Below, please find Part 3 of our four-part SoCal CanJam 2016 report highlighting—in alphabetical order—a set of manufacturers ranging from JDS Labs to Puro Sound Lab.
JDS Labs showed its Element headphone amp/DAC, which is surprisingly powerful, yet sells for a modest $349. Specifically, the Element puts out a substantial 1.5Wpc @ 32 Ohms, while offering very low noise, two master gain settings, low output impedance, and microprocessor-controlled relays to prevent turn-on clicks or pops. The on-board DAC can decode PCM files to resolutions of 24/96, while also offering wide dynamic range and low noise.
Linear Tube Audio isn’t a household name just yet—not even in audiophile households—but once you learn a bit more about the provenance of the company’s product designs that could change. I say this because many of Linear Tube Audio’s product designs have been licensed from the legendary David Berning, creator of the critically acclaimed Berning OTL amplifiers.
For headphone enthusiasts, Linear Tube Audio offers the Berning-designed Micro ZOTL 2.0 valve-powered headphone amp/preamplifier priced at $1,100 with its standard switching power supply (little know factoid: low-noise switching power supplies are one of Mr Berning’s specialties), or $1,595 with a beefy outboard linear power supply. The Micro ZOTL 2.0 features two analogue inputs and single-ended headphone outputs via 0.25-inch headphone jacks. There is also, as you might expect, a dedicated stereo preamplifier output.
In addition to the Micro ZOTL 2.0, Linear Tube Audio also offers two power amplifiers: the ZOTL 10 ($2,400) and ZOTL 40 ($5,800).
Lotoo is perhaps best known for it excellent but also expensive (roughly $2,199) PAW Gold portable digital audio player (as reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 129), yet for CanJam SoCal 2016 the firm was highlighting its dramatically cost reduced PAW 5000 digital audio player ($400 MSRP, but with online prices ranging much lower).
Where the reference-level PAW Gold essentially promises to decode ‘all formats, all the time’, the PAW 5000 limits itself to PCM files at resolutions up to 24/96 and to DSD64 files. However, the important part is that, in terms of overall sound, feel, user interface graphics, and even parametric EQ (MPEQ) options, the PAW 5000 is more like its bigger brother than not, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it sells for less than 1/5th the price of the PAW Gold. Speaking as one who uses a Lotoo PAW Gold on a regular basis, I found the PAW 5000 very impressive and a bargain to boot.
The Romanian firm Meze headphones has arrived on the scene with a set of beautifully made, exquisitely finished, and thoughtfully voiced headphones and universal-fit earphone that not only perform well, but also offer fine value for money. At the top of the range is the Meze 99 Classics headphone ($309), which will be reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 134 (slated to appear on UK and European newsstands toward the beginning of April).
The 99 Classics feature 40 mm dynamic drivers and ear cups CNC-machined from either solid walnut or solid maple wood cores, with carefully chosen premium construction materials used throughout. Above all, though, the 99 Classics make good on Meze’s promise of “a balanced natural sound”—one that offer enduring appeal and that listeners will not soon outgrow. In the future, however, Meze does plan to offer a somewhat cost-reduced matte black version of the 99 Classics (see photos).
In addition to the 99 Classics, Meze also showed two keenly priced universal-fit in-ear models: the 12 Classics ($79) and the 11 Neo ($49).
Well-regarded electronics manufacturer ModWright Instruments rolled out its first-ever headphone amplifier, an all valve-powered unit called the Tryst, priced at $3,000. The Tryst’s tube complement includes two 6922 valves and four 12B4 valves. The Tryst features pure Class A operation with zero feedback, an extremely low noise floor, and three outputs: one 3.5mm mini-jack for IEMs, one 0.25-inch SE headphone jack, and one 4-pin XLR balanced jack. The unit ships with a solid-state rectified outboard policy and is capable of delivering 3Wpc into an 18-Ohm load. Claimed bandwidth is 20Hz – 50kHz, -0.5dB.
California-based MrSpeakers, which is best know for its successful range of high performance planar magnetic headphones, created a very substantial amount of buzz at CanJam SoCal by previewing its upcoming new Ether Electrostatic headphones, which represent the company’s first foray into that particular technology.
Company President Dan Clark actually had two subtly different versions of the Ether Electrostatic headphones on demonstration—one with relatively shallow flat ear pads and the other with MrSpeakers’ more traditional contoured or bevelled ear pads (as used on the firm’s to planar magnetic models).
In some brief listening sessions, I felt the Ether Electrostatic headphones offered a very impressive combination of natural warmth, good bass weight, and smooth and neutral mids and highs, with plenty of inner detail. This will, without a doubt, be a top-tier model to watch carefully in the months to come, and it was quite rightly the talk of the show.
Noble Audio, a famed hybrid Asian/American maker of top-tier universal-fit earphones and CIEMs (custom-fit in-ear monitors) has been hard at work revising and renaming the elements of its extensive product line. Why the changes? In simple terms, Noble is concerned that prospective buyers are becoming so obsessed with tracking the ‘driver counts’ of the earphones and CIEMs they are considering that they sometimes forget to pay attention to the way the products actually sound. Consequently, all Noble models—save for the flagship Kaiser 10 model (reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 119)—now have names and descriptions that for the most part discourage ‘driver count mania’. But two other important changes are afoot at Noble.
First, Noble now offers all of its universal-fit earphones with machined aluminium earpiece enclosures created through an ultra-precise CNC milling process. Moreover, the exterior anodising of each model is colour-coded so that you can tell at a glance exactly which model is which. Noble’s colour-coding ‘decoder ring’ works as follows:
- Red = the flagship Kaiser 10,
- Navy = the Savant (Noble’s newest design and one said to be detail orientated and subjectively the most balanced-sounding of all Noble models),
- Purple = the Django,
- Teal = the Dulce Bass (or ‘sweet bass’),
- Copper = the Savanna (an extremely neutral model with nearly flat frequency response, said to be ideal for acoustic music), and
- Paris (a pale shade of gold) = the Trident (which provides somewhat elevated bass and treble response for what the firm terms ‘a refined take on what would normally be considered a “pop” sound’).
Second, Noble continues to promote its top-tier range of Prestige-series of CIEMs. Unlike typical CIEMs with earpieces moulded from acrylic or silicone materials, Prestige-series CIEM provide earpieces machined from solid materials. This difference in construction methodology not only affects the look of Prestige CIEMs, but (I think) also enhances their sound, owing to the exceptional rigidity of the solid earpieces materials used.
At CanJam SoCal, I took delivery of a review set of Prestige-series Savant CIEMs whose earpieces were fashioned from an exotic material called ‘snakewood’. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, let me say that those Savant CIEMs not only look great but sound very impressive indeed (the Prestige-series Savants may well be the best all-around Noble in-ear design I’ve tried to date, which is saying a lot).
La Jolla, CA-based 1More (pronounced “one more”) is a company dedicated to reducing the typically high prices charged for multi-driver universal-fit earphones. In fact, pricing for the entire range of 1More earphones and headphones is skewed toward the affordable end of the spectrum. Thus, the firm’s IM301 single-driver earphone, which features a triple-layer dynamic driver, is priced at just $29.99. In turn, the firm’s EM323 dual-driver earphone combines a dynamic mid-bass driver plus a balanced armature-type driver cover upper mids and highs and is priced at $79.99.
Finally, at the top of the range, the firm’s flagship E1001 tripe-driver earphone couples a dynamic mid-bass driver with two balanced armature-type drivers and is priced at $99.99. Voicing for the E1101 Luca Bignardi, a veteran producer, mixer, and sound engineer, influenced the voicing and tuning of the E1001. Hi-Fi+ has received an evaluation sample of the E1001, which may become a review subject in the future.
The firm’s E801 over-the-ear headphones are likewise affordably priced at $79.99, with a self-powered, E801-based Bluetooth version on the product roadmap for the future.
Onkyo’s primary product release for CanJam SoCal 2016 involved its powerful and flexible new DP-X1 Android-based portable digital audio player/streamer ($799). The DP-X1 features 32GB of on-board memory with capacity for up to 432GB via two Micro SD card slots (each slot capable of handling a card of up to 200GB capacity), plus an impressive array of audiophile-friendly features. For example, the DP-X1 is a dual DAC/dual amp design that is MQA-ready and that provides both single-ended and balanced headphone outputs, plus micro USB/OTG digital outputs.
The DAC section of the player can decode PCM files up to resolutions of 24/384, as well as DSD 64 and 128 files. Finally, the player offers Wi-Fi/Bluetooth connectivity and a colourful 4.7-inch capacitive touch screen. Power output is a respectable (though not overwhelming) 75mW per channel @ 32-Ohms in single-ended mode or 150mW per channel @ 32 Ohms in balanced output mode.
The closer you look, the more it seems this Onkyo is well-positioned to do battle with far more costly models from competitors such as Astell & Kern.
Oppo previewed an interesting new personal audio product in the form of its upcoming Sonica self-powered Bluetooth/Wi-Fi enabled speaker system, which should appear in Q4 of this year and is expected to sell for about $299. Apart from this rudimentary information, few other concrete details on the Sonica were available at show time.
Pendulumic is perhaps best know for its Stance S1+ audiophile-grade Bluetooth over-the-ear headphones, as reviewed in Hi-Fi+ 126. However, from very early on the Pendulumic team felt that it would eventually be important to offer an even more compact, but still great sounding, on-ear, audiophile-worthy Bluetooth headphone.
Well, the time is now and the headphone is Pendulumic’s new Tach T-1, priced at $249. The functions of the Tach T-1 are for the most part similar to those of the Stance S1+, but the Tach T-1 now features battery life of about 25 hours and also incorporates a new feature through which two pairs of Tach T-1s can simultaneously listen to the same Bluetooth source.
Phat Lab is all about making the great sound of valve-based amplification available in portable products geared for listeners on the go. To this end, the firm showed two models at CanJam: the Phat Sassy hybrid single-ended triode and solid-state portable headphone amplifier ($600) and the PHAntasy pure Class A single-ended triode portable headphone amplifier ($1,300).
The Phat Sassy is intended as a ‘best of two worlds’ design that combines “the charm of directly heated triode (valves) and the power solid-state without compromise. Playback and charging times for the Phat Sassy are 10 hours and 3 hours, respectively.
By contrast, the PHAntasy is more of a design for valve purists in that it is a valve-only, zero feedback, single-ended triode design with—get this—transformer coupled outputs. Whether one considers the PHAntasy a portable or merely a transportable design may be a matter for individual owners to decide, but it must surely qualify as one of the most compact, transformer-coupled valve amps yet devised.
For CanJam SoCal, Pioneer showed its appealing and simple SE-MHR5 dynamic driver-equipped over-the-ear headphones ($299), along with its new XDP-100R portable audio player/streamer ($700).
A Pioneer spokesperson explain that the SE-MHR5 is intended more as a well-rounded ‘Everyman’ design than as headphone that aims to extract every last ounce of available sonic detail, but at the potential expense of an occasionally painful, edgy, or strident sound. In other words, the SE-MHR5 opts for general-purpose musicality rather than pushing performance envelopes in ways that might inadvertently lead to unpleasant and unmusical outcomes. Interestingly, though, the SE-MHR5 can be driven either via single-ended or balanced output amplifier and thus comes with signal cable suited for either application.
On the surface, Pioneer’s XDP-100 portable at first seems quite similar to the DP-X1 player from Pioneer’s sibling brand Onkyo, but in fact there is at least two significant differences between the two models. Specifically, the Onkyo DP-X1, which is priced about $100 higher than the Pioneer, provides dual DAC and amplifier devices and offers both single-end and balanced outputs, whereas the Pioneer appears to use single DAC and amplifier devices and provides single-ended headphone outputs only. In all other respects, however, the players appear to offer equivalent functionality—albeit in slightly differently styled packages.
Puro Sound Labs, which is led by the same US team that guides 1More, above, is a company on a mission, and that mission is to provide musically satisfying headphones for children and adults that directly address the problem of noise induced hearing loss. For the Puro team, this isn’t just a hypothetical ‘good idea’; it’s a personal matter in that the CEO’s daughter suffers form noise induced hearing loss as a result of listening to music at overly high levels for overly long periods of time.
Consequently, Puro’s BT2200 wireless Bluetooth headphones for kids ($79.99) are designed to limit sound output to 85dB (the maximum safe level for long-term listening) with most portable devices. But, in the interest of also providing musical satisfaction, the BT2200s feature the Puro Balanced Response voicing curve, which is said to “closely mimic a flat, in-room speaker response (that) equally balances bass, vocals, and highs to deliver clear vocal reproduction without excessive volume).
Then, for the grownups in the family, Puro offers its BT5200 wireless Bluetooth headphones ($129.99). Conceptually, the BT5200 is much like a scaled up BT2200 but with AptX Bluetooth connectivity, plus the ability to play at higher than 85dB volume levels, if desired. However, as a safety feature, the headphone features an external, colour-coded average volume level indicator light, where green means 85dB or less, yellow means 85-95dB, and red means greater than 95dB. In this way, parents can allow teenagers to use the BT5200 headphones while being able to tell at a glance if volume settings are being pushed to potentially unsafe levels—a clever idea whose time has come.