Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27" iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1 & H1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi Formula, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Questyle QP1R, Soundaware Esther Pro, Soundaware D100 Pro SD card reader
Headphone amps: COS Engineering H1, Vinnie Rossi LIO, Questyle CMA-800R (x2), Eversound Essence
Headphones: Final Sonorous X, VI & III; HifiMan Susvara [on review], HE-1000 & HE-6; Sennheiser HD800; Audeze LCD-XC and LCD-2v1
Power delivery:
Vibex Granada/Alhambra or Furutech RTp-6
Review component retail: $50'000

Shangri-La. The myth of El Dorado continues to kindle the imaginations of treasure hunters. Meanwhile Shangri-La's legend of a monastic commune deep in the Tibetan Himalayas replaces the bloodthirsty gold craze of the conquistadors with a peaceful vision of lives dedicated to inner riches.

By naming their first-ever electrostatic headphone Shangri-La, HifiMan aim for enlightenment. Pricing it at $50'000 would seem to invoke El Dorado's greed instead. But as company founder Fang Bian explains, his domestic market views Shangri-La as superior to Sennheiser's HE1 aka Orpheus 2. And not only do those German statements demand the same, they were first to stake out that placement. Setting up a Chinese counter position of claim jumper demanded that HifiMan compete across all aspects; dedicated tube amplification and price.

Voilà: Shangri-La the pure but unattainable. A dream of sonic paradise nestled between peaks of never-melting snow?

By requiring a constant bias voltage on their diaphragm, electrostatic headphones are quasi active earspeakers. They must be powered from a dedicated amplifier. That supplies not just the music signal but also the standing voltage. Here that's from 550-650V. This interdependence of 374g headphone and 16kg driver opens doors to analog compensation where the breed's weak bass is a function of limits in excursion and size. Full-range electrostatic loudspeakers overcome this by scaling up their panels to room-dividing dimensions. For obvious reasons, earspeakers cannot.

To rectify that, HifiMan collaborated with the Full Music tube factory which is only a 20-minute drive from their own China HQ (HifiMan now also run an Asia office in Tokyo, Japan). Fang personally spent a few days sorting through 15 different tube combinations before settling on the final mix for Shangri-La's amplifier. That now optimally augments the electrostatic response curve for genre-defying bass even if on that count, HifiMan's top planarmagnetic Susvara model remains superior.

Where Shangri-La is said to rule supreme is in the midrange and treble. Here we're told that their 50µm thin stator mesh would pass even a 1MHz signal without reflections to offer the purest treble imaginable. Planars with their thicker double-sided bar-magnet arrays afford more displacement for stronger bass but also suffer more physical reflections and related air turbulence. Those affect the smaller wavelengths of the higher frequencies where Fang feels the Shangri-La set new standards. Unusually, his special quad of Full Music 300B driven by a quartet of 6SN7—all warranted for one year—is direct-coupled to the ultra-thin nano-particle reinforced membranes which are said to be good for 7Hz-120kHz bandwidth. Direct coupling the power triodes eliminates the usual output transformers and even coupling capacitors. That promises the purest path to hear these famous direct-heated bottles over light-as-air transducers. Volume control is by digitally controlled relay-switched resistor matrix.

Whilst the bias voltage figure and connectors are electrostatic 'standard' to be interchangeable with Stax amps for example, due to the combo's built-in voicing, Shangri-La sells as a set. Driving the earspeakers with an amplifier not purpose-designed for them shouldn't be expected to match performance. Perhaps a company like Questyle will volunteer to author an alternate current-drive transistor amp which might lower the cost of admission? In a brief show interview with InnerFidelity's Tyll Hertsens, Fang indicated openness to such prospects. But by July 2017, Shangri-La meant communing with four DHT 300B exclusively. Strategic timing of my loaner dispatches meant I could A/B Susvara and Shangri-La as two examples which live at the very top of their respective breeds. Our Final Sonorous X would represent the dynamic genre. Different strengths, different weaknesses?

Users of electrostatic speakers know of their dust-magnet attraction due to the standing charge on the membrane. Captured dust particles could thus lead to hot spotting and micro arcs on its thin film. To protect itself, Shangri-La incorporates "nano-meter" dust covers.