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.