This past weekend I had the privilege of attending one of the headphone world’s most important events: CanJam SoCal 2016, for which Hi-Fi+ proudly served as a media sponsor.
CanJam SoCal was held on March 19-20, 2016 at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa, CA., and I’m pleased to tell you that this year’s even was even bigger and better than last year’s (which is really saying something). There were more vendors on hand, more elaborate demonstrations and displays, and daily ‘Meet the Designers’ and ‘Meet the Editors’ sessions for the many enthusiasts in attendance. (Although I’m the Publisher of Hi-Fi+, I do make frequent contributions to the magazine—especially as pertains to headphones, earphones, and personal audio—so that I was invited to represent our magazine on the ‘Meet the Editors’ panel.)
As always, CanJam SoCal constituted a celebration of all things headphonic, with surprising new product launches as the order of the day. If there was any problem with the even, it might be that there was too much great equipment to see and hear (and too many great companies to meet and greet) than could fit into a single, two-day event. Therefor, let me acknowledge that will I think I met with most exhibitors, I know there are a few that I missed—and for this I apologise in advance. No slights were intended; I simply ran out of hours in the day.
Below, please find Part 1 of our four-part SoCal CanJam 2016 report highlighting—in alphabetical order—a set of exhibitors ranging from Airist Audio to Cardas Audio.
Airist was showing its new Heron 5 headphone amplifier ($999), which represents an effort to deliver top-tier (or certainly very nearly top-tier) performance at a modest price. The single-ended amplifier is said to provide “Class A performance” but without ever becoming “hot to the touch” and it offers extremely wide bandwidth (1Hz – 101kHz, ± 0.2db), high power (5Wpc @ 32 Ohms), phase linear performance (<2 degrees phase shift across the audio band), and exceptionally low noise (S/N ratio 132dB A-weighted). A brief listen led me to think the Heron 5 may well redefine value for money in its class.
Airist also showed a prototype of its upcoming Sandpiper, 24/192-capable ladder DAC, whose bandwidth and phase linearity deliberately complement those parameters of the Heron 5 amp. Pricing and final specifications for the Sandpiper are yet to be finalised. Judging by the sounds we heard at the Airist table, however, the Hereon 5/Sandpiper pair is definitely one to watch.
At headphone shows in the recent past, ALO Audio has often highlighted its brilliant, Vinnie Rossi-designed Continental Dual Mono hybrid valve/solid-state portable headphone amp/DAC ($1,495). However, for SoCal CanJam 2016 ALO was previewing it new, also Vinnie Rossi-designed Continental V5 portable single-valve amplifier ($699), which of course places the acclaimed Vinnie Rossi sound within reach for a broader range of enthusiasts (and within an admirably compact form factor, too). Knowledgeable enthusiasts I spoke with at the show were quite favourably impressed with ALO’s ‘baby’ Continental.
The California-based firm AmpsandSound specialises in building what could be considered new old school, high performance valve-type headphone and integrated amplifiers, as well as high-sensitivity horn-type loudspeakers, and custom cable solutions. But for CanJam SoCal the stars of the show were the AmpandSound Kenzie headphone amplifier ($1,500) and the Mogwai combination headphone/integrated amplifier ($1,700).
The Kenzie and Mogwai could be seen as two variations on a common theme with the former model optimised for maximum headphone versatility and thus providing separate, dedicated 32 and 600-Ohm headphone jacks. The latter model, in turn, is a comparatively powerful 3Wpc integrated amplifier that provides both 8-Ohm speaker taps plus a 32-Ohm headphone jack. Both units feature extremely high quality, custom-wound, US-sourced transformers, ALPS volume potentiometers, choke-filtered power supplies, triode strapped outputs, and lovely hand-rubbed walnut casework. The Kenzie, specifically, uses NOS WWII-era 1626 triode valves.
What about the sound? Well, in a too-brief demonstration session, I listened to the Kenzie in conjunction with a pair of MrSpeakers Ether C headphones and found the combination effortlessly revealed extra layers of evocative, emotional content in familiar recordings. What can I say? Sometimes fine sound and terrific music just get a grip on you and won’t let go.
Aqua Acoustic Quality (AQ Technologies S.r.l.)
The Italian firm Aqua Acoustic Quality (not to be confused with a custom installer of marine sound systems of a similar name) was showing both its La Voce S2 DAC ($2,700) and its more elaborate La Scala MkII DAC ($5,600).
The La Voce S2 uses dual mono Burr-Brown PCM1704-K DAC devices in an R2R (ladder DAC) and so-called DFD (direct from decoder) configuration, meaning the DAC does not require or use digital filters. A discrete (that is, non-op-amp) solid-state analogue output stage is provided.
The La Scala MkII DAC could, in a sense, be thought of as a La Voce S2 on serious sonic steroids. Differences include use of a quartet of Burr-Brown PCM1704-K DAC devices, this time “arrayed in a true differential dual mono configuration.” Once again, the architecture of the DAC provides an R2R (ladder DAC) system with a DFD (direct from decoder) system that uses no digital filtering. The analogue section of the La Scala MkII steps up its game, too, with a hybrid valve/MOSFET circuit featuring EC81 high-frequency/low-noise triodes.
Both DACs use high quality parts and appear to offer very high build quality.
Astell & Kern
As an established powerhouse in the world of personal audio electronics, Astell & Kern has been preview and/or launching a spate of new models of late. For CanJam SoCal, the firm highlighted the new Copper Edition version of it flagship AK380 DAP (digital audio player), which has found favour among many style conscious audiophiles. It’s easy to see why, because the copper-finished AK380 is a real looker!
Also on display were Astell & Kern’s new add-on AMP modules for the AK380, which give the AK380-series DAPS considerably higher output for purposes of driving power hungry headphones (e.g., certain planar magnetic models, Sennheiser HD800s, and the like) with real authority. By design, the AMP module features styling that complements the distinctive AK380 design and that literally bolts on to the parent player via a clever (and quite beefy) recessed thumbscrew.
The British firm Atomic Floyd, whose company name is in part an homage to the well-loved band Pink Floyd, offers and extensive range of very well-made yet highly affordable earphones, most of which feature metal earpiece housings. At this stage in its evolution, Atomic Floyd is updating and refreshing the designs of some of earliest and best loved models—the very models that helped put the company’s name on the audio map.
A perfect case in point would be the new Hi Def Drum (or Hi Def Drum gen II, if you will), will sell for $199 or £149 and which sounds markedly more articulate and transparent than the first-generation Hi Def Drum, while retaining the original model’s vibrant tonal colours and appealing, natural warmth and bass punch. After hearing the new-generation version, I jotted in my notebook, “…offers ridiculous value for money.”
Audeze has released a spate of new models of late, including the new flagship LCD-4 headphone ($3,995) and the Bascom H. King-designed The King headphone amplifier ($3,995), but to my way of thinking two of the firm’s most significant new offerings include the Sine planar magnetic on-ear headphones ($499) and the highly innovative Cipher/Apple Lightning headphone signal cable with—get this—a miniature, inline headphone amp/DAC complete with available iDevice EQ apps.
Not only is the Sine the least expensive Audeze planar magnetic headphone to date, but it is also one whose just-right voicing manages to be highly appealing for veteran listeners and audio newcomers alike. So engaging and accessible is the sound of the Sine that I heard a number of showgoers commenting that they preferred the sound of the Sine to its more expensive sibling—Audeze’s EL8 headphones. The Cipher cable/amp/DAC is, in truth, the icing on the cake in that it (in conjunction with the Sine) allows iDevice users to assemble highly competent and wonderfully portable headphone systems for a tick under $600.
Back in January, AudioQuest previewed two new dongle-type USB headphone amp/DACs from its DragonFly series: the entry level DragonFly Black ($99) and the upscale DragonFly Red ($199), both of which will begin shipping in April of this year. Watch for them to appear within the next few weeks.
I spent a bit of time listening to the DragonFly Red as it powered a thoroughly run-in pair of the firm’s signature NightHawk headphones and frankly I have rarely if every heard the NightHawks sound so good. (In fact, the performance of the Nighthawk headphones as heard at the AudioQuest CanJam table led me to think it might be appropriate to do a follow-up on my original Hi-Fi+ review of the headphone in the not too distant future.)
Product line changes come relatively slowly for the German firm Beyerdynamic, but when they do they are decidedly worthwhile. So it is that the Gen 2 versions of the firm’s two top headphones—the T5p Tesla and the T1 Tesla—sound noticeably better than their predecessors did, while adding the enhancement of detachable and thus user replaceable (or potentially upgradeable) signal cables. Better still, the new Tesla models are more keenly priced than their forbears and thus sell for $1,099/each. (Both models carry the same price.).
If you stop to think about it, how many times have you seen a manufacturer improve the sound quality and flexibility of two well-established designs, while also dropping their retail prices? Not many, I’ll wager. Nicely done, Beyerdynamics!
Brüel & Kjær
The Danish firm Brüel & Kjær is world famous for the transducers (including world-class microphones), test instruments, and software it produces for use in sound, acceleration, and vibration measurement/analysis. For CanJam SoCal, however, the firm did something very special in that it brought along one of its fully instrument test measurement manikins and made a standing offer to run comprehensive measurements on any headphones that show goers brought to the B&K stand to be tested.
Many found the demonstration not only informative, but also a great ‘photo op’ so that some individuals wanted to have their pictures taken posing alongside the B&K test dummy.
Campfire Audio is in essence a spin-off from ALO Audio whose mission is to build some of the most sonically advanced and meticulously crafted universal-fit earphones on the planet. There are actually three Campfire models, each of which, in its way, makes use of advanced materials and construction methods. The Orion is a single balanced armature driver-type design with a machined aluminium earpiece housing and sells for $349. The Lyra Uses a single 8.5mm beryllium PVD driver loaded into a tuned, high-mass earpiece enclosure made of Zirconium Oxide ceramic material: price, $749.
Finally, the flagship Jupiter is a quad balanced armature driver-type design that features a machined aluminium enclosure that incorporates a “tubeless resonator” said to replace “the traditional tube and dampener system of many earphone,” yielding superior high-frequency extension: price, $899.
Famed cable-maker Cardas Audio was touting the second model in its range of universal fit ‘earspeakers’: the A8, which sells for $299 and which will is reviewed in a coming issue of Hi-Fi+.
Cardas’ earlier EM5813 earspeaker featured an 11mm dynamic driver with Neodymium magnets, plus highly polished copper metal earpiece enclosures. In contrast, the A8 features a 10.85 “Ultra Linear Dual Magnet” dynamic driver, plus an earpiece sheathed in bright blue rubberised ABS material. Where the EM5813 came with Cardas’ Clear Light headphone cable, the new A8 arrives with an all-new spiral cable said to be “extremely light, flexible, and strong.”