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 3 of a three-part report.
The last few years have seen dramatic increases in the amount of R&D work being done on very high performance headphones with exotic drive units. A case in point would be the soon-to-be-released Obravo HAMT-1 headphone ($1,800), which is based on dual Heil-type air motion transformer-type drive units. We weren’t able to form clear-cut impressions during a too-brief listen to the Obrava ‘phones near the end of the show, but this firm and the entire concept of headphones based on Heil-type drivers certainly bears watching. By the way, the HAMT-1 is quite a looker, in our view.
During CES we took the opportunity to meet up with Oppo Digital Chief Technology Officer Jason Liao and to learn more about the firm’s upcoming planar magnetic headphones and HA-1 DAC/headphone amplifier.
Oppo’s planar magnetic headphones are being developed with technical help from planar magnetic driver specialist Igor Levitsky of BG Radia fame. Truth to tell, we have been listening to a first-generation prototype of the Oppo headphone for several months now and based on our talks with Levitsky and Liao, we expected the second-generation ‘phones will improve on an already very good design. Fit, finish, and industrial design on the ‘phones is very fine indeed as is only appropriate given that the intended selling price will likely be in the $1,200 range.
The DAC/headphone amplifier, called the HA-1, basically leverages much of the digital audio section of Oppo’s flagship BDP-105 (or, in Europe, BDP-105EU) universal disc player, marrying that digital section with a fully-balanced, Class A headphone amplifier section. The HA-1, like the new Oppo headphones, is expected to sell for about $1,200.
Many of Sennheiser new offering fell well outside the high-end headphone market space, but two families of models, both new since last year’s show, were the Momentum On-Ear headphones ($229, available in a very wide range of colours) and three new “DJ” models. The new DJ offerings include the HD6 Mix ($279), the HD7 DJ ($329) and the HD8 DJ ($389).
As you would expect from Sennheiser, even its self-proclaimed DJ models offer a relatively well balanced sound (at least as compared to many competing DJ offerings, many of which can sound like horrible “boom/sizzle” machines).
Sony, quite frankly, did not show any new headphone-related products that it had not shown earlier at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013, but what was perhaps significant was the fact that Sony’s Venetian Hotel demo suite, which has in the past has focused on Sony’s top-tier loudspeakers and related electronics, was this year split into two sections: one centered on loudspeakers and the other devoted to headphones and DSD-capable headphone amp/DACs.
The message couldn’t have been any clearer: headphones have, in Sony’s view, become acceptable (and indeed, desirable) vehicles for high-end listening experiences. The two Sony models feature most prominently in the suite were the HAP-S1 DSD-capable DAC/music server/headphone amplifier ($999) and Sony’s top of the range MDR-1R headphones ($299).
For the first time in many years, the legendary electrostatic headphone manufacturer Stax had a beautiful, full-sized display booth at CES. Within the booth we found some surprising affordable Stax models we have not encountered before. One was the compact, portable SR-002 electrostatic headphone and amplifier system ($525), whose power unit is in the midst of updates, including an optional power unit plus DAC that should arrive on the market in three to four months.
Also in the booth was a prototype of an affordable (but yet to be named) desktop electrostatic amplifier that will be priced around $800 for the amp alone or at higher price for a version that will combine amp and DAC functions in one chassis. In what we regard as both a wise and welcome marketing move, Stax will offer this new desktop amp bundled with a pair of SR-207 electrostatic headphones for somewhere between $1,200 – $1,400 (a very attractive price, considering users will be getting both set of real, full-size Stax electrostatic ‘phones and an amp to drive them for comfortable less than $1500.
Important updates: A Stax spokesman advised that, within a few months, Stax will be opening a new Japanese factory located near the present Stax facility (both will operate side-by-side). This step should make for a 5X-to-10X increase in production capacity, meaning that the factories might eventually be able to catch up with the seemingly perpetual backlog of orders for the flagship SR-009 electrostats (and other Stax models). What is more, we learned that Stax has begun development work on a new top-tier electrostatic amplifier geared specifically for use with the amazingly transparent, world-class SR-009 electrostatic headphone.
As many of you know Urbanears is a maker of value-priced headphones that offer both genuinely competent sound and styling that gives trendy listeners a heaping helping of Scandinavian design at a bargain basement price. But what you may not know is that Urbanear has a track record for clever, innovative ergonomic designs such as the firm’s clever pass-through headphone jacks that enable two pairs of ‘phones to be daisy-chained on one signal cable, or the distinctive “turncable” that offers a mini-jack plug on one end and a full-size phone jack plug on the other (either end can be plugged into the headphone, making it possible for the cable to be used with whatever size of output jack one might encounter).
For CES 2014, Urbanears’ big ergonomic idea involved a sweet little headphone called the Humlan ($50), whose headband pad cover and earpad covers are readily removable (via an easy-to-use system of snaps) and are—get this—machine washable. Thus, if you manage to soak your Humlans during a particularly vigourous workout at the gym, you needn’t worry; once you’re home, just pop off the covers, run them through the wash, put them back on, and your Humlans will be fresh and good to go.
Though best known as a subwoofer manufacturer, Velodyne has moved very rapidly to embrace a new role as a headphone/earphone maker—an area where the firm’s product line has grown be leaps and bounds over the past year.
The line-up now includes an earphone specifically geared for physical fitness enthusiasts, called the vFit ($99), which is characterized as a “lifestyle, action earphone,” an entry level headphone called the vLeve ($199), a wireless version of the vLeve called the vFree ($249), a noise-cancelling headphone called the vQuiet ($299), a high performance Bluetooth headphone called the vBold ($349), and a top-of-the-range performer known as the vTrue ($399).
In very many ways Westone, a veteran earphone and custom-fit in-ear monitor maker, has reinvented itself over the past year, partly by adding models in new product categories, but also by substantially re-vamping, upgrading, and expanding existing product ranges in ways that not only make the products look better but also, more importantly, improve upon their already very goo sound quality. Thus, the changes at Westone are no mere “once-over-easy” product facelifts, but rather represent much more substantial and far-ranging enhancements to the line.
One new area for Westone might be classified as “adventure earphones”—models that sound good but that are also built to stand up to vigourous use in rugged environments (e.g., snowboarding, hiking, jogging, and so on). Last year’s category-opening adventure product was the ADV earphone, but for CES 2014 the firm rolled out its new ADV Beta earphones ($179) which feature zinc earpiece housings, single balanced armature drivers, and come with clever and potentially life-saving reflective signal cables (the better to protect runners who jog in low-light environments).
In the universal-fit earphone market space, Westone has completely revamped what used to be called its Westone or TrueFit models to create a revised W-series range. At the entry level of the range is the W10 earphone ($249), which is based on a single balanced armature driver, while at the top of the range are two newly-announced models: the W50 ($749, based on five balanced armature drivers) and the W60 ($999), based on an impressive array of six balanced armature drivers). Westone VP of Audio Products, John Lowery let us try his pilot production pair of W60s for a brief listen and we found them very, very impressive indeed (a solid contender, we suspect, for best-in class honours, regardless of price).
Interestingly, all the new W-series models feature certain elements in common, including an assortment of interchangeable external earpiece shells (allowing owners to change colours at will), detachable and user replaceable signal cables (one set for purists, the other with remote smartphone controls), new ruggedized carry cases with what appear to be airtight seals, and what is arguably the finest set of both rubber-shell and compressible foam eartips being offered with any range of universal fit earphones on the market. All in all, these are some very impressive offerings. (Incidentally, Westone UM-series universal fit earphones have also been renewed, though our sense is that music lovers will—in almost all cases—prefer the tonal balance of the W-series models for listening to recorded music.).
But the innovations don’t stop with the universal fit models, since Westone has leveraged some of the same sonic insights poured into its W-series models to improve its range of custom-fit in-ear monitor. At the lower end of that range are three almost shockingly affordable custom-fit monitors: the new AC10 ($349), based on a single balanced armature driver, the AC20 ($479), based on dual balanced armature drivers, the CR10 “recreational monitor” ($289), whose low-profile earpiece is designed to fit comfortable within helmets.
Updating the CustomElite-Series monitors are a range of new ES-models, including the ES10 ($449), ES20 ($749), ES30 ($899), and ES50 ($999, with a Hi-Fi+ review of the ES50 slated for later this year). Although it is a bit too early to say, we think it is a safe bet that, within the not too distant future, there will also be an ES60 model that will leverage the technology of the upcoming W60.
Last but not least, we should give you notice that Westone is in the process of developing a potentially spectacular new full-size headphone that will feature—get this—a beryllium-foil tweeter/midrange ribbon driver pair with a beryllium diaphragm-equipped mid-bass driver. Projected pricing for this super-phone is roughly estimated at about $5,500, with release slated for late in Q3, 2014 or possibly Q4, 2014.