This is Part 3 of Hi-Fi+’s three-part photo-essay covering the recent CanJam NYC event.
At CanJam London 2016, Noble Audio introduced its Katana universal-fit earphones and CIEMs to favourable critical response. In fact, Hi-Fi+ editor Alan Sircom and I both use and enjoy the Katanas, which were the first Noble models to use proprietary balanced armature drivers developed in collaboration between Noble and the balanced armature driver specialist Knowles.
The only catch, really, was that the Katanas proved so good that they effectively surpassed the performance of Noble’s long-standing flagship model, the Kaiser 10. So it happened that at CanJam NYC Noble rolled out the successor to the Kaiser 10 in the form of a new model called the Kaiser Encore (priced at $1,850 in universal-fit or CIEM forms, or at $2,850 in Noble’s exotic Prestige format). Like the original Kaiser 10, the Kaiser Encore is based on 10 balanced armature drivers, but in this case proprietary Noble/Knowles drivers purpose built for the Kaiser Encore application.
In a brief listen, where I compared a set of Kaiser Encore universal-fit earphones to my Katana CIEMs, I came away thinking the that Kaiser Encore might offer even more balanced and more neutral voicing than the Katana, although I would need to do further listening to confirm that point. Either way, the Katana and new Kaiser Encore both represent big steps forward in performance relative to the Noble models that preceded them.
Opus showed its two most promising DAPs: the Opus#1 ($599) and the very elaborate and full-featured Opus#2 ($1,599).
The Opus#1 is billed as a Portable Mastering Quality Digital Audio Player that is Android-based, features an ARM Cortex-A9 1.4GHz Quad-core processor with 1 GB of internal DDR3 RAM, dual Cirrus Logic CD4398 DACs that support decoding for 24/192 high res PCM files, and internal music storage memory of 32GB (backed up by a micro SD card slot with capacity for an additional 200GB of storage).
The Opus#2 is also Android-based and features an ARM Cortex-A9 1.4GHz Quad-core processor with 1 GB of internal DDR3 RAM, dual ESS Sabre32 ES9018K2M DACs that provide both high-res 32/384 PCM decoding and Native DSD playback, both WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity options, and internal music storage memory of 128GB (backed up by a micro SD card slot with capacity for an additional 200GB of storage).
The Italian audio electronics specialist Pathos Acoustics showed two impressive new headphone amplifiers: the hybrid valve/solid-state Aurium ($1,495) and the even more capable Inpol Ear ($4,500).
The Aurium is a single-ended headphone amplifier (or what Pathos terms a “headphone integrated amplifier”) that sports a pure class valve-powered front end and a solid-state MOSFET-driven power output stage capable of producing 3.6 watts of output @ 32 Ohms, in pure class A mode with zero feedback.
The Inpol Ear is in essence a headphone-orientated version of the Inpol Remix MkII integrated amplifier recently reviewed by Hi-Fi+. The Inpol Ear is a fully balanced amplifier that uses a pure class A valve-powered front end and Pathos’ signature solid-state Inpol circuit for its outputs. In fact, the term ‘InPoL’ is an acronym that stands for “Inseguitore Pompa Lineare”, which roughly translates to “Linear Pump Follower”, which Pathos says uses, “a single solid state component in follower configuration, with high current gain and with voltage gain together.” The Inpol Ear uses double sets of Inpol circuits, which is said to improve low impedance performance and to increase the amplifier’s damping factor. Inpol Ear is capable of 10 watts of output @ 32 Ohms and can, at the buyer’s option, be ordered with Pathos’ HiDac EVO board, which adds high performance DAC functions to the amp, complete with three USB inputs (two type A and one type B), two S/PDIF inputs (one coaxial and the other optical), plus one Ethernet input (via RJ45 connector).
Periodic Audio is a new firm making its debut at CanJam NYC and whose product range, for now, consists of three models of universal-fit earphones that each sport 10mm dynamic drivers with the driver diaphragms for each model using a different metal material. Periodic’s branding motif is centred on references to the Periodic Table of the Elements, and so the company’s earphone models are name for symbols used to reference the metals from which their diaphragms are formed. The company’s models are the Mg (for magnesium, priced at $99), the Ti (for titanium, priced at $199), and the Be (for beryllium, priced at $299). In a refreshing change from practices typically seen in the industry, Periodic offers postcard-sized product information sheets that provide detailed frequency response traces for each model, so that those interested in technical details can see exactly how the various diaphragm materials in use affect the voicing of the earphones. We look forward to hearing more from this new brand.
As it had done at the recent CES 2017 event, the Chinese firm Questyle Audio focused its demonstrations on the firm’s upcoming and very full-featured CMA400i balanced output headphone amp/DAC, which could be viewed as a cost-reduced little brother to the firm’s extremely popular CMA600i. Pricing for the features-rich CMA400i is still under discussion, but expect the unit to sell at or below $1,000.
The California-based firm Schitt Audio showed its new Fulla 2 USB-powered tabletop headphone amp/USB DAC/preamp and is priced at just (no, this is not a typo) $100. The Fulla 2 is barely larger than an American-style packet of cigarettes, yet its sound belies both its size and price. Music lovers looking for a low-cost way to get started with purpose-built personal audio electronics would do well to give the Fulla 2 a look and a listen.
The Chinese manufacturer Shanling joined the micro player/amp/DAC fray in a big way with its tiny M1 (whose street price is about $149), which serves as combo micro headphone amp, Bluetooth 4.0 decoder, and a USB DAC with playback support for up to 24/192 PCM files and DSD64/128 decoding via an AK4452 DAC. Playback time is said to be 9-10 hours thanks to a 950mAH battery.
Then, pursuing somewhat a good/better/best strategy, Shanling also offers its larger M2 model ($249) and M5 model ($449). The M2 offers a more extensive control interface, a Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC, more elaborate filtering, higher power, and a 2200mAH battery more than twice the size of the battery in the little M1.
Then, the M5 ups the ante further still with an AKM AK4490 DAC, a dedicated low-pass filter chip, an even more powerful amplifier, and an even bigger 3400 mAH amplifier.
Leveraging driver technologies developed at Britain’s Warwick University, the California-based firm Sonoma Acoustics is now very close to the final production release of its spectacular Model One electrostatic headphone/amp/DSP/DAC system, which will sell for $5,000 (or £4,600 in the UK).
The Model One headphone features the Warwick-created HPEL electrostatic driver positioned in a magnesium frame, while the accompanying energiser/DAC module features an DSP-controlled pure class A electrostatic amplifier, plus a 32/384-capable and DSD64/128-compatible DAC. Apart from its very impressive sound, we suspect a major part of the appeal of the Model One may involve the fact that it is a full-self-contained, ultra high-end headphone system offered in a no-muss, no-fuss, and turnkey format. Hi-Fi+ hopes to obtain a review sample as soon as the Model One is released to full production. Stay tuned.
As has been the company’s practice at the last several headphone shows I have attended, Sony focused its demos on three specific products: the TA-ZH1ES balanced output headphone amp/DAC ($2,200), the NW-WM1Z ‘Super Walkman’ DAP ($3,000), and the MDR-Z1R dynamic driver-equipped headphone ($2,200).
In my opinion, all three of these products deserve much wider recognition and coverage than they have received thus far, as all three are excellent. However, perhaps the true ‘unsung hero’ of the bunch might well be the MDR-Z1R headphone, which offers a completely disarming degree of midrange openness and transparency, coupled with beautifully saturated tonal colours that must be heard to be appreciated.
THX spokesperson Jason Marr used a CanJam NYC press event to introduce and discuss his firm’s new THX AAA headphone amplifier technology, which aims to solve both the problems of headphone amplifier sound quality and power consumption.
THX claims that its AAA amplifier topology offers the lowest distortion of any headphone amplifier circuit in the world, with distortion artefacts at a vanishingly low -150dB below audio signal levels. What is more, several variants on the AAA technology are available for licensing, with some targeted toward portable applications (where power consumption is a critical variable) and others toward desktop applications where no-holds-barred performance is the objective.
Audiophiles might want to note that the legendary designer Laurie Fincham (of KEF loudspeakers fame), who is head of R&D at THX, had a hand in developing the AAA amplifier technology.
I listened briefly to a THX AAA desktop amplifier prototype at the THX table on the show floor and came away mightily impressed by what I heard. Watch for new products incorporating THX AAA technology to begin appearing between Q2 and Q3 of this year, and beyond.
Unique Melody is a world-famous Chinese make of universal-fit earphone and CIEMs, whose CanJam NYC demoes centred on two models: a prototype of the firm’s upcoming ME1 planar magnetic in-ear headphone (likely to be priced between $600 and $700) and UM’s flagship Maestro V2 earphone/CIEM ($1,699 in universal-fit format, or starting at $1,979 in CIEM format. The Maestro V2 features 12 balanced armature drivers per earpiece, with the driver array configured as four bass drivers, four midrange drivers, two high-frequency drivers, and two super-high-frequency drivers.
The German firm Violectric, whose sister brand is the pro-audio-orientated company Lake People, showed a brace of new upscale and yet still sensibly priced headphone amplification systems at CanJam NYC.
From Violectric comes the new HPA V280 fully balanced headphone amplifier ($1,600), which sports two single-ended and one balanced output. The V280 can be viewed as a size, output, and cost-reduced version of its bigger brother, the HPA 281. At the owner’s option, the HPA V280 can be fitted with one of six available extra-cost DAC options.
Closely paralleling the Violectric HPA V280 is the less expensive Lake People RS 08 headphone amplifier ($940), which—like its bigger brother from Violectric—sports two single-ended and one balanced output. The RS in the name, incidentally, stands for eference eries. Finally, to complete the picture, Lake People also showed its companion Reference Series RS 06 DAC ($825), which-depending on the options chosen can be configured as a 24/192-capable DAC with inputs for TOSlink, coaxial S/PDIF, ES/EBU, and USB (all inputs are capable of handling 24/192 PCM files).
According to a company spokesperson, the primary distinction is that the Violectric model is intended more for audiophile headphonistas, while the Lake People model was initially created by and for the pro-audio world.
Jack Wu and company are just famous for their valve-powered headphone amplifier designs, but what many prospective buyers may not realise is that Mr Wu can happily build for his customers versions of his amplifiers that feature exotic, customised valve sets that dramatically increase the performance capabilities of his already excellent amplifiers.
Thus, it came as no surprise that Woo Audio’s demo area featured a heavily upgraded version of the firm’s popular WA22 fully balanced, output transformer-coupled, valve powered amplifier. In stock form the WA22 sells for $1,995, but as shown at CanJam NYC (complete with exotic valves galore) the price rose to ~$3,000. Having heard before/after comparisons of standard vs. valve-optimised Woo designs, I can only offer the opinion that Wu’s valve upgrades are worth every red cent that they cost; the sonic benefits are huge.
Headphone specialist ZMF showed its two newest models, both of which now feature ZMF-made drive units: the flagship Eikon model ($1,300-$1,400 depending on wood ear cup options chosen), which features a distinctive bio-cellulose driver, and the Atticus model ($1,000-$1,100 depending on wood ear cup options chosen), which use a moulded TPE (Thermo Poly-Ethylene) driver. Both headphones are vented closed–back designs featuring beautiful wood ear cups.