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CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2017 – Part 1, Headphones

By tradition, CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is one of the largest and most vibrant CanJam events of the year and CanJam RMAF 2017, held on October 6 – 8, certainly did not disappoint. The show was held both in the Denver Marriott Tech Center hotel’s large Events Center space as well as in an adjoining Atrium-area space in the newly renovated hotel. Foot traffic seemed good for all three days of the show and, as we have come to expect, there was a very positive, upbeat vibe about the show throughout.

Indeed, one manufacturer exhibiting at CanJam for the first time candidly observed to Hi-Fi+, “What struck me about CanJam was both the enthusiasm and youthfulness of the attendees; they really listen to equipment very carefully and they take such obvious joy in hearing music reproduced well. It’s quite different to traditional audio shows—in a very good way.” We concur and couldn’t have said it any better than that.

What follows is Part 1 of a four-part series of snapshot-style reports on new (or at least new-ish) personal audio products seen at CanJam RMAF 2017.

For the sake of clarity, we have broken out coverage into four segments:

·      Part 1 – Full-size Headphones

·      Part 2 – Earphones & CIEMs

·      Part 3 – Personal Audio Electronics

·      Part 4 – Personal Audio Cables & Accessories, Best of Show

o   Best Cost-No-Object System

o   Best Value-Minded System

o   Coolest New Innovation

Full Size Headphones

Abyss Diana

Abyss’ long awaited Diana headphone, which is a much lighter-weight and more conventional planar magnetic headphone than the firm’s famous (and famously unorthodox) flagship AB-1266 model, is finally released and will be offered in three suave colours: charcoal grey, cream, and chocolate brown. On first listen, it appears there is a decent measure of sonic DNA carried forward from the AB-1266 into the Diana, but key differences involve the Diana’s markedly lower weight and far more conventional appearance. The Diana will sell for $3,000.

Abyss AB-1266 Phi Edition

Never content to let an already good product rest on its laurels, Abyss has significantly revised its original AB-1266 to create the updated AB-1266 Phi edition, which is sonically better than its predecessor in every way. Noteworthy changes include a general smoothing of the original model’s frequency response curve to yield more linear bass, slightly more forward and more neutrally balanced mids, upper mids, and highs; and a notable increase in resolution of low-level details. While the ergonomics of the AB-1266 Phi remain a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, the sound quality places the Phi edition at or near the pinnacle of modern planar magnetic design. Pricing ranges from $4,500 (for a basic version) to $7,495 for a version with an elaborate set of accessories plus upper tier JPS Labs signal cables.
 

Acoustic Research (AR) H1

The H1 is AR’s new entry into the hotly contested planar magnetic headphone market and it will sell for $599 – $699, depending on cabling options. One option will be a version that comes with a balanced cable featuring a Sony-developed Pentaconn connector. The H1 sport an 86mm planar magnetic driver with rated sensitivity of 100dB, meaning the H1 should be quite easy to drive. It’s a looker, too.

Audeze LCD-MX4

Top-tier Audeze headphones have been praised for many things, but light weight has not been one of them—until now. For CanJam RMAF Audeze rolled out a new top tier LCD-series model that is lighter (by far) than any of its predecessors and that represent a hybrid combination of design elements drawn from Audeze’s flagship LCD-4 headphone and from the popular LCD-X headphone. The new model is called the LCD-MX4 and will sell for $2995.

Basically, the LCD-MX4 combines the magnet array from the LCD-4 with diaphragm assembly of the LCD-X while positioning both elements within an all-new, open-back, lightweight Magnesium frame and yoke assembly. The design is sleek, light, and very comfortable while the sound—based on a too brief listen—shows not just a little but a lot of LCD-4 DNA shining through.

Audeze LCD-2 Classic

Many headphonistas consider Audeze’s original LCD-2 to be the headphone that put the company on the audiophile map. What makes the firm’s new LCD-2 Classic so special, then, is that it is an exact replica of that original model, yet one that will sell for less than the original did: namely, for a very reasonable $599. In the name of authenticity, the LCD-2 Classic deliberately foregoes more recent Audeze technical features such as the firm’s Fluxor magnetic system and Phazor waveguide system, so that the LCD-2 Classic stands as a pleasurable trip back in time to the moment when Audeze first burst upon the high-end headphone scene.

Audio-Technica ATH-ADX5000

The ATH-ADX5000 is arguably Audio-Technica’s most ambitious full-size headphone to date. The ADX5000 is an open-back design with dynamic drivers whose diaphragms are tungsten-coated. The frame of the earphone is made of very lightweight magnesium. The ATH-ADX5000 should launch in December of this year and will be priced at $1999.

Beyerdynamics Aventho

The Beyerdynamics Aventho is a self-powered, Apple and Android-compatible, Bluetooth on-ear headphone that effectively replaces the German firm’s well-respected T5Li headphone. The Aventho offers playing time of about 20 hours per charge and comes with an app that allows listeners to use the headphone to test their own hearing and then to create wearer-specific voicing profile curves. The price: $449.

Cleer Next headphone

Almost. The Cleer Next headphone is almost but not quite ready for release so that its launch date has now been pushed back to Q1, 2018. The Next prototypes we have seen and heard look and sound quite promising indeed, so that we eagerly await the launch of the finished product. Changes to be made prior to launch include some driver revisions and a few other configurations changes as well. Once it arrives, the Next will sell for $699.

 

Dekoni ‘Blue’ headphone

Dekoni is best known for it’s high quality aftermarket ear tips and ear pads, which are available for many popular earphones and headphones, but at CanJam RMAF 2017 the firm previewed a new headphone of its own. The headphone is called the Dekoni ‘Blue’ and is a hybrid Fostex/Dekoni design loosely based on the former’s popular T50P headphone, but with numerous Dekoni-developed modifications. The price will be $199 with availability projected for March 2018.

Echobox Audio Vanguard (prototype)

Echobox showed an early prototype of its upcoming Vanguard full size headphone that uses dynamic drivers featuring PEEK (Polyether Ether Ketone) diaphragms. PEEK is a light, strong material that is potentially ideal for use in driver diaphragms, although our practical experience has been that PEEK diaphragms tend to require a considerable amount of run-in time before their full performance potential can be realised. It is still early days, but the Vanguard prototype sounded promising to us. The project price: ~$349.

Final D8000

Final previewed it’s first-ever planar magnetic headphone, now called the D8000, at Munich 2017, but for CanJam RMAF 2017 the very good news is that the D9000 design has been finalised and put into full production. The D8000 will sell for $3000.

A big part of the excitement surrounding the release of the D8000 centre’s on the fact that the headphone’s distinctive planar magnetic driver uses an industry-first air film damping system whose technology owes much to Sony consulting technologists who assisted Final with the D2000 design and who had deep expertise in using air film damping systems for ultra-high-end microphones. As a result, the D8000 seems to strike a nearly ideal balance between a sound that is highly expressive, yet always beautifully controlled.

Expect a Hi-Fi+ review in the not too distant future.

Focal Clear

Focal added a new middle-model headphone called the Clear ($1,495) to round off its top-tier range, which now comprises the Elear, Clear, and Utopia headphones. The Clear’s design owes much to that of the Elear, but with several key changes including a switch in voice-coil material (from aluminium in the Elear to copper in the Clear), a shift in overall impedance from 80 ohms in the Elear to 55 ohms in the Clear, inclusion of both single-ended and balanced signal cables (where the Elear ships with single-ended cables only), and revised ear pads that—on a visual level—appear more similar to the pads used on the Utopia. The Clear’s dome-shaped driver diaphragm and suspension system are identical to those found in the Elear. Last but not least, the Clear gets a distinctive soft grey colour that helps differentiate it from the all-black Elear and Utopia models.

Most listeners who tried the Elear and Clear side by side noticed sonic differences, but the perceived magnitude of those differences varied quite a bit from listener to listeners. On the whole, our take was that the Clear sounded more like ‘an Elear on steroids’ than like a Utopia, meaning the Utopia’s status as the top performer in the Focal line-up remains unchallenged.

HiFiMAN Sundara

HiFiMAN has been focusing on launching a series of upper tier products of late so that it was refreshing to see the Chinese manufacturer launch a new value-minded model at CanJam RMAF: namely, the new Sundara planar magnetic headphone, whose price is yet to be determined but is projected to come in below $500.

Basic specifications for the Sundara include claimed frequency response of 6Hz – 75kHz, nominal impedance of 37 ohms, sensitivity of 94dB, and weight of 372g. The Sundara will replace HiFiMAN’s very well liked HE-400i and HE-400s models, meaning it will have some big shoes to fill. In a brief conversation with HiFiMAN founder Dr Fang Bian we learned that Bian regards the Sundara as a direct descendant of the his firm’s critically acclaimed HE-560 headphone, but one deliberately made easier to drive.

Klipsch Heritage HP-3

Klipsch showed its first-ever entry in the upper-tier headphone marketplace with its lovely new Heritage HP-3 headphone, priced at $1199. The relatively high-sensitivity features 52mm dynamic drivers with bio-cellulose drivers mounted in the triple-vented ear-cups. Other construction details include an aluminium frame, a cowhide headband pad, and sheepskin ear pads. Watch for the HP-3 to launch around the end of October.

 

LB Acoustics Mysphere 3.1

The Austrian firm LB Acoustics demonstrated one of the most fascinating headphones at the show in the form of its new Mysphere 3.1 ‘near ear’, dynamic driver-equipped headphone. Herr Ryner and Herr Renner, the same men that developed the legendary AKG K1000 headphone, also designed the Mysphere 3.1, which can be viewed as a radically updated re-think of the AKG classic. In practice this means the headphone uses an overarching frame from which swivelling left and right driver ‘pods’ are suspended. By design, the driver pads float free of the listener’s ears, just barely skimming the ears’ outer surfaces in most cases, although the driver pods can be adjusted upwards or downwards and swivelled outwards, if desired, to suit listener preferences. Tilting the pods outward gives a more spacious and three-dimensional sound with some reduction in bass output, while tilting the pods inward (so that they are nearly flat against the ears) yields a more intense and focussed presentation.

The Mysphere 3.1 uses a square-shaped dynamic driver with a hemispheric centre-section and a diaphragm featuring a ‘glass foam membrane and a cobweb structure’. The headphone presents a very low 15-ohm load with sensitivity of 95 dB, meaning the Mysphere 3.1 is fairly easy to drive for amps capable of handling the low impedance load. Based on a brief listen, we felt the Mysphere showed a lot of potential, with an uncommonly open and transparent sound. The price: $4,000 or €3,500.
 

MrSpeakers AEON Flow Open

Following hot on the heels of the closed-back AEON Flow headphone, which is a mid-priced favourite among Hi-Fi+ staff members, comes the identically priced open-back AEON Flow Open, selling for $799.  In a twist on the usual order of things it turns out that the closed back AEON Flow places a greater emphasis on perceived openness, definition, and neutral voicing, where the AEON Flow Open has a slightly warmer and more relaxed presentation with a greater emphasis on perceived tonal richness. Both versions have merit, so that it could be desirable—budget permitting—to own one of each.

MrSpeakers ETHER ES

MrSpeakers has shown various iteration of its upcoming ETHER ES open-back electrostatic headphone for over a year now, but CanJam RMAF 2017 marked the point where designer and company president Dan Clark declared development work on the headphone to be complete. The final ETHER ES version we heard at CanJam RMAF is by far the best-sounding of any of the variants we have heard to date, offering a beautiful blend of openness, transparency, transient speed, and an effortlessly natural presentation that avoids the sometime sterile, treble-enriched sound that some electrostats produce.

PSB M4U8/NAD HP70 Bluetooth/automatic noise cancelling headphones

One of our all-time favourite mid-priced headphones is the Paul Barton-designed PSB M4U2, but for CanJam RMAF 2107 the Canadian firm announced the release of something arguably better: namely, PSB’s new M4U8 priced at $399 (and a similarly-priced companion model from sister brand NAD called the HP70). Significantly, the M4U8 is offered at the same price as the original PSB M4U2, so that users will get more features at the same price.

The PSB M4U8 and NAD HP70 headphones both feature Barton’s signature ‘RoomFeel’ voicing and offer three operating modes: a passive mode, an active/BT mode, and an active/BT/noise cancellation mode.  Both the M4U8 and HP70 feature aptX HD Bluetooth 5.0 implementations and are configured with USB charging ports that can also accept digital audio data directly from computers at rates up to 24/48 (meaning that the M4U8 and HP70 appear as sound cards from the computers’ frame of reference).

Based on a very brief listen, I felt the M4U8 and HP70 sounded similar, but not identical—possibly owing to slightly different automatic noise cancelling profiles for the two models. Both headphones, however, offer extraordinary value for money, which has long been a hallmark of Barton designs. These new models will begin shipping in November 2018.

Ultrasone Edition 8 EX

The Edition 8 EX is Ultrasone’s reigning flagship, full-size, dynamic driver-equipped headphone, which sells for $2199. Internally, the Edition 8 EX features the most advanced form of Ultrasone’s proprietary S-LOGIC system, known as S-LOGIC EX, which is said to project “the sound produced bye the decentralised sound transducer by means of an elaborate funnel structure and targets this towards the unique structure of the ear muscle that is responsible for spatial sound”. The result, says Ultrasone, “is the perception of a perfect, three-dimensional sound…”

Ultrasone Pro 480i, 580i, and 780i

Ultrasone rolled out three new and affordably priced Pro-series models called the Pro 480i ($149 or €119), the Pro 580i (~$249 or €159), and the Pro 780i ($299 or €199). All three models can be used simply for personal music listening or as monitoring tools for working musicians. There is something of a ‘good/better/best’ relationship between the three models, all of which are closed back designs. The Pro 480i features a 40mm dynamic driver with a Mylar diaphragm and claims frequency response of 20Hz – 20kHz. The Pro 580i promises more bass and also the ability to play very loudly if desired: it features a 50mm Mylar diaphragm, claims frequency response of 10Hz – 22kHz, and specifies very high sensitivity rated at 101dB. At the top of the range, the Pro 780i returns to neutral voicing and to a 400m Mylar diaphragm described as having a ‘gold membrane’ coating. The 780i claims frequency response of 10Hz – 26kHz with rated sensitivity of 96dB.  All three models use Ultrasone’s proprietary S-Logic Plus system and ULE magnetic shielding.

ZMF Auteur headphone

The headphone maker ZMF is perhaps best known for its rear-vented closed-back headphones such as the Atticus and Eikon, but for CanJam RMAF the firm rolled out its new bio-cellulose driver-equipped open-back Auteur model, which can in a sense be regarded as an open-back version of the Eikon. During an initial pre-order period (which will continue until 30 November 2017) the Auteur can be had for $1399, though after the pre-order period the price will rise to its normal level of $1599.

ZMF says the Auteur “combines the signature ZMF musicality and combines it with the resolve and spaciousness that comes from an open design”. The Auteur can fit either the ear pads of the Atticus or of the Eikon, giving listeners some degree of control over the earphone’s voicing.

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