Most Promising Newcomers
Abyss Diana planar
Ever since launching its superb-sounding but also large and unorthodox-looking AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone, the Abyss team has had a vision of creating a smaller, lighter, somewhat less expensive, more conventional-looking, and almost-as-good-sounding planar magnetic headphone. The model is almost here and is called the Diana, which will be priced around $3000. The Diana is significantly lighter and simpler looking than the AB-1266 and comes in three gorgeous matt-finish colours: a tasteful and subdued grey, a subtle off-white or cream colour, and a downright delicious-looking chocolate brown.
Acoustic Research AR-H1 planar magnetic headphone
In recent years Acoustic Research has been known primarily for its ambitious portable high-res digital audio player, but Munich marked the product release of the firm’s eagerly awaited and very well priced AR-H1 planar magnetic headphone, which will sell for $599 or £549. Visually and in certain other respects the AR-H1 reminds us more than a little of Oppo’s far more costly flagship PM1 headphones, which means we may well want to seek out the model for further evaluation once review samples become available. We predict the AR-H1’s combination of handsome good looks, pleasing sound, and a manageable price will make it a marketplace winner.
Astell & Kern A&ultima SP1000 portable digital audio player
Not long after announcing its very powerful and comparatively affordable Kann digital audio player, Astell & Kern turned around to release a new cost-no-object flagship digital audio player called the A&ultima SP1000 (~ €4000) slated to take its place at the very top of the Astell & Kern range. Differences between the A&ultima SP1000 and the firm’s previous flagship AK380 include a slimmer chassis but one fitted with a larger 5-inch screen (as opposed to a 4-inch screen for the AK380), a step up to a pair of AKM’s latest AK4497EQ DACS (as opposed to dual AKM AK4490 DACs in the AK380), an increase in maximum balanced output voltage swing (from 2.3Vrms to 3.9Vrms), an even lower noise floor (the SP1000’s balanced output signal to noise ratio is an impressive 122dB), and somewhat lower distortion. Finally, the SP1000 uses an octo-core control processor as opposed to the AK380’s dual core processor. We are eager to hear this new flagship model in action.
Beyerdynamic Xelento Wireless earphones
As some readers will already know, Beyerdynamic’s Xelento earphones are in a very real sense miniaturised versions of the firm well-respected flagship T1 Tesla headphones, which is saying quite a lot. However, for Munich the German firm decided to take the next evolutionary step by offering a Bluetooth compatible, self-amplified Xelento Wireless model, which uses an elegant little Bluetooth amp/DAC module that looks like a classy albeit truncated pen, complete with a handy garment clip. The whole system packs up into an elegant travel case not too much larger than an extra thick business card case. The Xelento Wireless will sell for €1,200—or €200 more that the standard Xelento earphone.
Final AFD (Air Film Damping) planar magnetic headphone
Until now most of Final’s high performance full-size headphones have been dynamic driver-type designs (e.g., the famous flagship Sonorous X) or have been dynamic/balanced armature hybrids (e.g., the Sonorous VI). At Munich, however, the Japanese headphone and earphone specialists at Final previewed an extremely ambitious planar magnetic headphone (the firm’s first ever) to be called the AFD Planar Magnetic (with a projected price of approximately €3000). The “AFD” part of the name stands for Air Film Damping, which is part of the advanced technology behind the design—technology borrowed, in this case, from the world of high performance microphones. Final says the AFD idea was introduced to them by Dr Heitaro Nakajima of Sony fame.
The AFD planar magnetic headphone features a thin diaphragm that incorporates a spiral-shaped voice coil, plus a doughnut-shaped magnet, with the diaphragm controlled in part by a metal mesh air film damping system that is said to help control unwanted diaphragm resonances, noticeably smoothing the driver’s response. A brief listen to a working prototype suggest to me that the AFD planar magnetic offers an unusually smooth and refined yet also remarkably agile sound. We can’t wait to see how the final production model turns out.
Final E3000 earphones
Not everything Final showed at Munich was high-end oritentated—at least not in terms of price—as evidenced by two new keenly priced entry level earphone from the firm: the E2000 (€44) and the E3000 (€54). Having logged some listening time with the beautiful little E3000, which sports earpiece enclosures fashioned from mirror-finished stainless steel, I can honestly say that it looks and sounds better than it has any right to do for its modest price. Unlike most prior Final earphone efforts, most of which use balanced armature-type drivers, the E-models use tiny 6.4mm dynamic drivers based, says Final, “on the latest acoustic engineering and psychological research results.” It is too early to say for sure, but these small, beautiful, and cost-effective earphones may well set a benchmark standard in their price class.
Luxman P-750U headphone amplifier
For Munich, Luxman rolled out a new balanced output headphone amplifier call the P-750u, which is essentially an updated and improved version of the firm’s earlier P-700u model. The new amp is quite powerful (producing 2 x 4Wpc at 32 Ohms) and it features both single-ended and balanced outputs as well as two sets of balanced and one set of single-ended analogue inputs. The unit will sell for €5000 or $4500.
RHA Audio MA Wireless and the MA 750 Wireless
The Scottish firm RHA Audio has joined the Bluetooth fray by creating Bluetooth versions of its popular and excellent MA750 earphones—now re-cast as the MA750 Wireless (€149). Essentially, users get the same stainless steel earpiece design and handmade, evenly balanced dynamic drivers that made the MA750 one of our favourite affordable earphones, but with a new self-powered, Bluetooth–capable, noise-isolating, and splash and sweatproof silicone neckband.
Stax SRM-T8000 electrostatic headphone energiser
For years some electrostatic headphone enthusiasts—and in particular those who count themselves devotees of the flagship Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone—have turned to third-party manufacturers such as Cavalli Audio, HeadAmp, and Woo Audio in order to find electrostatic headphones amplifiers capable of tapping the full performance potential of the 009’s. For Munich, however, Stax answered back with an all-new electrostatic headphone energiser (that’s Stax-speak for headphone amp) called the SRM-T8000, which promises to be an amp fully capable of exploiting all that the SR-009 headphones can do.
The units at the show were so new that no one at the Stax stand was prepared to venture a guess as to the new energiser’s price. Whatever the price turns out to be, I can confidently say that the SRM-T8000, which uses a valve-powered front end, is hand down the bests sounding Stax electrostatic energiser I’ve yet heard, and by a not subtle margin. This is the Stax amp we’ve all been waiting for…
Questyle CMA 400i desktop headphone amp/DAC/preamp
Leveraging the designs of its popular CMA800i and CMA600i desktop headphone amp/DACs, Questyle has now brought out an even more affordable model in the form of its new CMA400i, priced at €800. In terms of features, the little CMA400i gives up nothing to its bigger brothers, providing a 32/384 and DSD 256-capabably DAC, a fully balanced headphone amplifier circuit, switchable gain settings to accommodate headphones of different sensitivities. The unit also features a custom-made Noratel transformer.
Ultrasone Signature Studio headphone
While Ultrasone is perhaps best known for its superb, limited production, (and often very expensive) Edition-series headphones, it’s a mid-priced model from the firm that has been garnering a lot of attention of late. The model I am speaking of is the Signature Studio (€499), which is based on a 40mm dynamic driver equipped with a titanium-coated Mylar diaphragm. Like many of Ultrasone’s upscale headphones, the Signature Studio uses S-Logic driver mounting technology, which is said to help foster more loudspeaker like soundstaging and imaging. More so than many headphone models on the market, the Signature Studio finds the elusive sweet spot between ‘musicality’ and monitoring-grade accuracy and neutrality.
Best Headphone Sound of Show
Abyss AB-1266 Phi Reference planar magnetic headphone & Woo Audio WA33 Elite Edition valve powered headphone amplifier
When Abyss’ AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone first arrived on the scene some years ago we were duly impressed by its big, bold, full-bodied, and dynamically muscular sound and by its very high levels of resolution and superb transient speeds. The AB-1266 remained a reference for us until, just recently, the frim announced a significantly revised and updated version called the AB-1266 Phi Reference (starting at $4500 with minimal accessories, $5500 for the deluxe version with extensive accessories, and $7500 for a deluxe reference edition complete with JPS Labs upgraded signal cables). Most of the changes in the Phi Reference have to do with driver internals, so that from the outside the new model looks almost identical to the original, but in sonic terms the headphone has taken substantial steps forward. Specifically, the Phi Reference now has more linear frequency response and thus superior tonal balance, significantly higher levels of resolution at all frequencies, and even faster, more taut, and tuneful bass than the original AB-1266. The result is a headphone that preserves everything we enjoyed in the original AB-1266 but that is more refined, more precise, and ultimately more faithful to the music in every way.
At Munich, the AB-1266 Phi was driven by a fully balanced, valve-powered, two-chassis Woo Audio WA33 Elite Edition headphone amplifier ($14,999) fed by a Lampizator Golden Gate DAC. Woo’s WA33 Elite Edition is a very special piece of equipment as it is essentially a hot-rodded and uprated version of the firm’s flagship WA 33 amplifier, but one fitted out with exotic up-spec valves, Mundorf MCap Supreme and MTube capacitors, special ultra-high-bandwidth transformers made with single-crystal copper wires, an Alps RK50 four-channel volume control in a solid brass enclosure, and single-crystal copper hook-up and signal wires.
The combination of the Abyss headphones, Lampizator DAC, and Woo amp really showed in a dramatic way how very far top-tier headphone system have come in the past few years.
Audeze LCD-4i in-ear planar magnetic headphone
Of late, Audeze has been hard at work on the release of a series of compact, planar magnetic in-ear headphones collectively know as the iSine series. The range begins with the entry-level iSine 10, steps up to the higher performance iSine 20, and finally includes a virtual reality system-orientated model called the iSineVR. All three iSine models show great promise and fine sound quality at relatively modest price points, but those of us who can’t resist attempts at making good things even better could not help but wonder what an ultra high-end iSine model might be like.
Well, now we have our answer in the form of the Audeze LCD-4i (€3000, $2500), which bills itself as a compact, in-ear alternative to the firm’s flagship full-size planar magnet headphone, called the LCD-4. Truth to tell, one of Audeze’s founders had sworn me to secrecy and then given me a sneak preview of the LCD-4i several months ago, so I am pleased to say that the final production model sounds even better than the prototype did. In simple terms, the LCD-4i is one of those rare does-all-things-exceedingly-well designs that, to my ears, may actually offer stiff competition for the big LCD-4 (which is saying a mouthful). Though I only got a chance to hear it briefly, I came away thinking the LCD-4i is—along with a tiny handful of competitors—a leading contender for the title of “best in-ear headphone on the planet”. It’s that good.
HiFiMAN Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system
HiFiMAN has long held the ambition to produce a state-of-the-art, cost-no-object electrostatic headphone system and that objective has now been reached with the product release of the Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system, comprising the all new Shangri-La electrostatic headphone and its power, quiet, and ultra-high-resolution, 300B valve-powered Shangri-La electrostatic headphone amplifier (system price: $50,000).
The Shangri-La system offered the best overall headphone sound I was able to observe at Munich and by no small margin. The system offers seemingly endless levels of resolution for handling low-level details, almost shockingly quick transient speeds, and lifelike dynamics and levels of bass authority that traditionally have not been easy for electrostatic systems to reproduce. Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of this system in the not too distant future.
HiFiMAN Susvara planar magnetic headphone & EF1000 amplifier
Earlier this year HiFiMAN previewed a new top-tier planar magnetic headphone called the Edition 6, which in its earliest incarnations seemed perhaps a bit underwhelming in that it sounded more like a lightly tuned-up version of HiFiMAN’s then-flagship HE 1000 v2 as opposed to an all-new, clean-sheet-of-paper design.
Happily, on the road to full production status, the Edition 6 received the new name Susvara ($6000) and some substantial sonic improvements yielding smoother and more even tonal balance from top-to-bottom, significantly heightened levels of resolution, and a markedly more expressive and free-breathing sound overall. The net result is a planar magnetic headphone that can and does stand tall—even in comparison to HiFiMAN’s own mighty Shangri-La system!
For Munich, HiFiMAN’s potent, valve-powered, two-chassis EF1000 integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier was used to drive the Susvara to telling effect. The Susvara and Shangri-La systems were being shown side-by-side in an isolated room within the HiFiMAN display stand and most listeners who emerged from that room would, I think, agree that the Chinese firm is not only an a roll, but has an embarrassment of sonic riches on its hands.
Questyle QP2r balanced output, high-res digital audio player
After much deliberation and careful though, Questyle has launched a 2nd-generation follow-up to its very successful QP1R high-resolution digital audio player in the form of its new QP2R, which sells for $1,299. Changes include a higher-specification digital front end now capable of processing PCM files at up to 32Bit/384kHz and DSD files at up to DSD256. What is more, the new DAP’s amp section is more powerful and fully balanced, with a pure Class A bias control system. The QP2R is also treated to an improved clock, a new user interface, and an all-new control wheel design. Where the original QP1R was a fine sounding DAP in its own right, the QP2R has taken significant steps forward, so that it now sounds almost like a junior version of Questyle’s expensive flagship “Golden Stack” amp/DAC/preamp combo.
Worthy of Note
iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label
iFi has launched what is in essence an intensely hot-rodded version of its critically acclaimed Micro iDSD portable headphone amp/DAC in the form of the new Micro iDSD Black Label, which sells for $549. In the Black Label, all the signal path parts that matter most have been uprated yielding sonic improvements you can easily hear. What is more, the Micro iDSD Black Label sports a distinctive satin black chassis case that sets it apart from iFi’s traditionally silver casework. In short, iFi’s Black Label amp/DAC flat out looks every bit as cool as it sounds.
Meze 99 Neo headphone
Meze’s long awaited, cost reduced model 99 Neo has now been released and sells for €250 (this in contrast to the €300 price of the original 99 Classic). The Neo sounds almost the same as the Classic, but ultimately affords a slight warmer sound owing to subtle interior volume differences between the Neo and the Classic. Even so, the underlying sonic DNA shared between the models remains fundamentally the same.
Ultrasone Sirius clip-on Bluetooth headphone amp/DAC
Sensing that a Bluetooth revolution is in the offing (thanks for that, Apple) the clever folks at Ultrasone have developed an ingenious, semi-circular, lip-on Bluetooth adapter call the Sirius that can be fitted to any of Ultrasone’s Performance series headphones into Bluetooth headphones. The really neat part is that, once installed, the Sirius module looks like an integral piece of the original headphone’s industrial design. The Sirius takes about an hour to recharge and then yields 8-12 hours of playing time.
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