High End 2015: New Age Audio

Show report
Categories:
Music servers and computer audio,
Headphones,
Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs,
Miscellaneous
High End 2015: New Age Audio

While Robert, Jon, and Julie were doing the honors of covering traditional audio gear, I turned my attention to a new category I’ve dubbed “new age audio.” This is the realm of components designed to expand the traditional audiophile circle. Target customers are those who might not ordinarily buy into the high end for a variety of reasons: aesthetics, portability, compatibility with a download/streaming lifestyle, perceived complexity, etc. The products intended to reach these elusive buyers include portable players, headphones and can amps, music streamers, car audio, and "lifestyle" systems meant to confer greater aesthetic compatibility.  

Not so long ago, there wouldn't have been enough activity in these areas to constitute a category that warranted coverage. However, that situation has changed. Our industry is furiously trying on several audience-expansion strategies for size (see: “New Age Strategies to Reach New Age Audiophiles”), and their efforts were a major part of the Munich show. Below are some of the most noteworthy results.

Most Significant

Astell and Kern AK380 and AK Jr. Portable Players
A&K surprised crowds with dual introductions: a new flagship player and a new entry-level model. The now-top-of-the-line AK380, at $3500, becomes the most expensive portable player on the market. Justifying the price, according to A&K, are multiple new 32-bit DAC chipsets that support native DSD and a 20-band equalizer with 0.1dB increment adjustments. One very cool feature is that the AK380 will be supported by an array of forthcoming docking stations. Each station has a different task—for example, one has XLR outputs that might feed a high-end headphone amp. The price for these docks is TBD.

At the other extreme is the new AK Jr. The little tyke costs $500 and sports a single Wolfson DAC. It’s designed for a younger, less tech-savvy buyer. Just for grins I compared the sound of the two new models. Given the $3000 price difference, you might expect a night and day difference. But no, both boasted excellent sound. The AK380 does have greater clarity in the highs, more distinct imaging, and a smoothness (without sacrificing detail) that makes it less fatiguing. Still, the AK Jr. didn’t embarrass itself at all and gives every sign of being a terrific value.

Burmester/AMG Car Audio System
One section of the Munich floor looked more like an auto showroom than a hi-fi exhibit. Of the vehicles on display, the most drool-inducing was undoubtedly Mercedes’ new AMG GT S. I dropped into its cosseting seats last, after having already listened to the Burmester/Mayback system (smooth, detailed, bass-heavy), the Dynaudio/VW system (tinny, feeble lows), and the LPG Eton/Rolls Royce setup (the most artificial and incoherent sound I’ve ever heard in a car). The best was last: Burmester’s AMG system is a tour de force. Tonally, it’s perfectly balanced, with no hint of the bass boom I heard in other Burmester auto systems. I later asked Dieter Burmester why the AMG system sounded so good. He allowed that Mercedes was by now “starting to trust” him. Thus, he was given more control over elements like speaker placement. It shows. I’m not sure how much this option will cost, but similar systems run about $8000.

Chord Hugo TT DAC/Headphone Amp
Here’s evidence that at least some newbie audiophiles eventually want to move up the sonic ladder. Eighteen months ago, Chord built a dashing, battery-powered, portable DAC/headphone amp called the Hugo. It featured a proprietary FPGA DAC that sounded amazing. The Hugo was a smash, and the company continues to sell all it can build.

Now, primarily by demand from Hugo owners, comes the Hugo TT. Interestingly, the TT is not meant to be toted around. Essentially, it’s a Hugo with better power delivery, upgraded components (although the DAC is the same), and galvanic isolation on the USB input, which now goes all the way up to 384/24 and double DSD. The entry fee is $4785—about double that of the original Hugo. In a head-to-head comparison with the original Hugo, the TT had more snap and depth. Still, the original Hugo offers 90% of the TT’s prowess, so it remains a solid choice if you don’t need the TT’s advanced features.

Questyle QP1 and QP1R Portable Players
Both of these stylish units take square aim at Astell and Kern. And both use the very same Cirrus Logic DAC chip found in the former flagship, now penultimate AK240. The difference, as Questyle is quick to point out, is that while the A&K costs $2400, Questyles start at $599 for a 16GB QP1. The Questyle folks reckon they have a bunch of other advantages over those other guys, starting with pure Class A, all-discrete current amps (no op-amps are used), followed by metalwork done in the same factory as Apple’s iPhones. The QP1R (for Reference) is $899 with 32GB and upgraded parts.

As played through B&W cans, both units sounded clean, quick, and well balanced. There was no extraneous noise, no digital edginess, so no fatigue—just a nice, relaxed presentation. It would be great to pit the QP1 against the similarly-priced AK Jr and see where the chips fall. But will both manufacturers be game? Consider this a gauntlet thrown!

Burmester Phase 3
Having mastered portable high-end audio for the well-heeled through its arrangements with Mercedes, Porsche, and Bugatti, Burmester now hopes to further expand its listener base through aesthetic compatibility. According to Dieter Burmester, Phase 1 of high-end audio’s history was focused purely on sound quality—a search for the best way for hard-core audiophiles to reproduce 80 years of musical culture captured on physical media. Phase 2 continued to pay attention to sonics, but added the convenience of computer-based systems. This allowed instant access to an entire library of stream-able media without the bother of physical discs. In Phase 3, he believes, the industry will add lifestyle compatibility to the mix.

For its part, Burmester has released its Phase 3 Series. Unlike the bulk of other “lifestyle” components at the show, Burmester was not content to merely slap on color side panels. The company looked deeply into how its target customers live, particularly their physical surroundings. The result is two primary “looks”: one a Bauhaus-influenced design, with chrome piping to integrate well with the customer’s furniture; the other a “loft style” with rough-hewn electronics and gold-plated accents. The complete systems, which derive all of their electronics and speakers from standard Burmester models, will run approximately $30k.

Auspicious Debuts

I was quite taken by the Lyravox wall-mounted, all-in-one system. The two-year-old company is seeking U.S. distribution for its decidedly lifestyle product. The system, available in any number of beautiful finishes, makes a striking aesthetic statement. Sonically, the “small” SM2-170 proved nastily tipped up and bass shy. Far better was the larger SM2-200, which found a good balance. Prices are not yet set but expect them to fall into the $25k range.

Enigma’s new Dharma D1000 phones are unusual in that they’re hybrid dynamic/electrostatics. ($1190, July). The cans had a big, rich sound yet were light on their feet and extremely liquid. Bass was good and punchy, as driven by Enigma’s A1 Class A, SET tube headphone amp ($1490). The only issue was some breakup on the highs, but perhaps this was due to this pair of ’phones being pre-production units.

In the Blue Sound room, I heard the company’s new family of streamers and receptors. The “Vault” ($999) is a 2TB music server. It can talk, either wired or wirelessly, to a “Node,” which can be thought of as an additional source connected to an existing audio system. Another option is the “Power Node,” which is a Node with a built-in power amp. Just add speakers! I listened to a Node driving a pair of NAD HP50 ’phones driven by the NAD D 1050 headphone amp. The sound was, in a word, terrific. These headphones, by the way, were among the best I heard at the show, despite costing only $299. 

Speaking of ’phones, Audioquest made a big splash launching the Nighthawk ($599). Two and half years in the making, the Nighthawk is unmistakable due to the earpieces being isolated via a suspension system reminiscent of those used for some microphones. The idea is to improve comfort because the earpieces can conform to the head in every plane. Further to that goal, the cup is made from injection-molded wood rather than plastic, which enables a more complex shape. The driver diaphragm was described to me as being made from “bacteria poop.” That sounded disgusting, but the ’phones themselves fortunately did not. The new-fangled suspension worked very well; these were among the most comfortable ’phones I tried at any price. The Nighthawk had a lovely top-to-bottom balance, with a smooth and natural yet immediate sound that was notably void of sizzle or hype. I’d say Audioquest has hit another in a string of recent homers.

Dali had great success with its petite Zensor speakers. Now the company is going even smaller with the new Pico series (€119, July). The units are designed for students and others with space limitations. At the show, the Pico exhibited clean mids (not so much the highs) and amazingly tight, extended bass for its size.

Meanwhile, Devialet was showing off a very unusual speaker called the Phantom. This is some of the cleverest packaging and engineering I’ve seen in this sector. The idea is to get big sound and big bass from a compact, ambience-friendly sphere. You can actually see the sphere’s perimeter expand and contract as the driver does its work. There are two models: the regular Phantom, at €1690, with a built-in 750 watt Class D amp good for 99dB SPL; and the Phantom Silver, €1990, which significantly ups the ante to 3000 watts good for 105dB SPL. You can drive the Phantom with pretty much any streaming source over Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth (coming soon), and TosLink. In its sprawling demo room, the Devialet folks were playing mostly loud, electronic thump music to show off the Phantom’s extension. The speaker is indeed prodigious in this respect, though how it performs in other areas has yet to be determined.

Opera is another new entrant in the portable player market. Its Consance model (approx. $1500) made an impressive Munich debut. One feature I particularly admired was a dock that allows the player’s contents to be streamed to a network via Ethernet. Smart and cool. 

In Other News

Many of the show’s other launches in my category were of the wear-on-your-head variety, and frankly most of these were disappointments. Sennheiser launched the HD6630VB (€499, August), its first closed-back audiophile headphones. Why closed? Because the young crowd for whom these cans are intended are often wearing them on the street or in other noisy places. The closed backs block out external noise. The cord has a built-in mic for phone calls when connected, as will be commonplace, to an iPhone. The earpieces have built-in volume and transport controls, too. Unfortunately, the VB’s (which stands for Variable Bass) were extremely bass shy, even with the VB level set to max. Otherwise, the sound was crisp but the fit was a bit clunky.

Another can purveyor, Ultrasone, dubs itself “The Headphone Company.” It launched three new models (out of a line of 28!): the Edition M (€899, July) with sheep leather surrounds and rather thin sonics; the Edition S Carbon (€1699), which was significantly more refined but still lacking warmth; and the Go! (€109), which likewise failed to impress. Oppo’s PM-3 (€529) as played through the company’s own HA-2 portable DAC/headphone amp (€399) fared slightly better. The ’phones were extremely comfortable and their closed back offered good isolation, but these cans, too, were bass-challenged.  

In non-headphone news, NADAC, a company new to me but apparently not to the pro world, launched a purist (networked only, wired only) DAC. The stereo model runs $8900, while an 8-channel version that can play multichannel DSD files is $9900. KEF displayed its new X300A DAC/Class D amp/speaker integrated system ($1000). As with most such units, the X300A is meant to be reached wirelessly, though it also supports USB and Ethernet. Kingsound released its M30 portable headphone amp ($450, summer), one of the few such units I saw that sports an electrostatic ’phone jack.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the more, er, colorful products taking a bow in Munich. Taking a page from Apple, Amphion’s Helium series (€600–€900/pair) is available in a cornucopia of colors. Taking this approach to the extreme was TAD’s “lifestyle” versions of its Compact Evolution 1 speaker. Yes, the side panels are now available in a variety of colors. But TAD has gone further with a limited edition model featuring hand-lacquered “Urushi” side panels. At €20,000, the option doubles the speakers’ price, but it also turns them into true works of art.  

Best Sound (Cost No Object): I call it a tie between the lightning quick, deeply resolving Soulution/Magico Q7 II/Critical Mass system and the less ballsy, smaller scaled, but more relaxed presentation of the Vandersteen room.

Best Sound (For the Money): The NAD Viso HP50 headphones ($299). Designed by PSB’s Paul Barton, these ’phones have a midrange purity and speaker-esque delivery that sets them above most of the cans—and many of the speakers—I heard.  

Most Significant Product: The Magico Q7 II speaker. A triumph of design that delivers outlandishly capable performance.

Most Important Trend: The industry’s wholesale efforts to woo both younger listeners and those one percenters who have previously sat on the sidelines. May all these efforts succeed.

Most Coveted Product: Soulution’s 760 DAC, which bristles with technological sophistication and innovation.