Baker’s Dozen – Headphones & Related Electronics at the Munich High End 2015
As regular Hi-Fi+ newsletter readers will already know, the Munich High End show was massive—so much so that it defied any possible attempt at comprehensive coverage of all the exhibitors present. Accordingly, we took a different tack and instead decided to create a series of reports—collectively called the ‘Baker’s Dozen’ series—that aim to provide a representative sampling in each key product category of some of the hundreds of components seen and heard at the show.
One of my show coverage topics—one that happens to be a personal favourite of mine—is headphones, earphones, and the related electronics that help make them ‘sing’. What you will find, below, is my ‘Baker’s Dozen’ drawn from among the many headphone products I spotted (and in many cases briefly sampled) in Munich. Please note that is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘Best of’ list; rather, it is an attempt to show the depth, breadth, and sheer eclecticism of the headphone offerings on display in the heart of Bavaria.
Astell & Kern AK380 high-resolution balanced-output digital audio player
Any sort of readers’ poll asking about the best portable high-res music player/headphone amplifiers on the market today would inevitably reference Astell & Kern. In fact, when most of us saw the firm’s then-flagship AK240 we assumed the format had gone about as far as it could possibly go (both in terms of features and pricing). Astell&Kern, however, had other ideas and in Munich launched a new über-player (no relation to the taxi-like service of the same name) called the AK380, which sells for an astounding $3,499 and carries nearly every high-res playback feature imaginable. In truth, the AK380 is not just a player/DAC/headphone amp, but more of a playback system, with such available add-on modules as a mini-CD player, a tabletop dock with full balanced output connectors, and even a style-matched, clip-on auxiliary high-output amplifier.
Audio Valve Luminaire hybrid electrostatic/dynamic headphone amplifier
If you spend enough time in the high-end headphone game, you will sooner or later encounter top-tier electrostatic headphones and once that happens you may find—as many have—that to hear them is to want them. One drawback, however, is that electrostatic headphones require dedicated, purpose-built electrostatic headphone amplifiers, so that if you plan on enjoying both electrostatic and traditional dynamic headphones you’re faced with the daunting proposition of needing to buy two headphone amps—one for your ‘stats and the other for the rest of your headphones. The European firm Audio Valve offers a solution, though, in the form of its hybrid valve/solid-state Luminaire headphone amplifier (€2,950), which provides outputs for both dynamic and electrostatic headphones, and performed quite well with either.
Audio-Technica AT-HA5050H desktop headphone amplifier/DAC
Because Audio-Technica is a comparatively large, consumer-minded company it may sometimes be overlooked by serious, high-end orientated headphonistas, but at Munich the Japanese firm staked a claim to its own slice of top-tier territory with a very ambitious hybrid valve/solid-state, Class A, desktop headphone amplifier and high-res DAC called the AT-HA5050H (€6,000). It will be interesting to see how this ‘pull-out-all-the-stops’ design performs with today’s best headphones.
ENIGMAcoustic Dharma hybrid electrostatic/dynamic headphones
ENIGMAcoustics, which is perhaps best known for its add-on Sopranino electrostatic super-tweeter and Mythology M1 hybrid dynamic/electrostatic loudspeakers has been making waves with its excellent new Dharma hybrid dynamic/electrostatic headphone, price at $1,200. Recognising that many prospective buyers have a hard time envisioning just how a dynamic/electrostatic headphone might be configured on the inside, company Sales Director Wei Chang graciously arranged for us to snap a photo of the Dharma’s driver array with its grille covers removed. (Feast your eyes upon the attached photo, which—as the tabloids are fond of saying—reveals all).
Final Sonorous X dynamic-driver headphones
Headphone and earphone aficionados from around the globe were saddened by the passing last June of Mr Kanemori Takai, the visionary founder of the Japanese firm Final Audio Design. Indeed, many of us who had the privilege of meeting Takai-san wondered if the firm would be able to continue without him. But, out of a season of sadness has come hope in the form of the company’s new President, Mitsuru Hosoo, who has years of experience in designing Final products and is exceedingly passionate about music and sound quality. Two of Hosoo-san’s first steps have been to shorten the company name to “Final” (which has an elegant if slightly ominous ring to it), and then to create two very impressive new flagship headphones called the Sonorous VIII and X, the latter priced at approximately £4,000. Their sound is remarkably vivid, cohesive, and above all alive.
HD Klassik AHA-A2XL headphone amplifier with headphone-specific EQ
The German firm HD Klassik is perhaps most widely recognised for its classical music downloads, but at Munich the company was showings its fascinating AHA-A2XL headphone amplifier (€2,500), which is the flagship model in a three-product group of AHA-series headphone amps. What sets the HD Klassik/AHA amps apart from any others I have encountered is that they are explicitly sold with a headphone-specific EQ calibration service, so that—no matter which headphones you may favour—the amp can, at the push of a button, invoke an EQ module that will give your ‘phones very nearly ruler-flat frequency response. I tried the before/after comparison with a set of headphones I knew reasonably well and found that the HD Klassik EQ system really did offer meaningful benefits. Note: The HD Klassik process does require buyers to provide their personal headphones to the company for a brief time in order for calibration measurements to be taken and an appropriate EQ module to be created. If you change headphones in the future, HD Klassik can plot a new calibration curve/EQ module for a nominal €249 fee.
HiFiMAN HE-1000 planar magnetic headphone
HiFiMan’s flagship HE-1000 headphone, which should be in full production release within the next few weeks, pushes the limits of planar magnetic headphone technology and performance to heights that might have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. In Munich, eager listeners waited patiently in line just to get a turn to hear this landmark headphone in action. Pricing is not yet finalised but is expected to fall in the vicinity of $3000. Many who have heard HE-1000 prototypes feel this is either the best (or perhaps one of the two best) headphone being built today (the other ‘king-of-the-hill’ contestant would be the extraordinary Stax SR-009 electrostat). A pair of HE-1000’s is slated for review in Hi-Fi+ and we can hardly wait to give them a thorough evaluation.
JH Audio Siren-series Layla & Angie monitoring grade universal-fit earphones
Jerry Harvey, founder of JH Audio, is famous for his top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors, which are collectively known as the Siren series (so named because each is named for a woman whose name in turn figures prominently in a classic rock’n’roll song title). Most recently, Harvey has created what he regards as his first two ‘monitoring-grade’ models: the flagship Layla ($2,595) and the third from the top-of-the-range Angie ($1,899). What is more, Harvey has made sure these new models are available in both CIEM and universal-fit versions with the universal-fit models sold exclusively through Astell&Kern. I listened briefly to the Layla and Angie and came away favourably impressed by the sheer sonic neutrality of both.
Kingsound KS-M03 portable electrostatic/dynamic headphone amplifier & KS-H4 portable electrostatic headphone
As a general rule, electrostatic headphones tend to be among the highest priced of all headphones types and generally they are excluded from any discussion of portable audio owing to the fact that they require typically large, bulky, purpose-built electrostatic amps. All that may be about to change in light of two new KingSound products announced at Munich: the surprising KS-H4 portable electrostatic headphone (shown in prototype form, but expected to sell for about €800) and astonishing KS-M03 portable electrostatic headphone amplifier (projected price, about €400). Suddenly, it appears the electrostats will be able to go on the road.
LH Labs Geek Out V2 dongle-type USB headphone amplifier/DAC
LH Labs is a spin-off of the high-end company Light Harmonic, makers of the famous Da Vinci DAC, but the product that truly put LH Labs on the map was the superb Geek Out dongle-type USB DAC/headphone amplifier. Now, though, LH Labs is in the process of taking the next great leap forward with the next-gen Geek Out known as the Geek Out V2, priced at $299 (but available for a limited time at an even lower ‘Geek Force’ pre-order price). Compared to the original Geek Out, the V2 is said to offer lower noise, a fully balanced internal configuration, digitally-controlled master gain switching (for either 100mW or 1000mW of maximum output power), both single-ended and balanced outputs, and a new 3D-printed chassis said to afford dramatically better heat management for the amp’s Class A circuitry. Shown here is one of the final V2 prototypes, which LH Labs has loaned to Hi-Fi+ for evaluation.
Questyle QP1R high-resolution digital music player
The Chinese firm Questyle has been earning a solid reputation for its full-size, desktop or rack orientated, purist-grade DACs and headphone amplifiers, but for Munich the Questyle products that most captured our imagination were the new QP1 and QP1R (‘R’ is for Reference) portable high-res player/headphone amps, to sell for €599 and €899 respectively. On the surface the two models seem similar; both incorporate high-res 24/192 PCM and native DSD128-capable DACs, Class A amplification, beautiful milled aluminium chassis with Gorilla-glass faces, a generous amount of on-board memory, plus slots for two Micro SD with capacity of up to 128GB each. However, a closer look reveals that the QP1R features slightly larger built-in memory (32GB vs. 16GB for the QP1), plus uprated spec parts throughout its analogue output section.
RHA audio T20 universal-fit earphones with dual voice-coil drivers
The Scottish firm RHA Audio is rightly famous for its extremely well-made yet extremely affordable universal fit earphones and that tradition continued in fine form at Munich with the roll out of the firm’s new flagship T20 earphone, priced at €229.95. From an electro-mechanical perspective, the T20 is the most sophisticated RHA model ever, sporting an innovative (and quite challenging to manufacture) miniature dual-voice coil dynamic driver. In practical terms, the new T20 builds upon the solid sonic foundation established by the firm’s earlier T10i model, but dials up significantly higher levels of resolution and nuance than its predecessor.
Sennheiser HD-630VB headphone with variable low frequency output control
As music lovers around the globe know, Sennheiser’s audiophile-oriented headphones are collectively known as ‘HD’ models, so it is big deal whenever a new HD model is added to the range. For Munich, Sennheiser announce its new third-from-the-top of range HD 630VB (‘VB’ stands for Variable Bass), priced as €499. Unlike any of Sennheiser’s other top-tier HD-series models, the HD 630VB is geared for discerning high-end listeners who might want to take their top-tier ‘phones out of the home environment to use them while on the go. Accordingly, the HD 630VB sports a dynamic driver rated for 10 Hz – 42kHz frequency response, a rugged collapsible frame, built-in iDevice controls, and an ear cup-mounted variable bass output control.
OK, we confess that we just couldn’t help but mention a fourteenth set of products, rather than stopping at the promised ‘Baker’s Dozen’. What can we say? We love great headphones…
Ultrasone Edition 8 Carbon and Edition M headphones
By tradition the German firm Ultrasone has called its top-tier headphones Edition-series models, such as the exotic and expensive Edition 5, which has recently captured the heart, mind, and ears of Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom. For Munich, Ultrasone expanded its Edition family with two new models: the Edition 8 Carbon (€1,699) and the Edition M (€899). The latter model is not only one of the more affordable Edition models yet offered, but is to our knowledge the first on-ear headphone to earn status as an Edition model. All Edition models use some form of Ultrasone’s signature S-Logic technology, which strives to give headphones (and their users) a more loudspeaker-like listening perspective. A company spokesperson indicated that it was a challenge to fit S-Logic technology within the tight confines of the Edition M’s compact ear-cups, but a brief listen suggested that they had somehow pulled off the feat.
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