Hifiman’s Ananda-BT Headphones

by Noam Bronstein

This is another mini-review in my series on the ‘evolution’ of Bluetooth as an option for audiophiles.

Hifiman is known for its big, planar magnetic headphones, and the Ananda-BT is a dedicated Bluetooth version which retails for $999 US. All the electronics are built in and hidden from view, this is a true wireless headphone – all you need is a Bluetooth music source, e.g. streaming from a phone. The Ananda-BT does offer the option of taking a wired digital (USB) feed, but I didn’t evaluate that feature.

As such, the Ananda-BT has been billed as the world’s best Bluetooth headphone. I can’t subjectively verify that claim, and as I’ve said before, I’m not a headphone expert. But I can confirm that these do sound incredibly good, and while listening with them, only rarely did it even occur to me that this was Bluetooth. That said, they do have some limits.

 

Usability

Bluetooth connectivity worked just fine, and all the audio codecs seem to be well supported. With my review pair, the HWA codec didn’t come up as an option; but Hifiman say they support it, so maybe a firmware update was needed. Unlike the iFi Zen Blue, I didn’t hear much of a difference between LDAC and aptX, when I played high res files from my phone using the Poweramp app. Interesting. With the iFi, LDAC was the clear and consistent SQ winner. With the Hifimans, these two codecs really didn’t sound appreciably different, to my ears.

The Ananda-BT have a couple of small buttons, a charging cable, and status lights. I had to google up the instructions, without them it was impossible to figure out how to charge them. The headphones do come with a nice hard/soft carrying case, and presumably, the printed instruction sheet, which my demo pair were missing.

I found the battery life to be quite good, no issues there.

 

Comfort

These are large, make that very large, heavy headphones. One complaint about Hifiman’s planars is comfort. These cans do feel heavy and tight, and they started to hurt the sides of my head (around the ears) after 15-20 minutes. Of course, comfort will be subjective for every user. The wireless aspect is great, but if they aren’t comfortable enough for going out, commuting, walking, etc., then some of that appeal is lost. I have a pair of HE350’s which Hifiman made for Massdrop a few years ago – they’re dynamic (not planar) and they give me these same comfort issues. Great sound, but I hardly ever use them.

 

Sound Quality
So, how do they really sound…? I found the Ananda-BT were sonically quite convincing. The presentation is clean, dynamic and balanced. Instruments are well separated, and sound mostly natural. This headphone seems to have a knack for smoothing out some of the warts that you’d expect from listening to music on a Bluetooth connection. The midrange and top end are nice and smooth, with good resolution. The bass response – not really a forte of planars – isn’t too bad either. No, these probably aren’t going to be the first choice of hardcore hip-hop fans. But they work – the bass is a bit subdued, but it’s nice and tight, tuneful and well controlled.

 

Detail retrieval was good. Not hearing a difference between aptX and LDAC was a bit puzzling. If I had to posit, I’d guess that Hifiman’s engineers have “tuned” the electronics a little, equalizing them for a warmer and somewhat less detailed presentation. The upside is that only the nastiest recordings sounded truly offensive. Don’t get me wrong, these headphones are revealing. They just err on the side of smoothness, vs ruthlessness.

Hifiman have built a very solid reputation over the last few years, and it’s been well earned. That is based on leveraging the planar magnetic approach to achieve a near perfect sonic balance, for those who get it. The Ananda-BT affirms that result – and whets the appetite to hear the potential of their other mid level models. Again, I’m a casual headphone person, not an insider. And I’d really be stretching to find serious SQ problems with the Ananda-BT in a standalone listening session (provided your expectations are calibrated, and/or all your source files are great recordings).

 

Conclusions

Recommending audio gear implies knowing your target audience, and ultimately, knowing whether a component offers them good value. This is where the Ananda-BT poses a conundrum. Hifiman’s Ananda at $799 is considered a well-priced, upper-mid level planar magnetic. The Ananda-BT adds a Bluetooth receiver, a DAC and an amp, and $200 to the equation (it also adds some weight, and complexity). In that sense, they seem to have nailed it. But losing the ability to drive the Ananda-BT with any of your favorite amps has to be considered a negative; if I were spending $1k on a headphone, I’d want maximum flexibility.

In that light, I do have to wonder if Hifiman’s new Deva at $300 (with removeable Bluetooth adapter) is more sensible. The Deva brief? It’s a budget friendly planar that can be used with or without the Bluetooth adaptor – it can be driven by an outboard amp, something most headphone connoisseurs expect and demand. So where does that leave the Ananda-BT? Well, going upmarket (price wise) only to be locked into one solution, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But those who want a simplified, integrated approach will find a lot to like here.

Hifiman Ananda-BT Planar Magnetic Stereo Headphones $999 (US), $1249 (CAD)

Review loan courtesy of Motet Distribution

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