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Fifteen Cool Headphone Products from Newport Beach 2015 – Part 1

Fifteen Cool Headphone Products from Newport Beach 2015 – Part 1

T.H.E. Show Newport Beach had a special pavilion called the ‘Headphonium’ reserved just for Headphone products and the fast-growing group of audiophiles who enjoy them. The Headphonium space proved to be a garden of delights for headphonistas, but so enthusiastic was the response from manufacturers that—according to one show organiser—a number of would-be exhibitors had to be turned away owing to lack of space. My thoughts: Next year, T.H.E. Show Newport Beach is going to need a (much) bigger Headphonium.

Rather than attempting to list every single product I saw at the show, I instead decided to describe fifteen of the more intriguing headphone products seen at Newport. Some of these products have already been previewed within the headphone community, but many were being shown to the broader audiophile community at large for the first time anywhere, or for their US debuts.

As always, I offer apologies in advance to worthy manufacturers and components not mentioned here. The omissions are in no way a commentary on the merits of products that I’ve left out.

This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Click here to read Part 2.

ALO Audio

The Oregon-based firm ALO Audio has now finalised the design for its promising new hybrid valve/solid-state portable headphone amplifier/DAC, known as the Continental Dual Mono, or CDM for short ($1495). The CDM is based on the well-regarded Wolfson WM8471 DAC chip and its associated digital filters, which support PCM playback at up to 24/192 rates and DSD64.

The analogue section of the CDM uses a pair of NOS 6111 vacuum tubes as a Class A valve buffer stage along with other solid-state amplification circuitry. The CDM is driven by a three-cell pack of Panasonic 18650 batteries and uses extensive internal voltage regulation. The unit provide both balanced and single-ended outputs, a line-level output, and a multi-coloured display to show the format and sample rates of the digital audio files being played.

 

Astell&Kern

The Korean firm Astell&Kern debuted several key products, some targeted primarily toward headphone enthusiasts and other geared more for traditional hi-fi enthusiasts. For serious headphone users, the firm offered the US debut of its new DLNA-compliant, balanced-output capable, flagship AK380 portable media player ($3,499). The AK380 expands upon AK’s theme of crisp, angular industrial designs and is, as you might expect, chockfull of features. The unit provides 32/384 bit-to-bit playback, native DSD playback, 20-band EQ system with 0.1dB adjustment increments, a VCXO ‘femtoclock’, compatibility with AK’s new ‘AK Connect’ app, and provisions for add-on accessories including a style-matched dock with full-size XLR balanced output jacks, an outboard style-matched disc-reader/disc-ripping drive, and a clip-on and style-matched high(er) powered add-on amplifier. Also, the DLNA-compliant device can be used as a compact mini-server in conjunction with home audio systems.

With traditional users of speaker-based system, AK was showing its full 500-series of components including the AK500N network media player with matching amplifier, power supply, etc.

Audeze

Audeze is in full swing, marketing and producing its new EL-8 open-back and closed-back headphones, priced at $699. A big part of the importance of the EL-8 is that—in contrast to the firm’s LCD-series models—it makes the ‘Audeze’ sound available at a price falling comfortably below $1,000, which should make the brand accessible to more listeners than ever before. Not unlike the firm’s premium-priced LCD-X and LCD-XC, the EL-8 models were planned from the outset to be offered in similarly (though not identically) voiced open- and closed-back versions, which will surely be good news for those who might wish to use the ‘phones in studios or other settings where it is important to block out external noise and to prevent the headphone’s own ‘self-noise’ from disturbing others. 

Some have commented that the EL-8s, though Audeze’s lowest-priced offerings, may also be the firm’s best-looking headphones of all. Credit for this goes to BMW Design Group, which developed the industrial design motif for this series of headphones.

 

AudioQuest

In our past several show reports we have reported that AudioQuest’s Skylar Gray-designed Nighthawk headphones are drawing ever closer to the moment of full production release. The Nighthawk is one of the those designs that appears quite attractive but also fairly conventional from ten paces away, but the closer you look the more innovative the design turns out to be. The Nighthawk ear cups, for example, are moulded from liquid wood, while the turbulence-reducing rear vent of the driver enclosure features a vent cover so intricate that it can only be produced via 3D printing techniques. Perhaps the most distinctive detail of all, though, is the Nighthawk’s use of a dynamic driver equipped with a bio-cellulose diaphragm said to offer the stiffness and transient speed of a metal or composite diaphragm, but with a lower level of unwanted colourations and a higher level of internal dampening. We can’t wait to hear the final production models, which brings me to my next point…

At the risk of making you all positively green with envy, I’ve got to tell you Hi-Fi+’s full-production release review samples of the Nighthawk appeared on my doorstep just as I was composing that last paragraph. I promise a ‘First Listen’ blog on the Nighthawk as soon as I am able to carve out the time.

 

Burson Audio

As Hi-Fi+ readers already know, our Editor Alan Sircom thought very highly of the original Burson Conductor, which is a high-powered (4 watt), solid-state headphone amplifier, preamplifier, and DAC. Now, however, there is an even more capable version available called the Conductor Virtuoso, which sells for $1,495 – $1,995 (or €1,450 – €1850), depending upon which DAC module is installed.

The Conductor Virtuoso can be ordered with either a PCM1793 DAC (the lower priced option) or an ESS9018 DAC (the higher priced option), giving listeners the ability to choose whichever DAC’s sonic character best fits their personal listening tastes or system requirements. The headphone amplifier section of the Conductor Virtuoso is based upon Burson’s critically acclaimed Soloist headphone amp, but with three important improvements: a useful and very robust remote control, a dramatically improved 100-step low-noise volume control, and a very cool front-panel-mounted numeric volume display (where volume readings appear to glow from deep within the thick, solid aluminium faceplate). Build quality, always a Burson hallmark, is exceptional, exhibiting bank vault-like solidity and precision.

 

Campfire Audio

Campfire Audio is a promising new spin off from ALO Audio whose mission is to produce extremely high-quality universal-fit earphones whose build quality reflects extraordinary attention to detail and a certain willingness to experiment with unorthodox or exotic materials. Thus far, three models are planned: the entry-level Orion ($499), the mid-level Lyra ($749), and the flagship Jupiter ($1,299).

The Orion is based on a single, full-range balance armature-type driver and features earpiece housings precision machined from billet aluminium and screwed together with Swiss watch-like precision. The Orion will become available some time in the late summer of this year.

The Lyra is based on a single, full-range dynamic drive featuring – get this – a beryllium diaphragm; the Lyra’s earpieces enclosures are made of a decidedly exotic-looking ceramic material. Lyra will ship by the end of June.

At the top of the range, the Jupiter is two-way design based on quad balanced armature drivers (two low-frequency, two high-frequency) in milled-from-billet aluminium enclosures that feature unusual internal resonator chambers instead of the usual sound outlet tubes or ‘bores’. The Jupiter, like the Orion, should be ready in July or August.

A spokesman indicated that the balanced armature-equipped models use aluminium earpieces in part because they sound better with that material and in part because – in the case of the Jupiter – aluminium allows creation of the requisite machined internal resonator chambers.  The Beryllium driver-equipped Lyra model uses a ceramic enclosure because in controlled tests the Beryllium driver simply sounded better with a ceramic than an aluminium enclosure.

All three models struck me as having great sonic promise, but my personal preference (based on a too brief listening session) was for the middle model Lyra, which offered my favoured combination of plenty of detail and definition coupled with a natural, neutral, and ‘organic’ sound.

Cavalli Audio

Although Dr Cavalli was not personally in attendance at Newport, his newest amplifier, the compact, fully balanced Liquid Carbon, priced at $599, most certainly was… and it was wowing knowledgeable headphone aficionados. The reason I say this is that the Liquid Carbon, which is very much a no-frills, stripped-to-the-essentials headphone amplifier, delivers a sound that comes astonishing close to that of Cavalli’s famous full-size desktop amps such as the Liquid Crimson ($2,850), Liquid Glass 2 ($2,950), or even the Liquid Gold Balanced SS ($3,950).

The Liquid Carbon sports both single-ended and balanced inputs and outputs, plus two user-selectable master gain settings. The Carbon is said to be quiet enough for use with sensitive CIEMs, yet offers maximum output of 1.5 watts, which is more than enough output for the overwhelming majority of full-size headphones. Consider the Liquid Carbon, then, as the Cavalli for those of us who love the Cavalli sound, yet aren’t quite ready to spend four-figure sums on a headphone amplifier.

Important note: Cavalli is planning to build a limited edition run of just 500 Liquid Carbon amplifiers and is not prepared to guarantee that more will ever be made. Cavalli is now accepting pre-order for the amp; if you want one, don’t delay since the amps are offered on a first come, first served basis and will begin shipping in August.

__________

This concludes Part 1 of this article.

Click here to read Part 2

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