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. While
no-holds-barred systems advance the state of the art, they are out of the reach of most audiophiles and music enthusiasts. What I like to find are components that approach the state-of-the-art, but are much more affordable, like HiFiMAN’s amazing Shangri-La Junior electrostatic headphone system ($8,000 US, £7,998 UK).
Electrostatic transducers have captured my attention since I first heard the original Quad loudspeakers several 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 transducers, but they can be somewhat difficult to drive and typically don’t plumb the subterranean depths as do many loudspeakers sporting dynamic drivers. However, I find myself coming back to electrostats time and again because of their transparency, coherence, lightning quick and focused transient response, clarity, and their natural-sounding harmonics.
The Shangri-La Jr. electrostatic headphone system, including a valve-driven 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 terms of sonic performance is quite an achievement!
Like the reference Shangri-La (which I’ll call the 'Senior'), the 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 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 the reference 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 stators working in close proximity to the diaphragm to increase openness and minimize distortion while 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.
The Junior’s attractive amplifier is more compact and less ambitious than the awesome amplifier provided with the Senior, but it is a honey. It shares a similar circuit structure with the larger Senior model's amplifier and also uses a stepped attenuator volume control to keep the signal pure. While certainly not portable, the Junior’s amplifier is easily 'luggable' and fits comfortably on a desk, tabletop, or nightstand. Its input stage, using four matched 6SN7N valves, produces a wide soundstage and musicality in spades. The Junior amp is a hybrid, mating a Class A output stage with the valve input stage. It is able to drive difficult loads and at the recent AXPONA show, it 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 $5,000 US, or £4,399 UK) is worthy of a separate review—it’s that good!
The Shangri-La Junior and Senior share a lot of the same outstanding sonic attributes—particularly 'see-through' transparency, startling clarity, low colouration, and lightning-fast transients without any smearing. It’s difficult to match the seamless coherency of the Junior with any multi-driver transducer—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, like the natural decay of the 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.