On the weekend before Easter, Hi-Fi+ Associate Publisher Pete Collingwood-Trewin and I took the opportunity to visit CanJam SoCal, which was held at the JW Marriott hotel in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.
The event was popular with manufacturers and with show-goers, it seemed, so that at times there were lines of enthusiasts queuing to hear the enticing products on demonstration.
What follows is the first part of what will ultimately be a four-part report on the event.
Our aim is to present Parts 1 and 2 shortly after Easter and then to add Parts 3 and 4 at a later date.
IMPORTANT: As always, we apologize to any manufacturers we were not able to visit. No slights of any kind are intended. Then again, please note that on more than a few occasions we visited manufacturers only to be turned back by the crowds of people surrounding their demonstration tables (which is, as the old saying goes, a ‘high quality problem to have’).
The value-minded Chinese firm 1MORE had previewed its new Quad-Driver in-ear headphone at CanJam NYC and now has the units available in full production release in both the US and the UK. The $199, four-driver earphone (whose driver array consists of an all-new dynamic driver and three balanced armature type drivers) continues 1MORE’s tradition of offering products that deliver exceptional value for money. The Quad-Driver will be reviewed in the very next issue of Hi-Fi+, but for now suffice it to say that it offers levels of sonic sophistication per dollar (or pound) that are clear off the charts.
Also coming soon from 1MORE will be the Crystal Triple-Driver Over-Ear full-size headphones, which are projected to sell for $299.
Many enthusiasts regard the Abyss AB-1266, whose frame design is—how shall we put this? —’Unorthodox’ in the extreme, to be one of great planar magnetic headphone designs. Well, for CanJam SoCal Abyss rolled out a new and improved version of the AB-1266 that is called the AB-1266 Phi, priced at $4,500 to $5,500 depending upon whether the buyer opts for standard or deluxe packaging (the deluxe package includes a wide array of desirable accessories including a headphone stand and a hand-tooled leather carry case).
Is the Phi version significantly different from the original model? Yes, yes, and emphatically yes. In fact, the difference is sound quality is flat out shocking—in a good way, so that the new, improved model offers lower colouration (making for a noticeably more neutral presentation overall), quicker transient speeds, better dynamics, and an even more refined and nuanced sound on the whole. What’s changed? Many things, so that the Phi sports a new driver diaphragm, a new magnet assembly, uses a new magnet grid with an altogether new slot pattern, and an inward facing driver cover plate treated to a ceramic coating. The new version is also lighter and slight more sensitive than the original model.
We were sufficiently impressed by the AB-1266 Phi that we plan to send back our reference AB-1266 headphones to have all the Phi-series changes retrofitted. Naturally, this means Hi-Fi+ will do a review of the Phi-series AB-1266 at some point in the future.
Amps and Sound
The California-based firm Amps and Sound (which is often written as ‘ampsandsound’) was out in force and showed a quartet of its distinctive looking valve-powered headphone amps with a broad mix of high-end headphones available for amp evaluation purposes. The models being shown included the EL-84/12AX7 driven Leeloo ($1,850), the very powerful EL-84/6SL7 driven Mogwai ($1,850), the 1626/12SL7 driven Kenzie Encore ($2,000), and the mighty 300B powered Agartha ($3,600). Each model has something distinctive and sonically beneficial to offer, so that listening to the amps in rapid succession is an experience somewhat akin to speed-dating a quartet of supermodels.
Which one is best? Very often the answer comes down to, ‘the one I’m listening to at the moment’. These amps offer bespoke quality (and a modicum of customisation options for listeners with particular requirements or musical tastes), yet are reasonably priced for the hand built quality on offer.
If you’re old enough to remember the golden era when AR (Acoustic Research) made what were widely regarded as some of the world’s best box-type loudspeakers, then you are, um, approximately my age (a subject of which we shall speak no more). But these days AR is making a superb portable digital audio player called the AR-M2 ($1,200) and will soon be offering an extremely accomplished yet sensibly priced planar magnetic headphone called the H1 (projected price, $600).
The AR-M2 is an Android-based player with Tidal and Spotify support available straight out of the box, a DAC section capable of decoding PCM files at rates up to 32/384 as well as DSD 64 and DSD128 files. Distinctively, the AR-M2 uses a Burr Brown 1794A DAC device, plus an amplifier section that runs in class A mode—giving the AR-M2 a detailed, robust, and yet also smooth and accessible sound. Playing time on a full charge is about 6-8 hours. We were quit taken with the sound of the AR-M2, so that further listening is indicated.
The H1 prototype on hand at the show sounded very promising indeed, so that we look forward to spending some quality time with a full-release production unit when the time comes. Assuming nothing gets lost in translation on the road to final production, we suspect AR will have a winner on its hands.
Astell & Kern
More so than any other firm, Astell & Kern is the company that really put high performance, high-res portable digital audio players on the high-end audio map. The only catch, if in fact there even is a catch, is that AK’s top models such as the flagship AK380 ($3,499) have become dauntingly expensive. Although the firm has done a good job off offering more affordable ‘scaled back’ (or ‘scaled down’) models, it eventually became clear that what the market wanted was a model nearly as capable as the flagship model, with most (though not all) of its features, but at a dramatically lower price.
Astell & Kern’s response was to launch a whole new class of digital audio player in the form of its soon-to-be-release Kann model, priced at a (fairly) accessible price. We spoke with Astell & Kern President Owen Kwon about the new model and he described it as having “all the bells and whistles, but at a lower price.” Kwon also observed that the Kann offers distinctively ‘muscular’ sound so that it make a good choice for listeners who own difficult-to-drive full-size headphones.
The British firm Atomic Floyd has gradually been revamping and updating its product ranges, so that the newest model to receive updates is the firm’s Super Darts Titanium earphone, priced at $400 or £250.
Owing to timing pressures, we didn’t have a chance to listen to the Super Darts Titaniums—an omission we hope to put right later on in the year.
At recent shows the planar magnetic headphone specialist Audeze has been focusing on the rollout of its iSine family of planar magnetic in-ear headphones, including the iSine 10, iSine 20, and the virtual reality-orientated iSine VR, which is always a big crowd pleaser at shows.
For CanJam SoCal, however, Audeze rolled out an all-new, full-size planar magnetic headphone called the LCD-Pro, which will sell for the projected price of $1,200 (making the new model one of the two most affordable models in Audeze’s LCD-series headphone line-up). The LCD-Pro is geared for monitoring applications where the headphones might conceivably be worn for hours on end and with this consideration in mind the LCD-Pro features a lightweight Magnesium frame, uses a single-sided magnet array, and foregoes the company’s signature Fazor technology in the interest of reducing weight. During a brief listening session we were able to confirm that the LCD-Pro is, as promised, a real featherweight design—at least as far as planar magnetic models go.
Another new model previewed at CanJam SoCal was Audeze’s new Sine Deluxe on-ear headphone, which is essentially an open-back version of the firm’s popular closed-back Sine headphone. The Sine Deluxe is project to sell for $449, or $499 with the firm’s Cipher cable, which sports an inline Apple iOS-compatible amp/DAC module.
The Korean firm Audio-Opus has won considerable praise for its Opus #1 and Opus #2 portable digital audio players, but for CanJam SoCal the firm’s demonstrations focused largely on the new Opus #3 model, which is billed as a “Portable Mastering Quality Sound [MQS] Audio Player” ($899). The versatile Opus #3 is based on a customised version of Android 5.1.1 and uses an ARM Cortex-A9 1.4GH Quad-Core processor. Sporting a Burr-Brown PCM1792A DAC, the Opus #3 supports bit-o-bit decoding for PCM files up to 24/192, plus native decoding for DSD files. Moreover, the Opus #3 provides both single-ended and balanced headphone outputs and is both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 compatible. The Opus #3 can be ordered with either 64GB or 128GB of internal memory, and provided support for up to an additional 256GB of memory via an external microSD card.
While the Opus #3 is certainly not cheap, it seems to us to offer an awful lot of player for the money.
The Japanese firm Audio-Technica focused its CanJam SoCal efforts on a rapidly approaching series of wireless headphones that sport the firm’s proprietary Pure Digital Drive technology, which uses a Trigence Semiconductor Dnote chipset to receive digital audio signals via a wireless Bluetooth connection, process the signals, and then feed the signals to a driver circuit where digital pulses from the chipset directly drive the voice coil (or coils) of the headphones. In essence, then, these are DAC-less digital headphones.
There are two Pure Digital Drive headphones waiting in the wings: the ATH-DSR9BT ($549) and the ATH-DSR7BT ($299). The DSR7BT is expected to arrive in late April, while the DSR9BT should arrive in late May
Many of us think of Blue primarily as a pro-audio company whose specialty is designing and manufacturing high-performance microphones for a variety of applications. However, the fact is that Blue has for the past several years been developing a very desirable range of full-size headphones.
Three models figured prominently in the Blue demonstration area: the self-powered and dynamic driver-equipped Sadie ($399), the also self-powered and planar magnetic driver-equipped Ella ($699), and the upcoming wireless Bluetooth-compatible Satellite (which is not yet released and thus was shown in prototype form). We found the Ella particularly rewarding to hear and it is worth noting that it is also the first (and so far as we know, only) self-powered planar magnetic model on the market (granted, certain Audeze models are offered with optional self-powered cables, but the Ella is the first we’ve seen where the amp is built into the headphone proper). I was also struck the sheer comfort and adaptability of Blue’s somewhat unorthodox, but very effective, adjustable headband frame.