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

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

ESS
The loudspeaker maker ESS (no relation to the DAC chip maker that uses the same initials) is known as the firm through which Dr. Oskar Heil first introduced to the world his legendary Heil Air Motion Transformer-type driver. In the modern era, ESS, now under new management, has been working to develop and release not only a new series of Heil driver-equipped loudspeakers but also a hybrid Heil/dynamic-driver-type headphone, called the ESS-RLM-713 ($299).

I head a rough prototype of this headphone at last year’s CES event, where it showed promise but plainly needed a lot more work in the area of driver integration. Ah, but what a difference a year can make. In the intervening year ESS has plainly burned barrels full of ‘midnight oil’ in refining and revising the headphone’s design, with the result that the ESS-RLM-713 now offers excellent driver integration, superb transient speeds and dynamic agility, and much more accurate overall tonal balance, all in a package that also reflects careful attention to user ergonomics and overall industrial design. Only time will tell, but I think this ESS headphone will likely come to be regarded as one of the strongest performers in its price class—and quite possibly will earn a reputation as an outright bargain, to boot.

HiFiMAN
If you have ever wondered what a cost-no-object HiFiMAN headphone/amp package might be like, then the HE-1000/EF-1000 pair demonstrated at CES provides your answer. Both new components are spectacular in their own rights, but to our thinking the HE-1000 must stand as ‘first among equals’ for its groundbreaking design.

Company founder Dr. Fang Bian earned his doctorate in nano-chemistry and he brought his expertise in this field to bear in the development of the HE-1000 by creating for this headphone a true nano-material diaphragm (this in contrast to some other designs that apply nano-material coatings to much thicker diaphragm materials). The result is diaphragm that is extraordinarily light, low in mass, and incredibly responsive. Not surprisingly, then, the HE-1000 seems to offer traditional planar magnetic virtues aplenty (including powerful and nuanced bass, wide range frequency response, and vivid dynamics), plus staggering levels of resolution and detail. For the listener, the net effect is not unlike having one’s ears and brain ‘hard-wired’ to the original recording console, which affords an exceptionally intimate view of the music.

Supporting the HE-1000 is the also very impressive two-chassis EF-1000 amplifier. The amp can be used either to power headphones or full-size speaker systems, with output, in class A mode, of 50Wpc or, in class A/B mode, 150wpc. As you can imagine, the EF-1000 offers superabundant power for purposes of driving most any dynamic headphone you might care to name.

Pricing for the HE-1000 and EF-1000 has not yet been determined. Dr. Bian advises, too, that good though the HE-1000 prototypes shown at CES are, he has a few more performance tricks up his sleeve that he expects to implement before the headphones are released at some point in mid-2015. Judging by the sound of the system, expect pricing to be very high, but arguably worth it.

Meridian
The primary thrust of Meridian’s marketing efforts at CES centred, not surprisingly, around the firm’s radical new MQA music encoding/decoding/protocol package, for which the British firm is rapidly lining up supporters such as the heavyweight high-res music streaming service Tidal and high res equipment manufacturers such as AURALiC and others.

For headphonistas, though, Meridian is busily rolling out second-generation, MQA-compatible versions of it present, highly regarded headphone amplification/DAC components. Thus there is a new MQA-qualified Explorer II amp/DAC ($299) and at the start of Q2 of 2015 there will be an MQA-certified version of the two chassis Prime desktop headphone amp/DAC ($2,000). In a similar vein, Meridian’s Sooloos music server already features TIDAL integration and support of MQA files.

Moon by Simaudio
Although not strictly-speaking a new-for-CES product, Moon by Simaudio was showing its superb new Neo-series 430HA headphone amplifier, which can be ordered with or without an onboard high-resolution DAC section ($3,500 for the amp alone, or $4,300 for the amp/DAC combo).

I have had a sample of the 430HA on loan from the manufacturer for several months and will likely offer a first listen blog on the unit in the not too distant future. For now, suffice it to say that the amp section of this unit offers power and sophistication aplenty, with a precise, clean, very pure sound that is accurate without being cold or stiff-sounding and that has more than enough oomph to power difficult-to-drive headphones. The DAC, too, is very good and offers a lot of performance for the money, though we suspect that in an absolute sense the amp section is hands down the stronger performer of the two onboard elements. Listeners seeking to go from zero to what is essentially top-tier high-end headphone sound would do well to give this unit a very careful listen. And did we mention that, in keeping with Moon by Simaudio tradition, build quality is superb?