For several years in a row, the Head-Fi organization has held its main CanJam event in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and this year was no exception. What changed, though, and in a good way, is that theCanJam event became so popular that if overflowed the confines of the very large hotel ballroom it has traditionally occupied to take over the entire ground floor atrium space of the hotel as well! This change dramatised the rapid increase in interest in serious, high-end headphone-based music systems.
I actually overheard a snippet of conversation among showgoers that went something like this:
Participant 1: “Did you see the CanJam event in the atrium?”
Participant 2: “I did, but that’s not all there is to CanJam. In the rear of the hotel back behind the atrium area, there’s this great big ballroom that’s full of even more CanJam displays. Honestly, it was almost unbelievable.”
Participant 1: “How so?”
Participant 2: “Well, it was with people — some young, some not so young — and they all seemed really upbeat and enthusiastic. And what’s more, it looked like many of them were actually buying or ordering new equipment right here at the show. I guess they’re really into their high-end headphone systems.”
Participant 1: “That’s very impressive.”
And indeed it was impressive, leaving no doubt (well, none except among the most hard-boiled of audio curmudgeons) that headphone-based systems are now an established, legitimate, vibrant, and thriving segment of the high-end audio universe.
Instead of our usual attempts at “cover the earth” reportage from CanJam events, we would like to try something different here in the form of a small series of snapshots designed to highlight a few of the trends we observed at CanJam /RMAF 2014. Our apologies to those manufacturers we do not cover here, but please note again that these are only fleeting snapshots of a handful products observed in passing.
Important: This is Part 1 of a two-part Hi-Fi+ blog.
To access Part 2 of this blog, click here.
NEW HEADPHONE ELECTRONICS
Dr. Alex Cavalli has evidently been burning midnight oil by the barrelful and as a result showed two new high-end amps at CanJam: the new Liquid Crimson DC-coupled, hybrid valve/solid-state amp for dynamic headphones ($2,850) and the very exciting Liquid Lightning II-T ($4,850). The “T” in the name, by the way, stands for Tube, which is, of course, American-speak for Valve. The LLII-T is a hybrid tube/solid-state electrostatic amplifier designed to make the very most of Stax’s awesome SR-009 electrostatic headphones (of which we at Hi-Fi+ are very big fans). The Liquid Crimson, in turn, is the long-awaited follow-up to Cavalli’s late, lamented Liquid Fire amplifier, which was a great-sounding amp in its own right and was also the first product Cavalli Audio ever made.
Prospective customers who heard the new models gave them two thumbs way, way up, and it was not lost on us that some very serious headphone makes had already purchase Liquid Crimson amps to use as their reference/demo amps of choice.
Though increasingly well-known for its planar magnetic headphones and portable high-res players, HiFiMAN rolled out a new and refreshingly affordable hybrid tube/solid-stated desktop headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier called the EF100 ($499). The EF100 breaks new ground for the Chinese firm in terms of its oh-so-elegant design motif and overall quality of fit and finish. Dr. Fang Bian, president of HiFiMAN, explained that the EF100 is primarily geared for use with analogue sources, but that it does provide a minimalist 16/44.1 USB DAC, mostly as a nod to user convenience. The little EF100 is surprisingly powerful, offering 2Wpc for more than ample headphone output, plus 9Wpc for use in driving comparatively high sensitivity speakers (making it, perhaps, just the thing for a well-equipped college dormitory room).
Light Harmonic/LH Labs
LH Labs, the subsidiary of the high-end firm Light Harmonic, is famous for its Kickstarter-funded, crowd-designed, and typically well-priced high performance headphone amp/DACs, and at RMAF LH Labs was demonstrating its nearly-ready-for-production-release Geek Pulse desktop headphone amp/DAC (~ $2,000) and its optional Geek LPS power supply ($999 – $1599, depending on configuration). In a demonstration with some very expensive loudspeakers, the new Geek pair acquitted itself admirably.
Moon by Simaudio
Moon by Simaudio is, of course, best known for its electronics and source components designed for use in speaker-based systems, but for CanJam the Canadian firm wowed showgoers with its very impressive new 430A headphone amplifier (or amplifier/DAC, depending on the configuration ordered). The 430A in amp-only form will sell for $3,500 dollars, while the amp with built-in high-res, DSD-capable DAC will sell for $4,300. Like all Moon gear, the 430A appears to be built like the proverbial “brick outhouse”, offer very high power output capabilities, and a plethora of useful features. We can’t wait to hear it for an extended period of time.
Of particular significance is the fact that the 430A comes from a highly respected high-end electronics manufacturer and, more importantly, that it shows deep familiarity with the true performance needs and wants of serious high-end headphonistas.
(Other traditional high-end electronics makers have attempted headphone amplifiers in the past, but more often than not they have failed—largely because, unlike Moon, they obviously did not grasp how sophisticated and highly-evolved the high-end headphone market has become). Welcome to the party, Moon!
OK, let me confess that I may never be able to fully make peace with this company’s puck-ish (or is that punk-ish?) name, but that doesn’t mean I fail to respect what they do. And, what Schitt brought to the CanJam 2014 party was its spectacular Ragnarok “circlotron” circuit-equipped, fully balanced, 100Wpc integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier ($1,699), complete with microprocessor controlled bias and DC offset. To say that the Ragnarok (a term denoting, in Norse mythology, the equivalent of Armageddon, or the end of the world) is sufficiently powerful to drive ANY dynamic headphone is the understatement of the year, but beyond power the Ragnarok also offers superb levels of delicacy and finesse.
Accompanying the Ragnarok was the firm’s new Yggdrasil true 32-bit/384kHz-capable PCM-only DAC, $2,299. In a fascinating, free-wheeling talk with the company’s head of product development and design, Mike Moffat (formerly of Theta Digital fame), I learned that Mr. Moffat is unequivocally not a fan of DSD, which is why the Yggdrasil (or “Yggie”, as Moffat likes to call it), is a PCM-only device. But whether one loves or does not love present-day DSD initiatives, there’s no arguing the point that the Yggdrasil is a very refined and sonically accomplished DAC—and thus is a swell companion for the Ragnarok.
In case you were wondering, the term “Yggdrasil” refers, in Norse mythology and cosmology, to a holy tree that is in essence a “tree of life”, representing the source of all things. Together, the Yggdrasil and Ragnarok are, more or less, the “beginning and the end” of things—or at least that’s the official Schitt Audio story line.
Emboldened by the success and popularity of its gorgeous but quite compact WA7 “Fireflies” valve-powered desktop headphone amp/DAC, Woo Audio was showing a lovely, albeit highly unorthodox, prototype of its upcoming WA8 portable, battery powered, transformer-coupled (no, that’s not a typo), three-valve powered amp/DAC, which likely sell for around $1,500. Granted, the WA8 is pretty big as portable units go, but it looks so endless cool that we bet plenty of takers will find room for it in their backpacks.
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