this headphone, of course, is its drivers. The Ananda features “Supernano” diaphragms, which, according to Hifiman, measure between one and two microns thick. Planar magnetic headphones are notorious for being power hungry — our old HE500 sounded downright boring without a ton of power, and Hifiman’s original flagship HE-6 is famous for being best powered by speaker amplifiers. The Ananda, however, shows just how much technology can improve over time. Hifiman claims that, with an impedance of just 25 ohms and sensitivity of 103 dB, the Ananda can be powered adequately by mobile devices. In our testing, however, we found that Ananda still needs some power to achieve its full potential. The Fiio μBTR (max power 10 mW into 32 ohms) could just barely power the Ananda at full volume. Slightly more powerful devices like the iPhone X (Lightning adapter), Fiio M7, and current-generation MacBook performed better, but were still close to the top of their volume range. Portable amplifiers like the Fiio Q5 and RHA Dacamp L1 performed better with the Ananda, with much more room in the volume range and authority in its low-end. It’s no surprise, however, that like most planar magnetic headphones the Ananda scales well with power, with its sound improving further when connected to full-size desktop amplifiers. Though the Ananda might not be as easy to drive as the earbuds bundled with your phone, it’s still sensitive enough to use with a wider range of devices than any other planar that we’ve used — more options for the user is always a good thing.
Hifiman’s Ananda is an excellent sounding headphone. We heard a mostly neutral frequency response; its midrange (male vocals) sounds natural, and its highs on the relaxed side of neutral, with just the right amount of sharpness to convey detail without causing fatigue. Whether this sound will appeal to you, of course, depends on your personal tastes — compared to the Focal Elear, for example (also $999 at launch), Ananda has significantly more bite to its upper midrange. What really struck us about the Ananda, however, was its bass response. Not that it’s boosted, but rather that it’s even down to the lowest notes in our test tracks and extremely punchy and palpable in its presentation. The Ananda is an extremely open headphone, with nothing but a simple “window shade” grille and some mesh between the planar drivers and the outside air. This is obviously the case with any open headphone — no isolation can be expected — but for a planar sensitive enough to be used with mobile devices, consider that you’ll have to choose your listening environment carefully. The upside to this, of course, is that the Ananda has an extremely open sound, with a great sense of space and holographic imaging. Compared to the HE500, well, we wish we hadn’t done that comparison — the Ananda sounds less veiled and more engaging than our old HE500.
Are we Hifiman fanboys? Maybe a little, but still we were very impressed by the Ananda. Compared to our prior experience with Hifiman headphones, the Ananda presents as a far more mature offering. Though this headphone isn’t quite efficient enough to forget about amplifiers entirely, it is certainly far more flexible with sources than its predecessors and the closest thing to a “planar for iPhones” that we’ve yet seen (barring the Audeze iSine and Sine, which had inline amplifiers). If you’ve been considering an audiophile headphone in the $500-700 range, or have been eyeing Hifiman’s HE1000V2 or HEXV2 lately, we highly recommend giving the Ananda a try.
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