Welcome to the concluding part of our round up of the highs and even highers of CanJam London 2016. During a balmy weekend in the middle of August, CanJam arrived with a view of Big Ben. Directly across Westminster Bridge in the swanky Park Plaza hotel near Waterloo rail station, CanJam London was the prime location for summer in-ear experimentation.
Being in the midst of school holiday season across Europe, some of the better known British faces in audio were absent, but the show was nonetheless featured many exciting and innovative products. Here are some of the best…
MEE Audio is, along with a handful of other companies, focusing on building high-value/high-performance earphones (and headphones). In fact, the company’s name is an acronym that stands for Music Enjoyment for Everyone. With this end in view, two of the firm’s key products are the M6 Pro (£50), which is an entry-level noise isolating universal-fit earphone for musicians, and the Pinnacle P1 (£180), which is a zinc-alloy bodied, audiophile orientated, universal fit earphone. Interestingly, both models feature detachable, user-replaceable signal cables—a welcome touch rarely seen on earphones in this price class.
Moon Audio is a North Carolina-based specialty retailer that sells an extremely extensive range of headphones, earphones, and personal audio electronics. However, Moon Audio is also a manufacturer in its own right, offering a range of Dragon Audio cable and, of particular interest to us, several impressive Dragon-series amplifiers created by Dennis Had (who was the founder of Cary Audio). European and UK readers may wish to note that, while Moon Audio is based in the US, the company is happy to ship worldwide and in fact does considerable business in the UK and Europe.
What caught our eyes and ears at CanJam London was the firm’s Dragon Inspire IHA-1 valve powered headphone amplifier, which is a zero negative feedback, direct coupled design “without any coupling caps or output attenuation resistors in the signal path. We tried the IHA-1 with a set of Focal Utopias and the sound was, well, just plain fabulous. The IHA-1 sells for $1599 in the US, but can easily be ordered in a 220V version, while giving the owner-to-be several good options for having specialty valves installed at the factory.
When the San Diego, CA-based firm launched its innovative Ether and Ether C planar magnetic headphones, many reviewers hailed the models as ‘best of breed’ products and with good reason. However, Mr Speaker president Dan Clark is not one to rest on his laurels and so through both subtle and not-so-subtle revisions to the original Ether pair (which remain in the product line) two new models evolved: the Ether Flow and Ether C flow, both priced at $1,799. As before, the ‘C’ in Ether C Flow denotes the fact that the model is a closed-back headphone.
Both models feature what MrSpeaker terms ‘TrueFlow’ technology to achieve even higher levels of resolution (which is saying a mouthful) coupled with an even smoother, more ‘fluid’ (hence the name), and more full-bodied presentation. Hi-Fi+ expects to receive a review sample of the Ether Flow in the near future.
Holders of the ‘absolute cost no object’ award, MSB’s three-box DAC/headphone amplifier for Stax electrostatic headphones represented what you can do when you take the brakes off. The trio of large, chrome devices comprised the €80,000 Select DAC II (pictured) is an 80 bit, Quad DSD converter with femtosecond clock accuracy and an outstanding 173dB of dynamic range. It’s coupled to the €45,000 Select Electrostatic Headphone amplifier with two Stax outputs. This is a direct-coupled circuit without any kind of op amp, tube, or feedback in its circuit and has a dynamic range of more than 140dB. Both products were driven by the €30,000 MSB Select Dual Power Base power supply, and this can be upgraded to mono power bases if your butler’s butler can carry more than one.
The sound, played through a ReQuest Audio The Beast and into a set of Stax SR-009 electrostatics, was truly remarkable, and showed just how much more it’s possible to extract from the Stax electrostatic headphone platform if you really go for it!
NYC-based Mytek has a powerful reputation in the professional audio field. It has has brought that reputation to bear recently in the shape of two MQA and DSD compatible domestic DAC/preamps; the Manhattan and the Brooklyn. Both were available for demonstration at CanJam, although a recent redesign of the €6,000 Manhattan – using the latest Sabre chips – is not yet available.
The €2,000 Brooklyn is possibly the more interesting of the two for an audiophile, as it includes an analogue input that switches between line and MM/MC phono stage alongside the range of digital inputs and outputs on offer.
Noble Audio moves, it would seem, from strength to strengths, so that no sooner had we taken time to review the Savant custom-fit in-ear monitor (which until this show had been Noble’s newest model) than the firm released an even newer model called the Katana. Relative to previous Noble efforts, the Katana breaks new ground in that the design is based—for the first time ever—on a set of nine balanced armature-type drivers co-developed by Noble in conjunction with the world-famous balanced armature driver manufacturer Knowles.
Noble says of the Katana that it features, “an extended top-end that generates airiness and outstanding imaging,” coupled with, “a lush mid-range, impactful low-end, and Noble’s signature coherency.” The Katana is offered in both universal-fit versions (with CNC milled aluminium earpiece enclosures) and custom versions and is priced at £1,350 or $1850. Expect an upcoming two-man review, where Editor Alan Sircom will look at the Katana universal-fit model and Publisher Chris Martens will sample the custom-fit version.
Questyle Audio Engineering
The Chinese headphone amplification and digital audio specialists at Questyle are flush with the success of their superb QP1r digital audio player and their four-chassis reference headphone ‘Golden Stack’, which consists of a stereo preamp, a DAC, and two monoblock headphone amplifiers (both the QP1r and the ‘Golden Stack’ have been reviewed by Hi-Fi+.
But not content simply to coast along on these waves of success, the firm is now focussing its attention on its new, single-chassis CMA600i DAC/balanced output headphone amplifier (£1089), which channels much—though of course not all—of the sonic goodness of the ‘Golden Stack’, but in a more compact and far more accessibly priced component. Like all Questyle amplification product, the CMA600i uses the firm’s signature Current Mode Amplification circuit topology, the sonic benefits of which, in Hi-Fi+’s experience, are not to be underestimated.
RHA has some important development in the works, and we got to hear them. Unfortunately, we weren’t (and still aren’t) allowed to talk about or to publish photographs of the new item (or items?) just yet. Stay tuned.
RME Audio is a German firm with roots in the pro audio world, but whose new ADI-2 Pro AD/DA converter and headphone amplifier seem certain to with friend in the high-end headphone world. The ADI-2 Pro is an astonishingly versatile half-rack –width component that combines an AD/DA converter with capabilities to 768/24, a USB 2.0 DAC with PCM and DSD decoding capabilities, and a very powerful (2.2 watt per channel) and unusually full-featured headphone amplifier complete with parametric EQ and other desirable features. At CanJam London the ADI Pro was being used to drive the remarkable Ultrasone Tribute 7 headphones and sounded superb. The UK price is yet to be determined but roughly project to fall around £1399.
Rupert Neve Designs
Virtually and serious student of record engineer will tell you that some of the finest and best-sounding recording consoles ever made have been created by the legendary British designer Rupert Neve (who now lives and works in Wimberley, Texas, USA—a small hill country community located roughly 20 miles from Chris Martens home in Austin, Texas). Apparently, many of Neve’s console customers had been pressing him to create a headphone monitoring amplifier and happily his firm is now producing one called the RNHP, which is a straightforward and minimalist device sporting two single-ended and one balanced input, a high-quality volume control, a headphone jack, and not much else. The RNHP is priced at approximately £430 or $549 and is available now. Despite the unit’s diminutive size and modest appearance and price, it is every inch a real Neve—offering Neve’s signature combination of very high transparency and an elusive quality of unforced, vibrant, and natural musical warmth.
We’re sort of breaking our ‘it must be new’ rule here, because the Sennheiser Orpheus electrostatic headphone with DAC and amplifier has been seen before. However, Sennheiser was offering CanJam goers an all-too-brief 10 minute session with this remarkable headphone device.
Orpheus is still in the final stages of build and the price remains to be finalised, but the end product is likely to now cost closer to €55,000. Nevertheless, the cost of excellence is never cheap.
Not so much a product, more a work in progress, but the Sonoma system is the off-shoot of a British university engineering project (Warwick Audio) and a small team of ex-Sony High-Resolution Audio people. Combining an electrostatic laminate transducer with a die-cast magnesium housing, and a Class A energising amplifier with built in Sabre DAC and a AKM ADC for digitising analogue sources, this system shows a lot of promise. Expect to hear more from Sonoma by the end of the year.
The British firm Snugs offer a somewhat unorthodox range of product for earphone enthusiasts, including custom-moulded personalised ear-tips designed to slip over the sound outlet tubes of a very wide range of universal-fit earphones—essentially turning those earphones into the next best thing to a full-on set of custom-fit in-ear monitors. But there’s more to Snugs than just the custom ear tips, because the firm also offers a range of pre-customised earphones for various applications.
Two good examples would be the Snugs Original model (£199), which is based on a set of SoundMagic E10S earphones fitted out with Snug’s custom ear tips, and the upcoming next-generation Snugs Flight model (price TBD, but project to fall at or below £399), which will be based on the next generation Flare earphones (see Flare, in section one).
One very interesting aspect of the Snugs process is that, in lieu of taking traditional ear mould impressions, the firm instead uses a comfortable and non-anxiety-inducing optoelectronic scanning process to gather data on the size, shape, and general orientation of the wearer’s outer ears and ear canals. Cool. At the show, I had scans taken of my ears in anticipation of trying out both the Snugs Original model and—later on—the Snugs Flight model. Stay tuned.
There seems to be a trend in headphone audio for professional brands to make products for the domestic market. German pro-audio experts SPL are part of that trend, and the company’s Phonitor x and Phonitor e were shown for the first time in the UK. Looking like a cross between a classic ham radio and vintage studio gear, the £1,700 Phonitor x features a 120v rail, can drive balanced and single-ended headphones, has an optional 24/192 DAC built-in, and sports a unique ‘Matrix’ system that introduces a DSP based speaker equivalence playback for those who still prefer the sound of loudspeakers.
The Phonitor e offers a stripped-down specification, most notably offering just two preset Matrix settings instead of the infinitely adjustable options in the bigger model, no ’laterabilility’ control, no VU meters, and no preamplifier outputs, for £1,200.
A clever, UK-designed in-ear brand, Trinity produces a range of balanced armature earphones at prices ranging from £99 for the Delta Hybrid V-II up to £500 for the upcoming Phantom Hunter. All feature a range of tuning filters supplied as standard, and – uniquely for a sub-£100 design – removable cables. Like Atomic Floyd and RHA, Trinity represents something of a new wave in UK audio design, making high-quality, high performance in-ear designs of great note.
The German headphone manufacturer is famous for making some of the finest top-tier dynamic driver headphones in the world and for its S-Logic technology, which is said to help headphones image in a manner at least somewhat more like high-end loudspeakers do (that is, where the sound appears to emanate from in front of the listener, rather than from the centre of his or her head). The most prized of all Ultrasone models are the firm’s limited production Edition series models. However, for CanJam London as at the Munich High-End show earlier this year was not an actual Edition model, but rather a headphone called the Tribute 7, which is intended as a tribute to a well-loved earlier generation Edition model that has long since sold out. A brief listen proved extremely enticing and left us wanting to hear more. The Tribute 7 sells for £2070—a sum that, though undeniably expensive, is by no means out of line given the self-evident sound quality on offer. There is, though, one catch: just 777 sets of Tribute 7 models will be produced and they are selling briskly. Thus, if you think you might want one, we urge you to contact Synthax Audio UK before it’s too late.
Vioelectric (and the parent company, the oddly named Lake People) is a German brand intent on making very high performance audio components. They had a range of options on show from both companies, including purposeful but outstanding analogue-to-digital converters, digital-to-analogue converters, and a large range of headphone amplifiers with or without DACs.
Perhaps the most interesting model at the show was the top €1,730 HPA V281, a balanced and single-ended amplifier designed to showcase just what a pair of dynamic driver headphones can do. The sound of the Sennheiser HD 800 through this amplifier made you question the need for anything more, even taming some of the upper frequency energy of that headphone…
Read Next From ShowSee all
CanJam NYC 2018 Show Report from Ultimate Headphone Guide: Part Four
This is the last of four illustrated descriptions of the […]
- Chris Martens
- Mar 2018
CanJam NYC 2018 Show Report from Ultimate Headphone Guide: Part Three
This is the third of four illustrated descriptions of the […]
- Chris Martens
- Mar 2018
CanJam NYC 2018 Show Report from Ultimate Headphone Guide: Part Two
This is the second of four illustrated descriptions of the […]
- Chris Martens
- Mar 2018