The first time I auditioned the Susvaras was at the last Tokyo Fujiya Avic headphone festival. The test system consisted of an EF1000 amp and Weiss DAC of some description. I also briefly tried them with the Hugo 2 in place of the Weiss. First impressions were of insane dynamics. I’d read about people being enamored with the HE-6, the much cheaper predecessor in a similar manner so it gave me some understanding of where they were coming from when I tried this system.
I’d just finished a loaner of the Focal Utopia which had impressed me enough to become my target upgrade to the already excellent HE1000 V2, helped by the great synergy with my ALO Audio Studio Six/Schiit Audio Yggdrasil combination. The Utopias had shown me things about my system that hadn’t been apparent before, such as which interconnects were better and which are not so great. That was going to set a high bar for any new flagship headphones that came my way.
It was only because Helmut Becker had asked me to review the Audiovalve Solaris, which has enough power, that I agreed to review the Susvara, as the very low sensitivity means that they require literally Watts of power to get above moderate volumes, and would push even the limits of the Solaris.
One thing that annoyed me about the timing was that arguments about the price of the Susvara were in full swing on Head-Fi, and a bunch of well-known reviewers popping up with them on hand does show that HiFiman would rather have people talking about their impressions of them. I will say I have made some polite, but very direct comments to Fang about all this, however, I am keen to give them a reasoned review.
Initially I didn’t have a dedicated speaker amp to test them with. After the Master 9 and Solaris arrived and had some hours on them, I don’t feel a speaker amp is absolutely necessary. After the Audio-gd Master 10 speaker amp arrived, I found that I could get slightly more vivid dynamics from them with it, but I don’t feel I had lost anything significant by using a regular headphone amp
Build and Ergonomics
The Susvara ergonomically is almost the same as he HE1000 V2, the difference being the round-shaped drivers. While some people have commented on the use of the same headband system, I think that, while all metal and a bit heavier than that of other headphones, like the HE1000 V2, the balance and comfort is excellent and I found it to be inert as far as the sound goes, not noticing any vibration while listening. It is worth noting that Stax was likewise criticised for using the plastic headband system from their Lambda series on the SR-009 (which had an RRP around $5000 US around the time of release, though now they are $3799).
The main difference between the build quality of the SR-009 and the Susvara is that the latter lacks the absolute attention to detail that comes from Japanese companies like Stax. When even the plastic covering around the box is wrapped perfectly, you know you have a product designed and assembled with great care. The Susvara comes with the same cable as the HE1000 V2. While this may not seem like a big deal, the reason I was told was that customers will just buy an aftermarket cable anyway.
This I consider rather insulting given that this is supposed to be their flagship planar headphone. If that is the case with the cable, they may as well just wrap the headphones in bubble wrap instead of using a box at all, since most people will just stick it in the cupboard.
First impressions were troublesome, as I was getting what sounded like clipping, even with the Solaris and Master 9. It turns out that the Susvara needs some use before the diaphragms settle down. If your amp is powerful enough, this goes away after some hours of listening. Then the fun begins.
Tonally the Susvara is fairly neutral, somewhat similar to the HE1000 V2, but with a lower treble, which I find makes them better with a wider variety of music. The headphones present a cohesive image, as one would expect of high-end headphones.
I found that the tonal balance can change somewhat depending on the position of them on your head. Move them up and they become a bit brighter. Move them down and the treble is tamed a little.
The HE1000 V2 has a lighter and more “delicate” presentation than the Susvara. Where the more expensive headphones want to rock out, the cheaper one is a better match for orchestral, where the airy delicacy is valued. The Susvara is more about the dynamics, bringing out the impact of each note. It manages to do this while presenting a good sense of space, albeit one I feel is wider rather than deeper, compared to the Utopias, which can seem deeper than wider and the HD800s which tend to overdo the sense of space in the music.
The Mark Colby Quartet recording from HD Tape Transfers is a good example of this. Taken straight off a master tape without any editing, each note from the cello and other instruments jumps out, insisting on my attention.
The guitar on Majesty (Live) by Madrugeda is fantastic with what is possibly a bit of bite — it isn’t the least smoothed over as it can be a bit with my MrSpeakers Ether Flow. Likewise, you very much get the specifics of David Bowie’s funky voice during his Ziggy Stardust era on the 2012 remaster of Starman, especially through the Master 9, which refuses to color the sound but doesn’t hesitate to deliver the fine details and is effortless with the dynamics.
While I felt that the stock cable, which is the same for the HE1000 V2, was good enough, the loaner Moon Audio Silver Dragon makes the sound more noticeably spacious on the Susvara than it did on the HE1000 V2. That is something the re-inforced my feeling that the Susvara was a step up from the HE1000 V2 in capability.
The Focal Utopias, on the other hand, put the focus more on the instruments with their upper-mid emphasis. In the other direction, the Meze Empyrean steps back from that focus, and instead gives the music more body.
Listening to Sun Dirt Water by The Waifs, the Utopias want to present the music as an absolute, only providing width the soundstage where it absolutely exists when the guitar, to one side, is plucked, the rest of the instruments precisely placed, but in space further back. The Susvara spreads the singer’s voice out more as if you’re closer to the action and the guitar ends up almost right in your face, making for highly engaging listening if less pin-point. As well, not having the upper-mid emphasis of the Utopia, the Susvara in comparison sounds a bit warmer with the mids more forward when switching back and forth.
The Utopias, with the crazy level of detail they are able to retrieve with the right system, sometimes make me want more deep punch that I can get from the Empyreans. Where the Susvara needs power and speed and tends to be a bit more about the macro, the Utopia needs speed to truly get the ultra-micro detail, and an almost total lack of any non-harmonic distortion in upstream equipment or they will quickly become fatiguing.
In contrast, the Empyrean strikes a balance between warmth and detail. With both the Utopia and Empyrean using the same Norne Silverguard cable, I felt I was getting as much detail out of the Empyrean, yet its warmer presentation, giving the music more body, made it a better match with a wider variety of music than either the Utopia or Susvara, losing out only where the Utopia was better at presenting depth.
Likely the biggest challenger to a Susvara system would be Stax’s SRM-T8000 (or similar amps) and SR-009 system. When I plugged the Hugo 2 into that in Tokyo, I felt it managed to carry through the DAVE-like magic that the Hugo 2 is capable of more than the EF1000 and Susvara. I also felt that the slightly warmer Weiss DAC was a better match with the Susvara, as was the Audio-gd R2R 7 and it’s slightly more harmonically rich, seductive presentation*, especially when paired with the Solaris.
When it came to amps and, for that matter, sources, my impression of them was significantly influenced switching between the options I had available to me.
The Audiovalve Solaris has a presentation that is relaxed and easy to listen with, especially when using the Audio-gd R2R 7 as the source, though on a couple of tracks, the Susvara revealed a bit of bite in the vocals that wasn’t there when I switched to the Audio-gd Master 9. Turning up the volume, the Solaris unfortunately began distorting, for reasons unknown, which was disappointing, as it was a sonically very pleasant match otherwise. It could have been something to do with using it in OTL mode which I had set it to for the highest power output.
The Master 9, on the other hand, has Audio-gd’s typical “get out of the way” presentation and black background that allows a bit more low-level detail to be revealed compared to Solaris and was good for comparing the R2R 7’s inbuilt digital filters with iZotope up-sampling in Audirvana Plus. However, when listening with the Master 9, I sometimes missed the presentation that can make tube amps so special.
Lastly, ALO Audio’s Studio Six, which has the voltage swing, but not the current for high-volume listening, was fine, with great dynamics at lower volume levels, but doesn’t ultimately have the power to be good at louder volumes.
Moving to Chord’s Hugo 2 as a source, the change was immediately apparent, the incredible micro-dynamics of the highly-evolved digital coding quite apparent, if the magical level of feeling I remember experiencing with the Stax SR-009/T8000 system wasn’t quite there.
Most interesting was that the Susvara very much responded to the greater depth provided by the Hugo 2, balancing out the wider-than-deep presentation nicely.
As I write this, the Rolling Stones are playing You Can’t Always Get What You Want and this is a good summary of these headphones. I remember the summary of a top-of-the-line supercar review from back in 1993 (Ferrari F40, Jaguar XJ220 and Bugatti) which talked about how the cars were amazing, but “curiously flawed”. I feel the same way about these headphones. Each gives me a slightly different, though equally amazing experience for listening to music, and each is imperfect in its own way, though more so in comparison than alone.
More so than ever, picking a carefully considered system for them is critical for the best sonic results, but the result can be an incredible degree of listening pleasure. If you have a speaker amp, they make for compelling listening without the need for a dedicated headphone amp, though they can also be great with high-powered headphone amps, their need for power is their biggest limitation.
My overall impression of the Susvaras is that they can give a step up in detail compared to the HE1000 V2, which combined with their almost flawless and highly dynamic presentation can make for an amazing listening experience with the right system. What they don’t deliver in ultra-micro detail that the Utopias and SR-009 do (at least on my system) they more than make up for with dynamics and quite incredible listening excitement. What I really wish is that they were $3000, not $6000, and had been presented a bit better, as then we would be arguing about which headphones are the better buy.
*Note here: The R2R 7 was used with the default firmware.
Audio-gd R2R 7
Schiit Audio Yggdrasil
Holo Spring 2 Kitsune Tuned Edition
Chord Hugo 2
iFi iUSB with custom LPS fed by various computers, feeding the DACs direct or via a Singxer F-1 or WaveIO, supplied by Audirvana Plus or Roon, depending on what I was messing with at the time.
Audio-gd Master 9
Holo Audio Azure
Schiit Audio Lyr 3
Drop THX AAA 789