Chris Martens’ Best of CES 2017: Personal Audio
- Chris Martens
- Jan 2017
In a break with past practice, where Hi-Fi+ coverage efforts at CES and other shows have been both exhaustive and, to be honest, exhausting (as is, “Man, that’s a lot of gear to cover in not enough space…”), Editor Alan Sircom and I decided to narrow things down a bit and focus on what we regarded as the Top 10 new products (or groups of products) we saw and heard at the show.
Since I tend to divide my attention at shows in a roughly 50/50 split between tradition two-channel/speaker-centric systems and personal audio gear, I’m going to do up two Top 10 lists—one (this one) for Personal Audio and another for Conventional High-End Hi-Fi.
Audeze iSine 10 and iSine 20 in-ear planar magnetic headphones
Perhaps the strangest but also most wonderful planar magnetic headphones I’ve heard in a long time are Audeze’s compact in-ear iSine 10 ($399) and iSine 20 ($599) models, which I consider to be some of the best things Audeze has ever done, regardless of size or price. Both the iSine 10 and 20 look a little bit like the wings (?) of the Evil Empire’s famous ‘Tie Fighters’ from the Star Wars movie series. Within those ‘wings’ are contained tiny, very low distortion planar magnetic drivers that load into ear nozzles that get fitted with traditional semi-spherical ear-tips just as you would find on traditional earphones. One major difference, though, is that the iSine models aren’t particularly sensitive to whether you do or don’t have an airtight ear-tip fit (getting the fit right changes the amount of background noise you’ll hear, but doesn’t deeply affect the overall sound of the iSines).
And what is that sound? Well, it’s a light, agile, well detailed and—I thought—very well balanced sound that would do any of the bigger Audeze headphones proud. What is more, the iSine 20 models ship both with standard (that is, passive) signal cables but also with the firm’s Cipher Lightning-compatible active (as in, self-powered and DSP-equipped) signal cable, which should make it just the thing for iPhone 7 users. And are you ready for a kind of mind-blowing factoid? The iSine 10 and iSine 20 models actually offer lower (significantly lower) distortion than the big Audeze headphones do! How cool is that?
Audioquest NightOwl headphones (and Dragonfly headphone amp/preamp/DAC updates)
Audioquest’s big release for CES was its new (mostly) closed-back NightOwl headphone, which is loosely based on the firm’s original quasi-open-back NightHawk model, but that feature almost entirely sealed closed-back ear cups done up in a very attractive, dark metallic graphite ‘Carbon’ finish (‘kind of goes with the NightOwl name, don’t you think?). But here’s the part none of us could have anticipated.
Common wisdom holds that if you have two similar headphones, one open-back and the other closed-back, then the closed-back model will likely sound more constricted, less free flowing, and less transparent than its sibling. With the new NightOwl, though, exactly the opposite is the case; heard alongside the original NightHawk, the NightOwl actually seems to offer superior openness, transparency, and resolution of low-level details. I hope we’ll have a chance to review the NightOwls in the future, because—to be honest—they appear to offer the sort of sound we had anticipated the original NightHawks would produce.
And oh by the way, right during the CES show, AudioQuest previewed a new firmware update for its DragonFly Red and Black-series USB headphone amp/preamp/DACs that introduces MQA decoding capabilities and allows the DragaonFly Red and Black models to go all the way up to 24/768 decoding. The new update is slated for release later this year (release date TBA) and will be offered absolutely ; if you already own one of the newer-generation DragonFly Red or Black devices, you can look forward to enhanced performance and expanded features, coming soon.
Beyerdynamic Xelento universal-fit earphones
Some years back the high-end headphone world was rocked by the arrival of two more or less world-class, dynamic driver-equipped full-size headphones from Germany: the original Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla and the Sennheiser HD 800, both of which set new standards for dynamic-driver headphones at the time. To be candid, the Sennheiser HD 800 garnered the lion’s share of attention from the press, but I always thought the Beyerdynamic offering had a unique appeal all its own.
Fast forward to today, though, and we find that both Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser have offered revised or updated versions of their original dynamic-driver flagships, but Beyerdynamic has now gone even further to create—get this—a universal-fit earphone that incorporates its famous Tesla-type driver technology and that is called the Xelento ($999). Frankly, having held in my hands the original (and quite beefy) T1 Tesla driver, I am surprised that Beyerdynamic was able to miniaturise the technology sufficiently to get it to fit inside an earphone, yet that is exactly what they have done. The result is an earphone that offers the same beautifully balanced, smooth, and yet also very resolving sound that many have found so appealing in the Tesla design over time.
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 transportable headphone amp/DAC and Poly streaming/serving/DAP module for use with Mojo
Chord is never content to rest upon its laurels and so the firm has seen fit to launch a substantially updated version of its now-iconic Hugo headphone amp/DAC/preamp; the new model is called the Hugo 2, which will sell for approximately £1,800 (about the same price a the original Hugo). What’s changed? Just about everything. As many of you know, Chord’s original Hugo, Mojo, and the incomparable DAVE DAC are all Rob Watts designs and all use his signature WTA digital filter algorithm in conjunction with very long tap-length filters (where, in a nutshell, the more filter taps there are, the better the sound). Hugo 2 offers:
· 49,152 filter taps (almost twice as many filter taps than the original Hugo),
· A choice of four user selectable digital filters (including one that is essentially the same filter used in the DAVE DAC),
· Decoding for PCM files up to 32/768,
· Native DSD decoding and supports for DSD files up to DSD 512 (Octa-DSD),
· Reduced distortion (<0.0001% THD @ 1kHz, 3V RMS into 300 Ohms),
· An even lower signal to noise ratio with measurable noise floor modulation, and
· Even higher power output (1010mW at 8 Ohms).
In essence, the Hugo 2 is better than the original Hugo in virtually every way, yet sells for close to the same price as the original. We can’t wait to try one.
Poly (priced at approximately £500) is an ever-so-clever add-on module for Chord’s popular Mojo headphone amp/DAC that adds the functions, says Chord, of:
· A condensed high-level PC with data server,
· A Wi-Fi hub,
· A DLNA receiver,
· A Bluetooth module, and
· An SD card reader.
In other words, Poly turns Mojo into an awesome digital audio player with extensive functions as a wireless streamer, music server, Bluetooth player, and SD card-based digital music player functions, all in one neat and still quite compact package. Once you see the Poly plugged into the Mojo, we’re betting you’ll want one for your Mojo, too.
Echobox Nomad N1 universal-fit earphones
Echobox, whose Finder X1 earphone has already received considerably praise, has launched a new flagship earphone call The Nomad (approximately $399), whose design borrows some features from the Finder X1 (which remains in the line), such as the latter’s user selectable, screw-in voicing filters, but that also breaks new ground. In particular, the new model features revised German-made PEEK drivers, and all-new ergonomic earpiece design (still rendered in titanium, as was the Finer X1’s earpiece enclosure), and that features replaceable signal cables using industry-standard MMCX snap-fit connectors. A brief listen led me to think the new Nomad offers a somewhat warmer and more naturally-voiced sound than the original Finder X1 did, though of course that sound would be high dependent on which of the available voicing filters one chose to install. Moreover, I found the ergonomically re-shaped earpiece enclosures offered a worthwhile improvement in comfort, too. I look forward to spending more time with this earphone in the future.
HiFiMAN Shangri La electrostatic headphone system, Edition 6 planar magnetic headphone system, and RE2000 universal-fit earphones
HiFiMAN offered what could only be called an “embarrassment of headphone riches” for show-goers to enjoy. (Indeed, the only question we had was whether the firm can or even should attempt to keep up the torrid product development pace it has shown of late).
The Shangri La electrostatic headphone system consists of the futuristic-looking 300B-powered Shangri La electrostatic headphone amplifier and its companion Shangri La electrostatic headphone (system priced at—gulp—$50,000). The system’s unabashed goal is to establish a world-class performance benchmark against which all other headphone systems (including Sennheiser’s vaunted HE-1 system) will be compared. Is Shangri La equal to or better than its famous German rival? Only time will tell, but the opinion of many who have heard both systems in action is that the Shangri La system is, at the very least, in the running for the title of ‘World’s Best Cost-No-Object Headphone System’. Just before the show, HiFiMAN began accepting orders for its new flagship rig. One word of caution: If you happen to spend any serious quantity of time with the Shangri La system you may find that afterwards most other headphone systems—even exceedingly good ones—sound a bit flat and mechanical, while also seeming to lose vital bits and pieces of musical information that the Shangri La system so effortlessly retrieves. Hey, don’t say we didn’t warn you…
And as if the now production-ready Shangri La system were not enough, HiFiMAN used CES as its venue of choice to role out a new flagship planar magnetic headphone called the Edition 6, priced at $6,000, which company founder Dr Fang Bian says is the best sounding planar magnetic headphone his firm has ever made. Like the HE 1000 v2 headphone, the Edition 6 uses a nano-material diaphragm, but what sets the Edition 6 apart is its use of so-called ‘Stealth Magnets’ whose design is geared toward allowing unimpeded airflow from the front and back sides of the diaphragm, while also holding magnet-induced diffraction effects to an absolute minimum. In a bit of a throwback to earlier HiFiMAN designs (specifically the classic HE-6), the new Edition 6 is a very low sensitivity headphone (with sensitivity of about 84dB, which is extremely low), which means users will need very powerful headphone amplifiers in order to realise the Edition 6’s full sonic potential. As of CES, the Edition 6 was not yet released for production as Dr Bian is still gathering feedback from Beta testers and has a few last-minute improvements in mind before the headphone will be finished.
Finally, HiFiMAN broke new ground with its radical RE-2000 universal-fit earphone, which is fitted with a dynamic driver that sports the world’s first so-called ‘Topology Diaphragm’. In a nutshell, HiFiMAN research had shown that the performance of dynamic driver diaphragms could be significantly enhanced if nanomaterial coatings were applied to the diaphragm surface in certain precise (and over layered) geometric patterns (hence the term Topology Diaphragm). The RE-2000 uses a 9mm diaphragm that has received six different, very precise applied, depositions of nanomaterial on its outer surfaces. The result, based on a brief listen, is an in-ear transducer of exceptional purity, clarity, and expressiveness. Project pricing for the RE-2000, which is not yet released for production, will be around $2,000.
PSB M4U 8 wireless noise cancelling headphone
For quite some time we at Hi-Fi+ have regarded the M4U 2 headphone from the Canadian firm PSB Speakers as a classic in its own time. The M4U 2 (priced at about $400), which is the brainchild of Paul Barton, offers wonderfully balanced voicing and works equally well in any of its three versatile modes: passive, active, or active + noise-cancelling.
Now, PSB has taken things one step further by turning the well-loved M4U 2 into the wireless aptX Bluetooth M4U 8 headphone that—in addition to its newfound Bluetooth capabilities—also retains the original model’s passive, active, or active + noise-cancelling. Perhaps the best news of all is that the new M4U 8 model picks up added functionality with no increase in price at all: the price will remain $399. Excellent.
Questyle CMA400i balanced output headphone amp/preamp/DAC
Long-term Hi-Fi+ readers will be aware of our admiration for Questyle as a brand and of our respect for the firm’s very affordable CMA600i headphone amp/preamp/DAC. However, for CES the Chinese firm pushed the theme of very high value for money even further by previewing its all-new CMA400i balanced output headphone amp/DAC, which will sell for between $699 and $799 upon final production release.
The CMA400i uses the same DAC section as the more expensive CMA600i and will provide two balanced headphone outputs via a 4-pin XLR connector and a balanced 2.5mm socket, plus single-ended outputs via a 6.35mm phone jack. Interestingly, the CMA400i adds a new feature the CMA600i didn’t have; namely, a set of bottom-mounted gain switches that allow the amp to be configured specifically for use in driving ultra high-sensitivity earphones and CIEMS. The two areas where the CMA400i had to make some sacrifices in order to achieve its low price point involves a power supply significantly smaller than the one used in the excellent CMA600i and a simplified chassis made of folded steel. Even so, the new amp/DAC will offer excellent value for money and Questyle’s traditionally high standards of build quality.
RHA DACamp L1 headphone amp/DAC
In past show reports we’ve come ever so close to proclaiming the availability of RHA’s long-awaited DACamp L1 high-res, fully balanced, portable headphone amp/DAC ($549.95). Well, it’s finally here, as in you-really-and-truly-can-go-out-and-buy-one-right-now if you are so inclined. And once you hear this Scottish gem in action, our bet is that you will be so inclined and for all the right reasons.
God, they say, is in the details… and so is sound quality. The DACamp L1 sports dual ESS Sabre32 ES9018K2M DACs and dual Class AB amplifiers and offers a fully balanced configuration. The DAC section supports PCM files at rate up to 32/384 and DSD files up to DSD256. Moreover, the amp provides three master gain settings and well judged bass and treble controls that each offer a 12-step range of adjustment spanning a -3dB cut on up to +9dB of boost.
Finally, the DACamp L1 is compatible Android, iOS, Linux, Windows, and Mac operating systems via its USB input, or can be fed via a TOSLINK optical input or 3.5mm analogue line in. But the part that words cannot adequately convey is that the little DACamp L1 looks and feels less like typical portable unit and more like a full-on hi-fi component in miniature, which is a big part of its enduring appeal. Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review later this year.
Sony TA-ZH1ES fully balanced headphone amp/DAC, NW-WM1Z digital audio player, and MDR-Z1R headphone
Over at the High-Res Audio Pavillion in the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sony put on a veritable high-res tour de force with an exhibit that showcased three of the firm’s premier, Signature-series high-re products: the TA-ZH1ES desktop headphone amplifier/DAC ($2,200), the NW-WM1Z digital audio player ($3,200), and the MDR-Z1R full-size headphones ($2,300).
Frankly, we don’t have nearly enough space to summarise the many technical features that make each of these three pieces special, but suffice it to say that the TA-ZH1ES amp/DAC can decode PCM files up to 32/768, can decode DSD files up to DSD 22.4Mhz, can convert any source to DSD via a built-in DSD Remastering Engine, and an exotic hybrid analogue/digital amplifier that Sony calls it ‘S-Master HX Hi-Res Audio Amplifier’. The result is an understated and deceptively compact amp/DAC that is built like a Swiss watch and that sounds very, very good indeed.
Then, the NW-WM1Z, which bills itself as the ultimate Walkman, takes the already high build quality standard of the desktop amp and pushes them even higher. As a result, the chassis of the unit is carved from billet, high-purity oxygen free copper and then gold plated, which all internal wiring is sourced from Kimber Kable. Like the desktop amp, the NW-WM1Z provides an S-Master HX amplifier section, a DSEE HX upscaling system (somewhat analogous to the desktop unit’s DSD Remastering Engine), and a DAC section that provides native DSD file decoding, and 256GB of memory. The result is a DAP of the very highest quality that offers an uncommonly clean, clear, and pristine sound.
Finally, there is the MDR-Z1R headphone—a product that might be easy to overlook simply because so many think of Sony primarily as an electronics company (rather than as a transducer specialist. Even so, the MDR-Z1R commands our full attention with a remarkable 70mm magnesium diaphragm equipped driver whose edges are supported by a ‘liquid crystal polymer edge’ element. The upshot is a driver with claimed frequency response all the way up to 120kHz (!). The back side of the driver is equipped with a distinctive almost conical shaped acoustic filter said to control “the air resistance and eliminates any reverberations produced by driver movement.” The headphone does many things very well, but perhaps its best quality of all is an almost shockingly pure, clear, and expressive midrange that is truly something to behold.
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