CES: Highlights from the Venetian and LVCC South Hall – Headphones and Related Electronics

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
CES: Highlights from the Venetian and LVCC South Hall – Headphones and Related Electronics

Jason Lim, the founder of NuForce, has just launched a new company called Celsus whose two initial products are a high-end ear bud called the Gramo One ($249) and a portable headphone amp/DAC/streamer called the Companion One ($595).  

Unlike many—perhaps even most—high-end earphones, which presume an in-the-ear-canal fit, the Gramo One is a very high quality open-back ear bud fitted with a 16mm dynamic driver and that is designed to be worn in the outer ear. Celsus claims the Gramo One is one of very few ear buds that can legitimately produce ‘reference quality’ sound.

The lovely Companion One, which looks more than a little like a triple thickness iPhone 6 Plus, is billed as ‘the world’s first high-performance DAC that supports both USB cable and wireless connections to Windows, Mac, Android (*OTG) and iOS devices.’ It also claims to be the first portable high-res portable capable of streaming and decoding 24bit/192kHz music files. The versatile Companion One, which is built around an ESS ES9018K2M DAC, sports Wi-Fi, USB, Toslink S/PDIF, and analogue inputs, and is fueled by a hefty 6,000 mAH battery.

Chord Electronics
Many Hi-Fi+ readers are familiar with Chord Electronic’s superb Hugo portable headphone amp/DAC/preamp, but for CES 2015 the firm introduced a considerably larger desktop version called the Hugo TT, for Table Top ($4,795). How did Chord improve upon the already very strong Hugo formulation?

Well, the TT model provides both single-ended and balanced outputs, runs in Class A mode much deeper into the audio range and at lower impedances, offer significantly greater current drive capabilities (though the same maximum voltage swing), has twice the battery capacity, uses 10MµF SuperCaps, provides galvanic isolation for the USB inputs, includes a remote control and front panel display, and larger control buttons.

In every way, then, the Hugo TT is a Hugo writ large, making it more suitable than ever before as a digital preamp for use at the front end of a full-sized speaker-based (or headphone-based) audio system.

ENIGMAcoustics is best known for its self-energised electrostatic supertweeters, but for more than a year now the firm has been working on its design for a new hybrid electrostatic/dynamic driver-equipped headphone, called the Dharma ($1,200). The Dharmas incorporate electrostatic drivers that are self-energised and thus require no outboard power supplies, unlike most other brands of the electrostats. Complementing the Dharma is the lovely Athena A1 hybrid valve/solid-state headphone amplifier.

Though I had time for only a cursory introductory listen, the Dharma/Athena A1 pair well and truly blew my mind, and here’s why. This pair provided what stands out in my mind as the most spacious and compellingly three-dimensional sound I have ever heard form any headphone system to date. At times, the Dharma/Athena A1 created the compelling (though in my experience extremely difficult to achieve) illusion that sounds were literally emanating from far, far outside the headphone’s ear cup housings. In practice, this meant the Dharma and Athena combo yielded amazingly wide soundstages with very, very precise placement of vocalists and instrumentalists within those stages. Most impressive.

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