U.S. people, it’s known, love to do things on a large scale and do not leave anything to chance and we noticed this at the fifth edition of CanJam which we attended for the first time, at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver Colorado on October 11–13. The CanJam is an event that attracts fans and fanatics of headphone listening from all over the world, but it’s also a pretty showcase for manufacturers who want to present to the public their new products.
Arriving the evening before, we got to peek behind the stands and witness the meticulous preparation that had gone on for the following three intense days. A few free beers before dinner, allowed us to chat with familiar faces from the industry and let them tell us a bit about the atmosphere of this event. The impression that we got was that this was a very important opportunity for professionals but also an event that can’t be missed by headphones fans. Over the last decade, in fact, an alternate universe of high-end audio has emerged.
A universe centered on high-performance headphones, earbuds, headphone amplifiers portable and desktop, cables and dac converters. In short, it’s a world that could easily be described as personal audio at the highest level and without compromises. The CanJam is an event jointly sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and HeadFi.org, the world reference site for global personal audio. The three days of CanJam took place in a dedicated area of 12,000 square metres inside the Marriott Tech Center Hotel. On the first day, once we were inside, we got to admire all the stands ladened with headphones and headphone amplifiers of all kinds and prices. The advice I would give to a person who is casually attending an exhibition like this one, would be to put aside all their knowledge both of headphones and earphones.
Exhibitors and visitors alike, are professionals and serious audiophiles that make music playback through headphones an absolute must, in the same manner as traditional fans of high-end audio. The only difference being that musical transducers worn by CanJammers are the ones that can be worn and taken anywhere, without losing anything when compared to high-end audio for four specific reasons. The first being sound quality. High-end headphones offer an extended frequency response, wide dynamic range, resolution, speed of transients and a focus that only certain high end models of speakers can hope to match or surpass. Although, one must recognize in all honesty that the speakers, given how they work, continue to enjoy a significant advantage in terms of reconstruction of the musical stage.
The second reason is the value. Even though the so-called state of the art headphones have prices in excess of $ 5,000, listeners pointed out that the a head set with a good price/quality ratio does not have to cost mind-boggling figures. The third reason is simplicity. As with traditional audio systems, also those based on listening through headphones require components such as a source, an amplifier and a transducer, but with certain differences. For example, systems based on listening through headphones rarely require the use of rack equipment and never room acoustic treatment. The fourth and final reason is convenience. Unlike listening systems based on speakers, even small ones, those based on headphones take up little space and in particular can be fully appreciated even when listening at very high volumes, at any time of the day or night without disturbing family members, friends or neighbors.
Also in the category of planar magnetic headphones, a big interest was aroused by the long awaited AbyssAB–1266. Developed by JPS Labs of New York, company that produces audio signal cables among the best in the market, after years of research and development the headphones were available in the stands of different exhibitors to demonstrate the absolute greatness of the product. At the Abyss booth, in particular, listeners could try the headphones with the Liquid Gold balanced amplifier by Cavalli Audio and a properly modified WA5 by Woo Audio. The Abyss–Liquid Gold combo is what impressed us most due to its naturalness, precision, focus and reproduction realism. It definitely is state of the art as regards playing through headphones. The Abyss is sold in an elegant wooden box and is equipped with cables for all connection types both balanced or unbalanced. The cables are all produced by Jps Labs.
The CaJam marked the exit on the market of The Island by ALO audio, a balanced portable amplifier with a DAC built-in. The Island is a device powered by the USB port compatible with both Mac and PC that can provide a good thrust to drive headphones with difficult load. It is a compact and well built product. Another product released by ALO we want to talk about is the Studio Six amp. The Studio Six is a tube class A product which integrates a zero-feedback circuit. For the CanJam, ALO audio offered a special introductory price for this new amp making it even more attractive to potential buyers.
At the Astell&Kern stand, which is a division of iRiver, the new USB AK10, a player with headphone amplifier and DAC was presented. The AK10 is a product that fits into that segment of the market where the listeners are looking for a perfect add-on to play their favorite music files stored on a PC, Mac or a tablet device. Like its bigger brothers, the AK10 is beautifully designed and provides excellent sound performance.
Within the area CanJam reigned, in fact, there was an almost surreal silence for an event dedicated to audio. At the same time, however, the event was given weight by the presence of numerous and important brands in the industry. Matadors of the event were the Audeze boys. In particular, Sankar Thiagasamudram and Alexander Rosson respectively President and CEO of Audeze. Their company is based in Fountain Valley, California, and has worked hard to create a new high-performance closed headphone model called LCD-XC. The XC has a new driver, different from that used in the top of the range LCD-3, which incorporates a waveguide frame created to improve the efficiency and minimize unwanted interactions inside the earpad. The result is a closed-back model that offers good insulation from external noise, but which has, mostly, the open, energetic sound and articulation of the LCD-3.
It is necessary to point out that, after creating a new driver for AudezeLCD-XC, they decided to apply the same drivers in a new semi-open model, called LCD-X. The X sounds more open, more articulate and more uniform on the entire sound spectrum compared to LCD-3. Both the LCD-XC and LCD-X are easy to distinguish from the top of the range LCD-3, because both are fitted with aluminium coatings that replace the hardwood frames used in earlier LCD-2 and LCD-3 models. Finally, Audeze showed a prototype of its upcoming DDA-1 headphone amplifier with built-in DAC and DSP system for tonal correction. In theory, the DSP system can be used to obtain a very accurate frequency response, with any of the Audeze headset models, but it also allows adjustable response curves specified by the user. At the present time, the launch price and date of the DDA-1 are not yet available.
The Chinese AURALiC unveiled its massive new VEGA digital processor which is a combination of high-resolution balanced DAC and preamplifier. For versatility and optimum sound quality, the VEGA supports PCM files of up to 32-bit / 384 kHz resolution, DSD64, DXD, DSD128 offering six digital filters to enable users to fine-tune the sonic character. In addition to the VEGA there was the TAURUS MKII being shown with the AbyssAB-1266. The fully balanced headphone amplifier is definitely in the high-end range as regards price and performance. Presented in preview at the CanJam, also by AURALiC, the new GEMINI 1000 and 2000 that combine in an interesting and original way an headphone amplifier and a headset stand. The elegant design of the GEMINI, produced under license by Klutz Design, incorporates a powerful class A amplifier. The GEMINI 1000 uses a single-ended system while the GEMINI 2000 uses a fully balanced system also class A.
At the Moon Audio booth, a company known to overseas audiophiles for its aftermarket headset cables, it was possible to try all kinds of headphones and excellent headphone amplifiers such as Burson AudioConductor, BrystonBHA-1 and BDA-2. However, the most interesting product, as noted by Drew Baird President and CEO of Moon Audio, was the German B.M.C. AudioPureDAC, which is also a preamplifier, an headphone amplifier and DAC capable of decoding DSD. The PureDAC stands out as its preamp and headphone amplifier are controlled independently. According to both Mr Baird and our attentive listening, the PureDAC offers an exceptional price/quality ratio.
At the Beyerdynamic booth, in addition to its entire range of headphones available, they presented two new products at CanJam: the A 20 headphone amplifier and the T 51 P Tesla headphone, which is an improved and updated version of the original. The main features of the T 51 P are an impedance of 60 Ohms, an overhaul of the clamping load on the head, improved padding and updated headphone cables without any price change compared to the previous model T 50 P.
Cavalli Audio brought three of their current production line amplifiers which are totally balanced to the CanJam Audio. These being: the hybrid amplifier Liquid Glass; the solid state amplifier for electrostatic headphones called Liquid Lightning MK II and the newest solid-state Liquid Gold. The awesome thing is that each of the amplifiers produced by Cavalli Audio amplifiers could be, within its respective category, considered state of the art of listening through headphones. In particular, many participants in the CanJam including us, agreed that the combo of CavalliLiquid Gold amplifier and AbyssAB-1266 headphones was the best music reproduction system through headphones that they got to try.
The Denver event was also a triumph and an additional claim of portability of headphone listening. Following this trend at the CanJam, CEntrance was finally celebrating its long-awaited launch, that has repeatedly been postponed, of HiFi-M8. The HiFi-M8 is an exceptionally versatile portable product that combines an iDevice, full compatible with Android, Mac and PC, an asynchronous USB DAC and a powerful balanced class A headphone amplifier. The end result is a device that can connect to anything and that incorporates a headphone amplifier powerful enough to drive any headphone you have in mind except, of course, electrostatic headphones. It is a highly configurable product for both digital inputs and headphone inputs that fits the customer’s needs.
Michael Goodman CEO of CEntrance stated that the engineering and development process of the HiFi-M8 was quite long, but the end result and the warm welcome it received from the fans was worth the effort. We were pleasantly surprised how this product could produce such a well balanced sound from a difficult and demanding headphone such as the SennheiserHD 800. Although the design of the HiFi-M8 was completed long ago, CEntrance delayed its release because of Apple’s continuous delay to issue the certification of full compatibility. In fact, now CEntrance is finally fulfilling the large number of orders of its popular product.
The French company Focal, due to the success at the High End Show in Munich, presented at the CanJam the full range of its full-size headphones, which now includes the Spirit One, the Spirit Pro and the Spirit Classic. However, let’s look more closely at what the differences are between these three models. The Spirit One was created for portable use and can be safely piloted by mobile phones, tablets, etc. Therefore, the Spirit One is the most accessible of the three and is particularly appropriate for use with sources that are not quite optimal. The Spirit Pro is a headphone monitor for the professional audio market. After a quick listen, the Pros have proved to be very interesting with a fairly linear and neutral tone which will definitely help audio professionals to have another reference device. Finally, the Spirit Classic can be placed between the One and the Pro with a timbre reminiscent of Audeze headphones.
The Japanese Fostex, in addition to presenting the current range of their products, has brought out a new prototype headset called RP. It’s an open design headphones, that mounts the slightly modified T50RP driver and uses a brace similar to TH-900 with different and smaller-sized earpads. The outer part of the headphone driver consists of a perforated metal grill. The prototype, at present, is not even close to mass production but it is likely to put on sale by mid-2014. The resulting sound when first listening was definitely good and interesting with a well-balanced tone. We hope that they will soon become officially available.
While continuing along the stands of firms that produce headphone amplifiers of a certain level, we couldn’t help but stop at the HeadAmp booth. HeadAmp is a company based in Virginia that has presented its new GS-X Mk2 headphone amplifier model made up of two frames,that is balanced and in a fully solid state. This new creation is largely based on a design created by headphone amplification guru, Kevin Gilmore. Gilmore typically offers to enthusiasts, projects such as technical diagrams for DIY and CEO Justin Wilson told us that in the past he has managed to build a prototype from the amplifier on which the GS-X Mk2 is based strictly for personal use.
However, the original design by Gilmore, incorporating circuits that are no longer readily available, pushed Wilson, in order to commercialize the GS-X Mk2, to change the starting project using more modern components and adding personal touches. Like all of the HeadAmp products, the GS-X Mk2 offers a high standard of construction and finish, with a dedication to detail that is not out of place, say, in a luxury car. Of course, being the owner, Justin Wilson wants some credit for bringing a product with such sonic performance to the market, one that incorporates all kinds of headphone entries and a separate power supply.
At the HiFiMAN booth they were showing the wide range of headphones and earphones that rendered the brand famous, but the real news was the amplifier-high resolution converter. HM-901 has followed a relatively slow path to production, perhaps because it is so ambitious in its design. Basically, the HM-901 is a high-resolution player, very similar to Astell&KernAK120, but relies on ESSSabre converters such as those used in high-end products. In addition, the HM-901 enables the user to select different sound modules, including a fully balanced output module, and soon will offer, as an option, an iPod docking station that will allow HM-901 to become the main high-resolution DAC in a conventional stereo sytem. As already reported, the HM-901 hardware is ready, as are the three sound modules. What remains to be achieved is a final version of the firmware, which the HiFiMAN clearly hope to accomplish in the near future in order to arouse the most appeal and be able to outperform the competition in terms of sound quality and versatility.
In recent months iFi audio, which is a division of Abingdon Music Research, caught our attention for its headphone amplifier, iCAN, and in particular its high-resolution iDAC converter. At present, iFi audio has pushed miniaturization of its products further by introducing a new line called nano. Products that are even smaller, less expensive, but no less attractive than their counterparts iCAN and iDAC. In particular, iFi audio presented at the CanJam, the new nano iCAN headphone amplifier and the new nano iDSD DAC. The nano iCAN essentially incorporates all sound characteristics of iCAN, but in a smaller format, with 150 mW output and with a battery that provides about 60 hours of continuous playback. Therefore, the nano iCAN apparently retains a sound quality equal to his elder brother iCAN, offering a substantial decrease in size and in price. Nano iDSD DAC, instead, besides dimension reduction adds better features than the iDAC, providing DSD128, DXD and PCM up to 384 kHz playback using the BurrBrown chipset. In addition to these remarkable characteristics they added a headphone output of 80 mW, conventional analog outputs and compatibility with the most popular Apple players.
At the CanJam last year, one of the novelties was the Mad Dog headphone produced by MrSpeakers which in reality was a FostexT50RP headphone amended accordingly. At CanJam 2013, MrSpeakers founder Dan Clark went further by creating the new Alpha Dog. This new model is arguably the world’s first model to be designed and created using a 3D printer. While the Alpha Dog, like the previous Mad Dog, are still developed using planar magnetic technology made by Fostex, their sound is not like any other model currently produced by Fostex.
We think that the Alpha Dog is a really good product that will easily find the consensus amongst its fans thanks to their excellent value for money. According to Dan Clark, the Alpha Dog casing of the earpad has an elaborate set of internal wave conductors which would have been cost-prohibitive if created using conventional printing techniques. But, thanks to the flexibility offered by 3D printers, the cost of production of the Alpha Dog was limited and they were able to sell the product at a reasonable price.
At the Philips booth, who take seriously the market for high-performance headphones, they were demonstrating three new models of their Fidelio range. The trio consisted of the flagship Fidelio X1, which is currently in production, the imminent L2 and the M1BTBL with Bluetooth connection. The L2 and M1BTBL will be marketed in the early months of next year.
Someone who could not completely miss the event is Mr Ray Samuels. Ray Samuels is justly known for his fertile imagination and for the high quality of his products, which always strive for sonic improvement. And so for the 2013 CanJam Mr Samuels introduced his new F-35, The Lightning a completely balanced portable headphone amplifier. Following the long-standing tradition of his company, Samuels christened most, if not all, of his products with the name of famous military aircrafts. As we said, Mr Ray’s Lightning is the the world’s smallest fully balanced headphone amplifier, with balanced inputs and outputs. We must not, however, be mislead by the size of the amplifier. As we got to prove ourselves, the Lighting can drive even the most demanding headphones with an exuberant authority.
Indeed a very interesting product that delivers high performance with very contained dimensions. Unfortunately it was not possible to try out its new solid-state reference balanced amplifier called The Dark Star. Due to a transport error of the courier, The Dark Star arrived with the power button of its power supply completely damaged. It was a real pity because The Dark Star is the most powerful headphone amplifier that exists on the market. With its double frames, four gain stages and a swing in balanced mode of 160 Volt, The Dark Star is able to drive properly a difficult and very demanding product such as the HiFiManHE-6. It is definitely an amplifier that can compete with the best of the best currently available on the market.
Even if the name Schiit Audio may provoke, at least in its pronunciation, any doubts or laughter, their products are undoubtedly of a good level at an honest price. At CanJam 2013, Schiit Audio has introduced the Vali, a hybrid headphone amplifier in miniature, and the world premiere of the soon to be released Ragnarok that has been defined as the universal amplifier. The prototype present at the stand incorporates an integrated amplifier that supplies 100 Watt into 4 Ohms, but works fine even as a balanced headphone amplifier with a front entrance equipped with 4-pole socket. The Vali, after a quick listen, produces a rich sound, with good focus, while Ragnarok is still in its pre-production stage and we don’t know if what we saw at the CanJam will undergo further changes by the time its released. The Mjolnir balanced headphone amplifier and the Grugnir DAC are currently the best combination in terms of price/quality ratio.
Sennheiser was also present and introduced two mid-priced models, the HD 25 Al, which stands for aluminium, and the HD 26 Pro. Interestingly, the HD 26 Pro is designed by Sennheiser’s Professional Division. The sample shown belongs to the founder of HeadFi.org Jude Mansilla, who kindly lent it to the Sennheiser team at the event held in Denver. At the Sennheiser booth they were showning the already known HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 amplifiers.
High resolution and ability to decode the DSD have been the focal points of the desired products from Sony. Among these there are the HAP-S1 an headphone amplifier with colour display and DSD capable DAC, a less sophisticated model named UDA-1 and the interesting PHA-2 portable headphones amplifier with a DAC capable of decoding the DSD, a product that has gained the most attention from visitors. Also on show were the new NDR-1R headphones that a Sony spokesman said will become a landmark in their price range.
On display at the Teac booth there was an entire rack of four 501 Series reference units, including AI-501DA integrated amplifier, the DSD CD player PD-501HR, which however is not an SACD player, headphone amplifier HA-501 and UD-501 streamer and DSD converter. Despite their small appearance and not exorbitant price this set of equipment is equipped with top technical characteristics typical of the Teac brand.
German Violectric was also present at the CanJam 2013 with its full range of products. The friendly and always helpful CEO Freid Reim allowed us to try and compare all headphones amplifiers marketed by Violectric where the top of the range is always represented by the HPA V200. After the first day of CanJam, in a decidedly more casual talk, Mr Reim explained future Violectric projects that will include a version of the V800 DAC with remote control and advanced models of amplifiers HPA V181 and HPA V200. Likely the commercialization of these new products will take place in mid-2014.
Woo Audio had two booths, one in the CanJam and the other in an upstairs room of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. On the ground floor in the CanJam Hall, they were demonstrating a prototype of a tube power supply for its popular WA7, a tube headphone amplifier with a built-in DAC. In particular, Jack Woo, Woo Audio CEO, invited us to make a comparison between a WA7 driven by the stock solid-state power supply and an identical WA7 powered by the tubes prototype. The difference in terms of sonic performance was unexpected and greatly in favour of the tubes power supply prototype. At the moment however, price and availability are yet to be defined. Upstairs, the spectacular set of two Headphone amplifiers monoblock called W234 was in action. The pair of W234 admirably drove the AbyssAB-1266 headphones.
The most interesting thing, besides the great sound performance provided by this combination, is the fact that the W234 can be configured as desired by the user to drive your speakers or headphones and allows you to choose from the selection of different series valves: 2A3, 300B and 45. The pair of monoblock amplifiers is sold with a full set of adapters that support the following output options: plate LO-z output, plate HI-z output, cathode LO-z output, cathode HI-z output and speakers output. These amplifiers have a solid and imposing appearance and weigh around 61 pounds per monoblock. A feature that should be taken into account if you decide to buy them and have already decided where to place them within your home. In our opinion, the W234 is really the best product so far sold by Woo Audio and also the best tubes headphone amplifier that we had the opportunity to try throughout the three days we stayed at the CanJam.
Both for us and for all the people we got to meet and we got to know, the CanJam 2013 was an event to remember, for a number of reasons. On the one hand we had the chance to try all the best that is currently sold on the market, giving a clearer vision of the direction business and technology are taking. On the other hand we’ve met serious and passionate professionals, whose purpose in addition to being successful commercially, is to silence critics and ensure that the headphone listening industry is taken more seriously by the masses and audiophiles. We would like to extend our special thanks to Jude Mansilla CEO of Head-fi.org, who in addition to organizing the Saturday night party with beer kegs to allow us to have fun until late at night, was kind enough to let us have sneak preview photos of the new prototype of the planar magnetic technology headset made by Oppo. This headset could become a serious and potential competitor for brands such as MrSpeakers and Audeze. We also know that the headset will have a detachable cable. However, we do not know the technical characteristics and price yet.
To conclude, we can safely say that CanJam is a exhibition that brings together the best of the best as far as listening through headphones at the highest level is concerned. We do not want to upset the most hardened audiophiles who look at headphones with distrust or poorly concealed envy, but the headphones and amplifier combinations that we got to try at the CanJam did not make us feel worse off for listening with a normal stereo even if it is well-known or trendy. High-level headphones have really made great strides in recent years, with increasingly sophisticated performance for the enthusiasts and the occasional buyers. Whosoever is passionate about personal audio at the highest level should in our opinion, at least once in their lifetime, fly to Denver to the CanJam to experience that the audiophile world has discovered that listening through headphones is a viable and serious alternative to the traditional concept of stereo in its most common and usual form of expression.