High-end audio events are becoming increasingly rare. In Italy, thanks to the economic crisis and the lack of sales in the high fidelity market even what was considered the most important fair was cancelled.
We are talking about the the Top audio and Video exhibition. In Europe, either due to different marketing policies or perhaps different economic circumstances of buyers, there’s still a glimmer of hope. We are referring to the Munich High End which has gradually become the most important, as well as unique, European event for the high fidelity market.
The HDPhonic team went to Munich for the first time from May 15 to 18 to report on all the most interesting products that relate to the world of headphones and digital audio in general. From day one we were impressed not only by the teutonic precise organization, but also for the vast dimensions of the exhibition centre, spread over several floors with small rooms upstairs dedicated to listening.
The headphones market and all that revolves around it, is undoubtedly growing given the high number of people interested in these kind of products who we saw wandering around the stands. In Munich we were given the chance to try out a preview of some new products as well as others we had previously tried at Canjam, but this time with more calm.
There were some pleasant surprises and corroborations of previous findings but also some disappointments and doubts about some products, that despite the high regard enjoyed by enthusiasts, didn’t impress us that much. But let’s see what were the products that we were most interested in.
At the ADL booth, apart from the signal cables made by FURUTECH, the entire range of balanced and unbalanced cables for different headphones models was displayed. There were also two headphones amplifiers including the STRATOS that also acts as a phono stage and as a USB DAC that allows decoding PCM signals up to 192 kHz 24-bit and DSD signals up to 2.8 and 5.6 MHz. The quality expressed by STRATOS adhered to a good sonic level. The current price for the U.S. market is 720 dollars.
The market for high-end portable digital players is evolving and Astell&Kern definitely doesn’t want to be outdone. At their booth, we got to try the top of the line model AK240. This player is equipped with a dual DAC chip CS4398 that supports native DSD decoding at 2.8 and 5.6 MHz and provides a digital connection via USB and analog outputs for headphones and speakers. We tested the player with both the Audeze LCD-3 and the HD 800 Senneheiser. We thought that the quality of the DAC section was very good, even if it was slightly inferior to its headphone amplification section where the player was more comfortable with the HD 800 than the LCD-3. The current price for the American market is an impressive $ 2,500 for a maximum storage capacity of 384 gigabytes.
At the stand of the world famous Californian headphones factory, we were able once again to have a pleasent chat with Alex Rosson CEO of AUDEZE who asked us our thoughts on the new LCD-3 model that mounts the Fazor drivers, a new concept already present on the XC and X models. Compared to the previous version of the LCD-3, which we reviewed here on our website, we noticed a more open sound message between 3 and 7 kHz combined with a slightly higher speed on transients. The impedance of the headset was then increased to 110 Ohms, and this according to us somehow made the LCD-3 more picky in combinations with different amplifiers. The headphone we liked the most was the LCD-XC for its timbre and fidelity in the reproduction.
At the AURALiC booth on the upper floors we found their range of products on a static display, in particular the VEGA DAC and the TAURUS MKII headphone amplifier. We didn’t understand this type of approach by AURALiC, which should soon have a distributor in Italy, so we headed over to the Audionext stand that distributes these products in Germany in order to listen to them. The combination of TAURUS MKII with the VEGA DAC gave us a very good impression. The headphone amplifier has plenty of power and drives different headphones with authority. In particular in combination with the Audeze LCD-XC in balanced mode the TAURUS MKII gave its best. A little less than the LCD-3 with the new Fazor drivers which we will discuss later. The TAURUS MKII is definitely a product to be held in high esteem. The German market price is € 1800.
Beyerdynamic is one of the most important manufacturers in the world for what concerns dynamic headphones. In addition to the provision of the full range of products, the German company has unveiled the new A2 headphone amplifier. The product has a pair of unbalanced inputs for headphone connections on the front panel as well as unbalanced RCA connectors on the back. We listened carefully to the new amp by Beyerdynamic with their top of the range headphone T1. Even if the reproductive quality was pretty good it seemed that the amp lacked a bit of power and authority to drive a high-impedance headphone like the T1. This is a headset that we would eagerly like to try here in our studio, but that the Italian distributor, for reasons that we can’t quite understand, doesn’t want to lend it to us.
Chord had on dislay the very interesting —at least on paper— Hugo, a portable headphone amplifier with built-in DAC capable of decoding via USB input, PCM signals up to 384 kHz and DSD64 and DSD128 signals. We got to try the Hugo with a LCD-3 and our HD600. We were pleasantly surprised both by the quality expressed by the amplifier and the DAC section. The product is aesthetically appealing and Hugo is certainly one of the products that we liked the most. The price on the European market should be about € 1.800.
At the Denon booth the entire product range was on show. We stopped to listen to the AH-D7100 that will be reviewd soon here on HDPhonic. The headset has a really good performance on low frequencies that fall really deeply allowing you to appreciate music genres such as electronic music. Even the prototype of a next model to be released soon was on display, we still don’t know anything about its features and price however, despite the ban, we managed to sneak a picture.
At the EAR Yoshino by Tim de Paravicini stand we got to try the HP4 tube headphone amplifier. Tim de Paravicini is a man in the world of professional audio who needs no introduction. The changes he made to the electronics of the tape recorders made by Studer and Ampex have set the standard for mastering engineers around the world. The HP4 is based on a triode circuit with 1 watt per channel output. The HD 800 connected to the amplifier gave us a good impression and certainly the warm tone of the amplifier helped greatly in taming the more crystalline timbre of the Sennhieser flagship. The price is a good 4850 Euros.
One of the most awaited products by headphones aficionados was the new Hifiman HE-560 headphone. We got to listen long enough to the headset and I have to say that first impressions were quite positive and the overall yield of the headset is on a par with its portability. The aesthetic is really nice and the outdoor wooden earcups give a nice retro look to the headphone.The street price is 899 U.S. dollars. We also got to listen to the flagship HE-6 connected to its dedicated amplifier EF-6. Despite repeated listens we were not particularly impressed by both the headphone and amplifier that have been much acclaimed in various reviews and forums on the web. We can excuse the combo for the fact that maybe the headphones were not properly burned-in. However, we reserve the right to express a more accurate opinion on the headphones when we’ll be able to test them in our studio.
At the iFi Audio booth there was only one new product: the Nano-iDSD, the smallest portable DA converter in the world that supports PCM up to 384 kHz and DSD up to 6.2 MHz with dual BB1795 chip developed exclusively by Burr-Brown Japan. The peculiarity of this DAC is the direct conversion of native DSD directly to analog without intermediate steps. We got to hear this DAC with both a LCD-2 and with our HD 600 thanks to the kindness and courtesy of Vincent Luke, marketing coordinator of iFi Audio. Our first impressions of the DAC using DSD files of records that we know quite well, were extremely positive as regards the overall sonic performance. The sound was spacious, clean and warm at the same time and very close to that of a studio master tape played back from a one-inch recorder. iFi Audio has put a product on the market that will be talked about not just because of its price of $ 189.
The Italian M2TECH showed the full range of its products. We heard the Marley headphone amplifier that uses a dual mono class A circuit for the first time. The reproduction quality of the amp impressed us in a positive way and was definitely worth listening to for longer. At the booth there was also the new Young DSD DAC that decodes DSD64 and DSD128 via the USB input. The DAC has balanced analog line outputs.
A prestigious brand such as McIntosh couldn’t refrain from proposing its own products in the growing market of high-end headphones. In fact, the products featured at the booth were two. The MHA100 headphone amplifier in the typical livery of McIntosh products and the MHP1000 headphone of which very little is known yet. The amplifier also has an internal DAC, provides a 1 watt per channel and allows you to select 3 different levels of output impedance to better adapt to different headphones available today.
After careful listening we were more impressed by the quality of the headphone amplifier than its headphone. Surely it’s a product that deserves further listening. The price is in line with other McIntosh products and is around 4500 dollars.
At the Meridian booth the most interesting product was definitely the Prime, a headphone amplifier with internal DAC and USB input. The product dimensions are rather small and the aesthetic is captivating. We tried the amp with the Velodyne vTrue headphone which we will talk about later and with our Sennheiser HD 600. The sound of the amp was pretty good even with a high-impedance headphone like the HD 600. The power output is more than enough to drive a good number of headphones. The price is around 2000 dollars.
Who said that in Italy we aren’t able to make high quality products that can compete on equal terms with the most prestigious international brands? A clear example and a pleasant discovery was the Norma Audio from Cremona who had at the MHE in demonstration, amongst other products, the DAC Pre HS-DA1 DA with the functions of preamp and with two class A headphone outputs. Connected to the HS-DA1 was Grado PS1000e that was driven in a really remarkable way. The quality expressed by the combination of DAC-headset was very good in terms of sound and rather addictive. In our humble opinion, no other amplifier among those present at the MHE could drive the PS1000e so well. Really worthy of note is the quality expressed by the DA conversion of the unit. The HS-DA1’s price is 2000 EUR.
One of the most interesting and pleasant discoveries for HDPhonic was the headphone made by a Taiwanese company called Obravo. The model HAMT-1 is the first 2 way headset model to incorporate a tweeter driver with AMT (Air Motion Transformer). The AMT uses a folded sheet made of polyethylene or polyamide, structured according to a series of aluminum strips immersed in a high intensity magnetic field that creates an enhanced semi-perpendicular movement of air. The diaphragm pushes the air back and forth, according to a movement that is very similar to the transmission of air between one layer and the other inside an accordion. The result is an exceptional response speed, facilitated by the very low moving mass of the polyester membrane, and the short distance from the membrane during each vibration when compared to a traditional speaker. The headphone is one of the products that impressed us most for its performance and build quality. Playback of some classical music allowed us to fully appreciate the sound where the headset could without any problem fully return the soundstage without flattening the layers thereby ensuring a certain air between the instruments. Unfortunately, we believe that the amplifier used was not up to the headset. We wondered what the HAMT-1 could express with a suitable amplifier and perhaps driven in balanced mode. We hope soon to be able to get one for a review. The product price is 1500 dollars.
There has been a lot of talk in various web forums dedicated to the world of headphones about the two new Oppo products. We refer in particular to the PM-1 an orthodynamic headset and to HA-1 a balanced headphone amplifier with a built in DAC. The two products were previewed at MHE 2014, and have certainly aroused considerable interest from the high number of fans that we saw at the Oppo stand. The PM-1 headphone is a product that for its price and features is on the same level as Audeze and HifiMAN. The DAC amplifier on specs is very interesting since it also decodes the DSD format and has all kinds of inputs. The several listenings made at the booth did not allow us to fully appreciate the sound quality of the combo because, in our humble opinion, the sound material used for the tests wasn’t of high quality and didn’t include different musical genres. However, from what we could hear the Oppo combo didn’t sound bad at all even if we would like to have a more in-depth review as soon as we have the opportunity to test the two products in our studio. The price for the headset is 1399 Euros and the amplifier costs 1499 Euros.
The Italian Pathos was also present at the Munich High End. At their booth, we got to listen and compare, using the top of the range Grado headphones, two products: the Converto and the Arium. The first is a DAC with USB input and built-in headphone amplifier with analog balanced line outputs. The second one is a headphone amplifier with a tube preamp section and with MOS-FET power stage. Of the two devices tested the one that impressed us most with regards to reproduction and dynamic was the Converto. The Arium appeared less at ease with Grado headphones and a little more pronounced as regards the timbre especially sibilants. The price of the Converto is 1150 Euros while the Arium costs 1310 Euros.
By now, even the products from the Far East and in particular from China have reached high levels of construction and quality. In particular, we refer to Questyle a Chinese company that is gaining attention among headphones lovers with its CMA800R headphone amplifier. This amplifier is capable of operating both in voltage and current mode. To use it with balanced headphones you need two of them since each amp is equipped with a mono output on 3-pin XLR connector. At the stand the pair of amplifiers were driving a balanced Audeze LCD-3 equipped with the new Fazor drivers.
After repeated listening tests, we can safely say that this pair was one of those we enjoyed most and where the headphone was complementary to the two headphone amplifiers. The music reproduction of the LCD-3 via the Questyle was accurate, rather neutral and articulate. The only niggles we have were the lack of a stepped volume control which makes it more difficult to calibrate the volume level of each amp exactly and perhaps a slight lack of power. The CMA800R is in any event a high quality product that is available at a price of $ 1,500.
At the booth of the German Sound Performance Lab the products on show were the Phonitor 2 (of which you will find an in-depth review on our website) and the Mini Phonitor an abridged version that is more compact and less expensive than its older brother Phonitor 2. From a quick listen to the Mini Phonitor we can confirm the overall quality that distinguishes the SPL brand.
Too bad that there were no headphones connected to the Phonitor 2 in balanced mode since, as we confirmed ourselves, this product gives it best when it’s able to drive headphones in balanced mode.
The American brand, known to the masses for its high performance subwoofers, also wanted to enter in the headphone market by offering to the general public the vTrue Studio model. The headset is a dynamic closed one with interior leather earpads featuring a 50 mm driver. At the Velodyne booth we got to try the headset for a long time and although the amplifier was not up to the task we were able to guess the great potential of the vTrue. The deep bass was fast and very articulated and we were not disappointed thanks to Velodyne’s renowned subwoofers. Mids and highs were pretty good but not as good as the bass. The product deserves a more thorough examination in order to be evaluated with more consistency. VTrue Studio offers a much higher quality product than the more popular Beats. The cost of vTrue Studio is $ 400.
The German Violectric, whose excellent V200 and V800 we had already reviewed, had two new products that have been eagerly awaited by fans. We’re talking about the new V220 and V281 headphone amps. These are two newly developed products whose size and look gain some distance from what are the standards that have always distinguished the Violectric brand. The V281 is distinguished by the presence of a balanced XLR 4-pin headphone input. The two amplifiers provide options such as a remote volume control (with the option of having it stepped) and a digital input either via the USB input, S/PDIF or Optical. The performance data reported by Violectric for the V281 are quite impressive. In fact we are talking about an output swing of ± 40 volts on a load of 600 Ohms and 4.2 watts per channel into a 50 Ohm load. Rather interesting data that bodes well especially for driving a rather tricky headset such as the HE-6 by Hifiman. At the Violectric booth, thanks to the kindness of Fried Reim CEO of Violectric we got to try the V281 with the LCD-3, the HD 800 and HD 600 in balanced mode using our reference tracks. We can safely say that this is the product that has impressed us the most during our entire stay at the MHE 2014. The V281 demonstrated power, speed, neutrality and detail without showing any signs of fatigue, even at high sound pressure levels. All headsets tested were driven without any effort and with clear authority by the V281, a product that many people will surely talk about and that we hope to have soon for a in-depth review here in our studio. The market price for the V281 will be around 1600 euro.
The Italian company presented in Munich the Egoista tube headphone amplifier. It’s a product characterized by its rather generous size and eye-catching design. The amplifier was driving a LCD-3 in unbalanced mode. The sound that came out was silky smooth with a full-bodied bass and rather crystalline highs. For tube lovers this is a product without compromises but for 8000 euros we would at least expect balanced headphones inputs.
For first timers at MHE 2014 we definitely felt satisfied with the amount of products we tested and listened to. We were amazed by the absence of brands such as Bryston and Sennheiser. The biggest disappointment we had was at the Stax booth where despite being exposed to the full range of products, including the flagship SR-009, listening to the products was not possible because they only had a static display of headphones and amplifiers. I honestly don’t understand such behaviour from this Japanese company. If we could offer some advice to the organizers we would suggest putting all of the manufacturers or distributors of products related to the world of headphones under one roof as the current arrangement proved to be too distracting for the visitor. There are currently very few of these events being held, however, given the amount of products shown we would strongly recommend that you go at least once to the MHE in Munich as it represents the crème de la crème of current production in Europe.