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HiFiMAN Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system

HiFiMAN Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system

I first met Fang Bian (now Dr Fang Bian), the founder and President of HiFiMAN, a number of years ago and our interactions at the time centred on the firm’s early-generation HE-5LE planar magnetic headphones. In the course of our talk, I learned that Bian had, earlier on, created an impressive electrostatic headphone called the Jade, which was no longer in production. My sense was that while Bian thoroughly enjoyed and embraced the technical challenge of creating high-performance planar magnetic headphone designs, his ‘first love’—so to speak—remained with his electrostatic designs. Over the years, Bian completed his doctorate in Nano-chemistry and the HiFiMAN product line continued to unfold, but occasionally I would ask, “Do you think you’ll ever do something like a HiFiMAN ‘Jade II’ electrostatic headphone?” Dr Bian would often respond with a thoughtful expression and a wry smile and say something like this: “I’ve thought about it a lot and I have many ideas I would like to try in such a design, but the timing is not right yet.” This pattern continued for quite a while until—about a year and a half ago—HiFiMAN began showing prototypes of what was at first called the Jade II electrostatic headphone and that now has evolved to become the full-fledged Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system.

Let’s make one point clear right up front: HiFiMAN’s Shangri-La system is an all-out, cost-no-object assault on the state of the art in headphone performance and as such Shangri-La is one of the two most expensive headphone systems in the world (the Shangri-La system is priced at a breath-taking $50,000). The system consists of a set of exquisite Shangri‑La electrostatic headphones, a matching Shangri-La valve-powered electrostatic headphone amplifier, plus various necessary accessories such as a high-quality power cord and a beautifully weighted desktop cradle for the headphones. Buyers of the Shangri-La system will be pleased to note that each one is built to order and takes around 120 days to build, and that after the system ships, a HiFiMAN representative will arrive at the customer’s home to install and set-up the system to ensure that everything is in perfect working order.

The comfortable Shangri-La headphones are very light (374g) and they fairly bristle with cutting edge technologies. For example, the headphone uses what HiFiMAN calls a ‘Nanotech’ driver whose Nano-material diaphragm is just 0.001mm thick (and no, that figure is not a typographical error). In turn, the diaphragm is coated with conductive Nano-particles arranged in a precise, lattice-like pattern on the diaphragm surface. Then, HiFiMAN developed thin, micro-mesh metal stators formed from wires just 50µm thick and where the stators are held in place by a frame made of a “specialized metallic alloy, specially chosen to ensure sonic stability and to minimise distortion.” HiFiMAN takes particular pride in the fact that the openings in the stator mesh are so fine that “sound waves lower than 1MHz can pass through without distortion…” Nanometre-thick dust covers on the front and rear sides of the driver complete the picture.

The upshot of these technical efforts is a driver whose moving mass is vanishingly low, whose transparency—both in terms of its free-flowing stators and its ultra-thin dust covers—is exceptionally high, and that is said to deliver “lightning-fast response with virtually zero distortion.” Claimed frequency response for the driver is a remarkable 7Hz to 120kHz.

 

In terms of external design, the Shangri‑La headphone looks much like a lightweight, upscale version of HiFiMAN’s critically acclaimed HE 1000 v2 headphone, but one where the satin silver metalwork of the HE 1000 v2 is—for the Shangri‑La—instead treated to a rich-looking black anodised finish. As on the HE 1000 v2’s, the sides of the Shangri-La ear cups are covered with tasteful exotic wood veneers. Touch surfaces (that is, ear pads and the adjustable headband strap) are done in soft, sumptuous-feeling black leather.

Complementing the Shangri-La electrostatic headphone is a matching, purpose-built electrostatic amplifier that is based on a quartet of 6SN7 valves that drive a set of four, custom-designed and custom made 300B output valves. The valves for our review sample Shangri-La amplifier were sourced from the specialist audio valve manufacturer TJ Full Music whose 300B’s are, according to HiFiMAN, “the finest available to ensure perfect transparency.” Importantly, the topology of the amplifier allows the 300B tubes to drive the headphones directly so that, as HiFiMAN puts it, “There are neither capacitors nor transformers between the tubes (valves) and headphones…”

As you might expect, the amplifier uses ultra high-quality parts throughout and provides a 24-step relay-based attenuator-type volume control using a total of 23 separate low-noise resistors. The industrial design of the amplifier is special too, featuring a modern, swept-back design aesthetic that makes the Shangri-La amp look a like a large, futuristic, all-black valve-powered aircraft carrier. The ‘flight deck’ of the amplifier features a black glass top plate through which protrude an elegant, rear-illuminated volume control knob, openings for the requisite valve sockets, and positioning holes for the also swept back valve ‘cage’ surrounding the valves. The rear panel of the amp provides single-ended and balanced analogue inputs with an input selector switch, while the recessed front panel provides two 5-pin electrostatic headphone jacks and an on/off switch with colour-coded illumination (flashing red indicates the amp is warming up, while continuous white means the amp is ready for use). Visually, the amp’s sharply angled design is striking in a good way and is executed with self-evident attention to build quality and detail.

For my listening tests, I ran the Shangri-La system from the best-sounding DAC presently in my ‘stable’, which is a PS Audio DirectStream DAC using the firm’s very latest Huron firmware. The DAC, in turn, was fed from a Windows/jRiver/Lenovo-based music server loaded with a mix of standard and high resolution PCM, DXD, and DSD music files. An AudioQuest Diamond USB cable was used between the server and the DAC, while Furutech Line-Flux interconnects were used between the DAC and the Shangri-La amplifier. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, let me tell you at the outset that, through all my listening tests, the Shangri-La system delivered sound quality of such resounding excellence that it has pretty much recalibrated my notion of what headphone systems (or for that matter, hi-fi systems of any kind) can do. Here’s why.

From the minute you first power up the Shangri-La system it delivers two closely allied sonic qualities that together help bring your favourite music alive in eye-opening ways: namely, extraordinary levels of transparency coupled with also extraordinary levels of dynamic expressiveness.

 

To appreciate how these qualities work in support of one another, it helps to think about how we experience live, unamplified music in natural acoustic spaces. When I hear symphony orchestras perform, one thing that has always fascinated me is that certain sections of the orchestra may be playing vigorous, dynamically forceful musical lines, while at the same time other sections might be supplying softer, subtler textural or rhythmic commentary that—in its way—is every bit as important to the musical whole as the bigger and bolder lines are. The interesting part is that, in a live context, listeners can follow and attend to whatever individual musical threads they choose, or they can simply take in the musical tapestry as a whole. With hi-fi and headphone systems this is typically much harder to do, because it is so difficult for transducers and electronics alike to ‘play big’ and ‘play small’ simultaneously. But not so with the Shangri-La system; amazingly, it can reproduce big (even explosive) passages with full dynamic force even as it manages to serve up low-level information with extreme resolution and finesse.

One evening as I listened to the Shangri-La system, I put on the famous Bakels/Bournemouth recording of Vaughan-Williams Sinfonia antartica [Naxos, 16/44.1] and was floored by what I heard. First, I was stunned to hear just how much very low-level musical information the Shangri-La system was able to retrieve from the recording (for example, the subtle wind machine Vaughan-Williams uses to suggest the icy, penetrating grip of Antartic winds). The eerie sound of that wind machine was so subtle and yet so evocative that it almost made me shiver (even though this review in being prepared in the midst of very hot Texas summer). Second, I was struck by the forceful and full-blooded manner in which the Shangri-La handled the piece’s bigger dynamic moments, including forceful brass and tympani sections or passages where powerful low-frequency organ pedal notes are presented at full throttle. In short, the Shangri-La system gave a tour de force display of power, delicacy, and finesse in action, all at once.

As you might expect, the Shangri-La system works wonders with well-made vocal recordings, such as Lyn Stanley’s rendition of the jazz standard ‘My Funny Valentine’ from her album The Moonlight Sessions, Volume One [ A.T. Music, SACD ]. On that track, the Shangri-La system allows you to dig deep to savour the purity, the natural warmth, and the finely shaded textures of Stanley’s soulful alto voice, while also appreciating the sheer subtlety and craft with which she shapes each musical phrase. The effect is not unlike the sonic equivalent of looking at music through a magnifying glass, the better to appreciate its sheer richness and the intricate and at times intoxicating interplay of its constituent parts.

The Shangri-La system offers neutral tonal balance and remarkable freedom from the ‘highs-covered-in-plastic-wrap’ colourations to which some electrostatic headphones are prone. The top end of the Shangri-La headphones is as linear, detailed, and extended as anyone could possibly wish, yet at the same time they consistently manage to sound smooth and clear—never adding or in any way exaggerating high-frequency energy that isn’t actually present in the recording. This achievement is greatly to HiFiMAN’s credit.

Similarly, HiFiMAN seems to have found a way to address what has traditionally been the ‘Achilles’ Heel’ of many electrostatic headphone designs, which is the problem of temporary bass overload when reproducing abrupt, loud, low-frequency information that may be present in the music. One such low-frequency torture test is the track ‘O Vazio’ as performed by the Jim Brock Ensemble on Jazz Kaleidoscope [Reference Recordings, HDCD]. Early on in the track a very loud, low frequency percussion note is sounded, with the result that many otherwise very fine headphones and loudspeakers stumble badly, emitting unpleasant flatulent noises (or worse). But when I tried this test with the Shangri-La system it passed with flying colours, serving up the low percussion note with sufficient force to make me think my eardrums might implode (my ears might have overloaded, but the headphones did not).

 

Finally, the Shangri-La system remained completely unfazed by increasing levels of textural complexity and/or dynamics in the music I played. On tracks many systems find challenging, such as the more bombastic passages in Silvestre Revueltas’ ‘Sensemaya’ [Chicago Symphony Brass Live, CSO Resound, SACD], the Shangri-La system remained cool, calm, collected and very, very expressive. Again and again the Shangri-La kept its composure when playing passages that give lesser systems fits.

The Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system is one of the two most transparent, revealing, complete, and accomplished music systems I’ve every heard (the other is the $500,000+ super-system, through which I reviewed the YG Acoustics Sonja XV loudspeakers earlier this year). For obvious reasons, the Shangri-La system is an exceptionally useful tool for purposes of evaluating the quality of recordings and the source components used to play them, but what’s more important is the way in which it enhances our enjoyment of music. If your reactions are anything like mine, you might find that when you listen to music through the Shangri-La system your favourite recordings will suddenly seem richer, subtler, deeper, and more expressive than you ever thought possible. In simple terms the system unlocks a clearer intellectual understanding of the music at hand, while at the same time fostering a more profound emotional connection to it, which is exactly what state-of-the-art components ought to do.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

  • Amplifier: Valve-powered electrostatic headphone amplifier
  • Headphone: Open-back electrostatic headphone
  • Valve Complement: Four 6SN7 valves and four custom-designed and custom mad 300B output valves.
  • Driver Complement: Single full-range electrostatic driver with 0.001mm thick diaphragm and Nano‑material coatings, ultra-thin metal mesh stators, and Nano‑material dust covers.
  • System Frequency Response: 7Hz–120kHz
  • Amplifier Bias Voltage: 550–650V
  • Headphone Weight: 374g
  • Amplifier Weight: 16kg
  • Amplifier Dimensions (H×W×D):
    335.8 × 458.9 × 437.8mm
  • System Warranty: 5 years, all hardware elements; 1 year, valves
  • Price: $50,000

Manufacturer information:
HiFiMAN Corporation

Tel: +1 (201) 443-4626

URL: www.hifiman.com

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