CanJam at RMAF 2013 – Part 2

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Digital-to-analog converters,
Headphones,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
CanJam at RMAF 2013 – Part 2

What follows is a survey of new headphone, earphone, and related products seen and heard at RMAF.

HeadAmp

The Virginia-based firm HeadAmp was showing its newest product, which is the two-chassis, fully balanced, solid-state GS-X Mk2 headphone amplifier ($2780, or $2980 with upgraded DACT volume control), based in large part upon a design created by the acknowledged headphone amplification guru Kevin Gilmore.

Gilmore typically offer his designs as schematics for DIY (do it yourself) projects and HeadAmp founder Justin Wilson told us he once built a sample of the amplifier upon which the GS-X Mk2 is based as a DIY project for his own personal enjoyment a number of years ago. However, the original Gilmore design called for circuit devices that are no longer readily available, so that—in order to bring the GS-X Mk2 to market—Wilson adapted the original design to use more contemporary amplification devices, while adding a few additional refinement touches of his own.

Like all HeadAmp products, the GS-X Mk2 offers a very high level of fit and finish, with the sort of attention to small details that would not seem out of place in, say, a Bentley automobile.  Plainly, pride of ownership is spoken here.

HiFiMAN

For CanJam, the HiFiMAN booth mostly showed the firm’s extensive range of previously released headphones and earphones, while focusing on the firm’s flagship HM-901 high-resolution player/DAC/headphone amplifier.

The HM-901 has followed a relatively slow path toward production, perhaps because it is so ambitious in its conception. Basically, the HM-901 is a high-res file player (much like the Astell & Kern AK120), but one based on ESS Sabre DAC devices such as those used in any number of high-end disc players and DACs. What is more, the HM-901 allows user-selectable amplification modules (including an available balanced output module), and will—eventually—be offered with an optional tabletop docking station that allows the HM-901 to serve as the main, high-res DAC in a conventional audio system.

At present, our understanding is that the HM-901 hardware is finalized, as are the HM-901’s three optional flavors of available amplifier modules, so that all that remains are a final set of firmware revisions, plus the hoped-for outboard docking station.

While Astell & Kern have clearly stolen a march on HiFiMAN by bringing their gorgeous AK120 high-res player to market ahead of the HM-901, HiFiMAN plainly hopes that discerning audiophiles will find the HM-901 offers offsetting advantages in terms of sound quality and versatility. But will this really be the case? Only time will tell…

iFi Micro

Last year iFi Micro, which is a spin-off from the highly respected British high-end electronics company Abingdon Music Research, wowed us all with its award-winning yet affordably priced compact iCan headphone amplifier and iDAC high-resolution DAC.

Now, iFi Micro is pushing the envelope even further by introducing a new series of “Nano” products that are even smaller, less expensive, yet no less appealing than their iCAN and iDAC counterparts.  Specifically, iFi Micro used CanJam to roll out its new nanoCan headphone amplifier (price TBD, but projected to fall under $200) and nanoDSD DAC (price TBD, but projected to fall under $200).

The nanoCAN essentially incorporates all of the control and sound shaping features of the iCAN, but in a smaller, battery-powered format that offers 150mW of output with a battery big enough to provide a whopping 60 hours of non-stop playback.  Most importantly, the nanoCAN ostensibly preserves the iCAN’s terrific sound quality while offering a substantial drop in size and price.

The nanoDSD DAC, in turn, actually adds features vis-à-vis the iDAC, in that it provides what iFi terms “Advanced True Native DSD128/DXD/384 playback using (a) BurrBrown chipset.” What is more, the nanoDAC provides an 80mW headphone output along with conventional analogue outputs and it is said to be “iPhone/iPad/Smartphone” compatible.

JH Audio

Jerry Harvey, founder of JH Audio, has won widespread acclaim amongst musicians and audiophiles for his ambitious JH-series custom-fit in-ear monitors. For CanJam 2013, however, Mr. Harvey has broken new ground by introducing a new flagship monitor called the Roxanne ($1599), which is the first in what will eventually be a series of so-called Siren models.

The Roxanne takes up where Harvey’s previous flagship, the JH16 PRO leaves off, sporting a triple quad-balanced armature array of drivers that are tuned for optimal frequency and phase response via Harvey’s proprietary freqphase technology.

You read that last sentence correctly, by the way, in that the Roxanne features 12(!) balanced armature drivers per earpiece for virtually unlimited dynamic headroom. But the innovation doesn’t end there, because the Roxanne also features an innovative bass output tuning control mounted within the signal cables, which allows end-user to dial-in flat bass response or to apply up to +15dB of low-end boost, if desired (something that may be very desirable when the monitors are used in very noisy environments). Finally, the signal cable of the Roxanne are not only detachable and user replaceable, but also feature clever twist-to-lock bayonet-style connectors so that the cable cannot inadvertently be pulled loose by accident.

Everything about the Roxanne shouts extreme hipness, from the carrying case, which is made from milled, anodized aluminum and carbon fibre, on through to the earpieces, which—for an upgrade fee—can also be made of carbon fibre.

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