This is the third and final segment of the Hi-Fi+ report from CanJam SoCal 2015—a continuation from Part 1 and Part 2 published last week.
oBravo’s David Teng demonstrated his firm’s hybrid dynamic-driver/AMT-driver HAMT-1 headphone ($1,900) as recently reviewed in Hi-Fi+.
In a brief conversation with Teng, we learned that oBravo does still plan to bring out a slightly cost reduced version of the HAMT-1 that will be called the HRIB-1 and that will be based upon the hybrid combination of a dynamic driver and ribbon-type driver. The HRIB-1 (projected price $1,700) will come out later in the year as will a yet-to-be-introduced oBravo in-ear model.
Olasonic offers sweet relief for listeners for whom space is at a premium in the form of three adorable Nano Compo series mini-components—all with footprints not much larger than a CD case! The three models shown at CanJam were the Nano Compo CD-1 disc transport ($799.95), D-1 44.1kHz – 192kHz-capable DAC with four digital inputs ($799.95), and the UA-1 integrated amplifier ($799.95), which produces 18Wpc and provides three digital and one line-level analogue input.
Our thought: These components could be ideal for bedroom, dorm room, or office use. They’re very small, but also very attractive and appealing to use.
Oppo Digital Chief Technology Officer Jason Liao was demonstrating a host of new or recently launched Oppo headphone products, including the PM-2 planar magnetic headphones ($699 –essentially a cost reduced but not performance inhibited version of the firm’s flagship PM-1 headphone) and the new PM-3 closed-back planar magnetic headphone ($399), whose sensitivity and voicing are both geared for on-the-go listeners who will be powering the headphones directly from smartphones or tablets.
Many audiophiles are familiar with Peachtree’s affordable yet high-performance integrated amplifier/DACs, but now the firm stands poised to enter the personal audio world with its soon-to-be-released Shift portable headphone amplifier/DAC ($399). The Shift features a 32/384 PCM and DSD64/128-capable DAC, an Apple Lightning connection with charge option, an Android/PC USB input.
The Shift, whose chassis is made of aluminium partially clad in leather, comes with a custom leather carrying case plus a set of Apple Lightning, Android, and PC cable. A fixed output level switch allows the Shift to serve as a standalone DAC in a full-size hi-fi system.
Pendulumic was winning friends with its very good and very affordable Stance S1+ wireless aptX Bluetooth headphone ($199). Unlike many of the breed, the Pendulumic sounds less like one of those typically foggy and diffuse-sounding Bluetooth headphones we’ve all encountered at one point or another and more like a good quality wired headphone. Fit and finish on the Stance S1+ are also several cuts above the norm for this class. Finally, the Stance S1+ provides built-in rechargeable batteries capable of about 30 hours of playback time plus—get this—a set of conventional AAA back-up batteries that can be brought into play if the main batteries happen to run out of charge at an inconvenient moment.
Putting together good sound, good looks, good build quality, great functionality, and a sweet price, the Stance S1+ is surely ‘dressed for success’.
Some of the most diverse and varied product offerings at CanJam came from the Chinese firm Questyle Audio Engineering. On display was the firm’s CAS192D high-res, Wolfson-powered 24/192 PCM and DSD64 DAC ($2,000), which fed signals to a pair of the firm’s distinctive CMA 800R wide-bandwidth, balanced headphone amplifiers ($2,000/each). The CMA 800R’s use the firm’s patented Current Mode Amplification circuit technology.
In a separate display, the firm also showed its CMA800i desktop headphone amp/DAC ($2,500), which leverages design elements of both the CAS192D and the CMA 800R, but in a more compact, all-in-one format. Also shown was the smaller and less expensive Q192 compact (but not portable) PCM-only headphone amp/DAC ($800).
Then, Questyle gave CanJam attendees a preview of prototype versions of its very cool QP1 portable high-res digital music player ($600) and the upscale QP1R, which offers more on-board memory and even higher quality parts ($900). Both models feature Questyle’s signature Current Mode Amplification, provide both high-res PCM and DSD 64/128 decoding, and include card slots allowing use of up to 128GB Micro SD cards. Questyle asked us not to photograph the units with their graphical user interfaces powered up, but suffice it to say Questyle is doing some interesting work in that area.
Finally, in a separate, speaker-orientated display area at the show, Questyle demonstrated its 5G wireless amplification system, which used the firm’s T2 transmitter unit to communicate with Questyle’s R200 wireless-enabled class D monoblock amplifiers. The Questyle electronics were used to power a set of ENIGMAcoustics Mythology M1 monitors and they sound quite good (more like a wired system than a wireless one).
The Scottish firm RHA Audio has two clear-cut winners on its hands with its MA750i and flagship T10i earphones, both of which are value-for-money leaders, but at CanJam the firm was showing a prototype of a potential new model called the T20. At first glance the T20 appears to be a lightly revised T10i, but as it turns out the big differences are actually on the inside.
Specifically, RHA has created for the T20 a radical new dual voice-coil dynamic driver, whose diaphragm actually provides five discrete, concentric-ring type driving surfaces. Based on a brief listen to the prototype, it appears the new driver taps much deeper reserves of resolution and low-level detail than can the already good T10i. At this stage, though, the open-ended question that RHA continues to research is whether or not its dual voice-coil driver can be mass-produced at a sensible cost. Let’s hope so…
Riva Audio/ADX Audio
One of the most thought-provoking and entertaining demonstrations at CanJam had absolutely nothing to do with headphones or earphones. Rather, it was the demonstration of the new Riva Turbo X high-performance mobile Bluetooth speaker. Let’s be honest: Most Bluetooth speakers would scarcely quality as good or even decent listening devices, at least not by audiophile standards. But the Riva, quite frankly, is different. Granted, it’s not going to challenge a good set of small monitor speaker powered by an also good integrated amp/DAC or the like. But, on the other hand, it costs only $349.99, and what it does do is to produce vibrant and astonishingly full-bodied (if not genuinely full-range) sound, complete with (and this is the ‘special sauce’ that set the Riva Turbo X apart from the herd—believable and surprisingly three-dimensional stereo imaging. Yes, really. Not bad when you consider that we’re talking about a device that is only 9.1 x 4.1 x 3.5 inches in size.
Led by the colourful and charismatic rock impresario turned consumer electronics company developer Thomas “Rikki” Farr (Chairman and Chief Creative Officer) and Donald North (President and Chief Engineer), Riva Audio/ADX Audio set out to build a Bluetooth speaker that was not just incrementally but dramatically better than competing products that have gone before. (In case you are wondering, ADX Audio developed many of the core technologies and special sound-processing algorithms that are used in the Riva Turbo X). Based on a brief introductory listen, our impression is that they have succeeded brilliantly. The ‘Eureka!’ moment came when North handed us a Riva Turbo X that was playing and we discovered that, even when held at not quite arm’s length, the little Riva box still continued to produce uncanny, 3D soundstages.
Our thought is that the future hi-fi enthusiasts of our world will have to start somewhere with devices that show superior sound quality is its own reward. The Riva Turbo X could represent just such a starting point device, and one that won’t break the bank.
The centrepiece for the Schiit Audio demonstration was the combination of the firm’s extremely powerful flagship Ragnarok integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier ($1,699) as shown in conjunction with the firm’s very soon-to-be released flagship Yggdrasil high-res PCM DAC ($2,299). The concept is that the pair will offer state of the art performance at a price that falls a tick under $4,000 for the package, which is not at all unreasonable for the performance capabilities on offer.
In a brief conversation with designer Mike Moffat, we learned that the Yggdrasil does not and is not likely ever to support DSD decoding, as Moffat firmly believes PCM is the fundamentally superior digital audio solution in terms of practicality, widespread market acceptance, and sheer sound quality.
As was the case at CES, Sennheiser’s CanJam demonstration served first to expose listeners to a broad spectrum of Sennheiser models, and second to introduce Sennheiser’s newest Momentum-series headphone: namely, the Momentum Wireless ($499).
Based on a brief listen, we think the Momentum Wireless is one of the best sounding and most effective of the wireless, active noise-cancelling headphone’s we’ve yet encountered.
Sony seems to have so many sales channels and brands-within-brands that it can at time be difficult to keep track of all the firm’s high-res digital audio and headphone offerings.
Even so, the firm’s CanJam display centred on a few key products: the slim-line NWZ-A17 64GB Walkman high-res digital music player ($299.99), the PHA-1 portable headphone amplifier/USB DAC ($599 list, $248 street), and the MDR-Z7 high-res headphones with 70mm drivers ($699).
The German firm SPL is perhaps most widely known in the pro-sound world, but offers several products that crossover nicely into the high-end headphone world. Two highlighted SPL models were the firm’s flagship Phonitor 2 headphone amp/preamp ($1999), which provides two balanced (XLR) and one single-ended (RCA) analogue inputs and one balanced (XLR) and one single-ended (6.35mm phone jack) analogue outputs.
Based on the firm’s signature 120V technology, the Phonitor 2 sports ultra-precise loudspeaker simulation controls, complete with a centre-fill image level adjustment control, a crossfeed level control, and a perceived ‘speaker’ angle control. These controls can be used and adjusted individually, or in concert with one another. The Phonitor 2 also provides a very precise left/right balance control—a touch we wish more manufacturers would include.
Alongside the Phonitor 2, SPL was also showing a newer model—the Phonitor Mini ($849). As its name suggests, the Phonitor Mini provides many of the same features as the bigger Phonitor 2, but in cost reduced and simplified form.
The big news for Ultimate Ears at CanJam wasn’t a new earphone or CIEM model, but rather a powerful enabling technology that will make it much easier for prospective customers to order great-fitting CIEMs. Specifically, UE was demonstrating a non-invasive and highly accurate digital ear-scanning system that doesn’t involve injecting ear-mould compound into the ear at all.
Instead, measurements of the ear canal are taken via a digital/optical scanning process said to yield exceptionally accurate digital models of the user’s ear canals, from which it is then easy to create near-perfect CIEM earpieces. From a UE spokesperson we learned that, since UE’s digital scanning system has been in use, the rate of returns to have CIEM earpieces adjusted or re-made has dropped to vanishingly low levels.
Vinnie Rossi is an experienced amplifier designer who has often teamed with Ken Ball of ALO Audio in the design of various ALO products. Rossi’s own company, however, was showing its new, category defying LIO modular audio system. To give that somewhat vague and mysterious descriptor more meaning, let me mention that the LIO is not so much a singular audio component, but rather an audio component platform that can be defined in many, many different ways, depending on what modules and options are ordered.
The core LIO is a linestage preamplifier that is powered by dual banks of ultracapacitors in a configuration where one bank drives the LIO while the other is being recharged. Switching between banks takes about a millisecond and thus occurs in real-time without the listener ever hearing with switchover. In this way, the LIO’s audio circuitry is never directly connected to the mains, while the power supply is always able to deliver plenty of current drive on demand.
To the core LIO, listeners can add an impressive array of optional modules including an input selector module, a headphone amp module with or without balanced outputs, a DSD/PCM DAC module, a MOSFET amplifier module, an MM/MC phonostage module with or without remote control loading adjustment, a tubestage module, and several different volume control options. As you can imagine, the configuration possibilities are almost endless. Build and sound quality are extremely impressive, so the LIO would be a cool product to own purely on the basis of its sound. It hyper-versatility, though, give it multi-purpose capabilities few other components I have seen could every hope to match. Pricing for the LIO ranges from $1,995 for the core LIO on up to $6,155 for a LIO Deluxe with essentially all the options.
We have been aware of the flagship Well Audio HeadTrip headphone amplifier ($7,000) for some time and have even heard it on a couple of occasions, but CanJam SoCal marked our first opportunity to hear the amp with a world-class headphone (in this instance, the Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic phones) that we know well. The resulting sound was, quite frankly, just jaw-droppingly good, representing one of the two or three most impressive headphone amplifier/headphone demonstrations we have heard to date. Never before have we heard the Abyss headphones sound so balanced, so masterful, and so utterly accomplished in their presentation (and we have tried them with a number of top-tier amplifiers).
The Wells HeadTrip is a very powerful (50Wpc at 8 Ohms or 25Wpc at 32 Ohm), dual mono headphone amplifier that uses Bybee technology throughout to reduce noise, and that extensively applies ultra-high-quality parts to improve overall definition, detail and subtlety. The HeadTrip provides both balanced and single-ended outputs, plus separate left/right channel phase inversion switches (since Wells contend that about 30% of digital recordings are recorded out of phase. But a list of features and specifications alone cannot show what makes this amp so special. As the US-based political pundit/strategist James Carville might put it, “It’s the sound, stupid.” Our experience at CanJam only served to whet our appetite for spending more quality time with the HeadTrip, should circumstances ever permit
Represented by its regional dealer Audio Salon, Wilson Audio used CanJam for what we believe to be the first public demonstration of its eagerly awaited Sabrina three-way floorstanding loudspeaker ($15,900/pair).
The speakers, driven by new-generation Audio Alchemy electronics and fed by an Aurender server, sounded spectacularly good. Despite the Sabrina’s moderate size, the sound it produced was big, full-bodied, articulate, and offered killer dynamics to boot. My thought: The Sabrina may be one of the most accessible and immediately likable Wilson models I’ve heard in a long time. Well done, Wilson!
Woo Audio showed its latest prototype of a yet-to-be-named battery powered, valve-driven, portable headphone amp/DAC whose DAC section supports 32/192 PCM files.
Listeners at CanJam were impressed with the portable unit’s ability to sound more like a set of high quality headphone amp/DAC separates than a typical portable unit. Pricing has not been set at this time, but expect something in the $1,500+ range.
WyWires, along with a handful of other astute cable makers, has realised that headphones can benefit significantly from signal cable upgrades.
Accordingly, WyWires offers its new Red-series cable with terminations appropriate for many of today’s most popular high-performance models. Pricing for Red-series signal cable sets starts around $239, depending on length and configuration.
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