CanJam SoCal 2016 Report, Part 2
- Chris Martens
- Mar 2016
Below, please find Part 2 of our four-part SoCal CanJam 2016 report highlighting—in alphabetical order—a set of exhibitors ranging from Cavalli Audio to HiFiMAN.
Austin, TX-based Cavalli Audio wowed show attendees and journalists alike with two new products—one on display and demonstration in the main Cavalli demonstration area and the other shown on an appointment-only basis in a private suite.
For the public at large, Cavalli introduced its smallest and least expensive amp to date, a beautiful little portable unit that—via a recent contest open to the Head-Fi community—has been named the Liquid Spark. The Spark is a fully discrete (that is, no op-amps, anywhere) portable amp that can put out a very conservatively rated 350mW @ 50 Ohms, and that plays for 15 hours per battery charge. The final price is yet to be determined, but should fall in roughly the $500 range. Best of all, the little Spark provides a full-sized measure of the famously neutral and authoritative Cavalli Sound.
Upstairs in its private demonstration suite, Cavalli also showed a prototype of its upcoming flagship Liquid Tungsten amplifier—an all valve-powered, OTL amplifier that could be considered an update on classic Futterman OTL amplifier designs from the past. The sound: well, the sound is to die for so that, for the lucky few who got to hear the amp in action, the Liquid Tungsten became very much the talk of the show. Pricing has not been established yet, but expect it to come in well above the roughly $4,000 price of Cavalli’s present top model, the Liquid Gold.
Owing in large part to its forward-looking and very high performance Hugo and Mojo portable headphone amplifier/DACs, the British firm Chord Electronics occupies a special place of honour in the hearts and minds of many veteran headphonistas. This is due, in no small parts, to the efforts of designer Rob Watts, whose thinking on DAC designs and especially on digital filter designs has turned many a head of late, and for all the right reasons.
But, at the very top of the Chord ‘product pyramid’ we find the spectacular Watts-designed DAVE DAC, whose name is an acronym that stands for ‘Digital Audio Veritas Extremis’. The DAVE takes everything Watts has learned about DACs and ultra-long tap-length digital filters to levels never before imagined, and it incorporates a very fine analogue output stage/headphone amplifier as well. The result is a top-class, tour de force product that is equally at home in both speaker and headphone-based audio systems of the first rank. DAVE sells for $13,300, or for $16,000 if fitted with its optional sculpted aluminium rack/stand (which is not only functional, but a work of art).
As many of our readers already know, the firm Comply is a spin-off from the giant 3M Corporation (creators of Scotch-brand tape, Post-It notes, and many other familiar household products). Comply’s specialty is building compressible foam ear tips offered in sizes to fit most any universal-fit-type earphone on the market and in fact the firm holds all the core patents on using compressible foam materials in this application.
Ah, but here’s the rub. There are no fixed industry standards for the diameters of the ‘barrels’ or sound outlet tubes used on universal-fit earphones, meaning that up to this point Comply has had to offer an extensive (but also somewhat confusing) array of sizes of foam ear tips to cover the many earphone models on the market. Now, however, Comply has arrived at an idea whose time has surely come: namely, a new stretch-to-fit “Universal Tip” design that can accommodate virtually any earphone barrel size. The new “Universal Tips” will sell for $12.99-$14.99/pair, depending on configuration. Three configurations will be offered: Isolation tips ($12.99/pair), Sport tips ($12.99/pair), and Sport + tips ($14.99/pair).
Vinh Vu of noted audio accessory maker Gingko Audio showed a set of his new Dana Cable headphone cables, using an ENIGMAcoustics Dharma D-1000 hybrid electrostatic/dynamic-driver headphone as his demonstration vehicle of choice. Vu invited comparisons between the headphone’s stock cables vs. the Dana Cables, and many listeners felt the Dana Cables offered a worthwhile sonic upgrade. Dana Cables for headphones are priced at $439/set and up.
Darin Fong Audio
Darin Fong of Darin Fong Audio demonstrated his firm’s very impressive ‘Out of Your Head’ audio software package ($150), which represents a very serious attempt to achieve realistic and believable 3D surround sound with conventional two-channel headphones. To this end, ‘Out of Your Head’ software acts as a plug-in of sorts that appears to the user’s computer/music server as a so-called ‘virtual soundcard’, whose outputs can in turn be routed to an outboard DAC. In an impressive demo, Fong showed how his software enables headphones to mimic each of the individual loudspeakers that normally would comprise a 7.1 or 7.2-channel surround sound system. What is more, Fong also offers very realistic high-end loudspeaker emulation modules ($25/each) designed for use with ‘Out of Your Head’ software.
I last met up with the Echobox team at CanJam London at which point the firm’s portable player and earphones were interesting pre-production prototypes, but at this stage the firm’s distinctive Explorer high resolution portable streamer/audio player ($499) is nearing a production release slated for June of this year. The Explorer is an Android-based player with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, DLNA, and micro USB connectivity, and that is Tidal compatible. Listeners with a sense of humour will appreciate the fact that the Explorer features curved wooden casework with satin-finished silver end caps that give the player precisely the look of a hip flask (just don’t get confused and try to fill the device with your favourite libations!).
In turn, the firm’s Finder X1 earphones ($199), which feature Titanium earpiece housings and drivers with PEEK (Polyether Ether Ketone) diaphragms, are available now. Interestingly, the Finder X1 provides user selectable acoustic tuning filters, giving owners three-possible voicing options for their earphones.
For many enthusiasts, the name Emotiva is associated primarily with sophisticated yet decidedly value-priced, high-power electronics for home theatre and (sometimes) traditional two-channel loudspeaker-based systems. For CanJam SoCal, however, Emotiva showed three components in its range that are distinctly targeted toward headphonistas.
First we have the colourfully named Big Ego ($219) and Little Ego ($169) miniature USB DACs that feature Burr-Brown 5141 DAC devices and provide decoding for PCM files at resolutions up to 32/384. Although quite compact, both the Big Ego and Little Ego are significantly larger than typical dongle-type USB DACs and they put their extra size to good use, delivering a surprising 1.8Wpc. Internally, the Big and Little Egos are quite similar, but with the bigger model having more elaborate inputs.
Next we have the firm’s Stealth DC-1 precision balanced output headphone amp with fully differential DAC ($499). To this end, the Stealth DC-1 uses dual Analog Devices 1955 DAC devices in a fully differential configuration and provides “professional balanced (analogue) outputs”—a nod, in part, to the fact that the DC-1 looks very much like a half rack-width pro sound component. The DAC provides an extensive set of digital inputs and even comes with a handy remote control.
Ably represented by founder Wei Chang, ENIGMAcoustic was proudly showing its hybrid self-biasing electrostatic/dynamic driver-equipped Dharma D1000 headphone ($1,190). Samples of this headphone, in particular, saw use in a good many amp/DAC manufacturers’ demonstration tables, which usually is a dead sure indicator that a headphone is doing something right. Watch for an upcoming Dharma D1000 review in Hi-Fi+.
The Chinese firm FiiO has earned a reputation for building full-featured, yet very accessibly-priced portable headphone amplifiers and digital audio players, and that trend continued at CanJam SoCal with the firm showing a broad range of new players. Models on display and demonstration included the flagship, Android-based X7 digital audio player ($650), the X5 Gen2 player ($350) with 24/192 and native DSD decoding capabilities, the X3 gen2 player ($200) with native DSD decoding and dual crystal oscillators that ensure timing precision when decoding files that are multiples of either 44.1kHz ad 48kHz base frequencies, and finally the tiny little M3 player ($55). Plainly, there’s a FiiO to fit every need and budget.
The Japanese firm Final (formerly Final Audio Design) has in past months focused on launching and releasing its excellent but very expensive flagship Sonorous X and Sonorous VIII headphones, but now it is time for technology trickle-down to begin. With this thought in mind, Final has just introduced its new Sonorous III headphone (~$449) whose dynamic driver borrows directly from the roughly 10X more expensive Sonorous X. Where the Sonorous X uses costly machined-metal ear cups, the Sonorous III saves costs by using polycarbonate ear cups and also exercising other cost containment measures. But the very good news is that, despite its dramatically lower price, the Sonorous III still manages to capture much of the ‘vibe’ and overall musical feel of its premium-priced bigger brother. Watch for a Hi-Fi+ review of the Sonorous III in the months to come.
Grace Design is perhaps best known as a well regarded pro sound company whose m920 High Resolution Monitoring System ($1895) has found favour as an excellent headphone amplifier/DAC for studio use. Now, in response to a challenge from marketing partner Massdrop, Grace has created a highly effective new compact headphone amp/DAC called the m9XX that could perhaps best be described as a case of, “Honey, I shrunk the m920.” The m9XX is based on an AKM4490 DAC and a TI amplifier module and is capable of decoding files at resolutions up to 32/384 or DSD128. Best of all, though, the m9XX preserves a full measure of the traditional Grace Design sound, but at a price of just $499. The m9XX is sold only through Massdrop.
The Chinese firm HiFiMAN revealed a pre-product prototype of its extremely powerful flagship EF5000 headphone amplifier, which is designed specifically for use with dynamic headphones and/or loudspeakers and whose retail price is projected to fall in the range of approximately $15,000. The EF5000 is fully capable of serving as an integrated amplifier capable of delivering 70Wpc in pure Class A mode or 110Wpc in Class A/B mode. Needless to say, the EF5000 has super-abundant power for purposes of driving most any dynamic headphone known to man.
But not all HiFiMAN products are over-the-top expensive. Two perfect cases in point would be the firm’s new Edition S headphones ($250) and the upcoming Super Mini digital audio player, whose projected price will be about $399. Company President Dr Fang Bian has recently spent time to re-voice and thus greatly improve the Edition S headphone, leaving it in a place where its sound should make it a strong competitor in its keenly contested price class. Unlike most HiFiMAN headphones, the Edition S uses a dynamic—not a planar magnetic—driver and it is deliberately design so that it can, at the user’s option, be configured either as a closed-back or an open-back headphone.
Last but certainly not least, HiFiMAN again showed its latest prototype of its very impressive upcoming Shangri-La electrostatic headphone—a model that attracted no small amount of attention at CanJam SoCal. If I am reading the signs correctly, I think the Shangri-La (and its companion electrostatic amplifier) may yet see a few more iterations and updates before their final voicing curves and physical configurations are locked down. This is not to suggest the present-day prototype Shangri-La headphones or amplifier are in need of greater sonic refinement, because the Shangri-La system already excels in that area. Rather, it is to suggest that—if HiFiMAN runs true to past form—the company may well explore a few more design options before releasing the products for serial production.
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