CanJam SoCal 2016 Report, Part 4
- Chris Martens
- Apr 2016
Below, please find Part 4 of our four-part SoCal CanJam 2016 report highlighting—in alphabetical order—a set of manufacturers ranging from Questyle to WyWires.
Questyle Audio Engineering’s CanJam SoCal 2016 demonstrations were, to a degree, a reprise of the firm’s presentation at this year’s CES event, meaning that—for headphonistas—there were two main points of emphasis.
For those who prize components that offer a well judged balance of high performance and high value there is the firm’s new balanced output CMA600i headphone amp/DAC ($1,299). While the CMA600i does not quite reach the performance levels of, say, an ensemble comprising the firm’s CAS192 DAC and one or two CMA800R amps, it is arguably the next best thing and at a price that fairly shouts “value for money!”
For those who are looking to push performance limits (and have the wallets to back such a venture), Questyle offers what has come to be called its ‘Golden Stack’, which is offered as a state-of-the-art headphone electronics suite. The Golden Stack consists of four Golden Edition components: the CMA 800P Golden preamplifier ($3,495), the CAS 192 Golden DAC ($2,999), and a pair of CMA 800R Golden amps ($2,999/each). The Golden treatment, by the way, is far more than just a styling exercise (although the units do sport golden-hued faceplates and control knobs); significantly, Golden models receive special uprated ceramic circuit boards and a host of significantly upgraded, premium performance parts.
The Utah-based firm RBH Sound is perhaps best known for its high-performance loudspeakers, which are sold both for two-channel and home theatre applications, but in recent years a growing portion of the firm’s business has centred on earphones, and now full-size headphones.
The model that caught my eye and that I think will likely win audiophile approval is the firm’s astonishingly sophisticated HP-2 headphone priced at $249. The reason I chose the word ‘sophisticated’ is that, unlike any other headphone I know of in or near its price class, the HP-2 features dynamic drivers whose diaphragms are made of—get this—beryllium. As many two-channel loudspeaker enthusiasts already know, beryllium is an extremely light and stiff material that is just about perfect for use in diaphragms for drive units that need to be quick, agile, and responsive. The only catch, though, is that beryllium diaphragms typically require difficult and highly specialised (read, expensive) manufacturing techniques.
Apparently RBH has leveraged expertise gleaned from its wealth of loudspeaker manufacturing experience in order to overcome that problem, in the process creating a $249 headphone whose technology and sound quality invite comparisons with considerably more expensive models from the competition.
The Scottish firm RHA Audio had planned to use CanJam SoCal 2016 as a platform to give enthusiasts one last pre-launch chance to audition the firm’s upcoming, almost-ready-for-production, and eagerly awaited portable DACAmp M1.
Unfortunately, a minor tragedy scuttled those plans very early on the first day of the show, in that a show attendee who had been enjoying listening to RHA’s DACAmp M1 prototype inadvertently dropped the unit (on the floor, I believe), causing irreparable internal damage. (Actually, I’m told the sturdy little unit will be easy to fix, but will then require firmware reloading that can only be done at the factory.)
Suffice it to say that RHA Audio started the show with a ‘bang’, but not of the good kind, so that a once fully functioning pre-production prototype suddenly became a ‘static display model’, albeit a very handsome display model. Despite this setback, the RHA team soldiered on with demonstrations of the firm’s wide range of excellent yet affordable earphones, but with the DACAmp M1 tucked away on the sidelines, suitable only for photography. We’ll all have to wait for the Munich High End show to see the DACAmp M1 back in action.
At last year’s CanJam SoCal event, Riva made waves with its then new Riva Turbo X Bluetooth surround sound speaker ($299, as reviewed in Hi-Fi+ Issue 133). We (and many others) regard the Turbo X as a fine solution for those seeking a fun, easy-to-use, and accessibly priced entry point to the world of high(er) performance sound components. For this year’s CanJam gathering, however, Riva brought us something new in the form of its cost and size-reduced Riva S Bluetooth speaker ($249), which in many respects can be considered a ‘junior’ version of the larger Turbo X.
Why isn’t the new model called the Turbo S? The short answer is that on the S model Riva decided to omit the ‘Turbo EQ’ power-boost switch from which the Turbo X derived its name. Fear not, though, the Riva S provides a so-called Power Mode that provides equivalent power boost functions to those provides by the Turbo X’s more elaborate ‘Turbo EQ’ mode. In any event, just bear in mind that the new model is called the Riva S, pure and simple.
Like its bigger brother, the Riva S incorporates: a seven-driver array (three active ADX drivers and four passive drivers, but drivers somewhat smaller than those in the larger Turbo X), a three-channel amplifier with 30 watts of total output, and the all-important DSP-driven Trillium and Trillium Surround processing modes that make the Turbo X such a joy to hear. But, in an interesting new twist, the Riva S actually adds one highly desirable playback mode that the original Turbo X didn’t have: namely, Riva S offers a Truewireless mode that enables “syncing two Riva S speakers wirelessly to create left and right channel stereo.” The Riva S also provides a Party Mode through which it is possible two “pair two (Bluetooth) devices to one Riva S for multi-user control.” One further nice touch is that the Riva S automatically comes with a heavy-duty canvas carry case, whereas the carry case for the Turbo X was an extra cost option. Nicely done, Riva.
Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of the Riva S. (In fact, I’m listening to our two Riva S review samples operating in stereo Truewireless mode as I write these words.)
This venerable German offered a display highlighting its two newest headphones, not including the mega-mega-dollar second-generation Orpheus system, which costs more than a very, very nicely equipped BMW 4-series. Thus, the display focused primarily on the HD630VB ($499.95, where VB stands for Variable Bass) and the new HD800S ($1699.95, and a meaningful update on the HD800, which is an acknowledged classic).
It was good to get a chance for a few minutes of careful, concentrated listening with the HD630VB—a model that, in my view, is very often misunderstood and thus under-appreciated by some enthusiasts. Because the headphone provides a user-controllable bass contour control on one of the HD630VB’s ear cups, there has been some tendency to regard the feature as more of a gimmick than a useful tool and so to avoid taking the HD630VB seriously. But I believe that if we listen to the HD630VB with an open mind and open ears, it will quickly become apparent that it is a worthy and full-fledged member of Sennheiser’s upper-tier HD-series family of headphones. The VB control, far from being a gimmick, turns out to be very useful in helping the headphone adapt to environments where there may be greater or lesser amounts of low-frequency noise present. Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of the HD630VB.
Sennheiser’s lone HD800S sample at the show was shared back-and-forth, depending on the time of day, between the Sennheiser demonstration table on the main floor of the show and a local Sennheiser dealer’s demonstration room on the next floor up. Thus began a comedy of errors of sorts through which I pursued the elusive HD800S upstairs and downstairs a couple of times, only to hear, repeatedly, “we just moved the HD800S to our other demo location.” Rinse, and repeat. You get the idea. The fact is that I never did catch up to the HD800S at CanJam SoCal, though not for lack of trying. (Happily, I did have the opportunity to hear the headphone at CES this past January). My thought: Next time, Sennheiser, please send two sets of the HD800S headphones, if you can spare them.
64 Audio (1964 Ears)
64 Audio (previously better know as ‘1964 Ears’) is a Vancouver, WA-based maker of CIEMs and universal-fit earphones, most of which feature the firm’s ADEL (Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lens) technologies, which we’ll explore in a bit more depth in a moment. For now, though, it helps to know that the firm offers and eight-model range of A-series CIEMs with ADEL technology, a corresponding eight-model range of U-series universal-fit earphones with ADEL technology, and a two-model range of stage/live-music-orientated V-series CIEMS that do not incorporate ADEL features. CIEM pricing ranges from $599 for the two-drive A2 model to $1,999 for the 12-driver A12 model.
What the concept behind ADEL technology? ADEL is the brainchild of Stephen Ambrose, who claims to have created the world’s first in-ear monitor in—you guessed it—1964. Ambrose has actively followed research on hearing and on noise-induced hearing loss and has come to the conclusion that—in many cases—hearing problems related to earphone use are not necessarily volume level-related (as is commonly supposed), but rather are caused by the pneumatic overpressure conditions to which most earphones and CIEMs are prone. To address this problem, Ambrose developed ADEL, which in simple terms is a mechanical, secondary ‘eardrum’ created to absorb excess pneumatic pressure while still allowing sound waves (and earphone voicing characteristics) to be preserved and to sound natural and normal. Most 64 Audio models incorporate automatically adjusted ADEL modules, while some also provide ADEL MAMs (manual adjust modules), which allow even finer tuning of sonic characteristics.
In the not too distant future, Hi-Fi+ hopes to review 64 Audio’s ten-driver A10 CIEMs ($1,799), which are said to offer the most neutral and thus audiophile friendly voicing of any of the 64 Audio models.
The Chinese headphone and earphone specialist SoundMAGIC continues to expand its value-priced range of full-size headphones and universal-fit earphones. Accordingly, SoundMAGIC’s CanJam SoCal demonstration table highlighted the firm’s full-size Ventos P55 closed-back headphones ($200), which are said to offer “highly detailed and accurate sound.”
In turn, the firm showed its very inexpensive ES19S noise-isolating earphones (starting at just $15), its mid-priced ES50S earphones with bass ports (starting at $50), and its upper mid-price ES80S earphones (starting at 60.00). Most of these models have—or can have—signal cables with in-line mic/remote control modules for use with smartphones.
Many headphonistas associate the name Stax with the firm’s über expensive but also über high-performance SR-009 electrostatic headphone—an acknowledged headphone performance icon if ever there was one. But honestly, great though the SR-009 is, enthusiasts must eventually decide for themselves whether it makes sense (or is even financially feasible) to spend upwards of $5000 for a pair of headphones. At CanJam SoCal, however, Stax surprised and delighted me (and probably many other show attendees) by taking concrete steps to reduce the high cost of entry into the oh-so-exclusive electrostatic headphone club.
To this end, Stax released three new electrostatic Lambda-series models (these are the models with oblong, rectangular ear cup housings) with matching electrostatic amplifiers: the SR-L300 headphone with SRM 252S amp (just $900 for the combination), the SR-L500 headphone with the SRM 353X amp ($1600 for the combination), the SR-L700 headphone ($1,400) with matching SRM-006tS hybrid valve/solid-state electrostatic amp ($1,300). The first two of these headphone/amp combinations go a long way toward making complete electrostatic headphone systems relatively affordable, with prices on a par with those of higher-quality dynamic-type headphone systems.
The latter combination, featuring the SR-L700 headphone, is in my view really something very special, in that the drive units in the SR-L700 are patterned directly after those of the top-class SR-009—a familial resemblance you can both see and hear. For those who have yearned to possess Stax SR-009s but could not manage their steep asking price, my thought is that the SR-L700 may well be the next best thing in the Stax line up (potentially on a par with if not actually better than the SR-007mkII, which presently is the number two model) and for only about 27% of the price of the flagship. Time will tell, but I suspect the SR-L700 will prove to be a great headphone at an attractive price for the level of quality on offer.
Taction is a Los Gatos, CA-based firm whose first product will be the Taction Kannon haptic headphone ($499). For those not familiar with the term or the concept, the idea behind haptic headphones is that they reproduce not only the sound but also the tactile ‘feel’ of low bass, adding a heightened degree or musical realism and impact in the process. With this end in mind, Taction has been hard at work developing a headphone that artfully combines a traditional dynamic driver with a well crafted, proprietary Taction haptic driver. With gaming applications in mind, the Kannon incorporates a slender boom-type microphone with a built-in foam noise shield (although Taction may well offer variants without the mic, too).
The Kannon provides a well thought-through inline control module that provides an on/off switch for the haptic driver and haptic driver level controls, plus a mute switch for the mic.
As at other recent headphone/earphone shows, Ultimate Ears focused on demonstrating its optical ear scanning system, with which the firm has had a great deal of success thus far. Many would-be CIEM buyers feel more than a little bit queasy about the idea of having ear mould impressions taking (and, in fairness, it does feel somewhat strange to have thick, viscous ear mould compound squirted into one’s ear canals and outer ears). Happily, UE’s optical scanning methodology solves this problem in the scanner probe is no more scary or intrusive than a typical otoscope as most if not all of us have encountered when having check ups with our physicians. It’s a quick, painless, and more-or-less anxiety-free substitute for having traditional ear mould impressions made and one that leads to the creation of comfortable and precisely fitted CIEM earpieces.
UE’s main product highlight for the show involved its newest model of CIEM; namely, the Pro Reference Remastered ($999, and covered in a preliminary way in a recent Hi-Fi+ blog), which is a significant update on the firm’s well respected, earlier-generation In-Ear Reference Monitor or Pro Reference CIEM. As with the earlier model, the new Pro Reference Remastered has been developed by UE in conjunction with the engineering team at Capitol Studios, which has approved the Pro Reference Remastered for studio monitoring and mastering applications.
As a side note, let me point out that our photo, here, shows what is plainly a universal-fit version of the Pro Reference Remastered CIEM. So far as I am aware, this universal-fit version is not an actual product, but rather is a convenient demonstration vehicle that lets prospective Pro Reference Remastered buyers get a chance to hear the product’s voicing and other sonic characteristics in action before finalising their purchase decisions.
Verisonix/Mitchell & Johnson
Verisonix is, along with ENIGMAcoustics, co-owner of the technology rights for a self-biasing electrostatic driver that can be used in conjunction with a dynamic driver to create comparatively easy-to-drive hybrid electrostatic/dynamic driver-equipped headphones. Thus far, we have seen this technology applied in a pointedly high-end orientated way in the ENIGMAcoustics Dharma D1000 headphone, but there is also interest in applying a presumably cost-reduced variant of the technology in considerably lower priced headphones that will be brought to market by the value-minded audio company Mitchell & Johnson.
To show what is possible, Verisonix/Mitchell & Johnson joined forces to demonstrate two of the models they have in development: the I502C (~$199) and the N501 (~$499). If all goes according to plan, Mitchell & Johnson will ultimately bring both of these headphones (and several other hybrid electrostatic/dynamic models as well) to market, though the units on hand at CanJam carried Verisonix badging and logos. I had heard even earlier variants of these headphones in January at CES and I’m pleased to say that they appear to have taken some sonic strides forward since then. In fact, in my CanJam notes I wrote that the I502C seemed to offer “good value for money,” while the N501 struck me as having made “great forward progress” since CES. This is a technology and these are brands to watch closely in the future.
Warwick Audio Technologies
As a spin-off from development work conducted at the Coventry, UK-based University of Warwick, Warwick Audio Technologies may just have found a way to reduce the high costs of electrostatic headphone drivers while also greatly improving their unit-to-unit consistency. Using processes pioneered at the University of Warwick, Warwick Audio Technologies has found a way to produce laminated, three-layer sheets or rolls of electrostatic driver material that can be trimmed to virtually any driver/diaphragm size or shape a designer might desire. Warwick calls this the HPEL (High-Precision Electrostatic Laminate) driver, with the three layers of the material consisting of a polycarbonate layer that serves as the driver’s electrostatic charge-bearing diaphragm, a thin film insulating layer, and a conductive mesh layer that serves as the driver stator (the HPEL is a so-called ‘single-ended’ electrostatic driver).
To power its HPEL drivers, Warwick has also created proprietary Class A and Class AB amplifiers that provide an appropriate 1300V bias signal for the HPEL drivers. Warwick has created a promising proof-of-concept/demonstration electrostatic headphone and amplifier(s), but in the long run the firm is less interested in manufacturing headphones or amps on its own, but rather hopes to license its technologies to an already established headphone manufacturer.
Bespoke amplifier builder Wells Audio introduced two new models that will, in essence, represent the ‘alpha and the omega’ of the Wells headphone amplifier line up. At the top of the top table is the new Wells Audio Headtrip Reference head amplifier ($14,000 including an outboard power supply), while at the opposite end of the pricing spectrum is the new Wells Audio Milo (~$1,499), which was shown in prototype form only.
The Headtrip Reference, as you might expect, is basically a hot-rodded version of the already superb Headtrip, while the Milo attempts to capture much of the sound of Wells’ excellent upper-middle-tier Enigma amp, but at a much lower price point. We predict the relatively affordable Milo will be an instant winner when it arrives in full production form. Note, though, that the unconventional chassis shown in our photos will be changed to something more traditional as the design moves toward full production.
The Colorado Springs, CO-based in-ear specialist Westone showed three significant new products at CanJam SoCal 2016. First up was a pre-production prototype of a clever new self-powered, Bluetooth cable that will be compatible with most of the firm’s newer generation CIEMs and universal–fit earphones and that is expected to sell for about $150. Westone’s Bluetooth cable should arrive on the market around June of this year.
Next, we have Westone’s new Skeleton-series CIEM’s, which are billed as CIEMs “perfect for any active lifestyle.” The Skeleton name derives from the fact that Skeleton-series earpieces do not entirely fill the wearer’s ears as would typical CIEMS; instead, Skeleton earpieces feature and inner section that fills the wearer’s ear canals, per se, but then has a skeletal outer perimeter frame to help reduce weight while accurately positioning the earpiece within the outer ear. The Skeleton models also look too cool for words. There are two Skeleton models: the single-driver S10 ($249.99) and the dual-driver S20 ($349.99).
Finally, Westone is on the cusp of release a new Ambient AM Pro series of universal-fit earphones that—check this out—deliberately allow ambient environmental sounds (e.g., the sounds of fellow musicians onstage or of a live audience) to be combined with high-accuracy music playback without, says Westone, compromising the frequency response of the earphone in any way. Westone uses so-called SLED technology to make this combination of reproduced + ambient sound possible; then, to allow users to control just how much ambient sound is allowed to pass through, Westone fits its Ambient AM Pro-series earphone with externally adjustable TRU audio filters. There will be three Ambient AM Pro models: the single-driver AM PRO 10 ($189.99), the dual-driver AM PRO 20 ($339.99), and the triple-driver AM PRO 30 ($439.99). Expect the Ambient models to arrive about the time you see this blog appear online.
For the past several shows, Woo Audio has been showing various iterations of its compact, battery-powered, entirely valve-driven, transformer coupled WA8 Eclipse headphone amp/DAC. Now, the WA8 Eclipse is finally in production and it looks and sounds better than ever. The WA8 sells for $1,799 in black or space grey, or $1,899 in gold.
The WA8 is a Class A, single-ended triode design and can, at the user’s option, be set for two-valve or three-valve operation. The DAC section of the WA8 is based on an ESS ES9018K2M SABRE Reference DAC and supports decoding of files at up to 24/384 resolutions. The unit sports a 3400mAh lithium ion battery, which affords up to four hours of playback time.
What words cannot easily convey is that the WA8, which is quiet enough to use with CIEMS and powerful enough to drive virtually any full-size headphone, manages in every way to sound like a larger and more cost amp/DAC than it actually is.
In recent headphone shows, WyWires has been winning friends with its Red-series headphone cables, which are priced at $299/5-foot pair. For CanJam SoCal, however, WyWires founder Alex Sventitsky rolled out an even higher performance headphone upgrade cable in the form of his new Platinum-series headphone cables, priced at $899/5-foot pair (or slightly higher when terminated with connectors for Sennheiser HD800/HD800S headphones). For self-evident reasons of cost, Platinum cables are intended specifically for use with true, top-tier headphones.
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