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Headphones & Personal Audio at the L.A. Audio Show 2017

Headphones & Personal Audio at the L.A. Audio Show 2017

The inaugural L.A. Audio Show 2017 featured an extensive HeadGear showroom, plus something new and valuable: namely, an XTREME HeadGear room reserved exclusively for top-tier models of proven performance capabilities.

Since the L.A. Show followed hot on the heels of the Munich High-End Show 2017, which in turn followed closely after the AXPONA 2017 show, there was relatively little in the way of utterly new (as in never seen before, anywhere) equipment, but more in the way of models being shown for the first time in the U.S. or of models shown in a new demonstration context.

What follows, then, is not an exhaustive report, but more of a filtered report that attempts to capture the highlights of the headphone portion of the show.

The XTREME HeadGear showroom

Audeze

Audeze’s presence in the XTREME room focussed exclusively on the firm’s new flagship LCD-4i planar magnetic in-ear headphones ($2,499), which represent an all-out attempt to capture the performance of Audeze’s flagship full-size planar magnetic LCD-4 headphones, but in a far more compact, portable, and ad least somewhat more affordable package. This earphone had been introduced to the world only a few short weeks earlier in Munich and it is quite rightly garnering a great deal of “buzz”.

With the LCD-4i, did Audeze succeed in creating a miniaturised, portable equivalent to the well-regarded LCD-4? Yes, brilliant so in my opinion, although if pressed I think I would say the little LCD-4i might even be better than its bigger brother. Transparency, linearity, and full-throated dynamics are the order of the day. If you have the opportunity to hear these, by all means take it.

HiFIMAN

HiFiMAN demonstrated not one but two top class headphone systems. The first was the famous Shangri-La electrostatic system ($50,000) which consists of the Shangri-La electrostatic headphone and its matching Shangri-La electrostatic amplifier, which is powered by a quartet of 6SN7 valves driving a quartet of custom made, elevated specification 300B output tubes, which in turn directly drive the headphones. The Shangri-La system is a leading contender for state-of-the-art honours and its only realistic competitor for the title is the even more expensive Sennheiser HE 1 electrostatic system (~$55,000), which at the L.A. Audio Show was positioned at a listening station located just a few feet from the HiFiMAN demo area. Which system is better? I’m not going to try to give that one an answer as there are some quite complicated variables involved, but suffice it to say that these two world-class headphone systems offer very stiff competition for one another and for anything else that may come along.

For those not quite ready to acquire headphone systems up in the $50k stratosphere, HiFiMAN offers an alternative in the form of its new flagship Susvara planar magnetic headphone ($6,000) as powered by the mighty EF1000 amplifier ($15,000). A little known fact is that the EF1000—which most people assume is primarily a headphone amplifier—was in fact originally designed as a highly accomplished and very high-resolution integrated amplifier that was meant to power the reference loudspeakers used by Dr Fang Bian, the founder of HiFiMAN. According to Dr Bian the EF1000 works beautifully in the speaker-centric role, but we think it is just the ticket for driving the relatively insensitive (but excellent) Susvara headphones. The EF1000 is a hybrid design that uses a sextet of 6922 valve feeding the EF1000’s solid-state output stage. For its part, the Susvara can be seen as a serious attempt to expand upon every single one of the strengths of HiFiMAN’s excellent HE1000 v2 headphone. The result is not only the best sounding planar magnetic headphone HiFiMAN has ever made, but also one that—in at least some respects—offers sound quality reminiscent of the king-of-the-hill Shangri-La.

Kimber

In the headphone universe, Kimber Kable is known for its excellent Axios family of replacement/upgrade headphone signal cable. However, not so many people realize that there is an even higher-level headphone cable available from the firm in the form of the Axios Ag cable (Ag to indicated the silver conductors used in the cable). The Axios Ag sells for $4,000, so obviously it’s intended for use on top-tier headphones only, but once you hear what Axios Ag can do on, say, a set of MrSpeakers ETHER FLOW planar magnetic headphones, it’s awfully difficult to ignore the sonic benefits they provide.

 

MrSpeakers

MrSpeakers is best known for its excellent ETHER and ÆON-series planar magnetic headphones, but for the Extreme room the firm demonstrated a work-in-progress, pre-production prototype of its upcoming ETHER ES electrostatic headphones, which promise to take performance to an all-time high for the firm. Pricing has not yet been established for the ETHER ES, but company president Dan Clark promises the price should fall “under $3,000”.

Based on several quick listens to the ETHER ES, I am very excited to see and hear how the finished product will turn out. My educated guess is that it will be a marketplace winner and one that will shake-up the established (that is, typically Stax-driven) order of things in the electrostatic headphone world.

Questyle

As has been Questyle practice for the past several audio shows, the firm made a point of demonstrating its top-of-the-range ‘Golden Stack’ system, which consists of performance enhanced and satin gold-finished faceplate-equipped versions of its headphone DAC/preamp/dual monoblock amp system. Many regard the Golden Stack as the finest solid-state headphone DAC/preamp/amp system in the world.

But also on demonstration in the Extreme room were the firm’s new QP2R digital audio player ($1,299) and its very affordable new CMA400i fully balanced desktop headphone DAC/amp ($799). The QP2R, in particular, represents a really big sonic leap forward from the already excellent QP1R (almost as if the new DAP is channelling the sound of the mighty Golden Stack, but in a pocket-sized edition). The CMA400i, in turn, aims to be the sub-$1,000 DAC/amp that offer the most meaningful performance and advanced features for the least amount of money.

Sennheiser

Sennheiser has often taken it flagship HE 1 electrostatic headphone/amp/DAC system (~$55,000) to trade shows before, but typically has done tightly time-limited, by-appointment-only listening sessions. At theLA L.A. Audio show, though, the firm instead showed the system at a more welcoming first come/first served demonstration table where interested parties could come have a listen as the opportunities presented themselves. As usual, the HE 1 served up absolutely stunning performances.

The HE 1 system is configured in non-standard ways as the headphones are permanently hard-wired to a large, marble-encased ‘mothership’ that incorporates a valve-equipped amp/DAC with motorized valve lifters (no, not like the ones in your car) that raise the system valves up into playing position when the system is powered up, but then retract them for safe storage when the system is shut down. Why use permanently hardwired headphones? The answer is that part of the HE 1 amplifier resides in the HE 1 main chassis, while part is actually built-in to the ear cups of the HE 1 headphones. Thus, the headphones must be enjoyed with, and powered by, their companion desktop amp/DAC system only.

 

The main HeadGear showroom

Airist Audio

Airist Audio is a relatively new electronics company whose first product, the Heron 5 headphone amplifier, offers serious high-end technology and sound quality at a comparatively modest price; the Heron 5 sells for $999. The Heron 5 sports high and low sensitivity headphone outputs, an ultra wide bandwidth circuit design, a high quality volume control, and an over-built power supply—all housed within an elegant, high-quality, satin-finished silver enclosure.  In short, nothing about the Heron 5 suggests any sort of compromise; it looks and sounds more expensive than it is.

But, desirable thought the Heron 5 may be, the even bigger mind-blower promises to be the firm’s yet-to-be-named, 24-bit ladder DAC, which can accommodate PCM files at up to 32/384 resolutions or DSD files up to DSD128. The really impressive thing is that the Airist DAC promises to bring ladder DAC circuit topologies to a sub-$500 price point. We can’t wait to hear it.

Astell & Kern

Astell & Kern’s demonstrations centred on the firm’s latest, greatest, and most ambitious portable digital audio player to date: the oddly named A&ultima SP1000, which sells for $3500. The A&ultima SP1000 includes features too numerous to list, but suffice it to say that if the A&ultima SP1000 doesn’t include a feature, then you (probably) don’t need it.

Astute readers will recognise that the new A&Ultima SP1000 is offered at the same price as the previous flagship AK380 model, while remains in the product line. Accordingly, the price of the AK380 will be reduced to $2999.

At a much lower price point, the firm’s excellent but also quite affordable Kann digital audio player ($999) was attracting a lot of attention, partly because it is very nearly as full-featured as its more expensive siblings, but also because it offers very robust power output that qualifies the unit as offering very “big bang for the bucks”.

AudioQuest

AudioQuest was not so much showing a new product at the LA show, but rather existing products—namely the DragonFly-series DAC/headphone amps—improved by a recent firmware update. The update to firmware revision 1.06, which is said to be “fast and easy” to install, includes support for MQA rendering plus various optimisations to improve compatibility between the DragonFlys and Android devices.

Cardas

Many enthusiasts are familiar with Cardas’ original polished-copper-finished EM5813 earphone and by the later A8 earphone offered in a bright blue soft-fell finish, but for the LA show the firm was showing its new black-chrome finished A8 30th Anniversary Model ($349). Apart from the new finish, the new model offers a revised 10.85mm dynamic driver and improved signal cables.

 

Cayin

We have seen Cayin’s high-performance iDAC-6 digital-to-analogue converter and iHA-6 headphone amplifier before, but at the LA show we finally got a chance to see the third element in the series: namely, the upcoming iDAP-6 network player (price TBC, but ~ $1000). The uncommonly versatile iDAP-6 is DLAN and NAD-drive compatible; offers an SD card slot and USB port on its front panel; provides LAN (Ethernet), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Airplay connectivity; and provides USB, AUE/EBU, both BNC and RCA jack-equipped coaxial S/PDIF, Toslink, and even HDMI digital audio outputs.

But wait; there’s more. Cayin also showed its “entry-level” model N3 digital audio player ($149.99), which is so full-featured that it scarcely seems an entry-level product at all. For example, the lovely and compact player supports PCM files at up to 32/384 levels, provides native decoding for DSD files up to DSD 256, is compatible with (and can be controlled by) earphone with CITA-specification mic/remote modules, and provides Bluetoth 4.0 connectivity with aptX decoding. Better still, the N3 offers 12 hours of playback time per batter charge and can recharge in just two hours. Honestly, I can’t think of a better way for newcomers to see what a high quality DAP can do for their favourite music, at a more than fair price.

Cleer

The San Diego-based firm Cleer edges ever closer to the full production release of its long-awaited flagship headphone, called the NEXT (price TBC, but ~$699). If all goes according to plan, the NEXT will feature an aluminium frame, an “ironless magnesium driver”, and will come with high quality, low-oxygen balanced signal cables terminated in high-reliability LEMO connectors.  We’re eager to hear the finished versions.

Cozoy

Cozoy is a Chinese firm whose products are just now beginning to be distributed in the US through HeadSonix. Two models that particularly caught my eye were the Takt Pro ($300), which is an Apple Lightning-compatible DAC/amp with an Apple-compatible control button, and the very versatile REI DAC/amp ($550), which is a high-res (PCM 32/348, DSD256) DAC/Amp that comes with adapter cables enabling the REI to connect to iDevices (with no CCK required), Android devices, and Mac OS and Windows-based PC.

 

Danacables

Headed by Dana Robbins, Vinh Vu (of Gingko Audio fame), and Norm Ginsburg, Danacables have been creating an expanding line of high performance cables targeted both for headphone and speaker-based systems.

The firm’s top of the range headphone cable is the Lazuli Reference ($1,199/3 metre), which uses 1200-strand Litz-type conductors. A simpler and thus less costly alternative is the also very goo Lazuli cable ($549/2 meters), which uses 600-strand Litz-type conductors.

Ear Sonics

The French earphone maker Ear Sonics is now being represented in the US by the powerful distribution firm Audio Plus Services. The Ear Sonics range comprises the SM2-iFi ($299), ES2 ($499), ES3 ($599), the Velvet v2 ($799), and the six-driver S-EM6 v2 ($1199).

In some markets Ear Sonics offers custom-fit in-ear monitors as well as universal-fit earphones, though all of the models on display at the LA show were universal-fit models.

JH Audio

Famed CIEM and universal-fit earphone maker JH Audio was showing its newest Siren-series model, called the Lola. The Lola is a hybrid design that uses a distinctive eight-driver array consisting of dual balanced armature-type bass drivers, dual horizontally opposed dynamic drivers in a DOME (Dual Opposed Midrange Enclosure) housing, and quad balanced armature-type high-frequency drivers. The Lola, which is reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 150, is notable for—among other things—its uncanny coherency and dynamic expressiveness.

Kimber

Kimber showed off several variations of its Axios headphone cables including the standard Axios cables with copper conductors ($698 and up), the Axios Ag cables with pure silver conductors ($4000 and up), and the new Axios HB cables with a hybrid combination of silver and copper conductors ($2700).  For owners of very high-end headphones, we suspect that Axios HB might prove to be the “just right” Goldilocks model in the middle, offering a great combination of resolution and innate musicality.

Metaxas & Sins

Possibly the strangest-looking headphone amplifier/preamplifier we have seen in a long time is the Australian-made Metaxas & Sins Marquis, whose exterior resembles a human skull. Far from being a gimmicky device, the Marquis is a very serious, purist-minded headphone amp that sells for about €5,500. At the LA Show, the Marquis was being shown in the Kimber Kable stand as a vehicle for demonstrating that firm’s Axios headphone cables.

 

Meze

Meze’s mid-priced full-size 99 Classics headphone has long been one of Hi-Fi+’s favourites, but for the LA show the firm demonstrated its similar (though not identically voiced) and cost reduced 99 Neo model ($249). The basic ingredients and drivers in the 99 Classics and 99 Neo models are the same, but the internal volume of the 99 Neo ear cups is slightly greater than that of the 99 Classics, thus giving the Neo a subtle touch of additional warmth—a quality many music lovers may enjoy.

Modwright

Modwright impressed LA show visitors in two ways, first with its superb valve-powered Tryst valve-powered headphone amplifier ($2,999) and second, with its dramatically hot-rodded version of the Oppo Sonica streaming DAC.

The Tryst is a two-chassis headphone amp that features a pure Class A circuit with zero feedback and that is based on four 12B4 valves and two 6922 valves. The Tryst, which looks and sounds sumptuous, produces 3 Watts of output into a 16-Ohm load and sells for $2995.

The Modwright Sonica DAC, in turn, provides an outboard power supply box, a fully balanced valve-powered (2 x 6922 driver valves) and transformer coupled analogue output stage with zero feedback, and which incorporates Lundahl transformers. The Modwright Sonica sounds terrific and sells for $2500.

Santa Cruz Audio

Santa Cruz Audio is a new start-up whose SC1000 self powered earphone ($585) aims to solve a number of problems.  First, the earphone is designed for optimal comfort and to stay put, thanks to a flexible stabilizer arm that gently pushes off of the back of the outer ear to help hold the earphone in place. Second, the earphones provide alternate over or under the ear cable outlet positioning slots, so that user can choose which cable outlet routing scheme fells best to them. Third, the earphone incorporates its own amp module (positioned inline with the signal cable), which means you’ll never have to go hunting in the couch cushions for your misplaced portable amp. Fourth, the SC1000 earpieces provide external microphones with built-in in wind screens to allow users to dial-in ambient sounds at will or turn them off as desired—all via an ambient sound balance control provided on the SC1000 amplifier module.

 

Shozy

Another new Chinese brand in the HeadSonix lineup is Shozy, whose carbon fibre-faced Hibiki earphones look and sound as if they should cost several hundred dollars, but that in fact sell for $60. Another potential winner in the Shozy range is the minimalist Alien+ digital audio player, priced at $499, which takes a distinctive ‘less is more’ approach.

Stereo Pravda

The Russian-made range of earphones from Stereo Pravda) are very distinctive in that they look almost like polished twigs with ear tips on one end and signal cables on the other. For the LA Show, Stereo Pravda’s demonstration centred on the firm’s least expensive SB-3 model ($1250), which features triple balanced armature-type drivers positioned so that outputs of the drivers are coaxial to one another. Other welcome detail touches include signal cables designed by Chris Sommovigo, Furutech mini-jacks, and matching resistors from Vishay.

Company founder Misha Kucherenko has commented that the meaning of his company’s name in its original Russian context is, roughly translated, “solid imaging truth”, which is what the SB-3s aim to provide.

WyWires

Many headphonistas are familiar with WyWires Red-series (and red-jacketed) upgrade signal cables for headphones, but at the LA Show the firm was emphasising its even higher-performance Platinum-series headphone cables, with prices starting at $599/set. The Platinum headphone cables represent, in our view, a big step up in performance vis-à-vis the original Red cables, which remain in the product lineup.

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