A big thanks go to Todd at TTVJ Audio for continuing his loaner program, which this review is a result of.
The high-end in the headphone world is increasingly becoming a crowded field. It’s almost become commonplace to marvel at the technological advances that each headphone offers in this rarefied strata. One of the new kids on the block is ENIGMAcoustics with their Dharma D1000 headphone. In this case, the engineers and designers at ENIGMAcoustics seem to have brought their experience with the Sopranino from the loudspeaker domain to the headphone world. The design mates a dynamic paper-based driver with a ‘self-biasing’ electrostatic panel in a supertweeter configuration. As the manual states, a “phase coherent high pass filter imperceptibly transitions the Washi paper diaphragm to the electrostatic tweeter.” The tweeter’s response stretches out to 40 kHz with the express purpose of preserving aspects of musical truth (e.g. air and inner detail) as befits the headphone’s name.
The headphone is handsomely finished in matte black metal with a genuine leather wrapped steel headband providing the clamping force and a self-adjusting headpad suspending the gimbled earcups in place. The earpads are clad in protein leather and filled with memory foam. I found the clamping force to be fairly comfortable for an album’s worth of listening, but the play in the self-adjusting headpad was a little too loose for my taste. Overall fit was a slight issue: whenever I leaned forward, it always seemed that the headphones were ready to slip off my head. Or maybe I have a weirdly shaped noggin. Included with the packaging materials is a cable quite similar to the HD 800 stock cable replete with anodized aluminum connectors and 1/4 inch gold-plated termination. Rounding out the package is a gold plated 1/4 inch to 3.5 mm adapter.
I listened to the Dharma connected directly to the Meridian Explorer 2 as well as with the CI Audio VHP-1 / VAC-1 headphone amp with the Explorer 2 serving as a DAC. The Dharma was transparent enough that I could clearly hear how each setup differed. The overall sonic landscape consisted of a spacious lateral soundstage, a smooth, extended treble response, and a laid-back presentation. Music – particularly classical – seemed to flow effortlessly from the Dharma. The final movement from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (Chesky, CD 2) received royal treatment sounding clear with good imaging and a wide soundstage. The Dharma’s laid-back personality worked in its favor here, imparting a sense of depth and spaciousness. On Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony (Telarc, SACD-60634, CD layer), the Dharma captured the acoustic of the performance venue (in this case, a church) with the organ sounding authoritative and powerful. Yet for all the bass quantity responsible for the organ’s resplendent sonority, I felt that there was a lack of bass quality. The mallet strikes on the timpani during the finale softened with the Dharma, robbing the performance of some dramatic impact.
Sometimes the ripeness in the bottom octaves could also be considered an advantage. On “You’d Be Nice To Come Home To” from Bass on Top (Blue Note, ISBN 0946 3 93182 2 3), Chambers’ upright bass sounded full and weighty, though at the expense of some articulation. Snare strikes were snappy and Hank Jones’ turn on the piano sounded expressive and clear. Listening more closely, however, I felt that the Dharma toned down the midrange just a smidge – drums lacked some body; piano and guitar didn’t quite possess the warm, round tone I’m used to. Cymbals, however, sounded extended and clean – perhaps the electrostatic panel being put to work. Switching in a 24/192 copy of Blue Train (HDtracks, AIFF converted to WAV), I noticed that the tonal balance of brass instruments and the piano were more vibrant, reminding me more of the recent RVG edition than the warmer HDtracks remaster. Also, Guaraldi’s piano on “Christmastime Is Here (Instrumental)” from the 2012 remaster of A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, FAN-34027) came across a little bit leaner than usual and, on some of the harder jabs at the keys, took on a glassy character.
The Dharma was generally refined and composed on more modern fare. It never strained to reproduce Florence Welch’s vocals on “Shake It Out” (Universal Republic, B0016297-02), nor did it squash the layering of voices and instruments on The National’s “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” (4AD, CAD3X49CD). However the perceived depth that it offered up on classical music caused it to sound somewhat distant and a shade cooler in terms of tonal color on vocals. Berninger’s baritone lost some of its resonant character and Adele’s voice on “Hello” (XL Recordings, 88875176782) was less immediate. Leslie Feist’s vocals on “1234” from The Reminder (Cherrytree/Interscope Records, B0008819-02) had an ethereal quality to them, though sometimes the Dharma evoked the impression of a good reproduction rather than a real performance. Bass lent most tracks great rhythmic drive, but ended up being just a touch heavy-handed for simpler arrangements. On “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge Records, MRG424), the lower notes on M. Ward’s plucked electric guitar seemed to bloom just a bit too much which, coupled with the plentiful echo effects, caused them to dominate the mix.
I spent most of my time going back and forth between the Dharma, the Sennheiser HD 600, and the NAD VISO HP50. Not exactly lofty company, but I think instructive nonetheless. The HD 600’s soundstage was decidedly narrower than the Dharma’s and didn’t image quite as well. Whereas the Dharma had a mid-hall feel to it, the Sennheisers were much more front-row without being aggressive. I also felt that the HD 600’s midrange sounded warmer and more natural than the Dharma’s, though it didn’t offer up the bass of the latter. Against the NAD, the Dharma clearly had an edge in the treble. Cymbals in particular had more presence and sheen to them. However, the bass on the HP50’s sounded tighter and more textured. My suspicion is that the Dharma traded ultimate accuracy for the perception of extended bass, in much the same fashion as some two-way standmount speakers do to sound ‘bigger’.
It’s easy to break into the high-end arena in terms of price; it’s harder to stay in the high-end when measured by performance. On paper, the ENIGMAcoustics team seems to have assembled all the pieces required for a masterpiece. In practice, there are many moments of sonic brilliance, just not as consistent as I think the price suggests. No doubt the Dharma D1000 will be appreciated for its spaciousness and sweet treble, but it seems destined to be a niche headphone. That’s not necessarily a bad position to be in, since I believe ENIGMAcoustics has the talent in place to take the Dharma to a higher plane.
Headphones – NAD VISO HP50, Sennheiser HD 600
Amplification – CI Audio VHP-1 / VAC-1, Meridian Explorer 2
Sources – Meridian Explorer 2
Cabling – Blue Jeans MSA-1
Power – AudioQuest JitterBug