Over roughly the past decade an alternate high-end audio universe has been emerging—a universe centered on very high-performance headphones, earphones, portable and desktop headphone amplifiers, and amp/DACs. In short, it is a world that might be described as “personal audio on steroids.” CanJam, in turn, is an event jointly sponsored by RMAF and HeadFi.org that is in essence a showcase for and celebration of all things relating to high-performance personal audio.
Depending upon who you are and what your background might be, you may or may not have positive associations with the words “headphone” or “earphone.” But let me provide both some reassurance and an open invitation to explore. Set aside everything you know about the cheesy earbuds that come with mobile phones or the wildly inaccurate-sounding, big-bass headphones you may have encountered, because CanJam folks are audiophiles who approach music reproduction in much the same way as traditional high-enders do. The key distinction, however, is that for CanJammers the musical transducers of choice are those that can be worn on (or in) one’s ears. What’s the draw? Well, headphone and earphone based systems appeal on several levels:
- Sound Quality: Todays finest top-tier headphones offer balanced and extended frequency response, dynamics, resolution, transient speed, and focus that precious few loudspeakers at any price can hope to match or surpass (although in fairness speakers do continue to enjoy a significant edge in terms of 3D soundstaging).
- Value: While today’s best headphones have become quite expensive (with prices for state-of-the-art models presently falling in the mid-$5000 range), listeners often remark that the perceived sound quality per dollar ratio for good ‘phones is typically off the charts.
- Simplicity: Like traditional audio systems, headphone/earphone-based systems typically require source components, amplifiers, and transducers, but there are some differences. For example, headphone/earphone-based systems rarely require equipment racks and never need room acoustic treatments.
- Convenience: Unlike fine speaker-based systems, headphone systems typically do not take up a lot of space and—importantly—they can be enjoyed at satisfying volume levels at almost any time of the day or night without fear of disturbing friends, family, or neighbors. Better still, it is easy to configure high-quality headphone or earphone-based systems for on-the-go listening (or at least for easy portability).
What follows is a mostly a pictorial survey of new headphone, earphone, and related products seen and heard at RMAF.
The eagerly awaited Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone ($5,495) is now in production and has proven to be worth the wait. Abyss ‘phones were prominently featured in several manufacturers’ demonstrations in the main CanJam display area and were also on demonstration in the Abyss room in one of the RMAF towers.
In the Abyss room, in particular, listeners could hear the Abyss AB-1266 matched with the Light Harmonic DAC and Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold amplifier or with the AURALiC VEGA digital processor and a heavily upgraded Woo Audio WA5 amplifier. Both demos sounded exceptionally good, leaving no doubt that the AB-1266 is a formidable contender for state-of-the-art honors.
CanJam marked the release of ALO Audio’s clever and very well priced Island portable 192/24 USB DAC/balanced-output headphone amplifier ($299). The little Island is a USB-powered device and is compatible with both Macs and PCs, and it provides enough “oomph” to drive even quite difficult headphone loads. Better still, the Island is compact, stoutly built, and adorably cute.
Another ALO milestone involved the release, earlier this year, of ALO’s exotic, valve-powered Studio Six desktop headphone amplifier ($4900). The Studio Six is a Class A, SET design that features a zero-feedback circuit. For CanJam, ALO offered a show-special price of $3900 for the StudioSix, which made this already appealing amp even more attractive to prospective buyers. Note: For an upgrade fee of $200, ALO can build the Studio Six with upgraded Teflon capacitors.
Alpha Design Labs
ADL’s X1 portable headphone amplifier/Apple-compatible 192/24 DAC ($479) has undergone a long and, we gather, at times convoluted gestation process en route to the marketplace. But now the X1, which debuted earlier this year at the Munich High-End show, is in full production release and on sale in the US. As the attached photos will show, the X1 is a sleek piece of gear and quite a looker.