ENIGMAcoustics Dharma D1000 hybrid dynamic/electrostatic headphone
Most audiophiles first learned of ENIGMAcoustics through the firm’s Sopranino self-biased electrostatic supertweeter (reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 99), which was developed as an add-on enhancement for use with high-end loudspeakers. Later, applying Sopranino technology in a loudspeaker of its own, ENIGMAcoustics brought forth its versatile and accomplished Mythology M1 hybrid dynamic/electrostatic standmount monitor (reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 125). Now, the firm has applied the design concepts behind the Mythology M1 loudspeaker in a personal audio context and the result is the Dharma D1000 hybrid dynamic/electrostatic headphone that is the focal point of this review.
Before delving into the thick of the review, though, it occurs to me that some of you must surely be asking, “What exactly are self-biasing electrostatic supertweeters and why are they ostensibly things audiophiles might want?” Both are fair questions. Most electrostatic drivers use thin-film driver diaphragms to which very high bias voltages must be applied, with the bias voltage typically being supplied from an onboard power source (as is the case with virtually all electrostatic loudspeakers) or—in the case of most electrostatic headphones—from a purpose-built electrostatic amplifier that delivers the appropriate bias voltage to the headphone.
ENIGMAcoustics has taken an entirely different approach by creating a proprietary self-biasing system where the electrostatic driver in essence becomes its own bias voltage source. As you can imagine, this is a hugely significant advancement, in particular for headphones, since it means users can enjoy electrostatic headphones that emphatically do not require dedicated electrostatic amplifiers. You read that last line correctly; the Dharma D1000 can be driven by most any conventional headphone amplifier, or even by small portable amps, digital audio players, smartphones, or tablets.
But next, there is the second part of our hypothetical question. Why are electrostatic supertweeters desirable to use for music playback? In the Dharma D1000 owner’s manual ENIGMAcoustics offer the following succinct justification for its design choices.
“Music passages contain overtones and transient information beyond the range of human hearing. Why, then, try to retrieve it? The answer is simple. Those tones we do hear sound more natural when they are reproduced in the company of their harmonics. Listeners will in fact hear more midrange articulation—not just the air and sparkle associated with extended high frequency response.”
The Dharma arrives in a handsome matte black case trimmed with tasteful silver lettering and the company’s logo. Within, one finds the headphone along with a high-quality, fabric-jacketed 3m signal cable, a 6.35mm to 3.5mm adapter plug, and the aforementioned owner’s manual. First impressions are that the D1000 is a refined design that visually conveys a sense of quiet, understated elegance, with an emphasis on functionality and straightforward ergonomics.
The Dharma D1000 is a full-size, open-back, over-the-ear headphone. The D1000’s frame is an arch-shaped structure, padded on top, to which are fitted semi-circular support arms and articulated circular yokes that enable the headphone’s ear cups to swivel in both the vertical and horizontal axes. Suspended below the arch-shaped frame is an elastically supported headband pad covered in an open-weave, breathable mesh-type fabric. This flexible pad offers a generous amount of surface area, and can stretch to provide a comfortable fit for wearers of varying head sizes.
The ear cups of the D1000 are fairly large in diameter, meaning the Dharma should offer a spacious fit for virtually all listeners—even those with large ears. Within each ear cup is a 52mm dynamic driver with a Washi paper diaphragm. The dynamic driver covers low and middle range frequencies over the range of 5Hz to 5kHz; above that frequency, ENIGMAcoustics’ signature SBESL (self-biased electrostatic) driver takes over.
For those not familiar with Washi paper, the material is a thin, light, yet deceptively strong type of paper first created in Japan. Normally we think of paper as being very fragile or lacking in durability, but once treated for moisture resistance Washi paper has more in common with high-tech textile materials than it does with traditional paper goods. In short, it’s a versatile and desirable material from which to make responsive, low-mass driver diaphragms.
Interestingly, the D1000’s dynamic drivers are not centred in their respective ear cup frames, but rather are positioned forward of the ear cup centre-line, with the drivers angled slightly rearward toward the wearer’s ears. Similarly, the SBESL driver assembly is mounted on an angled flange adjacent to the dynamic driver. Both drivers are covered by a protective mesh grille cloth, which ENIGMAcoustics advises users not to remove.
The rear sides of the Dharma’s ear cups are fitted with perforated metal mesh covers pressed into gently flared shapes reminiscent of the bells of horns (albeit somewhat flatter in profile). The rear sides of the cups are then finished off with screen-like metal endcaps with black and silver trim rings, with the headphone’s serial number on the ring on the right side ear cup. Finally, on the lower rear quadrant of each ear cup ENIGMAcoustics provides recessed signal cable connection sockets that incorporate keyed slots corresponding to metal alignment tabs found on the Dharma’s signal cable plugs.
Although the D1000 nominally weighs 450g, it subjectively feels lighter than that, offering a fit that is as comfortable at the end of long listening sessions as it was at the beginning. For my tests, I ran the Dharma’s in conjunction with a Windows/jRiver Media Center-based music server and the superb Chord Electronics Hugo TT desktop headphone amplifier/DAC. While the headphone is sensitive enough to be driven by smartphones or tablets, it is so revealing and nuanced in its sonic presentation that I suspect most users will want to use it with the highest quality DACs and amps they have available.
What did my listening tests reveal? First, they showed a design that goes far beyond the usual tropes about ‘seamless blending of disparate driver types’. Sonically speaking, what the Dharma does is more akin to the creation of a new alloy, where two materials with different but complementary qualities merge to form a new, third material that combines the best of both. In the case of the Dharma, the Washi paper dynamic driver offers excellent dynamic agility, powerful (but not overpowering) low-frequency extension, and a wonderfully natural and almost organic quality of tonal purity. In turn, the SBESL tweeter, whose output is kept strictly in phase with that of the dynamic driver, offers smooth and profoundly extended reproduction of high frequencies, coupled with extraordinary transient speed (and thus the effortless ability to render high-frequency overtones, transient events, and the elusive sense of ‘air’ surrounding instruments and vocalists). But fuse these qualities together in one headphone and you’ve got something that, in my view, offers serious musical magic.
To give you a handful of musical examples that illustrate the Dharma’s ability to serve up ‘magic on demand’, let me begin with the track ‘Purple Haze’ from bassist Michael Manring’s Drastic Measures [Windham Hill, CD]. Manring performs his homage to Hendrix on a Zon fretless electric bass that, when slapped or tapped, can produce thunderclap-like low bass transients, but that also is—in Manring’s hands—capable of brilliant, shimmering high frequency overtones. The Dharma deftly tackles the track with an unexpected (and frankly, rarely heard) combination of dynamic gusto, wide-range frequency response, and a quality of almost ethereal delicacy.
Or to supply a quite different illustration, try any of the tracks from classical guitarist Philip Hii’s interpretations of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes for piano [GSP, CD]. Throughout the recording the D1000 manages to capture perfectly the lithe, fleet-footed quality of the classical guitar, along with its naturally warm and woody tonality. But no less important, the Dharma’s ability to render subtle overtones and high frequency air in records not only enables the guitar to sound reach-out-and-touch-it real, but also captures the acoustics of the recording venue, thus providing a believable context in which the performance can unfold.
Finally, consider the Dharma’s handling of the final few minutes of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 as performed by the San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting [SFS Media, 96/24]. Arguably the most dramatic moments in Mahler’s most dramatic composition, these symphonic passages weave their way back and forth between almost whisper quiet vocal and instrumental sections on through to the most powerful and complex moments of which world-class orchestras and choirs are capable. The Dharma D1000 navigated its way to the finale with a truly impressive combination of power, subtlety, grace, and sheer bravado. Listening to the conclusion of Mahler’s Eighth through a headphone this good reminds me why high-end hi-fi is worth the effort.
ENIGMAcoustics’ Dharma D1000 is a delightful, highly capable, world-class headphone that is reasonably priced for the very high levels of quality on offer. Give it a listen, but beware: to hear it is to want it!
- Type: Circumaural, open-back, hybrid dynamic/electrostatic headphone
- Driver Complement: One 52mm dynamic driver with Washi paper diaphragm and one proprietary SBESL (self-biased electrostatic) driver per ear cup.
- Frequency Response: 5Hz – 40 kHz
- Impedance: 26 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 103dB@1Vrms
- Distortion: <0.3% (1 kHz @ 1mW)
- Accessories: 3m fabric-jacket signal cable, 6.35mm – 3.5mm adapter plug, user manual
- Weight: 450g
- Price: £1,195, $1,190
Manufacturer: ENIGMAcoustics, Irvine, CA USA
Tel: +001 (949) 340-7590
UK Distributor: Select Audio
Tel: +44 (0)1900 601954