Headphones, etc. – A Baker’s Dozen from Munich High End 2016
At the Munich High End show one of my assignment(s) involved new headphones and headphone-related products. Compared to years past (and to some shows I have attended in the US and the UK), there were fewer new headphone products introduced at Munich High End than I expected. But, with this said, there were still enough new entries to more than fill this report. In fact, given that I visited over 110 vendors over the course of the show, I actually had to trim and winnow my list of new headphone products down to an essential ‘baker’s dozen’ of key components that particularly caught my eyes and/or ears.
What follows are descriptions of thirteen noteworthy headphones and headphone-related products seen in Munich. Please note that my selections in no way reflect any lack of merit in the many components I’ve been forced to leave off this list. Rather, the list is in a sense a concession to space and time constraints and gives some indication of the sheer richness and inventiveness of our industry.
Arcam rHead headphone amplifier
If Arcam’s rHead headphone amplifier were a WWII-era military vessel, it would no doubt be a so-called “Q-Ship”: that is, a vessel far more capable than its innocent looks would lead you to suspect. The modest-looking, ‘black box’ rHead is, in fact, a potent class A headphone amplifier with both single-ended and balanced inputs and that is fitted with an upscale analogue/resistor ladder-type volume control. Power output for the rHead is substantial: 2.0W @ 16 Ohms, 1.1W @ 32 Ohms, and 0.13W @ 300 Ohms. Despite these very impressive specifications, the price for the upcoming rHead will be about £400.
Cayin iHA-6 headphone amp and iDAC-6 high-res DAC
Cayin’s iHA-6 fully balanced headphone amplifier and balanced output-capable, high-res iDAC-6 are very much a matched set, offering an elegant, full featured desktop headphone system solution in a relatively compact form factor (the components measure roughly 10-inches per side and so do not take up much surface space). Both units are priced at €1,198/each.
The IDAC-6 is based on dual AK4490 DAC chipsets, sports a hybrid valve and transistor ‘timbre control’ (giving the use some measure of control over the DAC’s perceived ‘voicing’), provide USB, AES/EBU, coaxial S/PDIF, and Toslink inputs, plus balanced and single-ended outputs. The iDAC-6 can handle PCM files to 32/384 rates and both DSD64 and DSD128 files.
The versatile, companion iHA-6 is a solid-state, balanced output headphone amplifier that, distinctively, offers both high and low-current output modes for both its single-ended and balanced outputs. Single-ended output is quoted at 1,100mW per channel in high current mode, and 2,200mW per channel in low current mode. Balanced output, in turn, is specified at 5,000mW per channel in high current mode and a stonking 7,000mW per channel in low current mode.
Final F7200 universal-fit earphones and Lab II open-canal earphones
Final, the well regarded Japanese earphone/headphone specialists, introduced two very impressive, but also quite conceptually different, new earphone products at Munich.
First up was the new F7200, priced at USD$480, which is the top offering in Final’s new three-model F-series line up, which enjoys the distinction of being arguably the world’s smallest universal-fit earphone. The F7200 uses a single, full-range balanced armature-type driver fitted within a very compact, stainless steel earpiece enclosure that leverages the firm’s signature BAM (Balanced Air Movement) technology. Each of these tiny earpieces weighs in at a remarkably light 2g! The F7200 ships with five sizes of silicone ear tips (SS, S, M, L, and XL) and three sizes of foam ear tips (S, M, and L). Signal cables feature silver –coated OFC copper conductors. According to Final, the F7200 ear tip collection allows users to experiment with two significantly different wearing positions: with small tips installed, the F7200 supports a deep-within-the-ear-canal wearing position, while when larger tips are fitted the F7200 can be placed much further out in the user’s ear canals. The F7200 will sell for ~USD$480/pair.
At the other end of the pricing continuum we find Final’s striking beautiful Lab II open-canal earphones, priced at USD$4,000. What’s an “open-canal earphone?” It’s an earphone that is worn relatively loosely in the outer ear and whose sound outlet tube deliberately does not seal tightly against the ear canal (for this reason, some consider open-canal earphones to be ‘ear-buds’, though I personally feel that term does not really do them justice). The Lab II features an extremely intricate and labyrinthine mesh-like enclosure that has been fashioned from titanium power via a laser-fused 3D printing process. The enclosure deliberately is not sealed on either its front or rear side and at the centre of the enclosure is suspended a purpose-built 15mm dynamic driver fitted with a 6μ thick diaphragm. By design, both the front and rear sections of the Lab II’s titanium mesh earpiece enclosures serve as a ‘mechanical equalizer’ that, says Final, applies, “optimal damping to the driver.” During an all too brief listen, the Lab II’s almost shocking levels of transparency, transient speed, and dynamics made a strong, favourable impression on me.
Kennerton Odin planar magnetic earphones
There’s a new planar magnetic headphone kid on the block and its name is Kennerton Audio, hailing from St. Petersburg, Russia. Kennerton has been following planar magnetic driver technology closely for some time, but claims that, “after checking most of the recent and vintage planar magnetic headphones existing,” the firm found, “there is basically no core difference between them.”
Seeking a newer and better path, Kennerton claims to have made, “several core patent-pending innovations” designed to “eliminate unwanted resonances, and (to provide) uniform magnetic field distribution over the main working area (of the driver diaphragm).”
These innovations are brought to full fruition in the firm’s flagship Odin headphone, priced at €2,450, which in Munich was sounding very clear but also was imbued with notable qualities of smooth, natural, and organic warmth. Watch for an upcoming review in Hi-Fi+.
Master & Dynamic MH40 dynamic-type headphones
At first glance, the Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones seem like any number of models that have appeared on the market in recent years: they are stylish, made of high-quality materials with good fit and finish, feature 45mm dynamic drivers whose motors use neodymium magnets, and are at least semi-reasonably priced at €399. Honestly, though, that same basic description could fit any number of arguably decent but not terribly distinctive headphones on the market, so that I did not initially anticipate that the MH40’s would be able to differentiate themselves from run-of-the-mill headphones by the one thing that matters most of all: namely, their sound.
I heard the MH40’s on demonstration as fed by FiiO’s excellent X7 Android-powered portable digital audio player (€749) as supplemented by the firm’s excellent K5 supplementary headphone amp/docking station (€149). Immediately I was treated to a big, rich, full-bodied, and pleasingly articulate sound that would have many a higher-priced full-size headphone proud. Then and there, I decided to include that Master & Dynamic in this show report for the simple reason that it sounds so very engaging on a musical level—something that can’t always be said of roughly €400 headphones, or even of ones priced much higher than that. One impression I did have is that the MH40 seemed comparatively easy to drive, notionally meaning that it seems to work with your chosen amplifier—not against it.
MSB Technology SELECT electrostatic headphone amplifier
Most audiophiles, this author included, associate the name MSB with very, very high-grade, reference-quality (and often correspondingly costly) DACs and disc players, so that when I poked my head in the door of the MSB room to ask what was new for Munich, I anticipated that MSB would surely show me their latest and great digital audio source component(s). But I was wrong and in for a big, but pleasant, surprise.
In response to my, “What’s new from MSB?” question, a company spokesman simply said, “Well, we’d like to show you our new ultra-high-end SELECT electrostatic headphone amplifier as fed by our SELECT II DAC, since we’ve concluded top-class electrostatic headphone are one of the best ways to hear and appreciate what our best DAC is capable of doing.” I broke out in a smile that probably stretched from ear to ear, and asked if I could give the SELECT amp a listen through the Stax SR-009 headphones MSB had on hand for the demonstration.
The SELECT amp (priced at USD$37,950) features balanced analogue input and output, provides two Stax-style five-pin output jacks, and is designed specifically for use with MSB’s flagship SELECT II DAC. To this end, the amp’s volume and balance controls are integrated with the SELECT II DAC, and MSB boldly states, “for the very first time in history, the output of a discrete ladder DAC drives the headphones directly, with nothing in the way to color or degrade the highest resolution (173dB dynamic range) DAC in the world, clocked by the lowest jitter (33 femtoseconds) clock in the world.”
So how did it sound? Well, on first listen my impression was of hearing a beautifully balanced and controlled presentation that offered almost blinding levels of timbral purity and clarity. Further listening is most definitely indicated.
oBravo eamt-1W hybrid dynamic/AMT-type universal-fit earphone
Up to this point oBravo has been best known for its superb HAMT-1 hybrid dynamic/AMT-type full-size headphone, but over the past two years the firm has been pursuing the same general concept, but within the much tighter dimensional constraints of a universal-fit earphone.
About now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute: are you saying someone has figured out a way to build a Heil-type Air Motion Transformer-type driver small enough to fit inside an in-ear device?” The answer, in a word, is, “Yes!”
In fact, oBravo has worked up three in-ear models that all feature hybrid combinations of dynamic mid-bass drivers and miniaturised AMT-type drivers. These are the:
· eamt-3W (10mm dynamic driver + AMT tweeter), priced at £2,200,
· eamt-2W (12mm dynamic driver + AMT tweeter), priced at £3,200, and
· eamt-1W (13mm dynamic driver + AMT tweeter), priced at £4,200.
Apart from differences between dynamic drivers, the models also feature different combinations of earpiece housing materials, with the most exotic (and best sounding) combination reserved for the eamt-1W model shown here.
The sound is unlike anything I’ve heard from a universal-fit earphone before, with a big, expansive, and sumptuously detailed presentation reminiscent to that of an accomplished top-tier headphone (but one shrunk down to pocket size). Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review.
Prism Sound Callia headphone amp/DAC
One of my most pleasing discoveries from the Munich show was the new Callia headphone amplifier/preamp/DAC from the well-regarded British pro audio company Prism Sound. The Callia is priced at £1,495, €1,995, or USD$1,995.
What is refreshing is that Callia is built from the no-nonsense, no-hype, neutrality-centric mindset of a world-class pro audio manufacturer, where product performance, build-quality, flexibility, and longevity are everything and where marketing ballyhoo means next to nothing.
In the Callia, we have a straightforward, high-quality, studio-grade DAC that can decode PCM files at sample rates form 44.1 kHz to 384 kHz and that can play DSD64 and DSD128 files via DoP. Class compliant (UAC2) USB inputs are provided, as are coaxial and optical S/PDIF inputs. In turn, the Callia offers both single-ended and balanced (XLR-type) analogue outputs. One very interesting (and welcome) detail is that the Callia incorporates separate preamp and headphone level controls, meaning you can adjust either or both functions independently.
Sennheiser HE 1 electrostatic headphone/amp/DAC system
Last August, Sennheiser announced that it was in the final stages of developing an ultra-high-end, cost no object electrostatic headphone system intended as the logical successor to the firm’s legendary—and long since discontinued—Orpheus electrostatic headphone system.
That system, called the Sennheiser HE 1, includes an exotic valve-powered electrostatic headphone preamp/DAC housed in a Carrara marble chassis atop which is affixed a proverbial ‘black box’ with a motorised lid in which is housed the HE 1 headset and signal/bias cable. Interestingly, the HE 1 electrostatic amplifier is a hybrid valve/solid-state design where the solid-state section of the amplifier—a class A MOSFET design—is actually fitted within the ear cups of the HE 1 electrostatic headset.
The headset features 2.4μ-thick platinum-vaporized diaphragms with equally distinctive and highly non-resonant gold-vaporised ceramic stators. Completing the picture are “99.5% silver plated OFC signal cables.”
The HE 1 system claims ultra-wideband frequency response of 8Hz to 100kHz, with what Sennheiser says is, “the lowest distortion ever measured in a sound reproduction system: 0.01% at 1 kHz, 100 DB SPL.” The price of the system has been quoted at a number of different figures, but a fairly safe estimate would be about €50,000, give or take a bit. HE 1 systems will be in continuous production from mid-2016 onward, but with quantities limited to about 250 systems worldwide per year.
Apart from price, the only other drawback to the HE 1 system is that it is very difficult to get an audition time slot. I tried at this years CES show and was finally able to get a 15-minute appointment at Munich (which I needed to share with another listener). Does the HE 1 system live up to all the advance hype? Some of my more jaded colleagues think it does not, but candidly I think they’re wrong. In my much too brief initial listening session, my initial impression was that the HE 1 was one of the most accomplished, refined, and beautifully well-rounded headphone systems I’ve ever heard at any price. Even if you don’t have—and perhaps never will have—the HE 1 system’s asking price, I encourage you to go hear it, just to experience what Sennheiser can do when it pulls out all the stops.
Shure KSE1500 electrostatic universal-fit earphone & KSA1500 portable electrostatic headphone amplifier
Shure claims its spectacular KSE1500 is the “world’s first electrostatic sound isolating earphone system” and it’s true. Shure has managed to fit a very tiny, miniaturized, full-range electrostatic driver within the confines of the earpiece of a traditional universal-fit earphone. In fact, so compact is this new ‘baby electrostat’ that at first glance you might mistake it for one of Shure’s more traditional high-end earphones such as the SE846 or SE535—until you note that, as a matter of necessity, it comes with its own compact electrostatic headphone amp/DAC called the KSA1500.
I gave the KSE1500 a brief listen, but was not able to find a set of ear tips that were a good fit for me, so that I was unable to reach any solid conclusions about the KSE1500’s sound, other than to note its richness of detail and superb transient speed. For obvious reasons, a proper follow-up listen is high on my list of priorities. The complete KSE1500/KSA1500 system sells for €3,000 (or, depending on who offers the quotation, €2,999).
Smyth Research Realiser A16 headphone surround-sound system
Smyth Research is a firm working actively to create a very high-quality, DSP-driven, surround sound system for headphones, where the firm’s Realiser A16 processor seeks to do four things:
- Measure: The system measures the in-room performance characteristics of known-to-be-good loudspeaker-based surround sound systems as perceived by a seated listener.
- Model: The system models the speaker-based system’s performance characteristics as rendered by a specific headphone (or pair of headphones, as the A16 system can accommodate two headphones at once).
- Process: The system processes incoming audio streams for surround sound playback via headphones, enabling users to…
- Listen: Smyth recognizes that the proof always comes in the listening, so the final performance verification step for the A16 system involves doing direct, A/B comparisons between the speaker-based system and the headphone system.
And the results are most impressive. In a Munich demo, I found the Smyth system was able to re-create—with headphones—a remarkably close facsimile of a high-quality speaker-based surround system. To preserve realism, the Smyth system even provides a small head position/orientation sensor that can be attached to the headphone’s headband strap. In this way, if you should, say, swivel your head to the left, you hear exactly what you would hear if turning your head to the left whilst listening to a speaker based system. Interesting, don’t you think?
You might think all this would be merely a home theatre-related gimmick, but it’s not. In a brief demonstration, the Smyth system proved adept at handling multichannel music records (arguably as well if not better than the speaker-based system, because—let’s face it—headphones are not subject to room anomalies in the way that loudspeaker-based systems inevitably are). In fact, on music the Smyth system created the sort of seamless, enveloping, and three-dimensional listening experience that many audiophiles crave. Naturally, the system also has terrific promise for high-end gamers looking for the ultimate 3D sonic experience.
The Realiser A16 can model up to 16-channel surround systems, so it is compatible, says Smyth, with Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D, DTS:X, and all legacy Dolby and DTS formats (or, it can be run directly from 116-channel line level inputs, if desired). The Realiser A16 will launch soon on Kickstarter at a projected price of USD$1,500.
Stax SR-L700 Lambda-series electrostatic ‘earspeakers’
Stax is rightly regarded as a legendary manufacturer of electrostatic headphones, with many decades of experience in the product category, and at this point the most legendary Stax model of them all is the flagship SR-009 model, which in my home country (the USA) initially sold for about USD$5,250. The performance of the SR-009 is exquisite, so that its lone drawback would be that potential daunting price (USD$5,250 is more than many are willing or able to spend on headphones).
But this precise why it was so exciting to see Stax launch its new SR-L700 Lambda-series electrostatic headphone, since the L700 uses driver technology directly influenced by the design of the might SR-009, yet sells for a much more manageable €1,700. In a series of brief listening sessions, I found the sound of the new SR-L700 closely paralleled that of the top-of-the-range SR-009, which suggests the SR-L700’ should be very well received in the marketplace. The SR-L700, like all Lambda-series models, features comfortable, rectangular ear cups fitted with leather-clad ear pads. Depending on one’s tastes, it’s conceivable that some wearers might even find the SR-L700 even more comfortable to wear than the SR-009, which is saying a lot. Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review.
Ultrasone Tribute 7 limited edition dynamic-type headphone
The German firm Ultrasone was one of the first to offer ultra-premium, luxury, and high performance, dynamic driver-equipped headphones, which in Ultrasone’s case are also typically limited edition model. The first such offering from Ultrasone was the Edition 7, released in 2004, which was regarded by some as an instant high-performance classic.
The original Edition 7s are by now, of course, long gone, but if you missed your chance to own a set the first time around the very good news is that at Munich Ultrasone announced a new limited edition headphone called the Tribute 7, where Ultrasone promises that, “the sound reproduction of the Tribute 7 is identical to that of the earlier Edition 7. Just 777 of the new Tribute 7s will be produced and it is a fairly safe be that more than half of those will be snapped up by the vibrant high-end headphone market in Asia, so if you think you might want a pair you would do well to talk with your local Ultrasone dealer right away.
How do the Tribute 7’s sound? I felt they were one of the three best new headphones I heard at Munich, with a sound that is at once Germanically crisp, articulate, and precise, yet also possessed of vibrant natural warmth and a certain accessible quality that leads me to think the Tribute 7’s might be terrific for long-term listening sessions.
The Tribute 7 feature carved-from-billet aluminium ear cups, 40mm titanium-coated Mylar drivers with motors featuring Neodymium magnets, an Alcantra-covered headband pad, Ethiopian sheep leather-covered ear pads, and—importantly—the headphones use Ultrasone’s proprietary S-Logic Plus technology and MU-metal shielding to ULE standards (to prevent potential problems with long-term exposure to electromagnetic radiation). The Tribute 7 is priced at €2,499.
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