HiFiMAN Shootout - Ananda vs Arya
Review units provided on loan for evaluation by headphones.com and the community preview program
The new line of higher end HiFiMAN open-back over ear planars has always been a bit daunting for me to get into due to the large size of the cups. While I’m no stranger to large open-back headphones - my current daily driver is the ZMF Vérité - both the Ananda and Arya have cups that are so immense that they reach all the way down to my neck. I’ve previously been critical of overly large headphones, and both of these are squarely in my sights with this criticism. It’s almost as if HiFiMAN decided to borrow the ‘earspeaker’ design from some of the Stax headphones. In any case, both of these headphones look a bit scary, but once you start using them there are good reasons to not care about how huge they are.
When I first started evaluating these, my initial reaction was that while they both sound quite good, the Ananda was the superior headphone. If I had written this review after the first few days of comparing the two, I would be stating exactly that, and actually the Ananda is so good that in my opinion it completely destroys its price bracket. However, after delving deeper into the evaluation I’ve come to realize it’s a lot more complicated than that. They might look similar and have a similar cup design, but they sound different enough that it’s worth diving into the nuances.
- Driver Type: Planar magnetic
- Design: Open-back over ear (no cup swivel)
- Sensitivity: 103 dB
- Impedance: 25 Ω
- Weight: <400g
- Price: $999
- Driver Type: Planar magnetic
- Design: Open-back over ear (has cup swivel)
- Sensitivity: 91.2dB
- Impedance: 41Ω
- Weight: <400g
- Price: $1599
FLAC Library, TIDAL (HiFi and Master) - iFi iDSD Micro Black Label -> Cayin IHA-6 (balanced output) -> Ananda, Arya
I primarily listen to jazz tracks, including artists like Michael Wollny, Patricia Barber, Holly Cole, Gogo Penguin, Brad Mehldau, and Julian Lage. For the Ananda and Arya I also tried out some electronic music from Lindsey Stirling and CYA, along with heavier material from Opeth and BTBAM.
Design, Build Quality & Comfort:
It has to be said that the design for both of these is their least desirable quality to me. The Ananda uses the newer headband design that’s been employed by the Sundara, and some of the ‘SE’ versions of their older headphones, making use of better build quality for the yokes. Unfortunately this means that there is no cup swivel whatsoever, and that’s a huge problem. This won’t fit every headshape. Thankfully, the cups are so big that much of the pressure created by the clamp and lack of swivel (generally on the jaw) is alleviated and spread out across the side of the face. I generally prefer a system with cup swivel and it’s a shame the Ananda doesn’t have it.
The Arya uses the older swivel style headband and yoke system, but unfortunately it’s not really much of an improvement. Not only do the yokes feel cheap and creaky (unlike the Ananda), but the headband adjustment is completely nonsensical. When I adjust the arms to get the cup to fit properly on my ears, the strap for the headband puts too much pressure on the sides of my head. It feels like no matter how its worn, it sags down. When adjusting the arms further, which I have no idea why anyone would need to, the bottom of the cup protrudes past my face and onto my neck. Overall, I prefer the design of the Ananda, even though there’s no swivel.
With that said, both of these are more comfortable than the old HE-500 and HE6 designs, but at least those had cup swivel, and in many ways I prefer the cup size/shape on those for longer sessions. My guess is that not everyone will be as picky as I am when it comes to this stuff. Thankfully both the Ananda and Arya are much lighter than the older HiFiMAN planars, and because of this they’re reasonably comfortable. HiFiMAN are moving in the right direction on design, build quality and comfort, but they’re not quite there yet - especially when compared to what Mrspeakers has done with the Ether 2.
For the drivers, it appears that the Ananda uses a brand new ‘supernano’ diaphragm, while the Arya’s driver is based on some of the older HE-1000 designs. This likely accounts for most of the sonic differences between the two because they are the most open headphones I’ve ever used, and so I can’t see any damping being a factor here. With that in mind, both headphones allow sound in and out like nothing else - and that’s fine in good environments. But in noisy environments this is less than ideal. I can even hear my desktop computer fan noise in the background. Moreover, when sitting back and relaxing, even just putting my arms above my head and leaning back completely changes the sound. So make sure you’re in a good environment when listening to these.
Now to the good stuff. So far I’ve been a bit harsh on both of these, but when it comes to the sound, all of those issues become immediately worth it. These are both extremely well performing headphones, to the point where they dramatically outperform their price point.
Resolution & Detail Retrieval - Both the Arya and Ananda do extremely well here. As mentioned in my opening remarks, when I was first comparing them, the Ananda stood out as having better detail retrieval. But I’ve since come to realize that they’re actually very close in this regard, with the Arya simply presenting detail a bit differently and perhaps a bit better. The Ananda puts everything up front, causing all the details to be more forward, intense and immediately noticeable. It’s so good in this regard that in my opinion it rivals that of the Focal Clear. And in that sense, I consider the Ananda to be a planar magnetic equivalent.
The Arya on the other hand is closer to the HD800s. Details aren’t pushed forward or presented with as much intensity. Instead they’re more carefully layered with more nuance, depth and surgical precision. In this sense, the Arya does just as well as the Ananda if not better, it’s just not quite as immediately noticeable.
Speed - Both are extremely fast, tight and punchy, but the Arya does edge out the Ananda slightly in the speed department, yielding a slightly more engaging sound overall.
Soundstage & Imaging - Here’s where we get the biggest differences. Both headphones focus the music less to the sides and more to the front, but the Arya has a noticeably bigger stage overall. More importantly, the Arya has incredible depth and instrument separation. It’s the kind of thing where descriptions of “blackness of background” start to be applicable. The structural definition for the images on the Arya is superior, and the images have better depth presence and surgical precision than the Ananda. This is the nuance I missed with my initial evaluation, and it’s also what makes the Arya potentially more interesting and ultimately more engaging to listen to. The Ananda has a reasonably spacious sound with large images on a medium-sized stage and on its own it’s quite enjoyable, but I can’t overstate enough how much fun that extra layer of depth and separation is with the Arya.
Timbre - Both have a similar timbre, and while they’ve improved on the somewhat dry quality I was used to with older HiFiMAN headphones, there’s still the slightest hint of it with these. It never gets in the way and for me it’s a gentle reminder of where these headphones came from, which is a heritage that I have extremely fond memories of.
This measurement was taken with the MiniDSP EARS rig. This is not an industry standard measurement system and the following graph uses the HEQ compensation. It should also be noted that because of the design for both of these, there’s a substantial difference in sound depending on headphone position. For this reason the average measurement may not yield the most accurate/optimal results
The tonality for both could be described as “neutral-bright” based on this graph, however only the Arya actually fits that description properly to me. Both are extremely well extended in the bass, have a slight upper midrange dip and then lower treble elevation. These slight dips accentuate the presence region causing exceptional clarity for all of my music. The Ananda in particular has made me re-evaluate what I look for in tonality - especially when considering my normal go-to preference leans towards warmer or darker headphones like the ZMF Vérité or Auteur. In fact I’d go as far as to say that currently the Ananda is almost exactly what I look for in tonality. Its treble presentation is absolutely perfect to my taste. After reviewing the Sundara, it became clear to me what’s possible with good treble presentation, and while I love the Sundara’s treble it’s still slightly too bright for me. The Ananda hits the perfect sweet spot. And it doesn’t do so at the cost of fullness or richness throughout the rest of the frequency range. I can’t state this loudly enough, the Ananda is the closest I’ve heard to a perfect tonality for me.
The Arya on the other hand is a different story, and this is also partially why I had initially thought the Ananda was the better choice. As shown above, the Arya’s tonality is very similar to that of the Ananda, with two key exceptions. First, there’s a bit of a peak around 5khz which causes certain percussion instruments to sound shrill and downright wrong. As a drummer this is a big deal to me, and if I hear something off in the hits, I can’t un-hear it. So with the Arya I turn down that 5khz peak by a few dB. Interestingly, the Ananda has a bit of a peak before that, but it doesn’t cause any tonal issues for me.
The second key difference between the two is that the Arya has what I initially perceived as a slight graininess to the sibilance range. So the ‘S’ sounds have a bit of an edge to them that the Ananda resolves in a much smoother manner. Normally this would indicate to me some kind of distortion or deficiency in the driver, but that’s not the case here, the Arya performs just as well on distortion plots as the Ananda in this frequency response region. It took me quite some time to figure out what’s going on here, and the above graph doesn’t quite show it all that well, but it turns out that in this case the perceived grain is actually due to a slight rise just above the sibilance range. This makes the edges of the ‘S’ sounds seem just a bit too sharp - where the Ananda is much smoother for those instances. It’s interesting to me because it looks like the Ananda is the one with the more substantial peak at the sibilance range, which suggests to me that the Arya’s slight etch is the result of a slightly wider and bumpier treble rise between 8khz and 10khz. The bottom line is that this is also easily fixed with EQ, by reducing some of the energy around 9-10khz.
HiFiMAN Sundara - Both Ananda and Arya have better bass extension and the upper midrange shout isn’t as noticeable as it is on the Sundara. The Sundara has better treble presentation than the Arya without EQ, with a more razer fine presentation to the sibilance range, and the Arya’s being a bit more grainy or etched. But the Ananda also has a treble balance that’s closer to my taste than both, retaining the same smoothness and precision as the Sundara, just not quite as bright overall.
Mrspeakers Aeon Flow Open - Both of these are polar opposites to the AFO. They both have a bigger stage with bigger images, a brighter tonality and better resolution and clarity. I’m someone who enjoys the AFO, but going back and forth between it and these two makes it clear that both HiFiMAN offerings are a noticeable step up.
Mrspeakers Ether 2 - This is a tough one because they all have similar performance in terms of detail retrieval capabilities, but the Ether 2’s tonality is much darker than both of these, causing music to trade off clarity in favor of richness and thickness to the sound. All have exceptional bass extension and midrange linearity, but both HiFiMAN headphones do treble more to my taste (with a touch of EQ on the Arya). The Ether 2 has a more enjoyable stage than the Ananda, but is fairly close to that of the Arya. Also keep in mind that the Ether 2’s design is head and shoulders above both of these, and it’s also way lighter and more comfortable.
ZMF Vérité - I include this because it’s my daily driver, and on paper it shouldn’t be a fair comparison because the Vérité is quite a bit more expensive. Without EQ, however, there are absolutely albums that I prefer on both the Ananda and the Arya, and in fact they do clarity quite a bit better due to the Vérité’s treble dip. With a bit of EQ, however, it becomes clear that the Vérité still does detail retrieval slightly better, but it’s surprisingly close. The Arya is probably the closest due to its larger stage and depth. I actually find the Vérité to be considerably wider sounding (with all pads) side to side, but the Arya is more in front of me with perhaps more depth looking forward into the music. Overall I find that both the Ananda or the Arya would make excellent companion headphones to the Vérité, if going up to the more expensive HiFiMAN planars is out of budget. They provide some welcome neutrality and clarity that the Vérité is the musical counterpoint to.
Audeze LCD2C - To my preference, both the Ananda and Arya outperform this headphone in just about every way, but specifically in terms of detail and clarity. Some may prefer the thicker and bassier tonality of the Audeze and for some tracks this will provide better impact and dynamic slam that makes the music ultimately engaging and enjoyable, but personally I’d take either HiFiMAN over the LCD2C every time.
Both Arya and Ananda sound way better than their design and build quality may indicate. Make no mistake, these are both exceptionally good sounding headphones that perform far above their respective price points. In fact I’d go as far as to say that they’re both benchmark headphones. Without EQ, the Ananda is the clear winner due to the slight treble etch and 5khz peak of the Arya. With EQ, I find the Arya to be a more interesting listen due to its increased stage, impressive depth and better instrument separation. Nonetheless, if I were to recommend only one, it would be the Ananda. To most people, the more traditional up front detail presentation will be immediately enjoyable, and at this price there’s really nothing that competes. In many ways the Arya’s trade-off of better stage, depth and separation at the cost of treble glare isn’t worth the price increase - but for anyone willing to tinker a bit with the sound (like me), this is very close to a planar HD800s, and so they both get my thorough recommendation.
You can also check out my video review and comparison for these.