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Show Report: CanJam SoCal 2015 – Part 1

Show Report: CanJam SoCal 2015 – Part 1

I just spent the past weekend at an absolutely delightful event: CanJam SoCal 2015. For those asking themselves what a CanJam is, allow me to explain. One of the key organisations leading today’s modern high-performance headphone revolution is Head-Fi (www.head-fi.org) and they have attracted a huge, vibrant community of serious headphone/earphone enthusiasts. But to help sustain (and grow) the headphone movement, Head-Fi periodically organises and convenes regional meets and even sizable full on shows for headphone enthusiasts, the largest of which are collectively known as ‘CanJams’. In other words, if you are looking for a thrilling, thought-provoking, ear-opening ‘total immersion’ headphone/earphone experience, there’s really only one thing to do: get thee to a CanJam, soon.

The SoCal CanJam was held on March 28 -29, 2015 in the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California and it is hard to imagine a more picture-perfect setting for such an event. The event took up a significant amount of space on the second and third floors of the hotel, along with the entirety of a very large Terrace Pavilion exhibit space set up on the rooftop of the hotel’s second floor terrace. Picture this, then: balmy weather, sunny skies, palm trees swaying, tons of eye-popping headphone and earphone gear, and hundreds of big-hearted music/headphone enthusiasts swapping tips, audio war-stories, and good humour. ‘Sound like a recipe for a pretty good time? We thought so, too.

What follows is a three-part report that offers a thumbnail sketch of SoCal CanJam. Let me advise in advance that I did not get to every manufacturer exhibiting at the show, for which I apologise in advance. Honestly, I think I visited every one of the exhibitors, but in some cases the clusters of show goers at demonstration tables were so thick that I couldn’t get close enough to snap pictures or gather listening impressions. This meant, of course, that the event was very well attended; in fact, on opening morning of the show, a line of approximately 100+ attendees queued patiently, waiting to be let in!).

 

1964 Ears

The Portland, Oregon-based firm 1964 Ears has been building a family of conventional CIEMs collectively called the V-series models for years (with prices ranging from $359 – $809), but at CanJam the firm was touting a new range of models—the A-series—that implement radical new ADEL (Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lens) technology.

To explain, 1964 Ears is responding to recent Vanderbilt Medical Center studies that document the potential hearing damage that can result from using typical universal-fit or custom-fit in-ear monitors. Apparently, the study results suggest that volume levels, per se, are not so much the problem as are actual air pressure (PSI) levels within the ear (there is only so much pressure-induced battering the eardrum can take). Accordingly, ADEL technology seeks to relieve damaging over-pressure conditions within the ear, with the result, says 1964 Ears, that devices implementing the technology “sound louder at lower volumes than anything else on the market.”  There are three new ADEL-equipped 1964 Ears models coming on line soon: the A6, $1490; the A10, $1799; and the A12, $1999.

Abyss

Many listeners, including the author, are enthusiastic proponents of the hand-made Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone, but many find the headphone’s greater-than-$5,000 price tag understandably daunting. To try an address this issue, at least to some degree, Abyss is now offering a package it terms the “Abyss Lite”, which sells for $4500.  With this package, buyers get the same AB-1266 as always, but sans the extensive accessories set, hand-tooled leather case, and aluminium headphone stand included in the premium priced package.

As an aside, many show attendees commented that Abyss’ AB-1266, as driven by the Wells Audio Headtrip amplifier, produced some of the finest sound to be heard in all of CanJam.

Astell & Kern – Beyerdynamic

Flush with success from the launch of its more recent generation of portable digital audio player/headphone amplifiers, Astell & Kern has begun branching out through partnerships and collaborations with other industry specialists. One such partnership is with the German firm Beyerdynamic, which has created an Astell & Kern-specific headphone called the AK T5p, $1,499.  Think of this as a variation on the design of the standard Beyerdynamic T5p, but with some voicing changes said to better complement the sound of the Astell & Kern players. 

 

Astell & Kern – JH Audio

In yet another example of collaboration between specialists, Astell & Kern has teamed with JH Audio to obtain exclusive rights to sell the universal-fit versions of Jerry Harvey’s new ‘monitoring oriented,’ Siren-series Angie ($1,200) and Layla ($2,499) earphones. All Siren-series earphones are named for rock songs whose titles reference women’s name in their titles: hence, Layla, Roxanne, Angie, and perhaps others to be named later.

What sets the Layla and Angie apart, says Jerry Harvey, is the fact that they are the first of his earphones “designed to be a reference/mastering IEM.” The Layla features an array of 12 balanced armature drivers per earpiece, uses 4th-order crossover networks, and provides a variable bass level control that, when turned all the way down, offers “perfectly flat” bass response. The Angie is designed with the same basic performance goals as the Layla in mind, but is, says Harvey, “the little sister to the Layla.” Accordingly, the Angie uses eight balanced armature drivers per earpiece.

Under the terms of its arrangement with Astell & Kern, JH Audio will sell the custom-fit in-ear-monitor versions of the Layla and Angie, while Astell & Kern will sell the universal-fit versions—all of which feature the Astell & Kern logo and other A & K markings.

ALO Audio

The Portland, Oregon-based firm ALO Audio has been offering specialised desktop and portable headphone amplifiers and cable system for many years now and they have earned a solid reputation for well-executed, creative designs. For CanJam, AO followed a ‘something old/something new’ strategy of sorts in the products it chose to highlight. The ‘something old’ took the form of ALO’s Rx portable headphone amplifier, which the firm bills as ‘the return of an original.’

All of ALO’s earliest portable amps were called Rx models, with the Rx Mk2 and Rx Mk3 gradually appearing over time. Now, with the new Rx ($349), ALO offers a 15V portable amplifier that offers USB charging, wide-bandwidth, low output impedance, and very low noise, making the new Rx ideal for use with high-sensitivity, low impedance universal- and custom-fit in-ear monitors.

The ‘something new’ in ALO’s line is the upcoming Continental Dual-Mono fully balanced, valve-powered portable amplifier/DAC (price TBD, but approximately $1,495), which was generating no small amount of buzz owing to the fact that it offers the sound of a very sophisticated desktop headphone amplifier and the functionality of a high-res PCM/DSD DAC (based on Wolfson’s flagship WM8741 device) in a surprisingly compact and sophisticated package. The amplifier circuit, in particular, is very special in that it offers, says the designer, “no DC-DC converters for tubes, no transformers, and separate linear voltage regulations for analogue and digital (circuit sections).” The Continental is powered by a three-cell Li-ion battery pack based on Panasonic 18650 cells. Oh, and did we mention the Continental Dual-Mono is a real looker?  

Apogee

Apogee may not yet be a household name in consumer electronics, but in the pro-sound world is widely regarded as a maker of world-class analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue ‘audio interfaces’ (as the lingo of the pro-sound world would have it). Indeed, Apogee had a number of its professional grade interfaces on display and demonstration at CanJam, but the one that we think may put the firm on the headphone enthusiasts’ ‘map’ is the firm’s brand new Groove miniature headphone amplifier/DAC (price TBD, but projected to fall under $500).

The sweet-looking Groove is USB-powered, offers a remarkably flexible constant current drive amplifier circuit, and sports an ESS-based 24/192 DAC that uses four DACs/channel. Listeners at the show marvelled at the sheer authority with which the Groove drove a pair of Sennheiser’s notoriously finicky HD 800 headphones—a feat that more than a few desktop amps have difficulty pulling off, but that the Groove masters with ease.

 

Atomic Floyd

Atomic Floyd takes its rightful place among a small handful of universal-fit earphone manufacturers who are determined to offer very high levels of sound quality at sensible, down-to-earth prices. (Although I am fairly sure the Atomic Floyd folks would not appreciate the comparison to a direct rival, this places Atomic Floyd on the same basic ‘flight path’ as the also value-minded RHA Audio). Atomic Floyd achieves its performance goals through use of sophisticated designs that leverage materials (e.g., stainless steel, titanium, etc.) many would-be competitors might find either to expensive or too difficult to use in their products. Happily, Atomic Floyd wades right in where lesser manufacturers fear to tread and the sonic results are both impressive and very enjoyable.

At CanJam, we sampled four Atomic Floyd models including the HiDefDrum ($199/£149), Mini Darts ($249/£179), Super Darts ($299/£199), and Super Darts Titanium ($399/£250).  Of these models I personally favoured the Mini Darts and Super Darts models, although Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom has taken quite a liking to the Super Darts Titanium model. Either way, three hallmark of the entire range are evocative and involving sound quality, high quality materials, and beautiful machining.
 

Audeze

Audeze had almost all of its models on demonstration at CanJam, but the highlights of the show were without a doubt the new EL-8 open- and closed-back models, both priced at a very accessible $699 (to give this comment more meaning, consider the fact that before this the least expensive AudezeLCD-2 model sold for $995, with others ranging up to  $1945).

The EL-8s sport an extremely elegant industrial design created for Audeze by BMW Design Group and leverage three interlocking Audeze-developed technologies: the Fluxor magnetic flux focussing system, the Uniforce system for compensating for potential magnetic flux ‘hot spots’, and Fazor waveguide technology said to promote smoother wave launches.

But there are other tricks up Audeze’s sleeve in the new EL-8 design. For example, what appears to be the ear cup in the EL-8 design is actually the outer frame of the drive itself; in other words, there really is no ear cup, per se, nor is there any need for one; the driver frame serves double duty. This kind of creative, outside-the-box thinking is found throughout the EL-8 and is part of what makes it so desirable.

Audio Salon: Audio Alchemy – Aurender – Transparent – Wilson Audio

In a welcome twist on usual headphone show fare, the regional dealer Audio Salon decided to bring to CanJam a very high performance but not insanely high-priced—get this—speaker-based system, and one that featured Wilson Audio Sabrina loudspeaker. My thought: If traditional hi-fi shows can feature headphones, then why not have a headphone show that highlights a great new loudspeaker.

The system in question featured a new-generation Audio Alchemy DDP-1 Digital Decoding digital/analogue preamp ($1,995) with outboard PS-5 power supply ($595), an Audio Alchemy DPA-1 class D power amplifier based on Hypex nCore technology ($1,595), an Aurender N100 server, and the aforementioned Wilson Sabrinas ($15,995/pair). The result was astoundingly good, highly expressive, full-bodied sound that would put many a six-figure system to shame.

Some people think headphonistas don’t know or care about traditional high-end audio systems, but as the cleverly conceived Audio Salon demonstration proved, nothing could be further from the truth.

 

AudioQuest

AudioQuest’s Skylar Gray was on hand to demonstrate and discuss his highly innovative Nighthawk headphone ($599), which at this stage is only about five weeks away from full production.

The Nighthawk features ear cups moulded of liquid wood and the polished to a high-lustre shine, a distinctive elastic ear cup suspension system, a turbulence reducing 3D-printed ear cup vent, and 50mm dynamic driver with a ‘bio-cellulose’ diaphragm. The result is a headphone that sounds as if it could carry a four-figure price tag, but if fact sells for much less.

Aurender

Aurender is, of course, best known for its audiophile-grade servers, many of which were on hand and featured in various manufacturers’ demonstration systems. But for its demo stand, Aurender focused on its new Flow portable headphone amp/DAC/player ($1295), which is review in depth in the next issue of Hi-Fi+.

Also attracting considerable attention was Aurender’s insanely cool Cast-Fi7 AV/Wi-Fi speaker system ($399, but with a show-special price of $299). More than just a Wi-Fi speaker, per se, the Cast-Fi7 is an elegant, aluminium-cased self-powered speaker system complete with a built-in, Samsung-built, 7-inch full colour display. The more time you spend with the device, the more fun it is to use and build quality is almost shocking high for the product category (although honestly, this might be a category that Aurender has had the insight to pursue).
 

Ayre

Ayre is of course best known for its upscale high-end audio components, but leveraging experience gleaned from development of the audio electronics used in the famous Pono high resolution portable digital music player, Ayre has moved ahead to create a lovely new headphone amplifier/DAC called the Codex.

The Codex was previewed at CES 2015, but it is now much, much closer to full production and has—in subtle but quite noticeable ways—become even better sounding in the process.  The Codex, which is design to be positioned vertically, features all discrete fully balanced audio circuitry, a high res PCM/DSD DAC (384kHz PCM, DSD 64 and 128), a high quality power supply, and distinctive headphone outputs that can be configured either as two 3.5mm single-ended outputs or as a single balanced output (where each channel is drive from one of the two available 3.5mm output sockets).

Despite its deceptively compact size, the Codex is no toy; all it takes is one brief listen through high-quality headphones to realise that the Codex is every inch a real Ayre. Final pricing is yet to be determined, but is expected to fall between $1,500-to-$1,700.

 

Cavalli Audio

The Austin, TX-based firm Cavalli Audio is known for its expensive, essentially handmade or bespoke-grade headphone amplifiers, which have earned an enviable reputation for being among the very best available (not unlike certain Ferrari or McLaren automobiles). All of this is very well and good for those who can afford the price of entry, but what about those who can’t.

Well, for CanJam the good Dr. Cavalli stunned show attendees with not one but two new headphone amplifiers that both will sell for under $700. First up is Cavalli’s new Liquid Carbon amp, which is a compact and readily transportable (but not portable) fully balanced solid-state amplifier that sounds remarkably much like a junior version of Cavalli’s flagship Liquid Gold amplifier—an amp that sells for a tick under $4,000. The Liquid Carbon created a tremendous amount of buzz at the show, partly on the basis of sound quality, which is flat out stunning (at any price), but also because of project price, which is expected to fall between $500 and $700. Quite honestly, had the Carbon been fully production ready, Cavalli could probably have sold dozens of samples at the show alone, so strong were reactions amongst headphonistas.

Next up was the tiny Liquid Silicon amp, a tiny portable amp based on very high quality parts and that promises to bring the ‘Cavalli Sound’ to an unprecedentedly low price point. The Silicon is, as you might expect, optimised for use with relatively sensitive headphones, earphones, and CIEMS, and is expected to sell for between $300 and $500. I tried the Silicon briefly with my reference JH Audio Roxanne CIEMs and came away thinking that the pint-sized amp really does serve up a believable rendition of the Cavalli Sound.

CEntrance

CEntrance is well known in the pro-sound world and in the headphone community for its powerful and flexible HiFi-M8 and Mini-M8 headphone amplifier/DACs. But looking ahead the firm wanted to offer a product that would introduce CEntrance technology to a much wider, consumer-centric audience and accordingly the firm began work on its first crowdfunded (Indigogo) product: the HiFi Skÿn combination iPhone case/DAC/headphone amplifier, which will eventually sell for $399 (as expected, Indiegogo campaign investors got special pricing for their HiFi Skÿns).

Importantly, the HiFi Skÿn is offered in sizes to fit the iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and iPod Touch 5G. iPhoners looking for a serious upgrade in sound quality in a device whose design harmonises nicely with that of the iPhone will be well please with this one.
 

Chord Electronics

Chord Electronics struck sonic gold in the headphone community with its terrific Chord Hugo portable headphone amp/DAC, but with an eye toward expanding the reach of the Hugo ‘franchise’, as it were, Chord has now created a larger and even more capable desktop version called the Chord Hugo TT (for “table top”, priced at $5,000/£2,995).

Compared to the original Hugo, the Hugo TT now provides balanced in addition to single-ended preamp outputs, considerably higher bias current (so that it remains in pure class A mode at much higher output levels, more tightly controlled voltages used in conjunction with its pulse array/DAC system (said to improve linearity) and dramatically lower noise and thus higher dynamic range than the already very quiet Hugo (the improvement is on the order of 4dB, which is significant).

The bottom line is that the Hugo TT preserves everything listeners like about the original Hugo, while making sound quality noticeably better across the board.  During a briefly listen to a high-res file of the track “Jericho” from Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, through a set of Audeze LCD-3’s, I found the sound of the Hugo TT downright mesmerising (honestly, the sound was so beautiful that it took all the self-discipline I could muster to force myself to move away from the Chord stand to focus on other worthy products and manufacturers).

__________

Watch for Parts 2 and 3 of this report to appear on www.hifiplus.com over the next few days.

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