This past weekend (August 13-14, 2016) Hi-Fi+ Publisher Chris Martens and Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom attended CanJam London 2016, which is was held in the Park Plaza Hotel in central London and was without a doubt the most expansive personal audio-centric show ever held in the UK. Over the course of the two-day event, we attended a number of press briefings, saw and heard some extremely fine personal audio equipment, and—in Chris Martens’ case—also participated in a series of “Headphone 101” panel discussion and question and answer sessions.
In this report, the first of two, we hope to show readers at least some of the highlights of the event. As always, we tried to offer a slice of what’s new and what’s coming in the field, but this means a few companies attending the show (such as AKG, Chord Electronics, and Smyth Research) didn’t get covered because their products are already ‘out there’. Irrespective of whether or not we cover it here, however, much of the equipment at CanJam London proved to be eye and ear opening in the best possible way. The inspiring and fluid headphone world continues to excite!
The British earphone maker Atomic Floyd seems to be constantly at work to refine, evolve, and improve its product line and one models that gives ample evidence of this is the firm’s HiDef Drum earphone (£149), which in the run-up to full production had been demonstrated in several subtly different iterations over the past few headphone shows I have attended. What’s impressive is that with iteration the HiDef Drum continued to get better so that the production release version should prove to be well tested and thoroughly refined.
The South Korean electronics manufacturer Audio-Opus displayed an impressive array of digital audio players (DAPs) at CanJam. Among these were the Opus 1 (~£460 or $599), a 24/192 and DSD128-capable player based on a Cirrus CS4398 dual DAC, and sporting 32GB of on-board memory plus room for two Micro SD cards. The Opus 1 has an attractively finished moulded thermoplastic chassis, but for enthusiasts looking for something just a bit more posh the firm has built a limited run (just 300 units) of a metal chassis-equipped Opus 1 LE (for Limited Edition) model that will sell for £650 or S899.
Next up was the soon-to-be-released Opus 2, which in a sense could be viewed as an even more full-featured and upscale step forward from the Opus 1. The Opus 2 will be based on ESS dual DACs, will support Wi-Fi streaming, and will feature optical, singe-ended, and balanced outputs. The Opus 2 is expected to sell for £1230 or S1599.
In a simpler vein, Audio-Opus showed its minimalist, slim line Opus 11 portable headphone amp/DAC, which is roughly the size of a small metal business card case. The Opus 11 is priced at £192 or $250.
Last but not least, the firms expects to offer an Opus 12, which is essentially a ‘Super Opus 11’ model sporting more elaborate I/O options than the no-frills Opus 11. Pricing for the Opus 12 is yet to be determined.
AudioQuest was proudly showing new DragonFly Red and Black miniature USB DAC/headphone amp products, as recently reviewed in Hi-Fi+, both of which seemed to be well-received by the CanJam crowd.
Also on display and demonstration was an impressive new upcoming product that, at AudioQuest’s request, we will refrain from illustrating here. The new NightOwl looks similar to the current NightHawk (which will remain in the catalogue) except that the wood grain effect cups are replaced with a very dark grey version of the same material, the grille is replaced with what appears to be a dome type arrangement, there’s a different multi-stranded cable, and a set of leather and microfibre ear pads are supplied in the box. In a quick listen of the late prototype, the sound of the NightOwl sounds broadly similar to the NightHawk, but less ‘brooding’ and ‘dark’ sounding. The price is expected to be around £100 more than the NightHawk.
For CanJam the German firm Beyerdynamic demonstrated its very recently released new DT 1990 Pro open-back studio reference headphone (£483 or €599). While the DT 1990 Pro is not official a ‘Tesla’ model, such as the T5p or T1, it does use a 45mm Tesla-type driver whose motor features a neodymium magnet assembly. The DT 1990 Pro sounded very good indeed, with an emphasis on openness and transparency, and interestingly comes with two differently voiced sets of ear pad (one set for analytical in-studio use and the other set offering a more musically balanced presentation). My thought was that this new model represents an awful lot of headphone for the money and that it might make a perfect entry point for listeners seeking a Tesla-like listening experience, but who are not yet prepared to invest the four-figure sums that full-on Tesla models command.
The first time at CanJam London, the high-performance for low cost Brainwavz line of earphones, headphones, and accessories was proving surprising. The company was showing both its current and upcoming lines, including a couple of prototypes that CanJam goers were invited to comment on, like a crowd-sourced take on earphone design.
In both lines, it’s hard not to be impressed by the company’s award-winning Delta earphone. A detailed and fast sound that goes for midrange clarity and treble detail instead of ‘phat’ bass and ear-crushing volumes, the Delta comes costs less than £20… and isn’t even Brainwavz cheapest model! Later this year, Brainwavz is planning to launch a range of more up-market sound-isolating earphones, that should still cost less than £200.
The renowned headphone amplifier manufacturer Cavalli Audio is in a state of transition and the firm’s demonstration products reflected this fact. At one listening station was found Cavalli’s classic Liquid Gold fully balanced solid-state amplifier, which is just famous for its powerful, low noise, wide bandwidth, and ultra high-transparency sound. While the Liquid Gold is rapidly approaching the end of its final production run, it remains what it has always been: a classic in its own time that represents a benchmark against which all other solid state headphone amplifiers must be compared.
But at a second listening station was an advanced ‘breadboard’ prototype of a new top tier amplifier that points the way forward for the Cavalli product range. The new model, which will be called the Liquid Tungsten, is valve-powered and features a circuit topology that Dr Cavalli has been contemplating, refining, and perfecting for the better part of ten years. Based on a short listening session my initial impressions were that the Tungsten can do everything great solid-state amps are know for, plus something more: namely, provide that elusive but highly desirable quality of being dynamically alive and rich in intense yet at the same time natural tonal colours.
Custom Art, which hails form Warsaw, Poland, is a relatively young but highly sophisticated maker of custom-fit in-ear monitors. At present, the firm’s product line consists of five models: the single balanced armature Music One (£155), the dual balanced armature Music Two (£265), the triple balanced armature Ei.3 (£275), the PRO 330v2 (£405), and the flagship eight balanced armature Harmony 8.2 (£890). Custom Art invites comparison between its products and more costly equivalent models from North American manufacturers.
But impressive though Custom Art’s present product line is, perhaps its most significant breakthrough news involved the firm’s altogether new, patent-pending FIBAE (Flat Impedance Balanced Armature Earphone) driver, which offers almost perfectly flat impedance and phase response across the entire audio spectrum. Custom Art had a proof-of-concept demonstration version of an upcoming FIBAE-base CIEM on hand at CanJam, which I thought offered very impressive openness, transparency, resolution, and smoothness. Best of all, the FIBAE-equipped model will, says Custom Art, be surprisingly affordable, with an estimated price likely to fall just under £300.
The first products from the Santa Monica, CA-based firm Echobox are the Finder X1 and X1i titanium universal-fit earphones ($199 and $229, respectively), which are reviewed in the next (September) issue of Hi-Fi+. However, the big news from the firm is that it is now ready to release its very ambitious Explorer streaming digital audio player ($499), which is based on an Android 4.2 platform, is Tidal capable and in fact comes with an introductory Tidal membership, and feature both a high-quality DAC section and a promising headphone amplifier section, all fed from a 4000 mAH battering. The Explorer is also compatible with USB Audio Player Pro music playback software.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Explorer (apart from its Tidal-compatible streaming capabilities) is that it is package in what appears to be an exotic wood “hip flask”—but one that just happens to have a full-colour screen fitted into its curved sides. We can hardly wait to try one out, though we may have to wait a bit as initial delivers will go to individuals who participated in the funding campaign through which the Explorer was created.
Etymotic Research is and Elk Grove Village, Illinois-based maker of high accuracy universal-fit earphones, and enthusiasts who have followed the on-going evolution of personal audio products will immediately recognise that Etymotic was one of the very first—and is still one of the very best—developers of serious high-performance in-ear headphones. Let’s put it this way: Etymotic was fiercely focused on building tonally neutral, well-balanced, and very accurate in-ear transducers back at a time when not many other manufacturers had any notion that sonic accuracy was or ever would be a significant thing.
Much of the firm’s sterling reputation has been built around the firm’s ER4-series earphones, which have been in production for many years. Now, however, Etymotic has released two new models in the classic ER4 range: namely, the ER4 XR (‘XR’ for Extended Response) and the ER4 SR (‘SR’ for Studio Reference). Both models are sold at what would now be considered a mid-level price of £329 (though when the ER4 family first got its start, that sum was regarded as a stupendous amount of money to invest in ‘mere’ earphones). In a brief listen, I felt both models had real merit, but that ER4 XR, which can be viewed as an update on the classic ER4 P, strikes what I think many listeners will regard as the best balance between neutrality, resolution, and the elusive quality of ‘musicality’.
FiiO is one of the darlings of the HeadFi community, for a couple of very good reasons; it makes high-performance products that remain highly affordable, and it calls on the HeadFi community to suggest design ideas that the company frequently integrates into its fast-moving range of DAPs, amps, cables, and ancillaries.
The company recently launched a pair of EX1 earphones, but the really exciting aspects of the FiiO range remain its electronics. FiiO’s Android-based X7 DAP features interchangeable amp modules for IEMs, headphones, even balanced headphones, and can also dock into the K5 docking headphone amplifier and DAC. The price is keen, too – £459 for the X7 with no amp module, £499 for the same with a single module, typically £89 per module, and less than £100 for the docking station seems great value for money
Earlier this year, at the Munich High-End show, the Japanese firm had previewed a new family of ultra-slender balanced armature-driven universal-fit earphones comprising the entry-level 3100 (£149), the mid-level 4100 (£269), and the top-of-the-range 7200 (£379). As of CanJam London, all three models were released, on demonstration, and sounding very good indeed—especially the 7200. What words can scarcely convey is how impossible slim and lightweight these new-series balance armature earphones really are.
Flare is a British earphone, headphone, and loudspeaker maker that is on the cusp of releasing a family of three ambitious new universal-fit earphones that will be called, in ascending order of performance and price, the Flares (with aluminium earpiece housings), Flare HD (with open-back titanium earpiece housings), and the Flare HD Pro (also with open-back titanium earpiece enclosures). Pricing for these three new models is yet to be determined, but all three represent the next step forward in the evolution of the firm’s in-ear product line-up. Interestingly, these three models will ship with compressible foam ear tips that, by design, will serve double-duty as sound-influencing waveguides.
A version of the new Flare models will, via a collaborative arrangement with the firm Snugs, be offered with custom moulded, individualised ear tips said to offer an exceptional degree of noise isolation, making the hybrid Flare/Snugs earphones ideal for flight applications.
FLC (Forrest) Technology
FLC is a noteworthy new earphone/custom-fit in-ear monitor manufacturer from China with some very innovative ideas about product configuration. Well aware that debates regarding what does or does not constitute ‘ideal’ voicing for transducers are as old as high-end audio itself, FLC has decided to something about the matter by crafting earphones and CIEMs that offer a plethora of repeatable, user-selectable voicing profiles.
The firm’s entry-level model 8S earphones (£270) or 8C CIEMs (~£460) both offer up to 36 discrete sound signatures. Then, the firm’s upcoming flagship Celeste earphones and CIEMs will take the concept even further, offer an impressive total of 108 (!) different voicing options. Interesting, the production version Celeste is meant to have miniaturised gear-driving voicing controls, with control knobs that protrude through the Celeste’s outer shells. The Celeste wasn’t finished as of CanJam, so the firm brought along prototypes that showed what FLC hopes will be three of the more popular voicing options for the finished product. The Celeste prototypes showed definite promise.
The French firm Focal’s first headphone models came out a number of years ago and were respectable mid-priced models, but it would be fair to say they in no way pushed the edge of the envelope for top-tier headphone performance. All of that has changed, however, with the arrival of two extremely ambitious new models from the firm: the open-back, dynamic driver-equipped Elear (£800) and the also open-back, dynamic driver-equipped Utopia (£3,250). Both models carry the states objective of offering “the high-end loudspeaker experience via headphones,” and in this they are very successful.
The result of a 4-year development effort on the part of a dedicated team of engineers, the Elear and Utopia are both world-class dynamic driver headphones. Although seemingly similar at first glance, the Elear and Utopia are actually significantly different in terms of driver diaphragm materials (an aluminium/magnesium alloy for the Elear and beryllium for the Utopia), frames, surrounds, voice coils, and magnet assemblies. Similarly, the two models also have different frames (carbon fibre for the Utopia) and ear pad assemblies. Based on some too brief listening sessions with the Elear and Utopia I would say the former is plainly a very competitive model within its price class, while the latter represents a all out, no-holds-barred assault on the absolute state of the art. Focal representative confirmed these impressions by stating that they consider the Utopia’s driver to be the best electro-dynamic driver that Focal (or anyone else) has ever mad.
We hope to arrange a Hi-Fi+ review of the Utopia later this year, but please bear with us; initial public response to the new models has been so positive that Focal simply cannot keep up with demand. Stay tuned.
Within the high-end headphone world, the Japanese firm Fostex is famous for its TH-series headphones, the flagship for which is the excellent TH900mk2. However, for CanJam London the firm demonstrated its just-released new TH610, which is billed as a comparatively affordable, reference quality closed-back headphone that will sell for £569.
The TH610 sports uses 50mm ‘bio dynamic’ diaphragm-equipped drivers that feature a stonking 1 tesla (1000 gauss) magnetic circuit, which is said to offer low distortion, wide dynamic range, plus “rich lows, natural midrange, and smooth highs”. Completing the picture are matte-finished black walnut ear cups and sets of very high quality detachable signal cables fitted with rhodium contacts.
HiFiMAN announced that it will very shortly begin shipping its new v2 versions of the critically acclaimed and award-winning HE1000 and Edition X planar magnetic headphones, which remain at the same prices as their earlier generation predecessors (€3000 for the HE1000 and £1800 for the Edition X).
For those unfamiliar with the brand, 1MORE is a Chinese company whose mission is to craft earphones and headphones that offer extraordinary levels of value for money, while delivering unexpectedly high levels of sonic sophistication. The team from 1MORE UK had almost all of the presently released models on demonstration, but two that stood out for me (and that have won and continue to win friends across the globe) were the E1001 Triple-Driver earphone (£99.99) and the C1002 Hybrid Dual-Driver capsule-type earphone (£89.99). Both models will become review subjects for Hi-Fi+ in the near future, but to give you some sense for the sort of value they offer, please know that if another digit were added to the respective prices of these earphones these models would still likely be considered bargains! Stay tuned for more on them later.
Labkable is a Hong-Kong based distributor and manufacturer of, you’ve guessed it, cables. The company’s lines are huge and run very much into the high-end. It began with traditional audio equipment cable, but has quickly gained a reputation for making cables that very much suit headphonistas the world over.
One of Labkable’s more exciting cable designs was a custom-made Lightning to micro-USB connector, ideal for the likes of the Chord Mojo. Price varied according to cable grade, but the silver-cable version on show was around £250.
Limeears is a Polish firm specialising in high-performance custom-fit in-ear monitors. At present, the firm’s range consists of the dual balanced armature LE2 (€389), the triple balanced armature LE3 (€555-625, depending on the variation chosen), and the flagship Aether model (€1150), which a four-way design using five balanced armature-type drivers.
The company encourages prospective buyers to compare the Limeears CIEMs to equivalent models from top-tier North American manufacturers that would sell for nearly twice the price of the Limeears products. It’s a bold claim, but one that we would certainly enjoy putting to the test.