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 fourth and final segment of our four-part report on the event.
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’).
Noble Audio’s CanJam SoCal showpieces mostly focused on the top and bottom of the firm’s product range. At the top was the firm’s new flagship Kaiser Encore model which is based on ten purpose-built and custom spec balanced armature-type drivers sourced from Knowles ($1,850 in universal-fit earphone form, or $2,199 in CIEM form). The Kaiser Encore sounded superb and will soon be the subject of a Hi-Fi+ review.
At the bottom end of the range was a new Noble model developed for sale through Massdrop, which is called the Massdrop by Noble X, which is offered in universal-fit earphone form only, is based on dual balanced armature-type drivers, and sells for the very reasonable sum of $250. The Noble X is derived from Noble’s ‘Classic Line’ series of earphones, meaning it uses a moulded thermoplastic inner earpiece with machined aluminium outer earpiece caps. Based on a brief listen, we felt the Noble X offers huge value for money
Somewhat confusingly, Onkyo and its sister company Pioneer have both upgraded their premium, Android-based portable digital audio players from the past, while at the same time releasing now non-Android-based models. So, let’s take things from the top.
Pioneer has upgraded its Android-based XDP-100R digital audio player to create the XDP-300R digital audio player, which features a new audio board, dual DACs, dual amps, both single-ended and balanced outputs, and revised cosmetics, at a price of $699.
Onkyo has upgraded its Android-based DP-X1 digital audio player to create the DP-X1A digital audio player, which features a bump in standard on-board memory from 32GB to 64GB, a new audio board, higher quality parts in the audio signal path, and 3x larger storage capacitors, at a price of $799.
Then, in the interest of achieving lower costs of entry, Pioneer and Onkyo are both offering new non-Android-based players called, respectively, the XDP-30R ($399) and the DP-S1 ($499). Both players feature milled aluminium chassis, 16GB of standard on-board memory, 2x MicroSD cardslots for external add-on memory, and both single-ended and balanced outputs. The amp and DAC sections of the new Pioneer and Onkyo offerings are essentially the same as those used in the XDP-300R (for the Pioneer) and in the DP-X1A (for the Onkyo). One trade off, though, for these non-Android models is that they cannot download apps from the Google Play store, which the higher priced Android-based units can do. On the other hand, there’s no question that the new cost-reduced non-Android models offer an awful lot of sonic ‘bang for the bucks’. One other interesting point is that the non-Android models can support PCM files at 44.1kHz rates, whereas the Android units have to upsample 44.1kHz files to play them at Android’s native 48kHz rates.
The new firm Ossic was demonstrating a new headphone said to be capable of creating “immersive 3D audio”. Using proprietary processing techniques, the Ossic headphone is capable of a form of situational awareness, where the user can specify a room location where an external sound source—say, for example, an in-room stereo loudspeaker system—would be, and where the headphone tracks to that location even when the listener’s head is turned. The result is impressive; when facing the ostensible sound source, the stereo image appears directly in front of the listener as it should do, but when the listener rotates his or her head, the sound source stays right where it was, with the sound source seeming to shift to the listener’s right or left, as it also should do.
While I wouldn’t call the Ossic headphone the last word in high fidelity reproduction, its 3D technology really does work, which is very impressive. The Ossic headphone can be pre-ordered for $299, but the MSRP will go up to its normal $499 level later on.
Periodic Audio is a new earphone maker that is guided by industry veterans, some of whom have had a hand in designing drive units (behind the scenes) for some of the highest-end brands in the headphone world. The firm’s initial offering consist of three similar-looking models that feature drive units made of magnesium, titanium, and beryllium.
In keeping with the company’s ‘periodic table of the elements’ marketing theme, the earphones are named for the abbreviations used in the periodic table to describe the metals used in their driver diaphragms. Hence, the range presently included the Mg (Magnesium, $99), the Ti (Titanium, $199), and the Be (Beryllium, $299).
Interestingly, the firm reports that each of the various models seems to attract its own distinct niche-group of listeners—with groups often based on listener age and/or specific musical demographics. That said, we found the Be model to have perhaps the broadest overall audiophile appeal (though your mileage may vary…).
Hi-Fi+ staffers have been evaluating pre-production sets of the Be earphones in anticipation of a possible review.
Questyle Audio Engineering
The main focal point for Questyle’s display was the upcoming CMA400i headphone amp/DAC/preamp, which can be thought of as something of a CMA600i ‘Junior’ model. The final selling price of the CMA400i is yet to be determined, but is expected to fall at about $800.
One very interesting design wrinkle in the CMA400i, and a features of which Questyle North America President Bruce Ball is especially proud, is a set of bottom-mounted gain controls that allow the CMA400i to be adapted specifically for use with ultra-sensitive high-end in-ear headphones and CIEM (which tend to be notoriously noise-sensitive). No other desktop headphone amp/DAC offers a feature quite like this.
Sennheiser is increasingly fascinated with high performance wireless headphones since the German firm is convinced (perhaps quite rightly so) that this segment is the one where we can expect to see the fastest and most explosive market growth (thanks for that, Apple). With this thought in mind, the Sennheiser display centred on two wireless models: the PXC 550 ($399) and the Momentum wireless ($499).
When asked to compare and contrast the two models a Sennheiser spokesperson said the PXC 550 offers good sound and superior noise cancellation technology, while the Momentum Wireless has its priorities flipped, offering superior sound and good noise cancellation technology. Personally, I found both models had much to offer and were close enough in performance that it would be advisable to listen to both, if possible, before making a final purchase decision.
Editor’s note: we have included an image of the Momentum Wireless taken at Bristol Sound & Vision, due to problems with the image taken at CanJam
Sonoma Acoustics is very, very close to the production release of its eagerly awaited Model One electrostatic headphone system ($4995), so that by the time you read this Hi-Fi+ should have its review sample in hand (fingers crossed for good luck).
I use the term “system”, above, because the Model One is not just a headphone, but also a complete system consisting of a relatively lightweight electrostatic headphone with a matching electrostatic headphone amp/high-res DAC/high-res ADC/DSP module—all created specifically for use with the Model One. Interestingly, the Model One represents the first use of HPEL (High Precision Electrostatic Laminate) driver technology—technology created in the UK by a team from the University of Warwick.
The promise of the Model One is to provide an ultra high-end electrostatic headphone system that is pointedly easy and fun to use on a day-to-day basis and that is not at all ‘touchy’ or ‘finicky’, as some electrostatic headphone systems tend to be. Sonically speaking, it’s all gain and essentially no pain (well, except for the $4,995 hole in one’s bank account—but when in search of sonic excellence certain sacrifices do have to be made, don’t they?)
Sony, as has been its practice at the past several headphone shows I have attended, focused its demonstrations on a trio of complementary products: the MDR-Z1R Signature Series headphones ($2,300), the TA-ZH1ES Signature Series balanced output headphone amp/DAC ($2,199), and the NW-WM1Z Premium Hi-Res Walkman portable digital audio player ($3,199).
All three of these units are strong performers in their own right, but in my view the ‘unsung hero’ of the bunch might well be the MDR-Z1R headphone. I suspect that enthusiasts are so used to thinking of Sony as a provider of low-to-mid-level products of the type that might be sold in airport kiosks and the like that they overlook the firm as a maker of serious top-tier gear. This, let me tell you, is a big mistake since every single time that I have heard the MDR-Z1R in action, I’ve come away thinking, “That headphone is the real deal, period.” Do check them out and see what you think.
Editor’s note: we have included an image of the Sony components taken at CES 2017, due to problems with the image taken at CanJam
Theoretica Applied Physics
Theoretic Applied Physics, headed by Development Engineer Bayard “Buddy” Gardineer, was showing its ultra high-quality BACCH-BM binaural microphone with precision USB EQ correction, priced at $2,980. Once the requisite EQ is applied, the BACCH-BM mic system delivers impressively even frequency response with a nearly ruler-flat response curve.
The impressively small BACCH-BM mics are so small that individuals seeking to make high quality binaural recordings conceivably could wear them as in-ear devices at live musical events. One obvious drawback, though, is that you can’t wear in-ear monitors and the BACCH-BM mic modules at the same time, so that you would have to record without actually being able to monitor the recording in process.
However, a better solution might be to install the BACCH-BM mic modules in a new recording ‘head’ that Theoretica is working to create. Pricing for the head is yet to be determined, and the status of the potential product is unclear, but when/if the head becomes available it should cost considerably less than the mic modules do.
THX showed a working prototype amplifier based on the firm’s new AAA headphone amplifier modules, which claims to be the quietest and lowest distortion headphone amplifier on the planet. Products that employ THX’s groundbreaking AAA amplifier technology should begin to appear on the market later this year.
Trinity Audio Engineering
Various earphone makers have offered models that offered perhaps two or three voicing tuning filters, but none have taken the concept quite so far as has the British firm Trinity Audio Engineering. You see each of the three earphone models Trinity showed at SoCal CanJam—the Vyrus V2 (£59), the Master (£159), and the Icarus III (£175)—ships with no less than 12 pairs (!) of colour-coded, anodised metal voicing filters, which should give even the most indecisive listeners among us more than enough options to choose from. And did we mention that both the Trinity earphones and their filters offer almost gem-like fit and finish? They do.
Apart from demonstrating its digital/optical ear-scanning system (a great alternative to taking traditional in-ear mould impressions), Ultimate Ears focussed its efforts on demonstrating two of it latest CIEM products—the Capitol Recording Studios-approved UE Pro Remastered ($999) and the UE 18+ Pro ($1500). The UE Pro Remastered, which is descended from the famous UE IERM (in-ear reference monitor), feature three proprietary balanced armature-type drives. The UE 18+ Pro, in turn, features six balanced armature-type drivers linked through four passive crossovers.
At the Ultrasone table I was able to sample three of the German firm’s latest headphones, ranging from the premium-priced Edition 8 EX ($2,199) to the new mid-priced Signature Studio ($599) on down to the also mid-priced 880 ($499).
Not surprisingly, the Edition 8 EX both looked and sounded terrific, representing a continuation of the high performance heritage of Ultrasone’s Edition-series range of headphones. But what surprised me was how much of the Edition ethos managed to find its way into the more affordable Signature Studio and 880 models. For this reason, I think the mid-priced portion of the Ultrasone headphone range deserves further investigation.
Wells Audio has long been known for its bespoke headphone amplifiers, but for CanJam SoCal the company founder Jeff Wells pulled out all the stops to show his new ultra flagship model called the Headtrip Reference ($15,000), which was being demonstrated in conjunction with the also new Abyss AB-1266 Phi (or AB-1266 Φ, depending on your preference for Greek symbols) planar magnetic headphone, as fed by a Playback Devices source. The result was what many in attendance (including this author) felt was arguably the Best Sound of the Show.
The Headtrip Reference can do it all: power, extension at both high and low frequency frequency extremes, dynamic expression, subtlety, nuance, definition, resolution, and finesse.
Also on demonstration was Wells’ adorable entry-level Milo amp, which gives a taste for what the big Headtrip can do, but at the much more modest price of $1,699. The Milo, with its vertically orientated chassis, also looks just plain cool.
WyWires’ bright red Red-series headphone cables have almost become a fixture at CanJam events, with many manufacturers using the cables as their headphone signal wires of choice, but for CanJam the firm showed its even higher performance Platinum-series headphone cables. For comparison purposes, WyWire’s new Platinum cables sell for $599 a set, where the Red-series cables sell for around $349 a set.
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