For those of you not able to make it to Denver, CO for the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I’d like to let you in on a little secret. These days, by teaming with HeadFi.org, RMAF now offers attendees a show within a show thanks to an event called Can-Jam. What’s a Can-Jam? In simple terms, it’s an exposition and celebration of all things pertaining to high-end headphones, earphones, and the specialized electronics required to drive them. In short, Can Jam represents a parallel high-end audio universe of sorts where very high-performance systems can either fit on your desktop or be carried on person, and where music is beamed directly into your ears. But veteran audiophiles may be tempted to ask, "Is it 'real' high-end audio?" Here’s my answer.
The sonic presentation of headphone systems certainly differs from that of speaker-based systems—most notably in the areas of imaging, soundstaging, and rendering of spatial cues (headphones image very differently than speakers do). But at the same time, today’s better headphones excel at musical information retrieval, realistic rendering of large and small-scale dynamics, and reproduction of small, delicate inner details in the music. In fact, in these specific areas today’s best headphones set a performance bar so high that it typically can be matched only by extremely expensive speaker-based systems. Given this, I think top-tier headphone and earphone-based systems certainly quality as serious high-end audio. But the best news of all may be that they also represent a form of high-end audio that large numbers of discerning music lovers can actually afford to embrace.
Below, I describe some of the coolest new products seen and heard at RMAF/Can-Jam 2012. As always, my apologies in advance to any manufacturers whose worthy products I fail to mention.
1964 EARS is a relatively new company based in the Pacific Northwest whose mission is to build multi-driver, custom-fit in-ear monitors that, in the company’s own words, “bridge the gap between price and quality.” Feature for feature, then, 1964 EAR’s custom IEMs are priced anywhere from about $100 to many hundreds of dollars lower than competing models from better known firms such as Ultimate Ears or Westone. Yet in terms of fit, finish, available colors, availability of custom artwork and comfort options, 1964 EARs appears to be fully competitive with the bigger players in the segment. At present, there are four main 1964 EARS custom-fit in-ear monitors:
- The model D—based on dual balanced armature drivers ($325),
- The model V3—based on triple balanced armature drivers ($535),
- The model Q—based on quad balanced armature drivers ($525), and
- The newly released model V6—based on six balanced armature drivers ($650).
Abingdon Music Research
Abingdon Music Research (often abbreviated to “AMR”) is an extremely well regarded manufacturer of top-tier high-end audio electronics from Great Britain. For RMAF, however, AMR showed a line of astonishingly affordable products from its new iFi Micro sub-brand. But don’t be misled by the affordable pricing, though; the beautifully finished iFi Micro components are very serious both in intent and in the sonic results they achieve, and to prove this point AMR was demonstrating its iFi Micro iPhono phonostage ($399) in a system where, I believe, the iPhono was by far the least expensive component on display. The little iPhono sounded terrific—so terrific that if you had told show attendees the unit sold for, say, $1000+, they might well have believed you. Watch for an upcoming review of the iFi Micro iCAN headphone amp in a future issue of Hi-Fi+. As shown at RMAF, the iFi Micro range comprised four models:
- iFi Micro iCAN Headphone Amp ($249),
- iFi Micro iDAC Headphone Amp/DAC with 24/192 resolution ($299)
- iFi Micro iUSB Power Module ($199), and
- iFi Micro iPhono Phonostage ($399).
Joe Skubinski, founding father of JPS Cables, has taken notice of the high-end headphone movement in a major way, having embarked on an ultra-ambitious development effort to create what Mr. Skubinski hopes will be one of the, if not finest sounding, cost-no-object headphones on the planet. To this end, Skubinski has spun off a new company called Abyss Headphones, which is working on an extremely high performance planar magnetic headphone that will be called the Abyss AB-1266 and that will sell for approximately $5000/pair. According to Skubinski, the AB-1266 uses one of the lightest, most responsive diaphragm/conductor trace systems ever used on any planar magnetic headphone. The mission of the AB-1266 is a daunting one; namely, to meet or beat the performance of Stax’s incredibly good SR-009 electrostatic headphone in every respect, but in a format that is much simpler to drive than an electrostat can be. Are we there yet? Time will tell, but the AB-1266 certain sounded promising.
Our online sister publication Playback has favorably reviewed several high-end portable headphone amplifiers from the Portland, OR-based firm ALO Audio, but for Can Jam we couldn’t help but notice that ALO appears to have created an all-new product category; namely, a category for a portable headphone amplifier/DAC. The amp in question is ALO’s impressive new, tube-powered Pan Am headphone amp/USB DAC ($599), which is small enough to take with you, but not designed for mobile use (you wouldn’t, for example, be able to listen to your Pan Am when walking down a city street). The tradeoff, though, is that once you reach your destination you can quickly set up the Pan-Am and have very, very high-quality sound at your fingertips.
Basics on the Pan Am are as follows: tube complement = two x 6AK5 tubes, two analog inputs, and one 24/96-capable USB input served by a built-in Wolfson DAC. The standard Pan Am comes with a wall-wart-type power supply, but other (better) options are also available. For instance, as shown at RMAF, the Pan Am was part of a three-module stack that included the matching ALO Passport Portable Battery Power Pack ($189) and the optional ALO Gateway portable Power Cleaner ($129). Because the Pan Am is a tube-powered unit, ALO.
ALO also showed the almost-production ready version of its new Studio Six tube-powered desktop headphone amp (approximate price $4900 - $5000), which features three switch selectable inputs and four outputs. As you can imagine, the concept behind the Studio Six is to allow multiple listeners to enjoy high-end headphone sound at once, or to allow effortless back-and-forth comparisons between multiple headphones.
Alpha Design Labs
Alpha Design Labs is the sister company of the Japanese high-end firm Furutech and it is a company focused primarily on products targeted toward personal/desktop audio enthusiasts. Given this mission, ADL used Can-Jam to introduce its new Esprit headphone amp/DAC ($999)—the most ambitious device if its type that ADL has offered to date. Like ADL’s first product, the GT 40 amp/DAC, the Esprit can be used both as a DAC, but also as an Analog-to-Digital converter or digital recording interface. The Esprit sports a low-jitter clock, a 24/192-capable Wolfson WM8716 DAC, an also 24/192-capable Cirrus Logic CS5361 ADC, and a 24/96-capable USB streaming controller. The unit features four inputs (two analog and two digital—one optical, one coax), one stereo analog output, a USB 2.0 I/O port, and of course the obligatory headphone jack.
ADL also previewed its full-size ADL-118 headphone ($299)—the firm’s first-ever transducer. According to ADL, the ADL-118 promises sound that is “balanced in a completely audiophile way,” which we take to mean that the ADL-118 will be geared more for accuracy and neutrality than for spectacular but wrong-sounding euphonic colorations.
The USA-based firm Audeze (loosely pronounced like “odyssey”) is drawing worldwide acclaim for its superb open-back model LCD-2 and LCD-3 planar magnetic headphones. But astute product marketers at Audeze have realized that, good though their current offering are, Audeze ‘phones often get overlooked for studio applications precisely because they are open-back designs (open back ‘phones tend to allow a high degree of “bleed through” of external noise, which is extremely undesirable for studio work). Accordingly, company founder Alexander Rosson and his team have been hard at work to create closed-back versions of the LCD-2 and LCD-3, which were shown as rough-cut, proof-of-concept prototypes at RMAF.
Voicing for the closed back ‘phones struck me as being similar, but not identical, to the open-back version, though the closed-back samples did do an admirable job of blocking out noise. I can’t help but speculate that is more studios used headphones this good we’d all wind up with better sounding recordings. Neither pricing nor release dates for the closed back models was available at RMAF, but a company spokesperson said the intent was for pricing to be similar to the current LCD-2 and LCD-3 models ($995 and $1945, respectively).
The German firm Beyerdynamic rolled out three new models for Can-Jam, each with a quite different persona. First up was the firm’s new Custom One Pro headphone ($199), which is a closed-back, easy-to-drive (16 Ohm), full-size headphone based on the design of the firm’s popular but more costly DT770 model. Interesting design details include removable signal cables (always a good idea in our book), customizable side panels and trim for a user personalized appearance, and—most importantly—distinctive “Sound Slider” controls on the bottom of each ear cup that give end users a good measure of control over the headphone’s voicing. Accordingly, the marketing slogan for this model is, “Custom Look, Custom Sound.”
For purists on a budget, Beyerdynamic offers the T90 headphone ($649)—the newest model in the firm’s Tesla-series product family. The T90 is relatively easy-to-drive, 250 Ohm, open-back headphone fitted with micro-velour ear cup and headband pads, and sporting Beyerdynamic’s typically overbuilt “Tesla-style” drive units. Many headphone aficionados regard Beyerdynamic’s flagship T1 Tesla very highly, but some would-be T1 owners find the T1’s $1399 price to be prohibitive. The T90 is meant specifically for those seeking the impressive Tesla sound, but at a much more manageable price level.
Last but not least comes Beyerdynamic’s affordable little DTX 501 ($99)—a fold-flat, on-ear travel headphone that is offered in black or white finishes.
Our online sister publication Playback recently reviewed the terrific new Soloist headphone amplifier/stereo preamp ($999) from the Australian firm Burson Audio, concluding that the Soloist offers “refined sound,” plenty of power, “superior versatility, and exceptional build quality.” For RMAF, Burson combined the Soloist with a very high quality, high resolution DAC to create an even more ambitious product: namely, the Conductor headphone amplifier/preamp/DAC ($1850).
Also new from Burson was the Timekeeper Monoblock Power Amp (75 Wpc), priced at $2200/pair. The big news with the Timekeeper is not massive power output (obviously the Timekeepers are not wattage blockbusters by American standards), but rather sound quality, pure and simple.
In previous reviews from our sister magazine Playback, Cavalli Audio headphone amplifiers have essentially gone two for two in terms of earning approbation as true state-of-the-art products. First came Cavalli’s Liquid Fire hybrid headphone amplifier ($3250) and next came Cavalli’s Liquid Lightning solid-state electrostatic headphone amp ($4250), both terrific products that offer enviable openness, transparency and sonic neutrality. For RMAF, however, Cavalli introduced a conceptually different high-end amplifier: the Liquid Glass hybrid tube/solid-state headphone amp/preamp ($3750) created by and for serious “tube rollers.”
For those not familiar with the term, “tube rollers” are audio enthusiasts who love fine tube-powered designs, but who specifically delight in substituting various types (and brands) of vacuum tubes in their amps to see what the effects on sound quality might be (and yes, those effects are plainly audible). With the Liquid Glass, Dr. Cavalli has created one of the most versatile tube rolling headphone amps to date. Thus, the Liquid Glass features both octal (8-pin) and noval (9-pin) tube sockets, user selectable 6V and 12V tube plate voltage settings, and auto biasing, meaning the amp can be used with a remarkable variety of tubes. Cavalli had a good selection of tubes on hand and deliberately demonstrated the amp with multiple tube types—showing how different tube selections managed to draw out subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) different characteristics in the music. The amp is so transparent that it really lets you hear exactly what each type of tube has to offer, which is precisely why Cavalli created it.
CEntrance has shown us some very impressive personal audio products in the past, including the portable DACport Mini and the desktop DACmini CX and DACmini CX, but for RMAF 2012 the firm rolled out what is surely its most ambitious portable product to date: the new HiFi-M8 single ended/balanced output headphone amp and iDevice-compatible/general purpose, high-resolution DAC ($699). In simple terms, the HiFi-M8 appears poised to become one of the (if not the) most versatile and full-featured portable amp/DAC on the planet.
Where to begin? Let’s start with inputs: the HiFi-M8 provides two USB-type digital audio input jacks—one specifically for use with the iDevices and the other for use with Macs or PCs. The DAC section supports data rates to 24/192 resolution and claims “unmeasurable” jitter of <10 ppm. Next, let’s look at outputs: the HiFi-M8 provides full-sized single-ended (1/4-inch phone jack) and balanced (multi-pin XLR) outputs, meaning the headphone amp section can be used with most any earphone, custom-fit in-ear monitor, or full-size headphone on the market (including those that flat out demand to be driven by balanced output amps). The headphone amp is a pure Class A design with no capacitors in the signal path. Third, let’s consider user controls: the HiFi-M8 provides controls to support selection of three levels of output impedance, three levels of headphone gain, three possible bass shaping curves (including a neutral setting), three possible treble shaping curves (including a neutral setting), plus a power supply selector that allows the amp/DAC to be driven either by its on-board battery or by its (included) wall-wart-type power supply. What is more, it is possible to re-charge an attached Apple iDevice through the HiFi-M8 whenever its power adapter in engaged.
At this stage, CEntrance is still working to settle on final options for I/O jack configurations for the HiFi-M8. Several variations are possible, such as one balanced stereo output with separate left/right 3-pin XLR jacks, plus dual single-ended stereo outputs via a pair of ¼-inch phone jacks —the configuration shown at RMAF. But another, simpler alternative may be to have a single balanced output via a 4-pin XLR jack plus a single unbalanced output via a ¼-inch phone jack. In any event, we can’t wait to hear this product in action.
As some of you will already be aware, Cypher Labs and ALO Audio have frequently collaborated on products and projects, with the result that many knowledgeable listeners have chosen ALO portable amps paired with Cypher Lab’s groundbreaking AlgoRhythm Solo portable DAC as their ultimate portable audio rigs. For RMAF 2012, however, Cypher Labs plainly felt it was time to revamp the original AlgoRhythm Solo to give it even greater versatility and performance. Accordingly, Cypher presented not one but two new variants on the AlgoRhythm Solo theme: the AlgoRhythm Solo -R ($499) and the AlgoRhythm Solo –dB ($699). Here are the changes the models bring into play.
The AlgoRhythm Solo –R is the direct replacement for the original AlgoRhythm Solo, meaning that it is a portable, iDevice-compatible DAC with built-in S/PDIF conversion features. What’s changed is that the new –R model features a better-sounding DAC, longer play time per charge (14 hours), and is now capable of charging an attached iDevice—all this with no increase (and in fact a modest decrease) in price to $499.
The AlgoRhythm Solo –dB, in turn, can be viewed as a Solo –R (because it gets all of the updates the –R model receives), but with dramatically expanded functionality. Thus, the Solo –B is iDevice compatible, but also provides a high-resolution USB port for playing digital audio from computers, plus it provides both single-ended and balanced analog outputs. Having lived with the original AlgoRhythm Solo for some time, I would say that both models offer welcome changes, but that the Solo –dB offers a combination of features many enthusiasts have yearned for; namely, a high performance portable DAC that works both with iDevices and other USB audio sources, and that offers balanced outputs that take full advantage of the latest fully balanced portable headphone amps now appearing on the market.