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

This year at CES Hi-Fi+ decided to try a new approach, assigning representatives to cover specific geographic areas of the show for reporting purposes. Happily, most CES high-end audio exhibits are clustered in the upper floors of the Venetian Hotel, although by tradition some high-end headphone manufacturers continue to exhibit in the LVCC’s South Hall. Added to this, there are also unofficial off piste high-end demonstration areas at the Mirage Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, and elsewhere.

Editor Alan Sircom took the Venetian Expo Hall and floors 31, 34, 35 (where the upper floors have fewer but larger exhibit suites); yours truly (Publisher Chris Martens) took the more densely populated Venetian floor 30 plus key LVCC South Hall headphone exhibits; and new Hi-Fi+ contributor Sydney Schips handled the also very densely populated Venetian floor 29. Each of us will be preparing show reports.

In any report like this one, despite our best efforts, it is inevitable that some worthy manufacturers will go unmentioned. Please know that this is not by intent and no slights are intended; more often than not, it’s simply a matter of too much show to see and hear, coupled with not enough time in the day. Still, we try our best…

For the sake of clarity, I have broken my report down by product categories, starting with this segment, which focuses on headphones and related electronics.

Please note: Although this report focuses primarily on Venetian Floor 30 and the LVCC South Hall, there are a handful of entries that mention headphones and headphone electronics seen and heard in other areas at CES.


Headphones and Headphone Electronics

Aedle
Hi-Fi+ from the UK and Europe may already be familiar with the lovely VK-1 series of on-ear headphones ($499) from the French firm Aedle, but they are still relatively new to the US. Apart from their natural and engaging sound quality, a big part of the draw of the Aedle headphones involves their exquisite build quality, which centres upon use of very high quality materials such as milled aluminium for ear cup housings, titanium 40mm driver diaphragms, and padded headbands and ear pads covered in lambskin.

Three versions are offered: the Legacy model (silver and black), the Classic model (silver and brown), and the Carbon model (all black).


Alpha Design Labs (ADL) by Furutech
Many Hi-Fi+ readers will be familiar with the Apple iOS-compatible Furutech X1 portable headphone amp/DAC that supports PCM files at up to 24-bit/192kHz resolutions, but for CES ADL was showing its new Android-compatible A1 portable amp/DAC ($569), which is plainly infused with X1 DNA, but that adds an important new wrinkle; namely, the ability to decode and play DSD 64 and DSD 128 files.

Atoll Electroacoustique
The French firm Atoll Electroacoustique debuted its powerful and full-featured HD 120 headphone amp/DAC/preamp at CES. As our accompanying photo shows, the HD 120 can be paired with a companion MA 100 stereo power amplifier ($800) that puts out 80 Wpc @ 4 Ohms and features discrete class A/B circuitry. 

The HD120 offers two analogue inputs, a coaxial S/PDIF input (32/384), an optical input (24/192), a USB-B asynchronous input (24/192), a Bluetooth input, two 6.35mm headphone outputs, and a set of analogue preamp outputs. High-quality parts abound, with the unit including an ALPS volume control, Burr-Brown PCM 5102 DAC, and premium quality resistors and capacitors. A volume control is optional. Best of all, the unit offers generous continuous headphone power output of 1.4 watts @ 32 Ohms and peak power of 6.8 watts into that same load.

 


 

Audeze
The US-based planar magnetic headphone maker Audeze had a very good year in 2014, with both the firm’s LCD-X and LCD-XC headphones ($1,699 and $1,799, respectively) garnering considerable acclaim from the high-end audio press. But for 2015 Audeze has moved in a new and unexpected direction to create two new, very high-performance, yet easy-to-drive and decidedly cost-reduced new planar magnetic headphones: namely, the open-back EL-8 and the EL-8 closed back models, both selling for $699 each. But do not be deceived by the accessible prices. Judged purely on the basis of sound quality, either of the EL-8 models could easily pass for mid-$1000 range units. They’re that good.

How did Audeze achieve this result? Well for industrial design assistance, Audeze turned to none other than the BMW Design Group, which helped create a fresh, distinctive, upscale, and up-to-the-minute look and feel for the new ‘phones. On the inside however, Audeze pulled out even more stops, leveraging three distinctive patent-pending technologies known as Fazor, Fluxor, and Uniforce technologies.

In simple terms, Fazor technologies offer a waveguide that helps smooth wave launches from the ear side of the headphone’s driver. Fluxor technology, in turn, is a proprietary magnet configuration system that focuses the lion’s share of the magnet array’s flux field toward the diaphragm side of the magnet array—thus dramatically increasing the headphone’s efficiency. The only minor catch is that Fluxor technology does tend to introduce flux field ‘hot spots’ in certain localised areas across the driver diaphragm. To address this issue, Uniforce technology is a proprietary method of widening or narrowing conductor traces on the driver diaphragm to compensate for the aforementioned flux field hot spots. As a result, the driver diaphragm experiences uniform driving for across its entire surface area. A clever solution, no? I heard both EL-8 (pronounced ‘elate’) models driven from the new Pono player, whose electronics were developed by none other than Ayre. The results were very impressive indeed.

Finally, Audeze also announced its first ever headphone amplifier/DAC, called the Deckard ($699). The Deckard uses a Texas Instruments TI 51028 DAC and can support 32/384 DXD files and 24/192 PCM files, but does not support DSD. The class A amp section of the Deckard is quite powerful, putting out 3.2 watts at 20 Ohms (for purposes of driving Audeze’s LCD-X headphone), 2.1 watts at 30 Ohms (for the Audeze EL-8), 900mW at 70 Ohms (for the LCD-2), and 581mW (for the LCD-3).

AudioQuest
AudioQuest, heretofore known best for its high-end audio cables and Dragonfly-series USB dongle-type DAC/headphone amps, entered a new product category in a powerful way with its impressive new full-size, semi-open-back, Nighthawk headphone ($599). The Nighthawk is the brainchild of designer Skylar Gray. Innovation is everywhere in this subtle design starting with the ear cup housings, which are made of injection moulded ‘liquid wood’, on through to the elastic ear cup mounting system, which is patterned to a degree after the elastic mounting systems sometimes used for ultra-high-quality studio microphone mounts.

Then, the rear vents of the ear cups feature an elaborately textured venting system so complicated that it can only be produced via a 3d printing process. The headphone uses a 50mm dynamic-type driver that uses a bio-cellulose diaphragm said to offer the stiffness of titanium with the damping of paper cones.

Based on a brief listen, we think AudioQuest has created an attractive and comfortable headphone whose sound would not seem out of place in a model selling in the $1,000 –  $1,200 range, but whose actual price is half that sum.

Aurender
Up to this point Aurender has been best known for its exotic, very high-quality music servers and streamers and it continues its strengths in those areas but has now expanded into a new category with its absolutely gorgeous Aurender Flow portable headphone amplifier/DAC/player ($1,300).  

The Flow, which honestly looks like something Constellation might have built, can support DSD128, DXD, and of course high-res PCM digital audio files, while making provisions for up to 1TB of MSATA storage for music files.

 


 

Ayre Acoustics
During discussions with the Ayre team I was reminded that none other than Neil Young had tapped Ayre to create the digital and analogue electronics for the new Pono high-resolution digital music player. Leveraging expertise cultivated through the course of the Pono development project, Ayre decided to build a new and even more powerful headphone amp/DAC to be called the Codex, which was shown in near-production form at CES. The Codex DAC section uses an ESS 9018 DAC chip and supports DSD64 and DSD 128 as well as most if not all high-resolution PCM format.  

The amplifier circuit of the Codex is fully balanced from end to end and is configured so that the amp can drive two front-panel-mounted 3.5mm headphone jacks so that the two jacks together constitute one balanced output (with each headphone jack carrying balanced signals for either the left or right channel), or with the two jacks each providing a single-ended stereo output. Pricing has not yet been finalised, but expect the Codex to sell for around $1,500.

Beyerdynamic
Beyerdynamic’s high-end headphone lineup remained unchanged as of CES, but the firm did introduce two new affordable, near entry-level headphones: the collapsible, on-ear Custom Street model ($149), which incorporates the firm’s signature ‘Sound Slider’ 3-postion voicing controls, a detachable cable fitted with a mic/remote module. Expect to see the Custom Street in stores around March of this year.

Then, the firm rolled out the DJ-orientated, closed-back, 16 Ohm Custom One Pro Plus model ($229), which also incorporates ‘Sound Slider’ voicing controls and allows for a high degree of visual customization. 

Calyx
At CES 2014, Calyx had shown its then under development Calyx M high-resolution portable digital music player; now, the Calyx M ($1,099) is finished and full released. The Calyx M is controlled by a Cortex A5 onboard processor with a proprietary Calyx user interface, features a USB DAC capable of handling DSD 64 and DSD128 files, DXD files, and PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz resolutions.

The player provides 64GB of onboard flash memory, plus two memory card slots (one SD and one Micro SD allow theoretical capacity of up to 2 TB – once large enough SD and/or Micro SD cards become available).

 

Celsus
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
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.

 

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?

 

NAD
Not to be outdone by its sibling brand PSB, NAD announced a cost-effective new on-ear headphone called the Viso HP30 ($229). In keeping with shared PSB and NAD headphone design practice, the Viso HP30 features the firm’s signature ‘Room Feel’ voicing curve, which gives the headphone’s the bass response characteristics typically associated with a high quality loudspeaker as influenced by normal room gain (gain that gives a moderate lift to bass frequency response).

Peachtree Audio
Peachtree will soon be taking the plunge into the portable/personal audio marketplace with its upcoming Peachtree Shift portable headphone amp/DAC ($399), whose DAC section will support DSD 64 and DSD 128 files, plus PCM files with resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz. The compact unit uses a 5V power supply fueled by a 4,100 mAH battery and can swing output voltages of up to 1.8V when configured for variable output levels or 1.9V when set for fixed-level outputs.

Via USB, the Shift will be Windows and Mac-compatible and also iOS and Android compatible. Expect the shift to arrive on the market at some point between late Q1 and mid-Q2, 2015.

Phiaton
Phiaton rolled four new models for CES: the B110 earphone ($129) whose special retention clip makes it suitable for athletically active listeners, two new noise-cancellers called the PS202 NC ($119) and the Bluetooth 4.0-compatible BT 330 NC ($229), and—last but not least—the music-centred MS 100 NC ($99), which is based on a single balanced armature-type driver.

 

PSB
The Canadian loudspeaker/headphone maker PSB added to its successful range of M4U-series full-size headphones by introducing its first-ever in-ear model—the noise-cancelling, in-ear M4U 4 earphone, priced at $299. The M4U 4 is a two-way earphone whose earpieces are each fitted with the hybrid combination of a dynamic-type mid/bass driver and a balanced armature-type tweeter.

The M4U 4 features detachable and thus user-replaceable signal cables and ships with both conventional and Comply-type ear tips. Expect the M4U 4 to arrive in February 2015.

RHA Audio
It was very good to see the UK-based firm RHA Audio (from Glasgow, Scotland) exhibiting in the high-end area in the Venetian Hotel, because we are firm believers that the firm’s value priced but very high performance earphones deserve much wider recognition. Long term Hi-Fi+ readers will know that we have favourably reviewed RHA’s MA750i earphone ($129.95) and the firm’s present flagship, the T10i ($199.95).

The former offers wonderfully neutral voicing and fine build quality that surpasses expectations for the price, while the T10i offers three user-selectable voicing curves and distinctive injection moulded stainless steel earpiece housings. Best of all, at CES show-goers had the opportunity to see the entire RHA range, which comprises five core models, with prices starting at just $39.95 for the MA350

​Sennheiser
Leveraging the success of its popular and well-regard Momentum-series over-the-ear and on-ear headphones, the German firm Sennheiser took a giant leap forward by introducing a wireless, active noise cancelling version of the Momentum, called the Momentum M2 AEBT ($499.95). The Momentum M2 AEBT should arrive in the marketplace within the next 30 days and we look forward to its arrival.

Though I had only a brief opportunity to listen M2 AEBT, that brief bit of exposure left a lasting impression on me. Specifically, I think the new wireless/noise-cancelling Momentum may prove to offer the best all around combination of very serious music reproduction capabilities and equally serious (and very effective) noise-cancellation capabilities of any headphone presently being produced. In my experience, most noise cancellers turn out to be weighted either toward music reproduction or noise reduction—but not both; the Sennheisers, I suspect, may prove to be the happy exception to this rule.

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