If I had to name one broad high-end audio product category that is growing rapidly and for all the right reasons, that category would be Headphones, Earphones, and the specialised electronics needed to drive them. No other product category can provide so much music rendered—in the best case—at exceptionally high levels of performance for so little money. For a new generation of music lovers (and more than a few traditional high-end audio enthusiasts, as well), the quest for serious high-end sound starts right here, and what’s not to like about that? Check out this report to learn about important new headphone and earphone offerings seen and heard at CES 2014.
This is Part 1 of a three-part report.
Antelope Audio is perhaps best known for a range of very high-performance digital master clocks that it offers for various pro sound applications, but the fact is that the firm’s Zodiac-series DAC/preamp/headphone amps have been winning friends amongst both traditional audiophiles and headphone enthusiast for quite some time. At CES, Antelope released its most ambitious Zodiac model ever—one known as the Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC ($5,500). The versatile Platinum DSD can handle PCM audio data up to 384/24 resolution levels and both DSD 64 and DSD 128 (complete with internal upsampling to DS256!).
The Platinum provides I/O options galore, including: single-ended and balanced analogue inputs, trimmable single-ended and balanced analogue outputs, dual variable impedance headphone outputs, and AES/EBU, S/PDIF, Toslink, and USB inputs. Interestingly, the Zodiac Platinum, like some other Zodiac models, incorporates an “acoustically focused clocking” circuit back by “an ultra-low jitter, oven-controlled crystal oscillator, but for those who take their master clocks serious there is also a 10MHz input through which one can connect Antelope’s 10MHz Rubidium atomic master clock for the very best possible imaging and overall sound quality. Finally, the Zodiac Platinum comes with Antelope’s beefy, 2nd-generation Voltikus outboard power supply, which is typically an extra-cost, add-on option with lesser Zodiac models.
As many enthusiasts know, April Music offers three ranges of audio electronics components ranging, in ascending order of price and performance, from its Aura, then Stella, and finally Eximus lines. For CES, April was showing its new Stello DA100 MkII DAC ($1500) and HP100 MkII preamp/headphone amplifier ($1,300). The DA100 MkII is essentially a revised version of the original DA100 that ups the performance ante by providing decoding for DSD and 384kHz PCM digital audio files. The HP100 MkII, in turn, is a pure Class A design featuring three single-ended analogue inputs, a basic 48kHz USB DAC input, a headphone output, and both balanced and unbalanced line outputs. The HP100 MkII’s power output ranges from 1.5 Watts into a 30Ohm load on through to 120mWatts into a 600Ohm load. Those looking to apply the HP100 MkII in traditional speaker-based hi-fi systems might wish to note that April music offers a companion Stello S100 MkII power amplifier, which puts out 50Wpc at 8 Ohms. The three units are a visual match for one another in terms of their respective industrial designs and therefore look very handsome together.
Astell & Kern
The folks at iRiver’s Astell & Kern division continue to move from strength to strength, as evidenced by the launch of a new flagship AK240 portable HD music player (price TBA). The AK 240 can decode PCM audio files up to 192/24 resolution levels as well as double-rate DSD audio files (up to 5.6 MHz). Moreover, the AK240, which is billed as a “dual-mono” unit, incorporates dual CD4398 DACs, supports balanced output, allows Wi-Fi music downloading, and is supplied with an impressive 256GB of built-in onboard memory plus a microSD slot. The user interface and industrial design—both of which are traditional areas of expertise for Astell & Kern—are first rate on the AK240, which sports a large, full-color control screen and a sturdy and pleasingly angular aircraft grade Duralumin housing.
What of the AK240’s price? A company spokesman refused to be pinned down on this point, but the AK240 it will obviously come in well above the $1499 price of the present AK120 Titan model. An educated guess would place the price at or above $2400, but under $3000. Expect to see the AK240 near the end of Q1, 2014.
Astell & Kern also rolled out a very high-end earphone called the AKR02, which was developed through the assistance of Astell & Kern’s technology partner Final Audio Design—a firm that also makes its own extensive range of headphones and earphones. The (pardon the pun) final price of the AKR02 is expected to fall some in the range o $1,300 to $1,400.
At CES Audio-Technica stood poised to launch a slew of new high-performance gaming headsets, but since fall outside the purview of Hi-Fi+ we had to look elsewhere in the lineup for more music-worth models.
Two that caught our eyes were the ATH-ANC70 noise cancelling headphone ($199), which replaces the venerable ATH-ANC7b (one of our all-time favourite noise cancellers), and the SonicFuel ATH-OX7AMP ($299), which is a nicely made on-ear headphone sporting a built-in headphone amplifier that powers the unit’s 40mm drivers.
Having recently released its Gemini 1000 and 2000 headphone amplifier/stand/DACs, AURALiC’s took a big step forward at CES 2014 by announcing (or at least previewing) its versatile new $999 Aries wireless streaming DAC bridge and proprietary Lightning software package. The Aries/Lightning package enables virtually any DAC to wirelessly stream DSD, double DSD, DXD, and high-res PCM audio files with minimal fuss and bother. Anyone for a bolt-on, high-res, wireless streaming solution?
Note: At CES, the Aries pre-production demo unit was housed within the repurposed enclosure of AURALiC’s famous Vega digital audio processor. However, company founder Xuanqian Wang emphasized that the production Aries will have a much smaller and simpler enclosure finished in an understated shade of black. The train of thought, he said, is that people who already own luxurious, statement-class DACs might want to use the Aries to add high-res wireless streaming capabilities to their existing equipment, but might not necessarily wish to place the Aries front-and-center in their equipment racks. (Besides, the simpler case should help hold the price down…).
At CES the venerable German headphone manufacturer celebrated its 90th (!) anniversary whilst rolling out two new headphone amplifiers: the A200p portable amp/DAC ($299), which was developed in conjunction with Astell & Kern.
Another strong new offering was the A20 high-performance desktop headphone amplifier ($749).
In addition to the new amps Beyerdynamic also rolled out a handful of affordably priced earphones: namely, the DX160e ($109) and DX120ie ($79).
Calyx is entering the market for portable high-res digital music players with its new Calyx M ($999). When used as a DAC the Calyx M is quite versatile, decoding audio files in any/all of the following formats: AAC, MP3 MP4, MP4a, OGG, FLAC, WAV, DXD, DSD64, and DSD128, supporting PCM data up to 384/32-bit resolution levels. But what makes the Calyx M special, we think, is its form factor, which looks much like an oversized (or actually, Samsung Galaxy S4-sized) iPhone, complete with a 4.65” colour screen and a beautiful aluminium enclosure. Much like the Astell & Kern HD players, this one makes you want to hold it in your hand and to play with it—an impression further enhanced by the Calyx M’s highly intuitive, proprietary M:USE user interface. Connectivity options are simple, yet effective, giving user’s the choice of play music from the Calyx M’s 64GB of built-in RAM, from optional plug-in SD-micro cards of up to 128GB capacity, or from external USB or Wi-Fi connections.
The bottom line is that the Calyx M is priced similarly to the Astell & Kern AK100, yet offers functionality comparable to the more costly AK120 or the upcoming AK240. That sounds like a potentially appealing formula to us.
CEntrance is best known in the high-end headphone/earphone community for its impressively power, balanced output HiFi-M8 portable headphone amplifier/DAC ($699). For T.H.E. Show 2014, however, the big news was the CEntrance has begun development work on a smaller, somewhat less full-featured, and therefore cost reduced version of the HiFi-M8 to be called the Mini-M8 (M8 is pronounced “mate”). As you can see from our photo here, the Mini-M8 retains some, though not all, of the elaborate user control features of the HiFi-M8, but in a substantially smaller chassis. Note: The unit shown here is a rough-and-tumble development “mule,” so expect the final Mini-M8 to look much more polished.
One of the most impressive new products of any kind see at CES 2014 was the stunning new Hugo portable 384/DSD DAC/headphone amplifier ($2,395) from the British firm Chord Electronics. The Hugo supports PCM files up to 384/32-bit resolutions as well as DSD64 and DSD128, whilst also providing an uncommonly quiet and powerful headphone amplifier—one that could, in a pinch, actually be used to drive small desktop speakers.
A Chord company spokesman explained that, at present, the Hugo is single most sophisticated DAC product being offered by Chord, regardless of price, which is saying a mouthful. But perhaps more importantly, our findings thus far have been that the Hugo easily delivers the sonic goods to back up that claim; even when pushing top-tier (and not necessarily easy-to-drive) Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone, the Hugo sounds flat out fantastic. It is also very versatile, providing USB, Bluetooth, coaxial S/PDIF, and optical inputs, whilst providing single-ended analogue outputs (via RCA jacks), and both mini-jack and 1/4” TRS headphone outputs.
Finally, the Hugo represents a technical tour de force in that, in lieu of any sort of traditional off-the-shelf DAC chip, it instead uses a massive, 0.7V Xilinx FPGA (field programmable gate array) device that has been repurposed as a high resolution DAC that makes possible a far more sophisticated digital filtering schema than a tradition DAC chip could support. Thanks to the unusually low voltages needed to drive the Xilinx device, most of the Hugo’s available battery power can be devoted to its amplifier. The only think “missing” is balanced outputs, but according to Chord’s John Franks the Hugo is so inherently quiet and powerful that it more or less obviates the need for balanced outputs in the first place. Our recommendation: Go hear one of these things, soon.
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