CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Show Wrap

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Mat Weisfeld and Jane Cai join me, bearing gifts — a new Nomad!

During a recent seminar, Michael Fremer remarked that there are three big trends in audio’s high-end today: vinyl, high-resolution audio, and headphones. He’s spot on. But there is another major trend overlooked in that count. A social one. One I think that’s as important, and for many reasons, to the other three: the audio show.

I’m not sure a lot of my peers in the audio press would be happy to agree with that assessment, but that’s okay, they’re wrong a lot. In fact, I know a lot of them have griped about how many audio shows there are, about how much work it is to cover them, and how the same folks keep cropping up over and over again. I can see their point and feel their pain, even as I get a little chuckle out of that last bit. But the point is, they’re missing something. Something the sheer fact of the audio show “circuit” ought to make plain, but gets lost behind the typical product-focused navel-gazing audiophiles are so rightly accused of obsessing about. It’s simple, really. It’s the community.

In many ways, this is something that personal audio folks get really right. The Head-Fi meets and meet ups are, and have been, an integral part of the personal audio experience, especially as that part of the audio market finds its feet. I think it’s rather ironic, actually, that headphone-based audio enthusiasts are so much better at getting together than audiophiles are — I mean, headphones are almost by definition not inclusive. Hi-Fi, on the other hand, takes place in spaces meant to be shared. Hmm.

Anyway, it’s the audio show that brings these things back together. Not music. Not love of music. But shared passions. That’s what binds us. And audio shows are what’s helping drive, expand and shape “the industry” today. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Cavalli is on fire

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CanManiaAt this point, I’m not sure how you could have wandered through the head-fi high-end without stumbling across Cavalli Audio at some point. In short, Cavalli makes some of the best headphone amplifiers on the market. The amps are high-power and high-fidelity class-killers, and can drive any headphone on the market. The fact that they look the part I’m sure doesn’t hurt.

Here at CanMania, attendees could pick their poison and follow the solid-state linear stylings of the Liquid Gold ($3,950), a headphone amplifier rated to up to 9 watts into 50Ω, or following their tube-rolling heart with the Liquid Glass ($2,950). Either way, you’re pretty much done — it’s just a matter of headphones. The only problem, as I see it, is choosing.

Personally, I’m still torn. Of course, this is a little late as I already own a Liquid Gold (it’s my reference-level component in the headphone arena), but whatever. Every time I see a Liquid Glass, I get a twinge. Or two.

The review of the Liquid Gold is coming soon, so keep an eye out for that. I’ve been using it to drive the living snot out of a pair of Abyss AB-1266 headphones, one of the most stunningly awesome headphones ever made. Yes, they’re also one of the most expensive too, and yes, they’re also quite controversial in their looks. Whatever. Put all that aside, if possible, and drive them with the LAu and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. It boils down to this: bass performance. There is nothing like this on the market. Believe me. I’ve looked. The pair here, with the Abyss driven by the LAu amp, is so far past reference level it sets the high water mark for the category. It is unbelievable. Full stop. End of line. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Cypher Labs, Coffman Labs, definitely not meek

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CanManiaCypher Labs has teamed up with Coffman Labs to create an amazing looking and sounding headphone amplifier, called Prautes ($3,900). This thing has tubes and knobs and textured sides and I get all quivery just looking at it.

Some things to note. One, it’s not tiny — expect it to take up some space. Two, it’s a tube amplifier, using a 12AU7 tube gain stage to drive a pair of 50L6 tubes in push-pull mode. Plan on a total of 1 watt (load-dependent) available for your headphones, and the attendant amount of heat.

But the device has some serious flexibility to go along with its good looks. There are four single-ended/RCA inputs and terminals for speakers if you want to use it as an integrated amp (for ~2wpc of output) with your high-sensitivity speakers. On the front faceplate, there are ⅛” and ¼” jacks on the front, as well as two 3-pin XLR outputs (left and right).

Turning to the chunky knobs, there is a lot you can do besides just turn it up. Opposite the input selector is the impedance selector, with 5 settings to choose from (300Ω, 100Ω, 32Ω, 8Ω and “IEM”) to tailor the outputs accordingly. Like bass? Have a troubling source? Or a headphone you want tweaked? Well, there’s an adjustable bass-boost knob (3dB at 31, 36, 41, or 47Hz) that allows you to customize to taste. Oh, and around back there’s a ground lift switch lets you deal with pesky mains issues. This sucker has a lot of features. Wish I’d been able to fiddle with it some more, but what I heard was pretty sweet.

Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: HiFiMAN showing some hot new cans

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CanManiaHiFiMAN has a large catalog of personal audio products, including digital audio players, headphones, amplifiers and everything you’d need to connect them.

Where I’ve seen them, repeatedly, is on the headphone front with the sonically awesome but notoriously difficult to drive HE-6 headphones ($1,300). I know reviewers that have these headphones just to abuse headphone amplifiers as a kind of torture test! But when well-driven, as by the HiFiMAN EF-6 headphone amplifier ($1,600), with its 5 watts of output power, the HE-6 can provide one of the most musically engaging personal audio experiences currently available on the market (the set is available for $2,300). Deep bass, tonal richness and oodles of detail and air make for a very compelling package. And that’s just the start. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: iFi and the stack of portable awesome

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CanManiaiFi Audio is a fascinating brand, focusing (almost) exclusively on portable personal audio. Audio-Head‘s Brian Hunter took a look at some of their earliest offerings for Part-Time Audiophile last year and has another stack of their components in for review right now. They are, in short, really nifty.

The hottest thing off the iFi press are the new DSD components. There’s the Nano iDSD, a palm-sized battery-powered DSD256-capable device. And there’s the even-newer Micro iDSD, about 2x the size of the Nano, that can be driven via USB and can natively decode up to DSD512. I’m pretty sure that the latter just set some kind of record. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Headamp and the Purple Hawaii

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CanMania“Go big or go home” is what flashed through my head when I saw the Headamp table in CanMania this year. I mean, seriously.

“Look at me! I am PURPLE! Ha HA!”

Said another way, that is some crazy color on that Blue Hawaii headphone amplifier. If I were queuing up for the 1+ year wait on these bad boys, this is the only color to get it in. Wow.

Wired up to the usual suspects from STAX, including the SR-009 everyone but me raves about, this amp set huge points for sound and style, and at over $5k, that is important and I don’t care who you are.  Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Clear Tune Monitors drops in with flash and style

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CanManiaClear Tune Monitors is a new-to-me custom IEM company, catering primarily to the pro audio crowd. Prices range from $250-$800.

Unfortunately, I was unable to really spend any time with them as they bugged out a bit early, but I did manage to flip through their brochure and check out a couple of the displays.

The Wood Legit Series, their most expensive model at $800, is quite elegant looking. And yes, there really is wood on the back plate there, which they say “provides an extremely warm and punchy sound, is virtually indestructible and provides acutely clear sound.”
Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Stereodesk with Heed, Viva, Crayon and more, is personal audio heaven

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CanManiaStereodesk’s Fred Crane and Profundo’s Bob Clark were on hand with some extremely fine imports, including an update from Heed Audio and the magnificent Viva Audio line up.

The Viva gear I’d just seen — and seen for the first time — at Newport. It’s incredible. The center piece here for CanMania, of course, was the ginormous Egoista ($9,500), which uses a pair of 845 output tubes to drive 15 watts into the headphones of your choice. I love the Steelers colors, but apparently that automotive paint is custom, so I suppose you could put your own NFL version together.

This amp is inspiring. And when I say, “ginormous”, I mean it — plan on a lot of rack space and make sure that space has plenty of ventilation. That chassis gets rather warm, and the metal all gets used for heat dissipation. Sorry — not a desktop option, there. But still, who cares? Look at that thing! Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Oppo Digital, huge on value, great on sound

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CanManiaOppo Digital and I go way back.

Well, no, not really. I mean I’ve been buying their DVD players for years. The sheer number of features at their absurd price points meant happy days for me — I’m pretty sure I have about five models floating around the house currently. No, seriously. Five. When something works that well, and does as much, it’s easy to get enthusiastic — and loyal. So when the DVD players gave way to BluRay, I knew Oppo’s offerings were going to be the way to go. So, I got ’em. And all was right with him Home Entertainment World.

But when Oppo launched their latest foray into personal audio, I was surprised. I guess you could say the hair on the back of neck stood up and I leaned forward in my chair. I was … intrigued. And not just nearsighted. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The HA-1 is a gorgeously-fitted out headphone amplifier. It has balanced and single-ended ins and outs (hooray!), a superior DAC that supports sample rates up to and including DSD128, and offers AptX Bluetooth for you wireless trendsetters.  Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Nothing fits like Glove Audio

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CanManiaCEntrance’s Michael Goodman was here to promote the new venture, called Glove Audio.

I first saw and heard Glove at Newport this year, and I was very impressed both by the quality of the build and the sound. The basic idea is fairly simple — take your legacy Astell&Kern digital audio player (an AK100 or an AK120), bolt it into Glove, and use Glove to do your conversion and amplification. Why would you want to do this? Well, to be fair, the AK100 was outstanding on file management and support, but only so-so on sonics. Off-loading that might give those early-adopters (and there were a lot of them) the ability to spruce up their old toy with a jolt of screaming adrenaline. Heh heh. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Noble Audio and Chord Electronics startle, deliver wonder

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CanManiaBrannan Mason, the public facing half of Noble Audio, brought a set of Chord Electronics‘ Hugo DACs to the party at CanMania for use with his company’s outstanding in-ear monitors. The Hugo, a battery-driven, USB-connected device, straddles the line between mobile and portable. That is, I wouldn’t really expect anyone to strap a mobile phone or DAP to the relatively plain casework, but I suppose you could. No, I figure most folks are going to tether it to a laptop and run it that way — that is, the way it was set up here at CAF.

Played back on various sets of Noble Audio IEMs, you get the unmistakable sense that something special is going on with this DAC, and at nearly $2,500, I suppose that’s a good thing. A note — I managed to borrow a couple of Hugos from different vendors and compare them. While the guts are all the same, apparently, the casework has changed lately to allow for “oversized” RCA connectors. Check out the pics, below.

Turning to the IEMs, Noble audio offers both universal-fit and custom-fit options for their line-up. The cost relates to and pretty much tracks with the number of drivers embedded in their tiny little ear-canal-hugging shells, starting from the Noble 3 at $350 and working up to the top of the line Kaiser 10, which is just shy of $1,600. The number on the model names seem to track with the number of balanced armatures driving the sound into your eardrums — the Noble 3 uses three, the Kaiser 10 uses ten (yes, ten drivers … holy s***!). Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Jolida says hello to little Rowen

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CanManiaJolida had a set of nifty little bits at CanMania this year, all targeting the personal audio enthusiast obviously.

The new kid of the block was a cute little prototype, tentatively called “Rowen”, after Jolida CEO Jerred Dunkerson’s daughter. C’mon — “aww” with me!

Awww!

This little gal features a pair of 12AX7 tubes, all lit up with blue LEDs, and a big volume pot on the front. Features are still a bit in flux, but will probably include a DAC (32bit/384kHz and supporting DSD) and maybe a wireless (not Bluetooth!) input, with some kid of 3D/”surround sound” and cross-fader effect. The price for the Rowen, or whatever it’s production name will be, should be about $750.Availability will be later this year.

Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Woo Audio sings with many voices

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CanManiaWhat do you think of when someone says Woo Audio? Me, I think “tubes”. Not any particular vacuum tube, actually, but tubes. You know. Generally. Oh, and headphones. Headphones and tubes. More properly, headphone amplifiers that are built like Sherman tanks dressed up for the ball, and festooned with vacuum tubes. Yeah, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

I’ve been lucky to publish on a few of these amps, including the $1190 WA6SE and the  $3500 WA5. Like the rest of the line, these two overachievers are as sonically accomplished as they are gorgeous to the eye and hand. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Astell&Kern, better digital audio for the mobile masses

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CanManiaThe Astell&Kern digital audio players have greatly impressed as being some of the very best of their kind. Which is kind of an odd thing to say, I suppose, because this market was swallowed whole by Apple about a decade ago, and most folks would probably be perplexed both by the idea that there were non-iPod music players out there and that iPod-based audio could be bettered.

It really is quite the mind-trick that Apple has pulled here, but the truth is, Apple has been clearly leapfrogged by many companies offering very fine fully-portable digital audio players. And, to my mind at least, at the very top of that heap sits the Astell&Kern AK240 digital audio player. Audio360 has covered this flagship product at some length, so I’ll refer curious parties to that review.

New to A&K is the refresh to the lower-level products, the AK100 II and the AK120 II. These two used to be clad in a combination of metal and plastic — the new units are all metal and quite sleek. Any questions of build quality are banished at a glance, and in-hand, the new units are really nice to … ah … fondle. Ahem. Anyway, the new models also boast improved specs and a greater flexibility to support a wider range of headphones.  Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: WyWires is seeing RED, flagship headphones grateful

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CanManiaAlex Sventitsky of WyWires has been making some very serious inroads into audio’s high-end in the last few years; I’ve been tripping over his cables (sorry about that time with that thing at the place, Alex!) everywhere I turn. His newest venture is, perhaps not surprisingly, a headphone cable. He calls it Red.

Red is very light and flexible and leverages the same general design goals as his other signal cables — that is, they overachieve on both performance and measurement.

Pricing starts at $299 for 5′, so no, this is not for your entry-level cans, but I’ve heard them on Audeze LCD headphones and their improvement to the linearity of those headphones, over the stock cables, is clearly audible and very welcome. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: MrSpeakers brings the big dogs, howls at the moon

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CanManiaMrSpeakers, is clearly on a mission. His flagship headphones, the Alpha Dog, is actually famous — it’s the first headphone to use 3D printing, in this case, in creating the highly sophisticated closed-back ear cup on the headphones. The sound of these headphones is, to near universal acclaim, class-leading in its price category — the $600 Alpha Dog is one of my default recommendations for anyone interested in what the high-end of headphone-base audio is all about.

Recently, MrSpeakers released a headphone slotted between his first effort — the $300 Mad Dog — and the flagship Alpha. The new headphone, called Mad Dog Pro, looks a lot like (as in, almost identical to) the Mad Dog, but sounds a lot like the Alpha. I think the Alpha clearly edges it out on the particulars of consequence, but the Pro gets close enough to make you salivate. Okay, maybe that’s just me. But at at $450, this is a winner. Super comfy with involving and articulate sound, the new Pro is a must-listen. Bow wow! Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Moon Audio lays out a feast

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CanManiaCapital Audiofest 2014 saw a very interesting evolution this year with the introduction of CanMania, a dedicated headphone/personal-audio show-within-a-show, organized by Audio360‘s Warren Chi and PTA Alum Frank Iacone. This is something of a trend, now, and the one I hope to see a lot more of at upcoming audio shows.

CanMania was, to my mind, a huge success. Almost two dozen “display and demo stations” were available to browse, engage with, and be challenged by.

My first stop was the sprawling table set up by Drew Baird and the Moon Audio crew. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Zu Audio with First Watt is transcendent

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Is it ruining the suspense to say that the Zu Audio room at CAF received quite a few votes for Best-In-Show? Probably. But for those in attendance, it was hardly a surprise. It’s true, the rooms that the Zu crew set up are always a little different. That’s known and expected. Okay, maybe it’s not. Let’s back up a second.

First, Zu Audio loudspeakers are a new thing, if by “new thing”, you mean “less than 20 years old”. They’re also kinda known for over-achieving their price point, that is, they tend to not cost an arm and a leg (usually just a couple of knuckles). Lastly — okay, no, not lastly — they do that “high sensitivity thing” very few modern loudspeaker designers bother with — that is, most of their lineup boasts a sensitivity right around 100dB. If you’re a microwatt kind of guy, Zu is one of the few exits on your highway.

Zu Audio has been received by the cognoscenti with mixed enthusiasm. On the one hand, 6moons and other sites have raved about their value (performance/price) ratio. On the other hand, some sites have been more critical (and sometimes, that criticism has been valid). That feedback has resulted in a broad evolution and this current crop, leveraging as they do, some truly cutting edge technology married to some of the best in vintage design, are the most linear, most dynamic, most interesting speakers I’ve yet heard from them. In short, they’re outstanding.  Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Core Audio Technology, Hawthorne Audio and GIK, take computer audio to eleven

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The Core Audio/Hawthorne room sat next to the CanMania showroom, commanding a large and open space. It was also really hard to miss — the charming Melinda Smith was outside, directing traffic for much of the weekend, for one thing, and for another, the amount of sound coming from the demo was enough to give whiplash to even the most profoundly challenged. But what made that sound memorable was its shocking purity. The fact that Chris Jones’ “No Sanctuary Here” was on the seemingly short playlist meant that I heard subterranean bass quite regularly. Being a fan, I took it as a gauntlet thrown. Have at thee!

The first thing I saw in the room, other than the crowd, was a pair of giant-sized open-baffle loudspeakers — the $15k/pair Rainier Mk II from Hawthorne Audio. Hawthorne makes several speakers, but is mostly known for their extremely high-qualiy speaker components, especially their drivers. The Rainiers feature a pair of 15″ “Augie” woofers and a pair of 15″ mid-woofers, with an AMT tweeter sitting between, nestled in a waveguide.  Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Luminous Audio steps on the Gas, swings a big Beam

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Tim Stinson of Luminous Audio and Mike Bettinger of GAS Audio have teamed up to create a new phono preamplifier, the Arion, which will be sold under the Luminous Audio brand. Mike’s $5,995 design has been a good while in the making and tweaking — I first heard about the project at Mini-CAF a little while back, but this was my first chance to see and hear the finished product.

As you probably know, a phono preamp is probably the hardest thing to make and make it sound right. It is, in essence, an amplifier, but one that must take minuscule signals and render them fulsome and gorgeous — and do that without noise. It’s a challenge.

The Arion choses the solid-state route, leveraging a “cascoded/paralled JFET topology” to get the low noise, and spends a seemingly disproportionate focus (and chassis space) on the lab-grade C-core transformers. Separate trannies are used for the +/- supplies. It’s a single-ended-only pre. More info will be available at launch, which should be shortly. Continue reading

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