Part 4 of our report covers: Onkyo, Oppo Digital, Pioneer, Questyle, RHA Audio, Rupert Neve Design, Schiit Audio, Sennheiser, Sonoma, Sony, Stereo Pravda, Ultrasone, Unison, Wells Audio. Westone Laboratories, and ZMF.
Find Part 1 of our CanJam report here: https://hifiplus.com/articles/canjam-at-rmaf-2016-part-1-of-4/
Find Part 2 of our CanJam report here: https://hifiplus.com/articles/canjam-at-rmaf-2016-part-2-of-4/
Find Part 3 of our CanJam report here: https://hifiplus.com/articles/canjam-at-rmaf-2016-part-3-of-4/
Over the past year or so Onkyo’s highly capable, Android-based DP-X1 high-res digital audio player ($799) has been winning friends and influencing people through its combination of flexibility, performance, and advanced features. Specifically, the DP-X1 supports virtually any PCM or DSD format you’d care to name, provides 32GB of built-in memory, and provides two Micro SD card slots (each slot supporting Micro SD cards of up to 200GB capacity). Moreover, the DP-X1 provides MQA decoding and incorporates dual DACs in support of the DAP’s balanced preamp/headphone outputs. The Onkyo’s user interface is remarkably flexible, aesthetically pleasing, and straightforward to use, too.
Oppo Digital showed a range of products that took different approaches to the notion of personal audio.
First up was the Oppo HA2-SE high-res portable headphone amp/DAC ($299) which provides PCM decoding at sampling rates up to 384kHz and that also decodes DSD files at resolutions up to DSD256. The HA2SE is Apple/Android/PC/Mac compatible, incorporates an ESS Sabre32 Reference ES9028-Q2M DAC device, and can even be used to charge mobile devices on the go.
Next, Oppo showed its cool new Sonica Wi-Fi/Bluetooth speaker system ($299), which features one 3.5-inch long displacement bass driver, two 3-inch balanced bass radiators, and two 2.5-inch wideband drivers with Neodymium magnets. The Sonica is compatible with AirPlay, Bluetooth, DLNA, Tidal, and other music playback sources. The unit can be used as a standalone 2.1-channel single-chassis speaker, or it can be configured for multi-room use, or use in setting where two Sonicas will serve as a stereo pair. Oppo promises that the Sonica can deliver “amazingly strong bass” and that it can be optimised to several different placement scenarios (for example, open room placement, or placement near walls or corners). Oppo also previewed an upcoming new larger Sonica model to be called the Sonica Grand, which will sell for about $699.
Finally, Oppo also previewed its upcoming Sonica high-res DAC/streamer (projected price, $799), which is said to offer even better audio performance than Oppo’s critically acclaimed HA-1 headphone amplifier and BDP-105 universal disc player. The Sonica DAC will be based on an ESS ES9038PRO SABRE DAC and will provide decoding for PCM files up to 32-bit/768kHz and for DSD files up to DSD256. The DAC will provide both single-ended and balanced outputs and is set up so that it can serve as both a high-res player via attached USB driver or can serve as a high-res streamer. We cant’ wait to hear it in action.
As many Hi-Fi+ readers may already know, Pioneer and Onkyo are sister brands that from time-to-time share product concepts and topologies. So it is that Pioneer’s original XDP-100R digital audio player borrowed many—but not all—of the technical features of Onkyo’s DP-X1 player. Specifically, the XDP-100R was a single-ended only DAP that did not incorporate the Onkyo’s desirable dual DAC, dual amp, balanced output features.
All of this is about to change with the arrival of Pioneer’s new Android-based XDP-300R DAP, which—like its Onkyo sibling—now sports dual ESS DACs and balanced outputs. The XDP-300R actually debuted at the recent Indulgence Show in London, with a promised price of £599. The DAP should sell for about $799 in the US. Visually, the XDP-300R is quite different to Onkyo’s DP-X1, so which you prefer may well be a matter of personal taste.
A tantalising offering demonstrated at the show was Pioneer’s full-size, UO-5 headphone amp/DAC—a model that is available in the UK at a recommended retail price of £699, but that is not offered in the US at all! (The reason: Pioneer did not feel it could justify the considerable expense of having the unit tested to achieve a UL-listed rating, which is an expectation of most mass-marketed consumer electronics products sold in the US.) Based on a too brief listen, I felt the versatile UO-5 offered excellent value for money, so I hope Pioneer will re-think its choice not offer the model in the US.
Finally, I got a chance to try out a very serious high-end headphone from Pioneer and one not commonly encountered apart from trade show environments: namely the SE-Master 1 ($2,500). The SE-Master 1 features a distinctive 50mm dynamic driver consisting of a 25μ-thick aluminium diaphragm with a Parker Ceramic Coating as supported by a PEEK (poly-ether-ether-ketone) film surround with ribbed edges said to help eliminate distortion. The driver was modelled extensively through computer aided engineering techniques and is said to afford superior high-resolution reproduction of low-level details in the music. This is a model that I think will definitely bear further listening in the future.
Questyle Audio Engineering
Questyle’s two main points of emphasis for CanJam RMAF 2016 were to demonstrate the firm’s cost-no-object ‘Golden Stack’ headphone electronics suite ($12,500) as reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 137 and to continue the roll-out of the firm’s new CMA600i fully-balanced headphone amp/DAC ($1299). As many of our readers already know, the ‘Golden Stack’ consists of the performance-enhance Gold-edition CMA800P preamp, the CAS192D DAC, and a pair of CMA800R amplifiers used in a left/right monoblock configuration. In turn, the CMA600i provides a high-res PCM and so-called True DSD-capable DAC, plus a fully balanced headphone amp/preamp based on Questyle’s signature CMA (current mode amplification) circuit topology. The result, says Questyle, is the finest-sounding single-chassis amp/DAC the firm presently makes. Look out for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of the CMA600i, coming soon. In fact, I’ve been listening through our review sample of the CMA600i as I am writing this report and can vouch for the fact that it is a very special unit indeed.
The Scottish firm RHA Audio used CanJam RMAF 2016 as a springboard from which to launch three new products: the long-awaited DACAmp L1 ($550 or £399), the new CL750 universal-fit earphone ($139.95 or £99.95), and the firm’s new flagship CL1 Ceramic universal-fit earphone ($499.95 or £349.95).
The DACAmp L1 is iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows compatible and looks like a sure-fire winner. Featuring one dedicated DSC device per channel, the DACAmp L1 supports PCM decoding at up to 32-bit/384kHz resolutions as well as DSD decoding for up to 11.2MHz Quad DSD files. It is also respectably powerful (300 mW at 16 Ohms), provides line-in, USB A, USB micro-B, and Mini-TOSLINK digital inputs, while also offering both single-ended and balanced headphone outputs. Powering it all is a 4,000mAh lithium ion battery. One of the most appealing aspects of the DACAmp L1 is its gorgeous industrial design, featuring gentle organic curves and satin finishes that make the new amp/DAC a joy to hold in your hand and to use.
The CL750 earphone could in many respects be viewed as an update on design themes established in RHA’s popular MA750 earphone, but re-cast as an earphone optimised specifically for use with amplifiers. The CL750 incorporates what RHA terms an “ultra-wideband CL Dynamic transducer” and ships with high purity OFC signal cables. One caveat, however, is that the CL750 is a very low sensitivity device as earphones go, with a sensitivity rating of just 86dB. This is fine if you plan on using the CL750 with a DACAmp L1, but don’t even think of driving it from a smartphone (we tried and, well, let’s just not go there…).
The CL1 Ceramic is the most ambitious earphone RHA has ever created and it is a compact, dual-driver model that incorporates both RHA’s new CL Dynamic transducer coupled with a distinctive “ceramic plate transducer said to yield “high-resolution, precise audio reproductions.” Like the CL750 the CL1 Ceramic ships with OFC signal cables, but as a welcome touch the CL1 cables are fitted with detachable sMMCX cable connectors and are equipped with mouldable over-ear hooks for a more secure fit. Like the CL750, the CL1 Ceramic is a low sensitivity earphone (87dB) that is meant for use with amplifiers—not driven directly from smartphones or tablets.
Rupert Neve Design
The legendary British recording studio electronics designer Rupert Neve is widely thought to have created some of the most technically sophisticated and musically satisfying recording consoles ever made. Now, in response to requests from his studio clients and many others, Neve has created a very simple but simply superb sounding headphone amplifier call the RNHP, priced at $499. The rather modest-looking RNHP rejects all the usual trappings and conventions of audio bling, preferring instead to make its mark in the only way that really matters: that is, through exceptional sound quality that—in keeping with Neve tradition—offers an even-handed blend of technical excellence and musicality that just won’t quit.
For CanJam RMAF the iconoclastic California-based company Schiit Audio gave the public the US debut of the firm’s impressive new fully balanced, high-powered, low-noise Jotunheim headphone amplifier/preamp, priced at $399. But don’t let the low-ish price fool you: on a technical level the Jotunheim is as advanced as they come thanks to its distinctive Schiit Pivot Point circuit topology. Schiit bills the Jotunheim as a “configurable” headphone amp, in that it provides an internal space that can accommodate one of two optional I/O modules: a fully-balanced AK4490-based USB DAC module or a high-precision moving magnet phono stage with passive RIAA equalisation. Either module adds a modest $100 to the price of the Jotunheim so that even when fully loaded the amp still sells for a tick under $500. Watch for a review in the next issue of Hi-Fi+.
Apart from the Jotunheim, Schiit also debuted three fascinating new full-size traditional audio components that are sure to attract attention for all the right reasons (namely, high performance at sensible prices). These new products were the Saga remote passive/active preamp ($349); the Freya balanced, remote passive/active preamp ($699) with user selectable passive, JFET buffer, or valve gain operation; and the Vidar “intelligent stereo/mono power amp” ($699) with current-feedback gain stages, dual mono topology, and no capacitors or DC servos in the signal path. The Vidar puts out 2 x 100 watts RMS per channel into 8 Ohms in stereo mode, or 400 watts RMA into 8 Ohms in mono mode. Needless to say, these new models will soon do their part to help take the high cost out of high-end audio.
Often Sennheiser’s trade show displays emphasize the firm’s top-tier, performance-über-alles designs, but for CanJam RMAF 2016 the firm focused attention on its newest and best wireless noise-cancelling headphone: the PXC 550 Wireless ($399.95). The PXC 550 Wireless offers sound reminiscent in some respect to Sennheiser’s own Momentum model, but is equipped with the firm’s NoiseGard hybrid adaptive noise cancellation system, plus a new ear cup-mounted touch control panel and voice prompt control system. Best of all, the PXC 550 offers up to 30 hours of battery life, meaning the headphone could conceivably offer high-quality sound for an around-the-world journey on a single charge.
The northern California-based firm Sonoma Acoustics was until recently best known for its state-of-the-art DSD recording and editing system, commonly known as the Sonoma Workstation. Now, however, Sonoma has expanded in a new direction by teaming with British firm Warwick Audio Technologies Ltd. to create the spectacular new Sonoma M1 electrostatic headphone system, which will sell for $4,995 in the US and for £4,595 in the UK.
The M1 system leverages the High-Precision Electrostatic Laminate (HPEL) transducer developed by Warwick Audio Technologies, but expands upon the capabilities of the driver through a jointly developed class A electrostatic “Energizing Amplifier” that incorporates a custom 64-bit double-precision fixed-point DSP engine that manages certain aspects of the headphone’s voicing. Further, the amp also incorporates a USB DAC based on dual 32-bit ESS SABRE Reference DACs, plus an ultra high-performance, multi-channel, 32/384-capable AKM premium ADC system that is conceptually positioned upstream of the amp’s DSP system. In this way, incoming analogue signals are digitised before DSP processing and before amplified signals are finally passed on to the M1 headphones.
The M1 headphone is special too, using HPEL drivers mounted in injection-moulded magnesium ear cups that are extremely light, comfortable and fitted with Cabretta hair sheep leather ear pads and headband pads. The system ships with ultra-low capacitance signal cables and a very high-performance USB cable developed in conjunction with the cable specialist Straight Wire Inc.
In a too brief listen, I felt Sonoma’s M1 system sounded very promising indeed, so that it is a system I look forward to exploring in more depth in the future.
Sony’s CanJam RMAF 2016 display and demonstrations centred primarily on three Signature-series high-end offerings: the firm’s flagship NW-WM1Z high-res digital audio player ($3,199), the TA-ZH1ES balanced output desktop headphone amplifier/DAC(price?), and the top-of-the-range MDR-Z1R headphone ($2,299).
Words can scarcely begin to express the sheer beefiness and build quality of the Signature-series Walkman NW-WM1Z digital audio player, whose overall construction reminds me of a bank vault writ small. And that bank vault metaphor will come to mind again whenever you pick up the NW-WM1Z, which is a bit of chunk to hold in one’s hand. This 32/384-capable player also provides native DSD support and offers storage capacity up to 256 GB. The sound of the unit struck me as being almost microscopically detailed and exceedingly pure-sounding—very much cut from similar sonic cloth to Astell & Kern’s flagship AK380 DAP. It would very interesting, I think, to compare the two units side-by-side.
The TA-ZH1ES features a hybrid digital/analogue amplifier section offering both balanced and single-ended outputs. The sophisticated DAC section of the TA-ZH1ES is not one most listeners will soon outgrow as it can decode PCM files at resolutions up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD files at up to 22.4MHz. And, did we mention the unit sports the sort of elegantly simple, no-nonsense good looks that we find most appealing?
The MDR-Z1R is a closed-back, dynamic driver-equipped circumaural headphone. The key to the headphone’s transparent and wide-open sound, I think, is its unusually large 70mm dome-type driver, which features, says Sony, a “responsive magnesium dome with liquid crystal polymer-edge diaphragm for clarity.” Interestingly, Sony—a firm not typically given to gratuitous specification inflation, claims the frequency response of this driver to be a stupendous 4Hz – 120kHz. Further listening is indicated.
The Russian firm Stereo Pravda (meaning “solid truth” in Russian) showed its highly unorthodox SPearphone SB-7 passive universal-fit earphone ($2,000) and the similar SPearphone SB-7A ($2,500), which is intended for use with the firm’s DACCA dedicated portable module that provides DAC, crossover network, tone control, and dual differential amplifier functions.
The SPearphone SB-7 and SB-7A both feature seven balanced armature-type drivers per earpiece, with the drivers arranged so that their sound outputs are all aligned on the same axis—a design touch said to foster superior sonic transparency, clarity, and cohesiveness. The earpiece enclosures are quite unusual, too, in that they are made of wood and are slender, relatively long, and look something like Scandinavian sculptural interpretations of a gnarled section of tree branch. The sound, however is not gnarly at all; as advertised, it’s wonderfully clear and transparent-sounding.
The DACCA module is nominally portable, but it’s certainly not a pocket-sized portable; rather, the complicated multi-function DACCA is more the sort of device you would carry in a fairly good-sized over-the-shoulder pouch. The size may be a bit cumbersome, but there’s no arguing with the fact that the DACCA really helps the SPearphone SB-7A’s to ‘sing’.
The German firm Ultrasone had two new models of interest at the show, one in the mid-tier price range and the other solidly positioned in the cost-no-object class.
The new mid-tier model is the Performance 880, which is a closed-back, dynamic driver-equipped headphone featuring the firm’s patented S-Logic Plus technology and ULE shielding system. The Performance 880 sells for $499 and ships with a neoprene carry case, velour ear pads, and two detachable signal cables (one 3m long and the other 1.2m long).
The new over-the-top model is the Jubilee 25 limited edition headphone, designed to commemorate Ultrasone’s 25th anniversary, and of which only 250 sets will be made for worldwide distribution. The Jubilee 25 is a closed back headphone featuring Macassar ebony ear cup covers, a 40mm Mylar/Titanium driver with neodymium magnet assemblies, and that incorporates the firm’s patented S-Logic EX technology and special ULE shielding. The Jubilee 25 ships with a very high-quality aluminium travel case, a micro fibre cleaning cloth, various gold-plated adapters, and a premium 3m four-core signal cable fitted with LEMO headphone connectors.
(We apologise for using a stock photo of the Jubilee 25, but the fact is that the headphone was on site for only part of the show, so that it had been sent on before we arrived at the Ultrasone display.)
Many audiophiles think of the Italian firm Unison Research as a maker of amplification components (and loudspeakers) for full-sized home hi-fi systems, but at CanJam RMAF 2016 we learned that the firm also makes a lovely valve-powered integrated headphone amp/DAC called simply the SH ($1,795).
The SH uses pure class A circuitry throughout, with an input stage based on 12AX7 valves, an output stage based on dual EL84 triodes, and a power supply that features valve rectification. But for even greater flexibility, the SH also incorporates two user selectable gain settings, plus an built-in USB DAC based on the popular ESS SABRE DAC device.
For CanJam RMAF 2016 Wells Audio showed the latest and most refined version of its flagship headphone amplifier: the Headtrip ($7,000). The Headtrip, as you might expect, is extremely powerful (50Wpc @ 8 Ohms), very quiet (SNR -103dB at full power), and essentially leaves no stone(s) unturned in its quest for unbridled performance. This amp enjoys an almost magical musical synergy when used with the Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic headphones.
However, the even bigger news from Wells is that the firm’s new dramatically cost-reduced Milo headphone amplifier ($1,699) is now in production. In essence, the Milo represents an attempt to capture much of the magic of the firm’s Enigma and even Headtrip amplifiers and to do so without giving up too much in the way of performance specifications, but at a far more accessible price point. Besides, the Milo just plain looks cool!
Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Westone Laboratories used CanJam RMAF 2016 as the big stage upon which it debuted its spectacular new flagship universal-fit earphone: the new W80 ($1,500). At present, the W80 is the most sophisticated in-ear transducer it knows how to make, whether universal-fit earphone or CIEM. The W80 features an array of eight balanced armature drivers arranged in the three-way configuration and fitted into a remarkably compact, ergonomically sized and shaped earpiece enclosure.
Lead engineer Karl Cartwright spent an extraordinary amount of time working on and revising the voicing of the W80 in an effort to give it neutral tonal balance coupled with the elusive qualities of top-end openness, airiness, and purity in reproduction of upper-midrange and high frequency harmonic. The result is one of the most effortlessly spacious and three-dimensional-sounding earphones we’ve yet heard. As you might expect, the flagship W80 comes with a carefully chosen set of premium accessories including a set of detachable ALO Audio Reference 8 signal cables that feature eight braided, silver-plated copper and OCC copper conductors. Watch for a full Hi-Fi+ review of the Westone W80 in an upcoming issue.
ZMF started out by building a headphone called the Omni ($899 – $999) that was in essence an extensively modified Fostex T50RP. This model is still in the ZMF range, but in some respects two new, entirely ZMF-manufactured models as shown at CanJam RMAF 2016 have superseded it.
The new models, which are very similar in design, are called the Atticus, featuring a TPE/PET driver ($999 – $1,099) and the new flagship Eikon, featuring a biocellulose driver ($1,299 – $1,399). All ZMF models feature lovely hardwood ear cup shells, so the price ranges shown above reflect market pricing for the various hardwoods on offer. Of the two new models, I thought the Eikon particularly showed promise (that new biocellulose driver seems to have a lot going for it).