CanJam at RMAF 2016 – Part 3 of 4
- Chris Martens
- Nov 2016
Part 3 of our report covers: HiFiMAN, Holo Audio, iFi Audio, Jays, JDS Labs, JH Audio, Koss, Labkable, Little Dot, Lotoo, Meze, MrSpeakers, Noble Audio, and oBravo.
Find Part 1 our CanJam report here: https://hifiplus.com/articles/canjam-at-rmaf-2016-part-1-of-4/
Find Part 2 our CanJam report here: https://hifiplus.com/articles/canjam-at-rmaf-2016-part-2-of-4/
Over the course of a number of recent audio shows, HiFiMAN has shown successive prototype versions of its upcoming Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system, comprising both a cost-no-object electrostatic headphone and matching electrostatic headphone amplifier.
For CanJam RMAF 2016, however, HiFiMAN rolled out the finished, production-ready Shangri-La system for the very first time, with a dramatically re-worked version of the valve-powered Shangri-La electrostatic amp and an also significantly re-worked version of the Shangri-La electrostatic headphone. The amp now sports an all-new, angular, cantilevered and wonderfully eye-catching new industrial design created for HiFiMAN by Catalano Designs. The circuit is based on quad 300B valves and quad 6SN7 valves.
The headphone, in turn, also showed some industrial design changes (many of them in keeping with changes applied in HiFiMAN’s v2-series planar magnetic headphones). In keeping with past HiFiMAN practice for top-tier headphones, the Shangri-La electrostat features a sub-micro-meter thickness diaphragm and uses a proprietary process to distribute conductive nanoparticles evenly over the diaphragm surface—leading, we presume, to more even response over entire playing surface of the diaphragm.
HiFiMAN founder Dr Fang Bian has been quite forthright in stating that his aim with the Shangri-La system has been to exceed the performance of Sennheiser’s ultra-expensive HE1 electrostatic headphone system and accordingly the Shangri-La system will be priced at a breath taking $50,000; HiFiMAN will begin taking advance orders shortly with a three-month production wait for each build-to-order system.
Two questions of course come to mind. First, is the Shangri-La system really better than Sennheiser’s HE1 system? The answer to that one will have to wait until the Shangri-La system can be heard at some length in a much quieter setting than that afforded by the extremely noisy big tent at CanJam. The open-back Shangri-La headphone is particularly susceptible to background noise as there is only a minimalist driver frame and also minimalist protective grille on the rear side of the driver. The good news is that these design features help give the headphone astonishing transparency and the ability to resolve ultra-low-level sonic details, but the downside is that the headphones also allow background noise to pass right through, almost unimpeded.
The second question, which many are bound to ask, is whether the world really needs or wants a $50,000 headphone system, no matter how good it might be. The answer to that question will be market driven, of course, but my gut instinct is that there will be more takers than we might think. Sennheiser, for example, has indicated that when it begins production on its comparably expensive HE1 system, there is a very real likelihood that the system will be back ordered for the better part of year—if not more. Stay tuned. Given the rare and exotic nature of this system, we can’t guarantee that it will be possible to arrange a Hi-Fi+ review, but we’ll do our best…
One of my favourite new products from CanJam RMAF 2016 was/is the Holo Audio Spring DAC – Level 3 Kitsuné-tuned edition, with silver O-type transformer upgrade and Jensen capacitor upgrades, priced at $2,399. According to the manufacturer the Spring DAC uses “patented R2R (ladder DAC) technology”, where there are two ladders per each +/- channel. Holo Audio adds that, “this is the first discrete DAC that has linear compensation and this allows for ultimate music reproduction accuracy. (There is a) Dual R2R network for PCM and Dual RSR network for DSD.”
In a brief listening session, I felt the Holo Audio Spring DAC with Kitsuné upgrades sounded very promising. For those who appreciate the general concept of the Holo Audio Spring DAC, but aren’t so sure about the Kitsuné upgrades, a standard version of the DAC sells for $1,699.
The British firm iFi Audio focused on revealing the three new products that together will comprise the firm’s new Pro-series product family—the most ambitious offerings from iFi Audio to date. As the centrepiece of the family we have the Pro iCAN headphone amplifier/preamp ($1,999), which is a high-powered, low-noise, fully balanced amplifier that offers three user selectable front-end circuitry options: solid-state, valve, or valve + (much like the valve setting, but with reduced loop gain and lower negative feedback). Additionally, the Pro iCAN offers its own versions of the firm’s signature 3D Holographic sound circuit (one version optimised for headphones, the other for loudspeakers) as well a version of the firm XBass low frequency correction system.
Expanding the range will be the upcoming Pro iDSD DAC, which in a sense can be viewed as a descendant of both the firm’s Micro iDSD and Micro iDAC2, but on ‘steroids’ ~$1,999). The Pro iDSD is a fully balanced DAC based on quad Burr-Brown native DSD chipsets that is capable of decoding virtually every high-res PCM and DSD format yet conceived (including even the really high-res, hypothetical ones like ‘octo-DSD’, etc.). The DAC incorporates, says iFi, “passive CLC filtering for better suppression of noise”. The Pro iDSD will reprise the Pro iCAN’s solid-state, valve, and valve + front end circuitry options. The Pro iDSD can accept outboard 10MHz, Atomic Clock, or DARS (Digital Audio Reference Signal – AES11) clock inputs, or it can serve as its own clock master for 10MHz or DARS clocking signals.
Last but not least will come the new Pro iEnergiser (~$1,999), which can be used as an add-on companion product to the Pro iCAN or as a standalone product in its own right. Either way, think of the Pro iEnergiser as a bolt-on electrostatic headphone amplifier that can work either in conjunction with a Pro iCAN (via a dedicated, single-cable link between the Pro iCAN and the Pro iEnergiser, which was how the pair was shown at CanJam RMAF 2016) or for use with a standard speaker-orientated amplifier (via a set of speaker tap input/outputs on the rear panel of the Pro iEnergiser). The Pro iEnergiser can deliver 100dB @ 100V (as required by many Stax headphone models) and provides a range of electrostatic headphone bias voltage options including: 230V bias for 6-pin plug connected Stax headphones, 580V bias for 5-pin plug connected Stax Pro headphones, plus variable 500V – 640V bias options to accommodate other makes of electrostatic headphones that also use the Stax-type 5-pin Pro connections. A good example would be the spectacular new MrSpeakers ETHER ES electrostatic headphones with which the Pro iEnergiser was being demonstrated, nicely showing off the exceptional sound quality of which the Pro iEnergiser is capable.
Like many volume-orientated headphone and earphone manufacturers, the Swedish firm Jays is responding to Apple’s new headphone jack-less iPhone 7 (what were they thinking?) with the firm’s first-ever Bluetooth headphone—the u-Jays Wireless headphone ($179.95), which is based on the popular u-Jays passive headphone.
Like the passive-Jays model, the u-Jays Wireless headphone features purpose-built dynamic drivers that deliberately treat the headphone ear cups and ear pads as a complete acoustic system, and that feature Japanese-silk driver diaphragms said to yield “crystal clear details” and “deep bass response.” Moreover, the headphone features “soft viscoelastic ear pads claimed to provide “superior sound isolation” and wearer comfort.
The u-Jays Wireless features full-featured touch control and wireless system offering 25+ hours of playback time per charge. A welcome touch is a control lock that “secures the controls to avoid unintentional interruption.”
Up to this point, the Collinsville, Illinois-based firm JDS Labs has perhaps been best known for its modestly-priced but very good-sounding Element headphone amp/DAC ($349), but that may be about to change thanks to the introduction of two upcoming products.
First, JDS Labs will launch the new Element DAC (~$299). To be clear, the Element DAC is not merely the DAC section of the original Element amp/DAC broken out into a separate chassis, but rather is an all-new, AK-4490-based DAC designed to take the firm’s digital audio performance capabilities up to a whole new level. Then, JDS plans to follow the Element DAC with the dedicated, amplifier-only Element Amp (~$200).
The concept, clearly, is that the next performance step up from the present day Element amp/DAC, which is the product responsible for putting JDS Labs on the personal audio map, would be to order up the combo of an Element DAC and matching Element Amp (presumably for a tick under $500).
The Orlando, Florida-based firm JH Audio is one of the most widely recognised makers of custom-fit in-ear monitors (CIEMs) on the planet, so when the firm announces major revisions to its product line that’s invariable big news in the personal audio community.
For CanJam RMAF 2016 the firm’s demonstration were focussed heavily on two new CIEM models that happen to fall at nearly opposite ends of the pricing spectrum. Up near the top, we have the firm’s new Performance Series JH16V2 PRO model (starting at $1,499), which incorporates JH Audio’s proprietary soundriVe balanced armature-type driver arrays—in this case quad low-frequency driver array, a dual midrange driver array, and a quad high frequency driver array. The driver arrays load into triple bores using the firm’s signature Freqphase steel tube waveguides, which co-optimise both frequency and phase response. Finally, lifting a design touch from some of JH Audio’s top-tier Siren-series CIEMs, the new JH16V2 PRO incorporates the firm’s patented variable bass features through which a user control embedded in the CIEM’s signal cables allows a ± 10dB adjustment in low-frequency output, to suit the user’s tastes.
At the other end of the price spectrum, JH Audio rolled out what I believe might be its most affordable CIEM to date: namely, the new JH3X PRO, starting at just $599. The JH3X PRO is a two-way, dual-bore, triple balanced armature-type driver-equipped CIEM said to offer “low end punch and upper mid detail that’s unparalleled by it’s rivals.” Like other JH Audio CIEMs, the JH3X PRO uses bore tubes leveraging Freqphase technology.
The venerable Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based headphone manufacturer Koss sometimes goes overlooked in discussions of top-tier headphones, which is a shame. The fact of the matter is that Koss may have ‘painted its masterpiece’ in terms of headphone design so long ago that the product in question has by now all but fallen off of the radar screens of some high-end headphonistas.
What product am I referencing? I’m thinking of none other than Koss’ rather remarkable ESP/950 electrostatic headphone system, which sells for a comparatively modest $1,000—for the headphone with electrostatic energiser included. At CanJam RMAF 2016 I took the opportunity to give the ESP/950 a careful listen with fresh ears and came away favourably impressed.
Honestly, it occurred to me that the ESP/950 was developed so long ago that it was probably far better than many of the source components then used to feed it. Now, with much more modern source components on tap, it’s much easier to grasp the performance benefits of the design, among which are transparency, lightning-quick transient response, and reasonably neutral frequency response. In short, this design is a classic example of an oldie but goodie that arguably arrived on the market before its time. I think it’s well worth a second look.
Labkable is a Hong Kong-based manufacturer of exotic and highly specialised high-performance signal cable sets for many of today’s top-tier earphones, CIEMs, and headphones.
Coming into CanJam RMAF 2016, I knew relatively little about the firm, so I took the opportunity to try a set of Labkable Samurai III signal cables ($870) with my reference pair of Westone’s flagship W80 universal-fit earphones. The Samurai III cables feature—get this—platinum alloy conductors.
Those of you who know Westone’s W80 will be aware that the earphone ships with an excellent set of relatively expensive aftermarket signal cables worth approximately $300. Given this, I really wasn’t sure how much, if any, difference the Labkable Samurai III cables would or could make. To my surprise, though, the Samurai III cables made a substantial difference, lifting the already superb performance of the W80s to a noticeably higher and more musically satisfying level.
What can I say? It was sad moment when I had to unplug the Samurai III demo samples and revert back to the W80’s original cables. (I suppose this can be chalked up to the old adage, which holds that, “The great is the enemy of the very good…” ) close brackets Great job Labkable.
The Little Dot brand, whose products are built by the Chinese firm Shenzhen Audio, specialises in making high value, valve-powered headphone amplifiers. A great example would be the Little Dot Mk9 amplifier shown here as demonstrated at the Dana Cable display booth at CanJam RMAF 2016. The Little Dot Mk9 uses a complement of one 6NN9P valve and two 6080 valves in a single-ended push-pull, OCL, direct coupled headphone amplifier that is available through Amazon.com for $559.99.
Also shown in this image are Dana Cables signal cable sets, available for many top-end headphones, which sell for $549 – $1,399.
The Chinese firm Lotoo is known for its powerful and robustly built high-res digital audio players and for CanJam RMAF 2016 the firm was showing a proposed new product bundle (price TBD) consisting of Lotoo’s flagship Lotoo PAW Gold DAP as reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 129 and the ENIGMAcoustics hybrid electrostatic/dynamic headphone as reviewed in Hi-FI+ issue 138.
In the Abyss booth adjacent to the Lotoo exhibit space, the firm was also showing a new Diana Edition version of the PAW Gold—a version with higher gain than the standard model and that is offered in anticipation of Abyss’ upcoming Diana planar magnetic headphone. Abyss president Joe Skubinski observed that he had found very few DAPs that could drive his firm’s admittedly power-hungry headphones, but that Lotoo’s PAW Gold (and specifically the PAW Gold Diana-edition) fitted the bill quite nicely. The Diana Edition model is expected to sell for about $2,379 (or roughly $179 more than the standard PAW Gold).
Thus far, Meze Headphones is perhaps best known for its full-size 99 Classics headphones as reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 134, but at CanJam RMAF 2016 (as at some of the other headphone shows leading up to CanJam RMAF) Meze focused on showing a cost-reduced version of the 99 Classics called the 99 Neo (priced at $250, versus the $309 price of the Classics). Where the Classics feature gorgeous oiled-finish walnut or maple ear cups, the 99 Neo instead offers less costly but functionally identical all matt black ear cups—a trade-off I suspect many buyers might willingly embrace.
Further, Meze continues in its launches for two similar but not identical ranges of universal-fit earphones: the 12 Classics that—you guessed it—sport hardwood walnut earpiece sleeves surrounding aluminium enclosures (priced at $79) and the 11 Neo that features a full aluminium earpiece enclosure offered in Gun Metal or Iridium finishes (priced at $59). Both models offer a lot of value for money, so that the primary question may be whether you prefer the look of wood or metal.
MrSpeaker’s display at CanJam RMAF featured the firm’s recently released ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow planar magnetic headphones (priced between $1,799 and $1849 depending on signal cable options chosen). Both ETHER Flow models could be observed throughout the show and on demonstration in various manufacturers’ booths, where the Flows were rightly treated as ‘reference-grade’ planar magnetic headphones. The ETHER Flow, by the way, is reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 141.
But perhaps an even more significant part of the MrSpeakers display involved the now finalised ETHER ES electrostatic headphone, which is expected to sell for “under $3,000”, but is intended to compete with any high-end headphones on the planet, regardless of the price. Based on impressions from the show, I expect the ETHER ES will be a sonic force to be reckoned with, to say the least. MrSpeakers president Dan Clark told Hi-Fi+ that the ETHER ES design is finished from a sonic perspective, but that there are a few production-related items remaining to be fine-tuned and finalised. Have we finally got a headphone that can meet or beat the performance of the legendary Stax SR-009? Only time will tell, but indications thus far are positive indeed.
The Santa Barbara, California-based firm Noble Audio used CanJam RMAF 2016 as its opportunity to reveal the firm’s new Katana universal-fit earphones and CIEMs to the US audience (the model had its world debut at CanJam London a few months back).
To review, the Katana is the latest Noble design and one that features nine balanced-armature-type drivers per earpiece. Perhaps of greater importance than the sheer number of drivers used is the fact that, for the first time in its history, Noble collaborated directly with the balanced armature driver specialist Knowles to create drive units purpose built to Noble’s specifications specifically for use in the Katana. The Katana thus takes its place as, in essence, a ‘separate but equal’ co-flagship model alongside the firm’s famous Kaiser 10 model. The Katana universal-fit earphones sell for $1,850. Katana CIEMs are offered in three formats: the Katana SLA ($1,650) with 3D-printed earpieces, the Katana C (starting at $1,850) with custom-moulded acrylic earpieces, and the Katana Prestige (starting at $2,850) and available with custom-machined earpieces offered in a variety of exotic solid materials.
The Asian firm oBravo Audio is perhaps best known for its full-size HAMT hybrid dynamic/AMT-driver equipped headphones and HRIB hybrid dynamic/ribbon-driver equipped headphones. In particular, oBravo’s HAMT-1 was very favourably reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issues 120 (main review) and 121 (an even more positive follow-up review).
But at the same time, oBravo has quietly but steadily been working to apply these same hybrid concepts to a range of what may well be some of the finest universal-fit earphones ever made. Having heard several models in the range in the past, I can only say that their performance benefits are so significant that, in a way, they force listeners to toss out most if not all of their preconceived notions as to what universal-fit earphones can be and do. Continuing this theme, oBravo took the opportunity at CanJam RMAF 2016 to show a preproduction prototype of its latest universal-fit effort: the EAMT-0 Zeus, which uses a 16mm dynamic driver and a miniature second-generation oBravo Heil AMT (Air Motion Transformer)-type driver. The sound is impressive indeed, but pricing—as of the show—was yet to be determined. Stay tuned for more information later on.
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