Sitting with Jude Mansilla on Thursday afternoon in the CanJam room he told me, “When I started the Head-Fi site I imagined it a ‘gateway drug’ to two-channel room-based audio.” Judging by the attendance and activity in the CanJam area, headphones have become far more than a getaway—for many young and old audiophiles they’re a final destination.
My assignments, covering headphones and digital products, required walking all the floors of RMAF. During my travels, I couldn’t help but notice the differences in demographics and energy between the two-channel demos in rooms and the open-air festive atmosphere in CanJam. It’s heartwarming to see so many young’uns bitten by the audio bug. And while activity in the two CanJam areas was continuously busy, the floors of the hotel seemed less populated than in prior years. But given that RMAF expanded to an additional floor this year, the less crowded hallways could have been the result of the increased number of rooms spreading out the crowds.
Five Most Significant
Mytek Brooklyn DAC/Pre/Headphone Amplifier ($1995)
With a plethora of capabilities, the Mytek Brooklyn includes the new MQA Hi-Res decoder and up-conversion to 384k for PCM or 256DSD for DSD for any digital source. The front panel’s texture is similar to that of its big brother, the Manhattan. The half-sized Brooklyn DAC/Pre can drive two pairs of headphones while allowing each to have its own individual level settings. The Brooklyn also offers users the option of selecting any digital input and routing it to your computer’s USB2 input. With its balanced and single-ended analog outputs, an analog input, two SPDIF inputs, USB 2.0, and word-clock input and output connections, the Brooklyn looks like a worthy successor to the most excellent 192DSD DAC/Pre.
DCS Rossini Digital Products
At the first press conference on Friday morning, DCS debuted its newest mid-priced digital line, Rossini, whose offerings consist of the Rossini digital-to-analog converter ($23,999), the Rossini CD player/digital-to-analog converter ($28,499), and the Rossini master clock ($7499). The Rossini D/A sections use DCS’s proprietary ring DAC technology coupled with an FPGA section to handle logic and control functions. Input options include USB, AES/EBU, and SPDIF, and the Rossini DACs can stream over Ethernet from a NAS drive or online music services such as TIDAL, Spotify, and Deezer, and from Apple devices via Airplay.
Pioneer XDP-100R Portable Player ($700) and SE-Master1 Headphones ($2500)
Using an Android interface, the Pioneer XDP-100R portable player has 32GB internal and two SD cars slots, DSD and MQA playback support. It also has a 280-by-720 touchscreen, as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth with aptX capabilities. The XDP-100R uses an ESS SABRE DAC ES9018K2M as well as a SABRE 9601K headphone amplifier, which has an output power of 75mW into 32 ohms. Given its capabilities and price, the XDP-100R should heat up the already hyper-competitive portable player market.
The new Pioneer SE-Master headphones feature a portable-device-friendly 45-ohm impedance and employ an aluminum diaphragm treated with a ceramic coating. This open-back design has 50mm drivers that use neodymium magnets to achieve 94dB sensitivity. Assembled “by a master” at Pioneer’s Tohoku plant in the Yamagata Prefecture, the SE-Master1s weigh only 460 grams and come with a single-ended detachable 3.0 meter OFC litz wire cable.
ifi micro iUSB3.0 ($399)
USB de-jittering devices have been around for quite a while, but lately we’ve seen a plethora of new ones on the market. Ifi’s brand-new iUSB 3.0 will re-clock and re-balance the signal to cancel DC offset noise. It has two USB power and two USB power-plus-signal outputs as well as a three-stage sub-sonic noise filter and sixth-order EMI/RFI noise filter.
Audio Alchemy DDP-1 Digital Decoding Preamplifier ($1995)
Peter Madnick, who designed many of the original Audio Alchemy products, has resurrected the firm. At RMAF, Audio Alchemy unveiled its entire lineup of new components. The DDP-1, dubbed a 3-in-1 digital decoding preamp/DAC/headphone amp, has four output filter profiles and uses dual PCM/DSD AKM DACs. With user-selectable (or defeatable) resolution enhancement from 16 to 24 bits or from 24 to 32 bits, seven digital and three analog inputs to choose from, the DDP-1 should be adequate for even a complex system. As an upgrade to the DDP-1, Audio Alchemy also created the PS-5 power supply ($595), which employs two separate regulated power supplies, one for the analog circuits and one for the digital and control circuits.
The Cary DMS-500 streamer ($4995) accepts inputs from a variety of sources including Ethernet, USB, SPDIF, aptX Bluetooth, WiFi, or via directly attached drives. It uses four DAC with eight channels of processing with “TruBit” upsampling for DSD up to 256x and PCM up to 768/24. With a 128-bit DSP engine that can convert PCM to DSD, the DMS-500 Streamer represents Cary’s “absolute best in streaming technology.”
3beez Wax system ($4600) 3beez demonstrated their latest server, the Wax system. It uses a single app that performs all functions including ripping CDs, importing sound files, editing metadata, and configuring the system. The Wax system can be controlled from a tablet, desktop, or simply a mouse and monitor. It supports PCM files up to 192/24.
Mojo Audio showed their new CAT Server HTPC computer ($3999.95) attached to their Mojo Audio Joule v5.0 power supply ($999.95). With dual Ethernet connections, quad USB 3.0, WiFi antennas, and direct SPDIF connections, the CAT can handle virtually any modern digital input. It can be configured with up to 16GB of RAM and a 2TB Samsung 850 EVE SS drive. The CAT will work with either Linux or a Windows 7 operating system.
The Aurender N10 ($7999) offers on-the-fly conversion of DSD to PCM via specially programmed FPGA. With two 2TB internal hard drives and one 240GB SS drive, the Aurender boasts lots of storage. Outputs you can choose from include: SPDIF via BNC, AES/EBU, and coaxial connections, as well as USB 2.0. Aurender also created the Conductor app for the iPad to control the N10.
Grace Design M920 ($1995)
Grace Design is known in the pro-audio world for its superb microphone preamps and multichannel routing units. Although this was the company’s first time showing at RMAF, many audiophiles are familiar with their earlier DAC/Pres. The M920 supports USB playback up to 384/32, and has user-configurable digital filters for both DSD and PCM. For improved jitter, the M920 employs a dual-stage wide lock PLL for non-S-locked sources and a proprietary third-generation S-Lock dual stage PLL for clocking. The level control allows for .05dB steps within a 95dB range.
Aqua La Scala MKII D/A ($5600)
Aqua Acoustic Quality is based in Italy. The marque’s new La Scala MKII D/A converter features proprietary DSD decoding without any digital filter. It employs a single-stage valve/MOSFET direct-coupled output stage that uses one ECC81 tube directly connected to a MOSFET device using no negative feedback. With offerings such as four Burr-Brown PCM 1704K DAC chips arrayed in a true differential dual mono configuration, in addition to its included two separate power supplies, the La Scala looks like a serious contender in a hotly contested price range.
ifi micro iDAC2 ($349)
The iDAC2 replaces the very successful ifi iDAC. The iDAC2 can handle DSD signals up to 256x and PCM to 384/32 via Burr-Brown’s new “True Native” chipset. The iDAC2 includes three filter settings for PCM and DSD and has a SPDIF output so it can double as a USB to SPDIF converter. Its analog stage is pure Class A via the RCA outputs. The separate headphone amplifier produces 350 milliwatts of power.
Soerkris DAC1101 ($650)
Soekris, which hails from Denmark, demonstrated its high-performance multipurpose portable USB DAC/headphone amplifier. With a signal-to-noise specification of greater than 120dB and less than 0.01 percent distortion at -1dB, the Soekris DAC can accept PCM up to 384/24 and DSD up to 256X via DoP protocol.
Resonessence Labs Veritas ($2850)
I can truthfully say the new Resonessence Labs Veritas DAC uses a Sabre 9018 DAC chip to support PCM files up to 384/32 and DSD to 128x. With two RCA SPDIF, one AES/EBU, and one USB input, the Veritas is designed to serve as a digital hub. It sports a sharp OLED display screen, uses a solid milled aluminum chassis, and has two custom user-selectable RLabs digital filters for optimal playback quality. Through its balanced RCA outputs the Veritas achieves an impressive 125dB S/N figure.
QueStyle QP1R ($899)
I’ve been looking forward to seeing a Questyle QP1R in the flesh for some time. Few players have garnered as much anticipation from the Head-fi community. With 32GB internal memory, as well as two microSD slots, the QP1r has room for lots of music. It will play PCM files up to 192/24 and DSD, natively, up to 128x. With a how-low-can-you-go output impedance of .05 ohms and its pure Class A current mode output, the Questyle should be able to drive any headphone effortlessly. It certainly had no trouble with Audeze LCD-2s.
Apogee Groove ($295)
Apogee, who have been making pro digital gear since the days when 44.1/16 was king showed their Groove portable USB DAC and headphone amp. Capable of up to 192/24 PCM using a ESS Sabre DAC, the Groove uses what Apogee calls “Constant Current Drive” which they claim delivers “ultra-smooth frequency response for any headphones.” The Groove also employs four DACs per channel, yet still maintains its svelte figure.
In Other News
Anyone who’s had ear impressions made know it’s a tricky process that involves as much art as science. Silicone is injected into your ears and then it sets; the process usually takes a couple of minutes, during which you must sit, motionless, with a spacer between your teeth. Any movement (whatever you do, don’t laugh) and the impressions will be less than ideal. Out of the four silicone impressions I’ve had done, two of them needed refitting.
Ultimate Ears premiered their new laser-mapped ear profiling process at RMAF, and I had a chance to experience it firsthand. You still have to use a mouth spacer (and you will drool some) but the process is less invasive from a customer’s point of view. Even more importantly, it promises to be far more accurate. Instead of having a silicone form, which requires finishing to fix rough spots and voids—plus some amount of very educated guessing—to generate a final result, the laser scan is rendered as a three-dimensional data file that can then generate the final molds. In short, there is no material that needs smoothing or filling, and the subject’s movement during the scan is less of a problem.
In the near future I will be reviewing a new model of Ultimate Ears custom in-ear monitors that were made from laser-scanned impressions. I can’t say more due to an anti-disclosure form. But I can tell you that I will compare the new in-ears with my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors, which were made using the older silicone impressions methodology. Since fit is so important for custom in-ears, I’m looking forward to feeling just how close to perfect the laser-scanned impressions will be.
Best of Show
Best Sound (Cost No Object)
Headphones: Audeze LC-4 ($3995) and The King amplifier ($3995).
System: Constellation Virgo III preamplifier ($30,000), DC filter for Virgo III ($5000), Cygnus media server/DAC ($36,000), DC filter for Cygnus ($5000), Centaur II monoblocks ($80,000/pr.), Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeakers ($52,000/pr.), Nordost Odin 2 interconnects and loudspeaker cables, Artesania equipment racks, Stillpoints’ Acoustic Treatment panels.
Best Sound (For the Money)
Fostex T-50RP headphones ($179) After seeing modifiers use their drivers Fostex decided to revise the 50 series, using the same drivers but incorporating many enclosure improvements.
Most Significant Product Introduction
The debut of a new headphone-testing suite featuring the G.R.A.S. Ear coupler and Audio Precision APX555 that can measure below the human threshold for the entire frequency range, except for a small window in the upper midrange.
Most Significant Trend
More and more options for headphones, portable players, and cables to connect the two.
Most Coveted Product
Audeze The King headphone amplifier ($3999). This full-sized headphone amplifier, designed by Bascom King, sounded effortless driving Audeze’s superb new LDC-4 ($3999) flagship headphones.
Continue to part 2 of this report here.