A Closed Subject
HiFiMan Sundara Closed
Introduced July 2022
Included – this headphone stand
I’m surprised to be the first to do it, having felt that I was somewhat late to the party, but here’s my take on the review sample of the Sundara Closed, which is now on sale in all decent outlets.
HiFiMan have found another way to reinvent the wheel. They have added to their small selection of Closed Back Headphones, of which the HE-R9 is the least ($369) and the HE-R10P ($5500) the most expensive. Why the wild diversity in price? One of the reasons is the driver. The R9 is a dynamic, the R10 P is a Planar. Up until now the R10 P was the only Closed Back HiFiMan could sell you. Of course, this price level is out of range for a normal headfier. But $399, that could just tempt a few to see whether a Planar might overcome their misgivings about full size Closed backs.
About the Sundara Closed
The move by our Chinese friends to do a Closed version of the Sundara is significant. The Sundara is their top seller. It has been out for a while and is still selling well. It has a 2022 version which features the NSD diaphragm, a super thin affair as featured in the Susvara. No mention is made of Stealth Magnets for the new open back version, so please correct me if I have that wrong.
Let’s assume, for the sake of common sense and logic, that the Closed Sundara is a transplant of the heart of the Sundara Open Back. The driver, headband and cabling are the same. But will the sound have the same characteristics of the Open Back?
If they have managed this and if the company can persuade people like yourself to try a closed back, they could be onto a winner.
Let’s look at the differences between the two . The impedance of the Closed Back is 20 Ohms and 98 dB , the Open is 32 and 94. This, theoretically makes the Open much harder to drive than the Closed version. In reality, the Closed Back goes much louder, much quicker than the Open. It is much easier to drive, but doesn’t get particularly loud when driven through a smartphone such as my Samsung A52. No surprises here. The Closed Back version of a popular Open Back will need many practical advantages to overcome any obstacles that may present themselves in a direct shoot out.
The cups have had much work done to them, both to produce a more traditional finish than their HE-R range and to make the cup aesthetically easy on the eye. It has a few ridges to it, but it won’t polarise the buying public in the way those triangular cups did on the R 10Ps, which also attracted their fair share of controversy due to their rather close relationship to a much loved Sony Closed Back.
The packaging is stark to say the least when these came through the post. The one redeeming feature here is that you can use the foam insert for a rather decent looking headphone stand….
Open v Closed
Is a debate prevalent among these hallowed pages. For the purist (and I include myself in this camp) only an open can deliver the airiness and extract the hidden secrets of an exquisite piece of music. There are some exceptional headphones that buck this trend-but who has $5500 spare? In truth, Focal, Sennheiser, Audeze, DCA and the like have made some valiant attempts to get decent sound bouncing off the inside of your cul de sac cans, but today’s high end market is dominated by the open backs.
It wasn’t always that way. Sony’s finest headphone, the MD-R10, was a closed back. It was the World’s first CAD designed headphone and had a highly unusual shape. It has a mythological status. I’ve yet to hear a pair, although I spent 2 months with HiFiMan’s copy. That brief partnership had me torn as to whether I preferred the sound of the R10 P over the Susvara. The Flagship Planar eventually won the War. The battles were unforgettable and the HE-R10P was no slouch when it came to elegance and micro detail retrieval.
Closed – the positives
The audio sampling, as per YouTube vid, done by Roland Binaural In Ear Mics and Olympus Digital PCM Recorder
What is the point of headphones? Surely they have been made for private music listening, have they not? There are so many times when we headfiers feel compelled to enter our own secret World. Whether it be on the bus, the train, the gym, the plane, the studio, the workplace or the home, there are multiple options for you.
And yet, for many of us, the go to, favourite, poshest headphones are the ones that are the most limiting. I’m talking about open back full sized headphones. And why is that? It is because they leak sound. Sure, it isn’t as loud as putting on a set of loudspeakers- nothing like. This means that you can listen to your favourite when all is quiet in your household. How many times does that happen? If its when everyone’s gone to bed, isn’t that what you need to be doing too? Of course, for decent listening one only has to go to a room that’s not being used and no one will hear you, even at high volume levels.
What a closed back allows you to do is to take your music into a room where someone else is there. Revolutionary stuff! You can spend time in someone’s company , your family can do their thing, you can do your thing, in splendid isolation, no longer alone.
I state this as a fact but of course I am exaggerating for the sake of painting an idyllic picture. Some Closed cans leak more than others and some listen to music at levels so high that it can be picked up at close quarters. Ultimately these folks will damage their hearing. Conversely they may be doing it because their hearing is already damaged…
Closed -the negatives
Featuring the ATH W1000Z (foreground) and the Sundara Closed (background)
I have developed an anti closed back prejudice. This is despite having a much better experience with them at CanJams, where the noise is constant and distracting. Some of the most celebrated models have equally loud rivals beside them on the tables and one ends up hearing more from the LCD4 than the LCD5 you’re wearing. Such is life, but a closed back can overcome. IEMs are very popular at headfi events and you can see why….A closed iem is the ultimate in isolation and intimacy and can block out pretty much everything . An IEM will almost always be my go to for travelling, of any type.
So, despite this, why do I hate them so much? Well…hate is not quite the word, but you get the picture. It is because of three things . One- the bass. The low end on a closed back just doesn’t seem quite as realistic as their open counterparts. I often experience bloated bass which leaks into the midst and can become fatiguing or in some other downright annoying after a while.
Two- the highs. I find that many closed backs I have tried in the past are rolled back in the top regions , destroying micro detail that would be plain sailing for an open headphone.
Three-the soundstage. That imaginary musical picture created by your brain that gives a shape to the music you are hearing and the illusion that the band are in front above and to the sides of you. By definition, an open headphone has more space to play with and a closed back has only the space between the cupswith which to toy and confuse you. Of course, the space between the cups includes your brain. Much can be done with that….
Does the Sundara Closed overcome all these obstacles?
Sound Quality – the verdict
Diligent readers will already know the answer to this. The Sundara Closed Backs are almost there in the all important sq category. Bass is slightly slower than my old Open Back Sundara. I’m not going to do a big Sundara Open/Closed comparison because I don’t yet possess the 2022 Open Model. Please take the comments as applicable to the old Sundara. Significantly, the bass never gets annoying, and on some tracks, I’m thinking classical symphonic works in the main the extra warmth can be most welcome thank you.
The bass on the Closed doesn’t bleed into the mid ranges. This makes vocals easy to follow. It gives the main instrument focus and makes us remember why we prefer hifi and not consumer sound signatures.
There is no dullness to the upper midst and highs, micro details can be enjoyed if you are in the mood for a detailed listening session. I confess that sometimes I just want the music to wash over me pleasantly rather than to dive deeply into its depths.
The sound stage is drawn inwards, when I compare it to the Sundara Open. I understand that I am getting into taboo territory here because HiFiMan’s claim of “huge soundstage as offered by open planars” appears to be in dispute. The Closed has a review rating of 4.5 stars. This means that I was impressed with pretty much every aspect of the Sundara Closed, including the sound stage. I agree, the sound stage is large. However the instrumentation and vocal give the impression of being closer to the ear than that of its open partner. I don’t find this a disappointment. The picture is believable, the clarity is good and the personality of the producer can heard in the mix.
Can you have your cake and eat it?
By which i mean can you listen to music in the same room as your faithful companions, without compromise? The answer is yes. You knew that before i said it, didn’t you? This can is $399, it’s a Planar and it doesn’t possess any particular weaknesses, cosmetic appeal of the beechwood(which I personally like) notwithstanding. The bass in a closed back will always be the stumbling block for someone that likes a fast lean linear focus to their signature. I didn’t dislike it and the inhibitions disappeared after a few minutes sat next to the TV. Sat next to the TV, but I couldn’t have been farther away from it in those first few, irreverent moments of the Pastoral Symphony.