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In the 1930s, James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizons’ became America’s first ever mass-market paperback, its tale of a lost Himalayan kingdom finding millions of readers, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who later named his Presidential country retreat (now known as Camp David) after the book’s mythical land - Shangri-La.
Well, mass market is definitely not a term that could be applied to this remarkable product from HIFIMAN. Quite the opposite: we believe the Shangri-La currently qualifies as the world’s most expensive headphone system, challenging Sennheiser’s HE 1, successor to the Orpheus, which was previously reviewed in these pages. The Australian price for the Shangri-La is $77,999. The Sennheiser is priced here only in Euros, so it changes every day, but as we write it’s a few grand cheaper. Let’s not quibble. We came here to listen. What exactly makes the Shangri-La such an uber-high-end proposition? And does it, as the name is presumably selected to imply, deliver on its promise of transportation to a sonic paradise?
Waving the flagship
The Shangri-La is the “ultimate flagship” of HIFIMAN, a company which today is headquartered in Tianjin, China, with R&D in Shanghai, software development in Shenzen and production facilities in Dongguan. But it was actually in New York that the company’s founder Fang Bian, widely known as Dr Fang, first began his adventure in personal audio, founding Head-Direct.com in 1995 as a “head-fi” web-store, introducing the HIFIMAN brand in 1997 for humble in-ear headphones before moving into the planar magnetic designs for which the company has since become famous. (Our sister magazine Sound+Image has twice awarded HIFIMAN designs with the accolade of Headphone of the Year.) It also notably released a very early high-res audio portable player - two years before the first Astell&Kern player of that ilk appeared.
The Head-Direct web store still operates in the United States as a portal for the brand, but you won’t find the Shangri-La available for purchase there. The company is fully aware that this is a product requiring professional demonstration and set-up, so that only authorised dealers will have it available, or on display, and purchasers will have full assistance in setting it up in their own home after the wait period required to build each individual order. Set-up of the valves in the main unit requires the usual bias adjustment after a full warm-up, performed here the old-fashioned way with a multimeter connected between earth and the testing points. Test, adjust, wait half an hour, test, adjust. And again. And again if necessary. While your average audio geek may revel in bias adjustment as part of the true valve experience, those who are in it simply for the music will appreciate a professional eye — and steady hand — in setting up such a premium product.
The thick and thin of electrostatics
HIFIMAN has become best-known for its planar magnetic headphone designs. Planar magnetics are entirely different from the usual cone speaker design, instead using a large flat surface excited into motion by the electromagnetic force created by conductors woven across its surface. These move as their electrical signal varies within a fixed magnetic field generated by magnets on each side, thereby driving the membrane across its entire surface, as opposed to the pistonic motion of a conventional dynamic headphone. The technology is notable for allowing smaller signal details to be portrayed and far more rapid transients to be reproduced. Hence planar magnetic headphones are famed for their detail and speed.
But the Shangri-La design is not planar magnetic, it’s electrostatic. Dr Feng has previously delivered an electrostatic design in the ‘Jade’, and the Shangri-La originally began as the development for a ‘Jade 2’. And in electrostatic designs it is the diaphragm which is held at a fixed charge, while the varying voltage from the amplifier is applied to the metal plates (stators) on either side — though here the metal ‘plates’ are in fact an exceedingly fine mesh metal grille (a full metal plate would block the diaphragm’s sonic output) with the mesh here specified at 50 micrometres, which HIFIMAN promises will be acoustically transparent to any audio frequencies below a million hertz... which should about cover it. A dust cover a mere “nanometer-thick” prevents the anaethema of any small particle ‘spotting’ the diaphragm, while still ensuring that acoustic transparency.
So in an electrostatic design it is the stators, not the diaphragm which receive the varying amplifier voltage that then drives the diaphragm. But electrostatic diaphragms are so thin that they are generally some form of plastic, and so non-conductive. Here a coating of unspecified nano-particles has been applied to the diaphragm in a regular lattice pattern, to allow the required static charge to be maintained, with the bias up at 650V. Remarkably, even with its coating the diaphragms here are claimed to be less than 0.001mm thick — that’s a single micron. (For comparison purposes, a single page of this magazine is more than 100 times thicker than the diaphragm of the Shangri-La headphones.) The voltage on the stators, which are held in place by an alloy frame, varies up to 450V RMS (1200V peak), and the biased diaphragm is forced to move by the resulting electric field.
Do we worry about putting such high voltages rather close to our ears? No we don’t, because they will only kill you in combination with high current, and the currents here are tiny (and there is protection circuitry in the amplifier to prevent them becoming any higher).
The Shangri-La headphones themselves are utterly comfortable, their ear-oval headshells feeling light and spacious to wear, a perforated leather fit-band keeping them perfectly in place. They’re good-looking things, too, with their wooden edging and wide open outer cheek.
The Shangri-La amplifier is quite the physical presence, its top platform of tempered glass extending well forward of the massive supporting base of aircraft-grade aluminium alloy — a grade of appropriate quality since its design was, we gather, inspired by the landing strip of an aircraft carrier (though we couldn’t tell you quite why). The wide top platform extends forward in gloss black with its valve complement to the rear, the large output valves outflanking the smaller preamp tubes across the unit’s width, all eight surrounded by a three-level ´tube guard protector’ which, we might note, may protect the valves but won’t stop anyone who doesn’t know better from touching them.
Connections at the back include one balanced pair of inputs and one unbalanced; a small switch at the rear defines your choice. To the left of the inputs is the adjustment window with which you do the bias check on the main triodes (see below), and to the left of those are the mains input, fuse and voltage selector.
The sides of this main unit are fully ribbed with heatsink, and these get similarly hot even when the amp is idling — good old Class A! — so that HIFIMAN’s advice about positioning should most definitely be heeded — 30cm of space on all sides to allow sufficient room for heat dissipation.
We’d suggest you keep yourself a similar distance — as you lean in you can feel the warm glow from the valves and heatsink… sit too close and we reckon you’d end up with a suntan after a lengthy listening session.
At the front of the extending top plate is a wide silver knob for volume control, which clicks audibly as you step through its 24 levels, since this is a digitally controlled relay-switched resistor matrix, employing 23 separate resistors to eliminate noise.
Below the top surface are the two five-pin headphone connectors — yes, you can listen with a friend given a second suitable pair of electrostatic headwear — a big illuminated power button, and the screenprinted company logo and model name.
So those large valves in the output stage are 300B triodes, a design adored by audiophiles for their linearity, low noise and good reliability — despite being created in the 1930s for use in telephony and later as voltage regulators. Indeed we can thank audiophiles of the 1990s for their survival to the present day, since the last Western Electric Type 300B was manufactured in 1988, and a decade of scarcity followed before several companies began manufacturing them again in the late 1990s. Valve quality today can vary enormously, but it seems safe to say that those in the Shangri-La, which come as matched pairs, are of the highest order, being a custom design supplied by Full Music, a valve specialist conveniently located in HIFIMAN’S HQ city of Tianjin. These are custom 300Bs made specifically for the Shangri-La — you can see the handwritten stock numbers if you peer through the glass.
These four 300Bs in the output stage are preceded by a set of four 6SN7 dual-triode preamp valves, another valve design which enjoyed a 1990s resurgence among audiophiles, and here again a custom version; they are direct-coupled to the 300Bs with the entire design being fully balanced through the two gain stages, and pure Class-A in operation throughout.
A further and particular path to purity is that the Shangri-La amplifier is an OTL (Output Transformer-Less) design, with the 300B triodes acting as the direct driving stage, with neither a transformer nor capacitors between the valves and the headphones’ stators. With four 300B valves in the amplifier, that translates to each one feeding a single stator directly, so two 300Bs dedicated to delivering the movement of each diaphragm.
It’s perhaps ironic that valve amps which do use output transformers can often expend much of their budget there, with hand-wound silver wiring and the like. OTL valve amp designs are exceedingly hard to deliver for driving loudspeakers, at least without great stress on the valves, but the lesser demands of a headphone diaphragm have given HIFIMAN this option, which effectively puts your ears as close to the pure output of the 300B valves as is possible.
Which brings us to the sound. We listened through the balanced inputs using Cardas Clear interconnects to a Resonessence Invicta Mirus Pro DAC playing via USB from a Macbook running Audirvana Plus, and we ran everything from med-res files through CD quality to 24-bit/192kHz PCM and double-DSD. It’s a delightful way to enjoy music — bar Audirvana’s habit of clipping song starts.
We warmed up our ears with some gentle delights — Naim’s 24/192 remastering of Night Train by Antonio Forcione and Sabina Sciubba, and immediately the electrostatics were demonstrating their spectacular speed and delivery of detail minutae… the delicacy of touch to the twin panned guitars, their slides, their plucks, while Sciubba’s central vocal was no big solid midrange lump, rather the half-whispered light vocal that it should be. Nick Drake’s Poor Boy (24/96) followed, from his second album — the tape hiss evident but soon forgotten under such realism in presentation, and when the right-channel backing vocals arrive (PP Arnold and the Apple-signed ‘Mama Soul’ Doris Troy), the stress-melting process delivered by the finest of audio had begun.
And nothing melted us more than Holly Cole’s take on Tom Waits’ (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night (CD resolution), just super-sultry from the first touch of piano, acoustic bass and Holly humming — and what shape and reality of form to the acoustic bass here, and how well the dynamic lift of the middle eight was handled - lifted, but not to the slightly shouty effect we’ve heard on lesser equipment.
‘Such audiophile fare is easy!’, we hear you cry. Let’s get crankier (in the sense of volume rather than moodiness) with Bowie’s enigmatic Blackstar (24/96). Every inch of its strange mix of softness and drum’n’bass beat was revealed in extraordinary detail. The drums — which can sound programmed on lesser equipment — were here not only clearly an acoustic performance but their dynamic give and take through the verses, their support by occasional synth bass and guitar chops were all unstranded and on display within Tony Visconti’s carefully constructed whole. By the four-minute breakdown and the divinely dreamy middle eight we were fully blissed-out, eyes moist, skin in ‘alert’ mode from forearms to neck nape. This is the magic we seek.
We ran through our favourite Holst — Jupiter and The Perfect Fool, the latter by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on 24-bit/44.1kHz, and how magnificent the orchestral portrayal, the acoustic space, the staging of individual groups and soloists within the whole — electrostatics are invariably a classical buff’s dream and the Shangri-Las give you as good as it gets. A double-DSD dose of Martin Vatter, the German pianist, showed the Shangri-La’s absolutely accuracy with piano tone, attack and rivetingly real dynamics — in-the-room stuff.
We did run some of our standard sweeps and test tones through the Shangri-La system; we could hear from 20Hz up, and as high as our hearing allowed, and with not a perceived bump or dip between; response was as flat as we’ve heard.
We did expect trouble with our shriek-testers — but even here the Shangri-La’s revealing nature proved able to present Dion’s (I Read It) In the Rolling Stone without pain, in fact, utterly accurate, just on the turn, which makes it such a good shriek-tester in the first place. On the other hand it took the stodginess of Paul McCartney’s My Valentine and clarified the vocal identifiers so effectively that we’ve never heard this more enjoyably delivered. As for the unlimited high-res re-master of Macca’s Every Night, how that right-channel snare did snap in this simplest and cleanest of recordings.
The rapid jazz of Acoustic Alchemy’s Marrakesh (24/96) is one we play as a timing test, and here the handling of the hyper-rapid leading edges of the lead acoustic guitar plucks we’ve never heard more effectively clicky. Oh those 300Bs!
We were notching the level up fairly slowly with the audible clicks of the resistor matrix; the danger of such exceedingly low distortion as this is too turn things up further than required. We did this with Led Zeppelin’s In The Light, and for the most part it was just as thoroughly enjoyable at such a high whack, but we could sense that too loud could mean too pushy… backing off slightly delivered the true perfection that the Shangri-La combo can achieve at its best.
So, every genre nailed, every detail revealed — the speed and deftness of the Shangri-La proved a thrill a minute, not through pyrotechnic performance but by sheer delight in finding not only the truth of a recording being revealed, but the musical intent flooding through as well.
Crazy money? The entire first run of Shangri-Las sold out. So apparently not. This is a no-compromise design, each one built to order, taking around 120 days to build. The good news is that you can arrange for an audition of the Shangri-La in order to experience for yourself the extraordinary sensation of having your ears so close to the unbridled output of the wonderful 300B valves. One warning — make sure you get any other auditions out of the way first, because after a session in the not-so-mythical paradise of this Shangri-La, everything else becomes an unbearable downgrade.
DESIGN: Electrostatic headphones with valve headphone amplifier
QUOTED FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 20Hz–50kHz ±1dB; 7Hz –120kHz ±10dB.
VALVES: 4 × 6SN7 Dual Triodes, 4 × 300B Triodes
VOLUME CONTROL: 24-step discrete resistor relay-switched matrix
Bias voltage: 550V-650V
Dimensions (amplifier): 438 × 459 × 336mm
Weight (amplifier): 16kg
Weight (h/phones): 374g
Warranty: Five years, One year on valves
Contact: Addicted to Audio
03 9810 2999 (Melbourne); 02 9550 4041 (Sydney)
03 9810 2999 (Melbourne); 02 9550 4041 (Sydney)