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 2 of a three-part report.
Most of our readers know of ENIGMAcoustics as the makers of the famous Sopranino self-biasing electrostatic supertweeter, but at CES we learned the firm is leveraging its Sopranino expertise to create a new hybrid electrostatic/dynamic-driver headphone. Thus far, we were able to get a brief listen with an R&D prototype, which was promising in many respects, but ENIGMAcoustics’ designer Marshall Lee made it very clear that the headphone will go through several further design revisions and iterations before it is ready to be brought to market. Stay tuned and watch www.hifiplus.com for further developments as they unfold.
Audiophiles of a certain age might recall that ESS was the firm through which Dr. Oskar Heil first brought his famous air-motion transformer-type drivers to market. Now that the original Heil patents have lapsed many other companies have begun to experiment with and to produce their own AMT-type drivers (often failing to credit Dr. Heil for his invention, we might add), but it is good to see that ESS is alive and well and still keeping the Heil faith. Moreover, at CES the firm showed a prototype headphone that will use a hybrid mix of Heil and dynamic type drivers and that is expected to sell for about $450.
Interestingly, a modern day ESS spokesman reminded us that, way back in the day, there was a very brief span of time (decades ago) when ESS briefly produced a headphone that was based solely on a Heil-type driver. In fact, the spokesman had a well-preserved set of these vintage ‘phone in good working condition, and I must say they sounded remarkably good even by modern standard. This certainly bodes well for those looking to create air motion transformer-powered headphones in the here and now.
Final Audio Design
Final Audio Design is a Japanese firm with longstanding experience in producing what might be termed “artisan-grade” earphones, but over the past half year or so the firm has been working overtime to launch a new series of full size headphones collectively called the Pandora models. For CES, Final Audio rolled out the first Pandora model called the Pandora Hope VI ($699). The Hope VI uses a somewhat unusual configuration in that it is based upon the hybrid combination of a 50mm piston dynamic driver and a balanced armature tweeter of the type typically found only in small in-ear devices.
HiFiMAN is perhaps best known for its superb planar magnetic headphones, but elsewhere in the world the firm is no less well known for its feature-packed high-res digital music players. Accordingly, HiFiMAN’s demo room focused on two new players.
The first is the compact and value-priced HM-700 portable digital music player, which will typically be bundled either with HiFiMAN’s RE-400 Waterline earphones ($99) or with its upscale RE-600 Songbird earphones ($399). The HM-700 makes no effort to handle high resolution files as it supports PCM files up to 48K sampling rates, but it offers very good value for money in that it provides a tasteful user interface screen, 32GB of onboard storage, and battery life of 15 hours. To see how the HM-700 value proposition works, note that HiFiMAN will happily sell you the bundle of an HM-700 and a set of RE-400 earphones for just $249, which means you’re getting an awful lot of player for not much money. Likewise HiFiMAN will bundle the HM-700 with the RE-600 ‘phones for $499 (arguably an even better value).
Next we have the new HM-802 player, which is directly derived fro the firm’s flagship HM-901 player (Hi-Fi+ review pending). At first glance the HM-802 appears identical to the HM-901, meaning that it offers user adjustable master gain and voicing controls, a host of inputs and outputs that enable the portable unit to serve as a standalone DAC in a full sized hi-fi systems, plus—importantly—the ability to substitute various types of amplifier modules to fine-tune the player with various types of headphones. There are, for example, balanced output amp modules suitable for driving demanding full-size phones or ultra low-noise amp modules geared specifically for used with high-sensitivity custom-fit in-ear monitors, and so forth. What distinguished the HM-802 from the HM-901 is the fact that it is based on Wolfson DACs (rather than the dual ESS Reference 32-bit Sabre DACs used in the HM-901), uses a different low-pass filter system, and is priced significantly lower at $699.
In the high performance headphone department, HiFiMAN showed me three new models, only one of which I am authorized to talk about here. The model I can tell you about and it is the upcoming HE-560 planar magnetic headphone expected to sell for $899. The HE-560 has several things going for it: a substantially revised industrial design vis-à-vis earlier HiFiMAN designs including a substantially improved frame and headband pad, new “single-ended” planar magnetic drivers that are more responsive than but also much lighter than those used in the current HE-6 model, dramatically improved sensitivity vis-à-vis the HE-6 (meaning the HE-560 is downright easy to drive), and a sound that—to our ears—seems to take a really significant step ahead of the HE-6 in terms of across the board performance. So, let’s sum up the benefits vs. the current flagship. The HE-560 promises greater comfort, lighter weight, greater sensitivity, and significantly better sound—for less money. ‘Sounds like a winning formula to us.
We’d love to tell you more about the other two HiFiMAN ‘phones we saw and heard, because both are very exciting, but we wish to honour HiFiMAN’s explicit request that we hold off on coverage for now (we’ll share the photos and other information we gathered as soon as we can). Stay tuned; very interesting things are coming.
If you are a follower of iFi Audio, which is in essence the value-priced arm of the British high-end audio company Abbingdon Music Research, you may have noted that within a fairly short span of time the company has launched too ranges of products: the very compact Nano-series models (Hi-Fi+ reviews of the iFi iCAN Nano headphone amp and iDSD Nano DAC are in the works), and the slightly larger Micro-series models (see the Hi-Fi+ review of the iFi iCAN Micro elsewhere on this website).
Well, for CES iFi is pushing the bar higher still by previewing the first in a range of new Mini-series components: namely, the iFi iDSD Mini DAC/preamp/headphone amp (projected price ~$1,000, give or take a bit). The iDSD Mini is hands down the largest iFi product to date, though it is still a good bit smaller than typical rack-sized high-end audio components. But don’t let the iDSD Mini’s compact size fool you; it is a very full-featured unit with a versatile DAC section that supports PCM data to 384/24 resolutions as well as DXD, DSD, and double DSD digital audio files. Pushing the limits even further, the iDSD Mini provides both single-ended and fully-balanced outputs, meaning that it should be right at home when used to push most any type of power amplifier (or headphones).
Over the last several audio shows, King Sound’s Emperor electrostatic headphones have been garnering lots of favourable attention, partly because they are very good and partly because, when bundled with King Sound’s available solid-state and electrostatic headphone amplifiers, they are very well-priced. The only problem, at least in some eyes, was that the Emperor evinced a certain plastic toy-like industrial design motif that belied and in a sense undercut the serious quality of the headphone itself (kind of like a Jaguar automobile that, by miscalculation, had a few too many visible parts made by the toy-maker Mattel).
For CES, however, King Sound unveiled a new and completely redesigned version of the Emperor called the Emperor H-03 electrostatic headphone that now looks the business. While my sense was that the redesign was primarily external, I thought the sound, too, might have improved a bit (though I concede that this could be an instance of “listening with my eyes”). In any event, there are now two product bundles on offer: the Emperor H-03 plus King Sound’s M10 solid-state electrostatic amplifier ($1,250) or the Emperor H-03 plus the M20 triode-based valve-type electrostatic amplifier ($2,150). Both offer excellent value for money, but our advice would be to spring for the H3 + M20 bundle if your budget can handle its higher price, as the M20 much more fully leverages the performance potential of the Emperor H-03.
Trading under the brand name of the iconic British guitar amplifier maker, Marshall Headphones, which is one of the divisions of the headphone-specific Scandinavia holding company Zounds Industries, offered a particularly audiophile friendly headphone called the Marshall Monitor ($199).
The Monitor, whose industrial design is full of visual cues reinforcing the connection between Marshall headphones and Marshall guitar amps, is said to be the most accurate of all Marshall ‘phones and one that, interestingly, features a distinctive “F.T.F.” system that gives users some measure of voicing control via a system of removable felt driver filters. With the filters in place the Monitor is said to offer “a warmer, laid back sound,” whilst with the filters removed the Monitors produce “a brighter and clearer sound.”
Judging by new but not yet released products seen at CES, McIntosh Labs is on the cusp of entering the high-end headphone world in a major way. Evidence of this could be seen in the form of a new high-end McIntosh dynamic driver-equipped headphone (co-developed with the help of German headphone experts at Beyerdynamic *).
* Actually, the McIntosh folks were reluctant to name names vis-à-vis their headphone technology partner, but in a journalist’s version of the 20-Questions game I guessed that their technology partner was, “the other German headphone specialist–the one not named Sennheiser” and the McIntosh spokesperson nodded in unspoken affirmation. So, there you have it.
However, a product much more in alignment with McIntosh’s traditional areas of expertise is the new MHA-100 DAC/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier (projected price, $5,000 – $5,500). The MHA-100 is chockfull of innovative features, not the least of which is a cool “return to ‘0’ volume control” that automatically throttles headphone output levels back to a ‘0’ level whenever a new input is chosen (a touch that could save IEM users from frying their ears when switching from a low to a high-output input source). As near as we can tell, the MHA-100 is conceived as the ultimate desktop/personal audio amplifier, whether the listener prefers headphones, earphones, custom-fit in-ear monitors, or desktop loudspeakers.