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HiFiMAN Shangri-La Electrostatic Headphone and Tube Amplifier

Many audiophiles and music lovers dream of owning the best audio components, but don’t want to shell out as much as a luxury automobile to get them. What I like to find are components that approach the state-of-the-art, but are much more affordable, such as HiFiMan’s amazing Shangri-La Jr. electrostatic headphone system ($8000).

Electrostatic transducers have entranced me since I heard the original Quad loudspeakers many decades ago. I have owned several pairs of original Quad ESL-57 and ESL-63 speakers, and still enjoy a set of refurbished ESL-57s. The Quads bring the musical event closer to me than most other speakers do, but they can be somewhat difficult to drive and typically don’t plumb the subterranean depths, as many loudspeakers sporting dynamic drivers do. However, I find myself coming back to electrostats time and again because of their transparency, coherence, lightning-quick and focused transient response, clarity, and natural-sounding harmonics.

The Shangri-La Jr. electrostatic headphone system, including a tube amplifier, comes very close to the best audio systems I have heard, including HiFiMan’s own Shangri-La and Sennheiser’s HE 1. Both those state-of-the-art contenders cost over $50k, so the fact that the “Junior” gives up very little in sonic performance for considerably less money is quite an achievement.

Like the reference Shangri-La (which I’ll call “Senior”), Junior uses an ultra-thin, very low-mass diaphragm suspended between two oppositely charged stators that are rapidly charged and discharged to move the diaphragm back and forth, producing the remarkably coherent sound that only a single-driver system can provide. While a lot of the technology in the Junior headphone unit is similar to that of the Senior, it uses a smaller driver or diaphragm. According to designer Dr. Fang Bian, HiFiMan’s Founder and CEO, the Junior’s smaller circular-shaped driver is actually a bit faster than the Senior’s larger oval-shaped one. The nano-particle coating on both ultra-thin (less than 0.001mm) diaphragms is very evenly distributed to avoid hot spots, and the stators share similar materials. Both use sophisticated micro-mesh wire working in close proximity to the diaphragm to increase openness and minimize distortion, while also allowing extended frequency response from 7Hz to 120kHz. Overtones in the high frequencies are undistorted, enabling voices and instruments to sound more natural, while deep tones are extended and controlled.

Junior’s attractive amplifier is more compact and less ambitious than the awesome one provided with Senior, but it is still a honey. It borrows a similar circuit from the larger Senior amp’s design and also uses a stepped-attenuator volume control to keep the signal pure. While certainly not portable, the Junior amplifier is easily “luggable” and fits comfortably on a desk, tabletop, or nightstand. Its input stage, using four matched 6SN7N tubes, produces a wide soundstage and musicality in spades. The Junior amp is a hybrid, mating a Class A solid-state output stage with the tube input stage. It is able to drive difficult loads, and at the recent AXPONA show drove both the Shangri-La Senior and Junior simultaneously via its two five-pin electrostatic headphone jacks. Some show attendees plugged their Stax headphones into the amp and reported very good results. The Junior’s amp (available separately for $5000) is worthy of a separate review—it’s that good!

Shangri-La Junior and Senior share a lot of the same outstanding sonic attributes—particularly “see-through” transparency, startling clarity, low coloration, and lightning-fast transients without any smearing. It’s difficult for any multi-driver transducer to match the seamless coherency of Junior—as is apparent on demanding vocal and piano recordings.

 

Indeed, the Shangri-La Junior system excels at reproducing piano recordings with addictive sonic realism. The Junior’s wide-bandwidth, transparency, clarity, openness, and explosive dynamics all come into play here to produce a highly engaging result. I found myself transported to the recording venue and was able to hear all kinds of subtle details typically obscured by other transducers, such as the natural decay of notes, the pedaling nuances, and the hammers hitting the strings on both classical and jazz recordings like Vladimir Ashkenazy performing Rachmaninov: Complete Works for Piano [Decca] and Bill Evans on the brilliant MoFi LP reissue of Sunday at the Village Vanguard.

Another difficult challenge involves reproducing human voices accurately and realistically, and the Junior excels in this area, too. Listening to an SACD of Nat King Cole singing “Stardust” on Love is the Thing [Analogue Productions], I was reminded of how silky-smooth his voice was, in addition to its gorgeous timbre. Via the Junior, Nat’s clear diction and impeccable phrasing help to draw me into the music and performance. Female voices, such as Sarah Vaughan’s on Ballads [Roulette Jazz] or Julie London’s on Cry Me a River [Liberty Records], are seductive and mesmerizing, and massed voices on Reference Recordings’ wonderful recording of John Rutter’s Requiem are close to the best I’ve heard outside of the concert hall. They’re spread across a wide and deep soundstage; the sound is rich and full-bodied; and one can clearly hear the ambience of the hall.

With its extended frequency response and low coloration, the Junior is ruthlessly revealing of flaws in source material, cables, and associated electronics. As with many reference components, the better the ancillary equipment, cables, and sources (Junior sounds best with well-recorded high-resolution tracks and LPs), the better the sound will be. My tube-based Modwright-Oppo player, aided by a Shunyata Research Alpha power cable, produced far better results than what I heard from Junior at both CanJam SoCal and AXPONA. Specifically, the sound was significantly more neutral and natural with these better associated components and cables. (I suspect the noisy hotel power at both shows was also a culprit.)

One common criticism of electrostatic transducer designs is their lack of bass, but this is not true with either of the Shangri-La’s. Junior has extended and well-controlled bass and can even reproduce the deep pedal tones of a church organ on recordings like Reference Recordings’ Saint-Saëns Symphony No.3, the “organ” symphony. Better still, you don’t have to worry about over-driving your room reproducing those deep tones! The bass guitar on the late great Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth album [Warner Bros.] was quite satisfying with phenomenal bass articulation and zero overhang. Sam Jones’ bass on Somethin’ Else [Analogue Productions’ Blue Note SACD reissue] sounded like the real thing without the additional bass bloat so often heard on other systems. Indeed, listening to this album featuring Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis, placed you right in the recording venue— and the transient quickness, rhythmic drive, and clarity of Art Blakey’s drums added to the energy of the performance. Another hallmark of the Junior is that instruments sound amazingly realistic and balanced, with true, natural timbre. Both Cannonball’s alto sax and Miles’ trumpet sounded “spot on” in this terrific recording.

Did I mention that the Junior can also rock? It is able to reproduce wide dynamic changes so quickly that it can send chills down your spine! Additionally, percussion instruments are presented with amazingly clean and quick transients, propelling the music forward with excitement on albums such as the reissues of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland [Sony Legacy] and Led Zeppelin II [Atlantic]. I found myself listening to entire albums when I thought I would only listen to one track.

If you covet the best headphone systems in the world but don’t want to spend fifty-large, the Shangri-La Jr. will get you very close at a fraction of the price, provided you feed it well-recorded source material and clean power, and avoid lean-sounding DACs and cables. Given how close it comes to the best reference headphone systems, the Shangri-La Jr. is a stunning achievement.

Specs & Pricing

HiFiMan Shangri-La Jr. Electrostatic Headphone
Type:
Open-back electrostatic
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
Frequency response: 7Hz–120kHz
Bias voltage: 550V–650V
Weight: 13.2 oz.
Price: $8000 (includes amplifier)

Shangri-La Jr. Amplifier
Valve complement: Four (4) SN7N tubes
Amplifier dimensions: 15.7″ x 10.4″ x 4.2″
Weight: 24 lbs.
Price: Included with Jr. package, but also available separately for $5000

HIFIMAN CORPORATION
(201) 443-4626
hifiman.com

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