Both the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and CanJam, the well-loved personal audio-centred show-within-a-show faced physical plant obstacles and setbacks that might have stopped lesser shows in their tracks. What happened?
Well, in simple terms, the Marriott Denver Tech Center hotel, which is the traditional home of RMAF and CanJam had been undergoing massive renovations since about November of 2015, and had promised the renovations would be complete in time for the 2016 show. However, late in the game and as the show dates loomed large it became apparent to all involved that the renovations couldn’t and wouldn’t be completed and that—worse yet—virtually all of the traditional CanJam exhibit spaces and many of the RMAF exhibit rooms would be unavailable for use.
Now you might think these circumstances would spell certain disaster for both shows, but the fact is that RMAF, headed by the indefatigable and unsinkable Marjorie Baumert, and CanJam, promoted by Head-Fi founder Jude Mansilla and CanJam event promoter Ethan Opolion, simply refused to let that happen. Instead, Baumert, Mansilla, and Opolion rolled up their sleeves and went to work, no doubt burning copious quantities of midnight oil in the process, and through sheer love for our hobby and the industry that supports it, they turned what could have been a royal mess into one of the most vibrant and upbeat audio event I’ve attended in a long, long time. As anyone who attended the event could tell you, we owe these remarkable people a huge vote of thanks.
So how did CanJam solve its daunting, “there is no room at the inn” problem? The answer was to construct a giant tent pavilion in what was formerly the front parking lot of the Marriott Tech Center and to move most of the personal audio exhibitors out there. (See, we’ve been telling you right along that personal audio is truly a ‘big tent’ way to experience high quality music playback, and now we’ve got proof…). Next, CanJam, um, ‘borrowed’ a couple of additional ground floor exhibit spaces to house some of the overflow number of manufacturers who wished to exhibit. As a result, the tent venue notwithstanding, CanJam at RMAF 2016 had more exhibitors than ever before and drew enthusiastic crowds on all three days of the show.
What follows are product highlights from most of the manufacturers I visited, though let me offer apologies in advance to any I may have missed. It was a very big show and Editor Alan Sircom and I did our best to cover as much of the event as we could.
· Part 1 of our report covers: 1MORE, 64 Audio, Abyss Headphones, AmpsandSound, Abyss Headphones, Astell & Kern, Atomic Floyd, Audeze, Audio-Technica, AudioQuest, Aune, Aurender, Base Audio, Beyerdynamic, and Bryston.
Following close on the heels of its very successful E1001 Triple Driver earphones and C1002 Dual-Driver capsule-type earphones (as recently reviewed in Hi-Fi+), the value minded firm 1MORE has now directed its attention toward a timely new full size Bluetooth enabled over-the-ear headphone called the MK802, which is priced at a modest $149.99. The MK802 is no mere ‘me-too’ Bluetooth model, however, but rather breaks new ground in several significant ways, while following the established 1MORE ethos of offering exceptional value for money.
Specifically, the MK802 features Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity with aptX coding, offers a frame and ear cup housings made of TR-90 synthetic titanium, and—get this—a driver whose diaphragm is made of Beryllium. By design, the MK802’s ear cup-mounted controls are compatible with Apple iOS and Android give users fingertip access, says 1MORE, to “control Bluetooth, 1MORE App, volume, select songs, take calls, and activate voice control.” Rarely has so much technology and value been offered for so little.
64 Audio, formerly 1964 Ears, took the opportunity to preview two indirectly related upcoming universal fit earphone models that should appear later in Q4, 2016; the models are known, respectively, as the U18 Tzar (~$3,000) and the TIA Fourté (~$3,500). Both models use 64 Audio’s new TIA (tubeless in-ear audio technology), where 64 Ears uses what is in essence a set of enclosure-less, bore tubeless balanced armature drivers running as direct radiators that load into front-vented, “frequency shaping acoustic chambers” that provide all the damping the drivers require.
The TIA Fourté is a four-driver earphone (with a low, low mid, hi0mid, and high frequency driver array) where each driver in the array uses TIA technology. The TIA Fourté is, then, the most pure expression of what TIA technology can do. According to 64 Audio, benefits include “extended depth and frequency response.”
The U18 Tzar is more of a transitional, hybrid earphone that uses a very sophisticated 18-driver array (with eight low-frequency balanced armature drivers, eight balanced midrange drivers, one balanced armature hi-mid driver, and one TIA-type high frequency driver. Interestingly, the U18 Tzar positions it high frequency TIA driver directly in the earphone’s output stem, so that—in keeping with the TIA concept—no bore tube is required.
In passing, we should note that 64 Audio and Stephen Ambrose (inventor of the ADEL—Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lens—system) have decided to go separate ways. However, 64 Audio still firmly believes in the concept of reducing unnecessarily high in-ear pneumatic pressures—the very problem that ADEL technology was originally created in order to solve. Now, as an alternative, 64 Audio has introduced its own APEX (Air Pressure Exchange) system, which provides “a pneumatically interactive vent” that is said to relieve “air pressure caused by miniature speakers in a sealed air canal.” We have review samples of APEX-equipped 64 Audio monitors coming later this year and hope to make a full Hi-Fi+ report on the technology.
Abyss has a new planar magnetic headphone called the Diana coming in the fairly near term, but the firm chose not to show the model at CanJam as it is still ironing out some supply chain issues that could potentially influence the configuration of the final product units. In a nutshell, though, the Diana is intended as a lighter and noticeably more compact and elegant planar magnetic headphone that is planned to incorporate many of the strength of the firm’s excellent but undeniably bulky and unorthodox-looking flagship AB-1266 planar magnetic model.
Compared to the early days, the AB-1266 is now offered in configurations whose price now starts at $4,500 (where in the beginning the AB-1266 sold for well over $5,000). Despite the hefty price tag, however, the AB-1266 continues to sell briskly so that the challenge for Abyss, says company founder, is keeping up with demand.
In other news, Abyss has teamed with Lotoo to distribute that firm’s powerful PAW Gold digital audio player, which is one of the few devices of its type with sufficient ‘grunt’ and ‘oomph’ to be able to drive the power-hungry Abyss headphones. In fact, Abyss has collaborated with Lotoo to create a new ‘Diana Edition’ version of the PAW Gold that offers extra-high gain.
The California-based firm AmpsandSound enjoys a reputation for building high-quality valve-powered headphone (and conventional stereo amplifiers) that are inspired by old-school valve circuit concepts rendered in a modern, up-to-the-minute way. The result is something very special: a classic union of ‘something old’ and ‘something new’, with a house sound that is silky smooth and endlessly evocative. Two amps highlighted at the show were the Agartha ($3,600) and the Leeloo ($1,850), with the latter named for the heroine of the film The Fifth Element.
The Agartha is a 300B-based design features a single gain stage, zero feedback, and that uses special grounding techniques to minimise hum and noise. The Agartha is capable of quite high output power: 5 watts RMS at 8 ohms and 1.5 watts RMS at 32 Ohms.
The Leeloo, in turn, is based on a single 12 AX7 valve and dual EL84 valves and is said to offer “the best of single-ended bliss, ultra linear power, and mild feedback for improved frequency extension and (a lower) noise floor.”
Astell & Kern
Astell & Kern brought a brace of enticing new audio toys to CanJam/RMAF 2016, including a new and relatively low-priced DAP, a strikingly affordable new universal fit earphone, and a cool little Bluetooth-enabled headphone amp that should be just the ticket for iPhone 7 owners who would otherwise be left to lament the passing of the oh-so-vital headphone jack that Apple thoughtfully (?) removed from their phones.
First up was the AK 70 digital audio player, which provides Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, offers Tidal support, can handle both PCM files at resolutions up to 24/192 as well as DSD files (which are automatically converted into PCM format for decoding). The AK 70 provides 64 GB of internal memory and a Micro SD card slot for external memory. Best of all, the AK 70 shares the same user interface with the AK Junior DAP as well as A&K flagship 300-series models. So, if you’ve always coveted the A&K sound but didn’t think you could afford to get in the game, now you can.
Next up was the 3-way Michelle universal-fit earphone developed for A&K but none other than Jerry Harvey Audio. Actually, the Michelle represents the newest and by far the least expensive model in JH Audio’s Siren Series range, which comprises the Angie, the Roxanne, and the flagship Layla. When you consider that all the upper-level Siren models carry four-figure price taps, it’s pretty amazing that JHA saw fit to build a model at the $499 price point. But let’s count our blessings; the Michelle is hear now and sounds great.
Finally, A&K has tackled head on the iPhone 7’s grievous lack of a headphone jack through the mechanism of its cute little hockey puck-shaped AK XB10 portable, aptX-equipped, Bluetooth enabled headphone amp. Just plunk the AK XB10 down a flat surface within reasonable proximity to your smartphone, plug in you favourite passive earphones (as God intended), and you’re good to go. Thank you A&K, for restoring what those crazy, world-domination types over at Apple have tried to take away from us.
For about the past umpteen headphone shows I have attended, the British firm Atomic Floyd indicated it was ‘almost finished’ with its extensive re-design and re-voicing of the firm’s iconic High Def Drum universal-fit earphone. But for CanJam/RAMAF 2016 I’m pleased the report that the next-gen High Def Drum is well and truly finished and will be available momentarily, priced at $199 or £149.
Audeze wowed show attendees with its almost totally unexpected new iSine in-ear planar magnetic earphones, which are offered in two forms: the entry-level iSine 10 ($399) or the more upscale iSine 20 ($599).
The unorthodox iSine uses a 30mm planar magnetic driver complete with Audeze’s signature Fluxor magnet technology (as is also used in the firm’s full-size circumaural planar magnetic headphones), whose outer housing looks a bit like the ‘wing’ of the famous Tie-fighter of Star Wars fame. The driver enclosure is suspended just outside the wearer’s ears by a system of so-called Ear Hooks and Ear Locks that are a bit tricky to use at first, but that prove extremely comfortable and secure once they are in place. On the inboard side of the driver ‘wings’, there is an angled sound outlet tube that fits in the ear canal and that can be equipped with any of several included sizes of ear tips.
Last but not least, the iSines come with both a 1.5m passive signal cable and with an Apple Lightning plug-equipped active Cipher cable, which provides both amplification and DSP functions.
Having tried the iSine with both the passive and active Cipher cables, I can confidently say that while both are good, the design’s full performance potential only becomes apparent with the Cipher cable in use.
On first listen, the iSine 20 struck me as being one of best sounding in-ear transducers I’ve heard in a very long time, and it also strikes me as one of the most exciting and cost-effective products Audeze has yet released. Never mind the peculiar styling (it may soon grow on you); just go hear them.
Audio-Technica showed its flagship AT-H5050H headphone amplifier/DAC, which sells for $6,000. The AT-H5050H is a hybrid valve/solid-state design that incorporates a 32/384 plus DSD128-capable DAC, coupled with an extremely flexible, multi-input headphone amp that provides two sets each of outputs optimised for 0.1, 33, 82, and 120 ohm output impedance.
The AT-H5050H provides S/PDIF and USB digital inputs, plus both single-ended and balanced analogue inputs. Moreover, the amp features multiple function-specific power supplies, each optimised for a specific section of the amplifier circuit. Completing the picture is a large volume control knob flanked by cool, retro-looking VU meters that add a classic vibe.
AudioQuest’s CanJam presentation focused on the firm’s previous released Dragonfly Red and Black USB DAC/amps, but more importantly centred on the firm’s new NightOwl semi-closed back headphone ($699), which is the latest variant on the design theme established by the firm’s NightHawk headphone.
Where the original NightHawk was a semi-open-back design with a clever biomimetic damped vent to the rear of its dynamic driver, the NightOwl takes the opposite tack: it’s a semi-closed-back design that features a (mostly) closed surface behind the driver, but one that actually features subtly concealed resistive vents. At first listen, the NightOwl struck me as offering a more defined and sharply focused sound than the original NightHawk, with more crisply rendered transient details and leading edges of notes. With that said, however, the NightOwl seems very well balanced with no tendency toward overt brightness (it’s just that is gives up a touch of the NightHawk’s innate warmth for what may well prove to be a more accurate sound overall).
We’re very eager to spend more time with the NightOwl so as to put it through its paces.
Part of the fun of any CanJam event involves learning about new brand and a new one for me was the Chinese brand Aune (pronounced, more or less, “On”). Aune is all about offering compact, well priced and extremely feature-rich ‘mini audio components”.
Two particular highlights of Aune’s show offerings included the 145mm wide Aune X7s balanced-output class A headphone amplifier ($249) and its companion (also 145mm wide) X1s 32/384 capable, DSD 128-capable mini USB DAC ($249). Not only do these components show how good things can come in very small packages; they also show how once exotic technologies are now becoming very affordable indeed.
We normally think of Aurender as a master manufacturer of audiophile-grade servers, but at CanJam 2016 the firm, which was ably represented by Moon Audio, was demonstrating its clever new model A10 server/DAC, which is basically what would happen if Aurender’s 4TB N100 server got married to a high performance DAC. The end result is what many would consider a wonderful, single-chassis front-end device that not only stores and organises vast quantities of musical content, but also ably handles playback of that content. The A10 sells for $5,500.
The Scottsdale, Arizona-based firm Base Audio has a vision for building an affordable, versatile, comfortable, very high quality, and sonically satisfying headphone that is USA made and yet affordably priced. The result of this vision is the firm’s new Reflex G7 semi-open-back headphone ($300), which features an aluminium frame and ear cup assemblies and a revealing 40mm driver.
We hope to take a closer look at the Reflex G7 in an upcoming issue of Hi-Fi+.
Beyerdynamic showed two new Tesla technology-inspired headphones at CanJam 2016.
First, we have the light, comfortable, open-back Amiron headphone ($599), which offers a generally neutral sound with hints of forgiving warmth that help make the Amiron perfect for general purpose consumer/home use.
Then, we have beautifully-finished open-back DT 1990 Pro headphone (also $599), which comes with two sets of ear pads offering different acoustic tuning profiles and two sets of signal cable—one straight and the other coiled. As the DT 1990 Pro’s name suggests, the headphone is intended for professional monitoring application, which means that it offers dead neutral and almost accurate-to-a-fault voicing that is extremely revealing, but not particularly forgiving of mediocre recordings.
Either way, both models offer a lot of value for the money.
For CanJam 2016 the Canadian firm Bryston was showing its affordable new BDP-π (pronounced BDP-pie) digital music player ($1,295), which is based upon the Raspberry Pi and HifBerry platform. Bryston says the BDP-π “is faster and more capable than our classic BDP-1 yet fits in a chassis 1/3rd as wide as our full-size gear and costs less that half of a flagship BDP-2.”
The BDP-π can be connected to USB and NAS drives, provides four digital outputs (USB/ HDMI, S/PDIF, and Toslink), can handle virtually all common music file types, and can decode PCM files up to 24/192 (but there’s no DSD support). What is more, the BDP-π offers Tidal, MQA, and Roon support and or34w iOS, Android, and desktop app control. Think of the BDP-π, then, as the ‘little big player’.
Stay tuned as we release Parts 2, 3, and 4 of our coverage from CanJam/RMAF 2016.
Until then, happy listening.
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