CES 2015

CES 2015: A long overdue wrap up

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Before, after and during. That’s when I heave out the long sigh. An audio show — any audio show — wrings that out of me. But this year, CES was … different.

Whinging

ces-logoFor me, a show is equal parts work and play. I get out of the house, away from responsibilities, for two or three days. It’s like a vacation — or so my wife says. I get to sleep late, eat and drink myself silly, and hang out with all of the weird and wonderful folks that make up high-end audio. In short, my wife is absolutely right. It’s a party and I love it.

I also have to work, however. Yeah, yeah, I can hear you crying for me, Argentina. But I feel compelled to mention that I do have a day job that isn’t audio-related, so every audio show also means about 3 weeks of Scot-is-annoyingly-unavailable-to-his-family, while I sift, retouch, edit and presumably write. And by “write”, I mean something like 25k words. That’s a lot. For those of you keeping track, that’s about 100 pages of words, before you slice in the hundreds and hundreds of photos.

To help me make sense of what I’m sorting through, to enable Traveler to cover much more ground, and to acknowledge that a burden shared is a burden lightened, I’ve attempted to enlist a series of collaborators for most of the audio shows. Especially for a show like CES, with over 200 rooms all stuffed full of audio tasties. Without help, there was really just no way it was going to happen.

So, as with the last few shows I’ve attempted to tackle, I lined up a pair of likely lads and we set off. We split up the work. We grappled with the crowds. We slung our hash and ate that shit up. We departed, victorious. All the work was laid out and ready to be tackled.

And … they disappeared.

For the record, the missing personages are, to the best of my knowledge, no longer on Planet Earth or anywhere within the Inner Ring of Planets, but I’ve given up looking and referred the matter to Boba Fett to collect on the advances they were paid.

As for me, well, I’ve been practicing yoga. Okay, not really “practicing”, per se, so much as doing it in my head. And by that I mean that I’ve been drinking, binge-watching Archer on Netflix, and periodically pounding my head into a table. Mostly the latter.

Anyway, I’m finally getting my arms back around the beast. But yes, this is a long way to go to explain why CES took 3 months to “finish”, even if we’re really only 1/3 of the way through, and there was that big ol’ month-long gap in the middle. To those that pitched in and pinch-hit, you have my gratitude.

I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get to everything at CES this year. I didn’t even get close! My excuse — that I had folks lined up and ready to help me do just that — is just an empty suit. It’s all on me: mea culpa.

But now … well, now it really is time to move on.

So, before we stick a fork in it, there were many things I wish I’d had more time to see and talk about from CES. I mean, aside from just about everything. Let’s start with Chord.

Chord Electronics

Chord has been making truly exceptional electronics for longer than I’m aware of, but the most recent impact on my awareness (and the general awareness of the personal audio community) was with their remarkable battery-powered combo DAC and headphone amplifier, the Hugo. At CES this year, Chord launched Hugo’s big brother — the Chord Hugo TT.

The TT (“table top”) is not meant to be portable, like it’s little brother. Not that you’d really be tempted to stuff $4,795 worth of amplifier into your backpack, but hey, whatevs. The new form-factor is significantly larger than the relatively petit Hugo, but this one features a variety of delightful things unavailable to the smaller package. One is a galvanically isolated USB port. That’s good. Two 1/4″ headphone jacks are paired up with XLR and RCA analog outputs. A bigger battery and dramatically upgraded capacitors (supercapacitors, is what I heard) mean more power and more slam. The digital circuitry is unchanged from the Hugo.

Are you ready for a table top Hugo? Me, I’d love to try one out.

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Calyx

The big news at Calyx this year was actually quite small — say hello to the PaT. A headphone amplifier and DAC, the PaT is tidy, totally portable, even if it is somewhat limited with only 16bit/48kHz file playback support. While this means no DSD (sniff) and no ultra-high-res audio, you have to realize that the target market — iPhone users — can’t really do that anyway without some custom software that no one I know regularly uses. Thus, the PaT is pretty much perfect, and at $99, it’s a pretty good deal. Buttons on the case will interact directly with IOS for pause, volume and fast-forward/reverse.

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Scansonic

I don’t really know much about Scansonic, other than it seems that the designer also worked on Raidho. Makes sense, looking at the speakers — ribbons here framed by carbon-fiber drivers, caged in a svelte towers, some of which also house a pair of aluminum bass drivers — but the prices are what caught my eye. Even before my ear. That is, they’re cheap. The MB 3.5 is $5,000 per pair — and yes, that is not cheap. Except it is. That sound, here paired with electronics from Jeff Rowland and Hegel, was shocking. And yes, I mean that — I was taken aback. Surprised. Eyebrows fleeing into the hairline. Yep. Was not expecting that. 6Ω, 30Hz-30kH, this speaker kills. And it’s one of several available models, all at price points below this, their flagship offering. Looking forward to seeing (and hearing!) a lot more from them.

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Raidho

While we’re on the theme, Raidho seems bent on an up-market tear. The super-narrow X3 ($30k) was festooned with drivers (five on the front, plus two 8″ on the sides). Honestly, this speaker was way too much for the room, but the promise was there — give it oodles of space, and bask in it’s subsonic glories. Also shown was the new $30k Aavik U-300 integrated that Dr Karavitis saw last year in Athens. It’s an impressive beast, and that dial is wicked clever looking.

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SOtM

SOtM is an odd brand. My familiarity really only extends to their famous computer-audio audiophile-grade USB card, but that card was the best thing since sliced bread — according to just about everyone I know that tried it out in their DIY servers. But SOtM does quite a bit more than that.

Shown here with big speakers from Eggleston Works, SOtM fronted the system with a DAC/Pre, an amp, external power supplies, and proprietary cables and filters for both USB and Ethernet. There was a lot more on offer, and quite frankly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of bits and bobs the company is offering.

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Audioarts

Gideon Schwartz of Audioarts is a charming fellow and no one is ever going to fault him for his excellent taste. Lately, I’ve found him championing a speaker I’d never heard of, a brand called Zellaton. The speakers’ drives aren’t actually aluminum, but instead are a rather complex sandwich of space-age materials, resulting in a super-light and super-rigid cone structure. The cabinets are also not ported — they’re completely open on the back. I’m pretty sure Schwartz was using the Zellaton Grand ($80k/pair) here at CES, and drove them with a top-of-the-line electronics from CH Precision. That gear, including the $95k/pair M1 monos, have these giant digital meters on the front that give you a real-time readout of the output. Mostly loafing, the amps nonetheless slammed up to several hundred watts near-as-I-could-tell instantaneously. That was pretty awesome.

This show made a marked difference to my expectations when I found a Thöress Phono Equalizer in front of the turntable. Tubes? And CH Precision? Oh, yes please. The life and warmth of this pairing may have been the best I’ve heard from Audioarts to date.

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Genesis Loudspeakers

I’m a big fan of Gary Koh and Genesis, and was lucky enough to get some serious time on his superb G5.3 full-range speakers. One of the things I love about Gary is his near-miraculous attention to detail. There’s nothing in any of his products that Gary didn’t put there. Take the new $45k/pair G4 loudspeakers. The screws? Gary designed them. The veneer? Gary invented it. The bamboo? Gary grew it from seeds, fertilizing it with his own happy tears. Everything is “just so”. Like the G5.3, the new 4 has all the knobs and tweaks you could want. Gary’s preference, as a designer, may be Accuracy Above All, but he certainly gives us the tools to deviate as wildly as we see fit. Here, there are two knobs, “one that goes from soft to bright, and another that goes from tight to warm. It’ll drive the audiophiles crazy, but as my usual with all my designs, turn the knobs to point straight up, and that will be ‘flat’.” Two new monoblock amplifier lines were introduced as well. More here.

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Magnepan

Wendell and Galina were on hand showing off the newest from Magnepan — the .7 at $1,400/pair. A massive upgrade for the Model 12, the new .7 is cut from the same acoustic (and technological) cloth as the rest of the Dot-Seven series panels, and as such, shares a startling sonic similarity with them. $1,400 is not inexpensive, but calling it the opposite is kind of abusing the word “expensive” — at least in this context.

My first thought, hearing it here with electronics from Conrad-Johnson, was “Holy Cow!” My second thought was, “Are you sure this is not a 1.7?” Seriously. Seriously good.

I’m hoping PTA can field a pair of these in the near future. They’re killer, and for the price, an absolute bargain.

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The Rest of CES

The problem with CES is that it’s CES. That is, it’s big. That is, it’s kinda all over the Venetian Hotel … and the rest of the city of Las Vegas.

I did not make it to the Convention Center this year at all. I’m sure I missed a lot because of that but oh well.

What I did find, in the Convention Center area down under the Venetian, was a lot of wacky stuff, but robots, 3D printers, and drones were available in such splendid abundance, that I suspect that the coming AI Apocalypse is in fact much closer than anyone might care to admit.

So, I’ll close on this partial catastrophe of coverage with some images of the future-is-now, aka, your impending doom.

Enjoy.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Dazzled by ENIGMAcoustics, NuPrime and Celsus

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ces-logoThere was a lot going on in the ENIGMAcoustics room at CES this year, from the marvelous Mythology M1 loudspeakers to the delightfully clever devices from Celsus Sound and Nuprime. What I was not expecting, however, was the new Dharma headphones.

Dharma is a soon-to-launch headphone from ENIGMAcoustics. Pricing is targeting $1,200 for a set, and if they manage to keep the sound quality that I heard at CES, this is a steal. These headphones are all that, and two bags of chips.

They’re calling them a hybrid design, which may be misleading — but remember, this is ENIGMAcoustics. These guys started catching eyes and ears with their ESL “super tweeter”, so when they say hybrid, they mean an electrostatic hybrid. That is, part Stax, part Sennheiser, for a whole heaping bowl of audio awesome. What I didn’t catch was how they’re going to bias the headphones, but Wei Chang told me it shouldn’t matter:

Keep in mind any competently designed and built headphone amps will be sufficient to drive Dharma, therefore consumers are not required to purchase our also recently unveiled Athena A1 premium single-ended triode headphone amp, although there are certain definitive advantages when paired with Dharma.

What I heard, played through the Athena, was some of the airiest, luxuriant sound I’ve found in a headphone to date. And yes, there was plenty of bass. WANT.

On the opposite side of the room, the Mythology M1 loudspeakers were set up and playing some achingly beautiful music. Dr Karavitis recently reviewed this setup for Part-Time Audiophile, so I’ll let refer you to that, but I was very impressed. A balanced and sweet-sounding in-show demo can be impossible for many, but this was effortless.

On the rack, I found a couple of surprises, including a small brick from Celsus Sound. The Companion One ($595) is a WiFi enabled DAC that plays up to 384kHz and double-rate DSD files, and is about the size of an iPhone 6. USB and 24/96 Toslink S/PDIF inputs round out the ways in to the ESS9018K2M chipset, but while that’s all well-and-good, it’s the wireless streaming of high-res audio that catches the imagination. Playback quality, to my ears, was excellent, and the flexibility is just plain clever — and best of all, there’s no worrying about Bluetooth pairing, or whether or not aptX actually sounds better enough to warrant fiddling with it. My opinion, sure, but I think WiFi is just better. Ta freakin’ DA. I should also mention that the Companion One is also a headphone amplifier — in case that wasn’t clear — and dumps 160mW @ 32 Ohm and 28mW @ 300 Ohm. I heard it paired with the “matching” Gramo One ($249) universal in-ear monitors, and ended up requesting a full set for review. Stay tuned on that front.

Also in the rack was some gear from new-to-me brand NuPrime. NuPrime is apparently an evolution of “parent” NuForce, and has acquired NuForce’s high-end product line. A DAC-10H ($1,795) desktop headphone amplifier/DAC and a DA-16 Integrated Amplifier ($2,350) were in the rack, along with an Aries streamer from AURALiC and a CD-transport from Simaudio.

The DAC-10H supports up to 384kHz/double-rate DSD decoding and features a marvelous attenuator, using an “advanced, thin-film switched-resistor ladder network for controlling volume, i.e., a single resistor in the signal path at any volume setting”. Balanced XLR and 1/4″ headphone outputs are standard, as are XLR and RCA outputs.

The DA-16 leverages the same attenuator found in the DAC-10H, and adds some twists to the standard Class D amplification scenario:

The NuPrime amp circuit improves on the class-D amp by using a “self-oscillating circuit to generate pulse width modulation.” The amplifier switches on and off at a frequency of 600kHz, well beyond the 44.1kHz sampling rate of CD. Most class-D amps switch at 300kHz or lower. Completing the ensemble is NuPrime’s proprietary variable frequency Switch-Mode Power Supply (SMPS) technology. For thundering, authoritative bass performance, the IDA-16’s innovative supply and its Cross-Matrix Array (CMA) capacitor bank are capable – upon demand – of delivering extremely high current to the amplifier’s output stages. The result is unprecedented transient speed and an almost shocking level of dynamic impact that renders percussive instruments as though they were suddenly attacking outward from beyond the blackest depths of a phantom stage.

I’ll offer that this was a rather impressive room, all around.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Beyond Pono, Ayre still hot

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ces-logoI suppose that some of you, reading this, do in fact live under a rock or are otherwise sheltered from the world, and in so doing, have completely missed the hullabaloo around Neil Young’s high-resolution digital audio marvel, the Pono Player. If so, congrats — you can catch up right quick.

The secret sauce to the Pono’s sonic success may be best attributed to the technical savvy of Ayre, the designer of the player’s internals. As you probably already know, Ayre has been kicking ass in the high-end for years and years, so it’s probably not surprising that the company that designed the very first USB-DAC beloved by Stereophile Magazine was able to translate that into a portable player worth listening to.

So here we are, some 6+ years since the launch of their QB-9 DAC, and Ayre is still expanding their product line.

The Codex is a new headphone amp/DAC combo that should see the light of day later this year, and features very similar circuitry designs that saw light under Pono — with obvious and significant upgrades that are suddenly easy to accomplish when the product no longer has to be able to be carried in jacket pocket. Prices are still TBD, but the sound quality playing through the display pair of Sennheiser headphones was more than enough to get me very curious. That, and that old-school 3-digit LED display. I’m a sucker for retro. Expect an ESS9018 chip (of some variety) in the final product, with support for double-rate DSD and 384kHz PCM.

Other bits of audio goodness were scattered throughout the room, including the new-ish QB9 DAC, now with DSD playback support ($3,250), and the new “Twenty Editions”. Ayre has a long history of inline-revisions to existing products (the outgoing pre is the “KX-5xeMP”, the “xeMP” part of the name being the reference to several significant product iterations past the originally introduced KX-5), and that’s what we’ve got here — a “trickle-down” effect from their top-of-the-line circuitry and designs, now making their way into the mainstream “Five Series” product line. Here we saw the KX-5 Twenty preamplifier ($8,950) lashed to a  VX-5 Twenty stereo amplifier ($8,950) driving a pair of B&W flagship loudspeakers, with Cardas Clear cabling snaking across the floor. A new brass plaque is all that signifies the update externally, but inside, the boxes now sport the new “Diamond” output topology found in their flagship R-Series products.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: GoldenEar and the case for effortless, affordable power

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ces-logoSandy Gross is a fine gentleman, and one of the few “old-school” manufacturers that is still out there innovating after 40 years. He was one of the Founding Fathers of Polk Audio, and when they sold that company, started Definitive Technology. A brief detour through Hollywood brought him back to the designer’s table a few years back with the launch of his latest, GoldenEar.

GoldenEar seems predicated on the notion that great big sound doesn’t have to have a great big price tag. I like that — and to all reports, most of you do, too. Part of that sonic signature has to do with the new air-motion tweeters that Sandy is using in his GoldenEar speakers. Part of that signature has to do with the graceful, thin columns and their incredibly narrow baffles. Part of that has to do with the integrated subwoofers, which create a full-range package in a deceptively compact form factor. Whatever the magic most at play here, I find the whole to be extremely convincing.

I found Sandy at CES, wiggling his eyebrows and pointing surreptitiously at the guest he was entertaining, front-row and center. Yes, that’s John Atkinson’s absurdly full head of hair there, and I can attest that his head was bobbing and his foot tapping for the entire time I was in the room. He was so rapt, I’m not sure he even knew the rest of us were in the room with him.

GoldenEar was launching/debuting a few things in their two rooms at CES. One was a new soundbar (the SuperCinema 3D array, I think), another a new subwoofer. I’ll offer that the sub, the SuperSubXXL ($1999), was a stunner. I kinda mean that more literally than figuratively — it has two 12″ drivers and two matching passive radiators. I saw this thing, and feared for the structural integrity of the hotel. It’s massive. I kinda want three of them. Does that make me a bad person?

But the product that most caught my ear was a new tower speaker, the Triton Five ($1,999/pair). Unlike the stunning Triton One, the Five does not have a powered sub module. Essentially a larger version of the Seven, the Five combines one AMT tweeter with two 6″ mid/bass drivers and four 8″ bass radiators for a rated frequency response of 26Hz- 35kHz. The sound flowing out of these speakers, courtesy of a pair of Pass Labs monos, was among the very best at the show.

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CES 2015

CES 2015, The Personal Audio Perspective: Audeze EL-8

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by Warren Chi

ces-logoEight months ago, in the dead of night, my partner at Audio360 (and brother in life) Michael Mercer drove me to an undisclosed location. It was there that we had the opportunity to listen to something remarkable.

As the details were slowly revealed that night, one after another, it quickly became clear that the secret prototype headphone I was listening to wasn’t just playing the game for keeps, it was out to change the game.

That headphone is what the world now knows as the Audeze EL-8 Open Back. And even back then, it was all that and a bag of chips.

Though I had less than an hour with it that night, the signature was something that I won’t soon forget. It was essentially an LCD-X with more visceral macro detail, to the point where it was almost raw and brutally honest (in contravention of typical planar smoothness), and infused with some of the low-end warmth from an LCD-2. It was, for all intents and purposes, a pre-Fazor, “LCD-3 lite” type of signature and very well-balanced. It was with some hesitation that I handed them back to my contact, whom I shall hitherto refer to as “Deep Ears”.

It wasn’t just the sound of the headphone that had me in awe, it was the whole package. The technology, efficiency, design, build, comfort, fit and weight (or lack thereof) were all things that I did not see coming. But it was the expected price point that truly held me in disbelief. “Under $700.” Was that even possible? For an Audeze?

That’s cray cray!

There was only one problem: I couldn’t tell anyone about it. My inner Head-Fier was crushed under the weight of seemingly interminable gag order. Even Michael Mercer was effectively muzzled, much to his Facebooking/Tweeting/Instagramming chagrin. And so, for eight months, we waited. Putting that in perspective, products are announced, launched, hyped and then die in less time than that.

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And even when the news broke in a CES teaser ad in The Absolute Sound, we still couldn’t say anything. It was enough to drive a person insane, and I’m not altogether sure that it didn’t do just that in Mercer’s case, if only by a little bit.

Hmm…

Heading into CES, the Audeze EL-8 was the main attraction for many of us, if not all of us.

I arrived at the Audeze booth a little later than most. But when I finally got there, and listened to the EL-8 Open Back, it was… well… it wasn’t exactly the same headphone I had become enamored with eight months ago.

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Yes, I understand that listening to an open-backed headphone on the show floor is not at all ideal, but this was different, and I mean literally different. It varied, not only from the early prototype that I heard long ago, but also other from its litter mates nearby. I’m not going to say whether it was good or bad, only that it was not ready. It was exactly as I was cautioned it would be: an early preview of a pre-production tuning.

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Moving over to the EL-8 Closed Back, I heard a presentation that I would describe as perhaps less ready versus its open-backed sibling. Ah well, that’s fine. It had been made abundantly clear — through both official statements from Audeze, and my own ears — that the units present at the show were non-production tunings.

Accordingly, I won’t be providing any sonic impressions here… there’s absolutely no point in adding more premature findings to the cacophony of disjointed impressions already floating about. I’ve already waited this long just to even be able to talk about the EL-8, so I think I can wait a little longer until I receive my production-voiced unit before I present authoritative impressions.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at everything else.

Price

Over the course of the past few years, Audeze has been on a mission to lower the cost of high-end headphones. The result of these efforts is the EL-8, which will be priced at only $699. That’s absurdly low as Audeze headphones go. Seriously, think about that for a second. That puts the EL-8 in the same segment as Audioquest‘s Nighthawk, Fostex‘s TH-600, MrSpeakers‘s Alpha Dog and Sony MDR-Z7.

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Yet confoundingly, there doesn’t seem to be too much given up in the way of build, fit or finish to hit that $699 target. The EL-8 continues Audeze’s penchance for metallic construction. Every unit, open or closed, is styled with wood veneer. There’s a newly developed magnetic plug and jack system, one that is surely more costly than off-the-shelf mini XLR terminators. The entire unit is now hinged and articulated in a way that LCDs never were, necessitating new tooling and processes that are – again – more costly than those utilized in LCD production. And with the recent addition of their Fazor™ technology, and the introduction of their Fluxor™ and Uniforce™ technologies, the EL-8 isn’t merely a derivative of the LCD line – it’s at the very forefront of planar magnetic technology.

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So what gives? Why is the flagship of the new EL line so darned cheap? The answer is found in the synergistic combination of new technologies employed.

Technology

When we take a look at the range of planar magnetic headphones out there, we see a variety of models ranging from $129.99 to an astounding $5,500.00. And while many considerations come into play to determine a headphone’s production cost, and hence final selling price, there is a finite set of factors that govern planar magnetics more than most others: magnet structures, conductive traces, and material science being at the top of that list. For the past few years, Audeze has been advancing on all of these fronts, and thrown in a waveguide tweak as well.

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Making its debut in the EL series is Audeze’s new patent-pending Fluxor™ technology. Simply put, it is an ingenious re-arrangement of the drivers’ magnets so as to exert more magnetic force upon the diaphragm. In other words, there’s an increase in magnetic flux, without a corresponding size or quantity increase to the magnetic elements themselves. Or to put it even simpler, they are doing more with less (or the same).

Tyll Hertsens presented us with a brief overview in his CES coverage — and I hope he goes into more detail in an upcoming article. In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to play with a Fluxor concept demonstrator, and I can indeed confirm that the increase in the magnetic field strength is not trivial.

At the same time, the EL series also marks the introduction of Audeze’s new Uniforce™ technology as well. With the foundational understanding that the magnetic field influencing the driver diaphragm is not uniform across the entire surface of that diaphragm, Audeze is now varying the width of the circuit traces within the diaphragm, so as to simultaneously increase magnetic flux in certain areas, while decreasing it in others, the result being a more uniform or “uniforced” magnetic field.

There isn’t a trademark to fire our imaginations about Audeze’s advancements in material science. Well, there’s no trademark owned by Audeze anyway, as such advancements are most likely the purview of whichever chemical conglomerate developed them. I would imagine that Audeze – should they ever devise something novel and distinctive in this area – would probably call it Thinnor™ or Flexor™ or Fin[e]or™ or something like that. But just because there’s no trademark being promoted doesn’t mean there’s no improvement in this area. There is. I just can’t say how at this moment due to the lovely NDA in place between us, Audeze and I that is.

And finally, the EL-8 incorporates Audeze’s Fazor™ technology for reduced distortion, as it’s been proven effective in doing so throughout Audeze’s LCD line.

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It never ceases to amaze me how eagerly Audeze’s founders, Alex Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram, give personal demonstrations and walkthroughs of their creations.

 

So, how does all of this combine to help make the EL line so much cheaper?

With their Fluxor™ and Uniforce™ concepts working in concert on improved driver diaphragms, the EL-8 can (theoretically) achieve the same or better sonic performance of units in their LCD line with only half as many magnet assemblies, each of which are smaller than their predecessors. And that results in a huge decrease in production costs, especially when you consider how the Chinese are monopolizing rare earth elements these days.

However, as an enthusiast that puts performance first, I am thrilled about the technological ramifications here.

While I have not seen measured magnetic flux data to either prove or disprove the following assertion… but I would surmise that Audeze’s Fluxor™, Uniforce™ and Fazor™ technologies have been combined with better materials to synergistically produce something unique: the world’s first truly isodynamic (constant magnetic field strength) single-sided planar magnetic driver – or at least something damned close to that.

If that is the case, then it means that the EL-8 will have achieved a technological – if not sonic – advantage over other single-sided planar magnetic headphones. This would include the recently announced HiFiMAN HE1000 with its nanometer diaphragm, as well as the critically-acclaimed JPS Labs Abyss (a planar magnetic headphone that is nearly eight times as expensive while not being truly isodynamic). And if the EL-8 performs admirably, this will also mean that Audeze has found an effective way to sidestep the material science arms race, where lighter and more responsive membranes are everything.

In any case, I very much look forward to the continuing maturation of Audeze’s new technologies on many levels.

Design & Features

Audeze is making one heck of a bold move here with their new EL design. Straying from the safe confines of a bespoke, handmade and boutique product, the new EL-8 features an appealing consumer-influenced design that resonates more with casual headphone enthusiasts.

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Designed in collaboration with the BMW Design Group, the new EL-8 incorporates sweeping arcs, fluid lines, and sculpted curves that are far more reminiscent of something from Sennheiser or AKG. Personally, I dig the new design. But if you’re not a fan of the EL-8’s design, at least look on the bright side… thank heavens Chris “Bangle Butt” Bangle left years ago in 2009. Can you imagine the monstrosity that would have resulted from him getting his hands into the mix?

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And of course, in retaining part of Audeze’s legacy, the EL-8 sports a band of wood veneer that harkens back to the LCD line. I am of mixed opinion about this, and wouldn’t mind seeing some alternative materials used as an accent in lieu of wood veneer. I would imagine that some of my fellow enthusiasts would like to see a bamboo option, as would I. But more than anything else, I’d like to see leather as an option, which would also serve a function in preventing scratches or marring on surfaces when the EL-8 is set down.

In addition, I would like to offer Audeze another small suggestion. I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the design concepts that did not make it into the final product. And while I agree that Audeze made the correct overall choice, I would have liked seeing portions of those other designs integrated as additional EL-8 variants, particularly in terms of color and trim. Think Sennheiser HD 598, and all that entails, only much better tonally-speaking (i.e. not computer beige).

Nevertheless, I would be proud to wear this headphone out and about as-is.

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I’m also thrilled to see that Audeze is moving away from mini-XLR connectors. While I’ve never had any issues whatsoever with my Audeze LCD-X or LCD-XC, I know that other owners have experienced their plugs getting stuck inside jacks, as well as loose jack assemblies. This new magnetic connector system promises a secure yet graceful connection that should do much to relegate those connection issues into the past.

Comfort & Fit

We personal audio enthusiasts, being a sect of a larger audiophile cult, are eager to point out that sound quality comes first in our purchasing decisions. What we don’t often mention is that comfort is equally important. After all, if it can’t be worn, it can’t be heard. On this point, I am happy to report that the EL-8 is leagues more comfortable than any LCD model could ever hope to be.

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The near-final EL-8 on display at CES is not nearly as light as the secret prototype I donned long ago, but it’s not nearly as heavy as what we’ve come to know and love from Audeze. The clamping force, while still snug and secure, is likewise significantly reduced versus any previous model from the LCD line. And the new off-axis single-sided yoke is a welcome improvement, being able to articulate itself more ergonomically than ever before.

Coming from the LCD line, I have no complaints whatsoever about the EL-8’s comfort and fit.

Preliminary Verdict

Again, I’ll reserve sonic impressions for later, after my production unit arrives. But in the meantime, I have to admit that Audeze has managed to exceed my hopes and expectations thus far.

Over the course of the past eight months, I’ve been observing the implementation of their new technologies, keeping an eye on the development of the new EL-8, and witnessing Audeze’s efforts in moving to the next level in terms of catering to a more diverse range of customers. In many ways, they are almost a new company all over again, right down to their recent changes in branding and location. I, for one, wholeheartedly approve.

And it appears that I’m not alone.

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Given the incredible interest over the EL-8 in both of its incarnations — the EL-8 launch thread being one of the fastest growing threads in Head-Fi.org history — I think it’s safe to say that many an eye are focused on Audeze right now. I look forward to receiving my review pairs just as soon as they are ready, and final. But I can tell you one thing right now: if the final tuning sounds anything like what “Deep Ears” handed me that night long ago, I’m getting one for myself, without hesitation.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Aurender rocks hard on the digital audio toys

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ces-logoComputer audio is hard. This is a gong I’ve beaten on before, so it really shouldn’t be surprising that I’m still hitting it. Hard, you say? What’s so hard about it? You just [insert list of steps that you would never write down to hand to your mother-in-law], and “it works!” Ta da! Yeah.

The fact is that there is the set of people that are more-than-computer-literate and the set of people that are audiophiles. Those are not necessarily the same, mind, but I suspect that there is some significant overlap. But there are a good many of folks left out — and the idea of buying a Windows PC and tweaking the living daylights out of it, much less installing an audio-specific Linux distro on it, working out all the drivers and scripts necessary to have it actually sound good instead of just make sounds, is more than a little daunting. Just is. Sorry.

Which is exactly why companies like Aurender are out there. And why they’re thriving.

While they weren’t necessarily the first to market with an “audiophile-grade” music server, they are one of the most respected. There’s a reason — the servers are bullet-proof, relatively easy to use, and they sound incredible. And yes, using one actually does change the sound of your system. In my case, the change was rather dramatic. I guess that makes me a fan.

South Korea’s Aurender has a couple of new things coming out at CES, to supplement their existing line of audiophile-grade music servers. The first thing that caught my eye was the new Flow, a battery-powered headphone amplifier/computer audio digital-to-analog converter. If you’re thinking “Chord Hugo”, you’re spot-on; this is a direct competitor to the UK brand’s class-leading offering. And at $1,295, it’s almost half the price. Hmmm. More details:

  • User-installable mSATA slot for up to 1TB of SSD storage, making entire music collections portable
  • Very low noise floor for ultra sensitive custom IEMs
  • Ability to power even the most hard-to-drive headphones
  • 6.35 phi standard headphone jack
  • 32bit/384kHz, DSD64/128 DAC
  • 0.5dB velocity-sensitive volume & playback control

Did you catch that first bit? Yeah. MicroSD is so over. I can slap an SSD hard drive in this bad boy and get almost 10x the storage — to go. Sweet!

Want more? Catch Nathan’s review over at Headfonia.

In a strikingly sideways move, Aurender was also showing off their newest toy, the Cast-Fi 7. For $399, you get a “Hi Quality HDMI Docking Speaker”. If that doesn’t make sense, think of Google’s Chromecast, or Roku, or any of the other HDMI-dongle services that deliver video streaming directly to your TV, all without the need for a computer or disc player. So, yes, the Cast-Fi 7 is a TV. Sort of.

It sports a hi-res 7″ Samsung LCD screen, and the color and motion are quite good. There’s a credible bi-amped 2-way speaker built-in, with a 3″ woofer. It’s also the cutest little thing! 8 lbs, solid aluminum, and it sounds pretty freakin’ great. Of all the things I saw and heard at CES this year, this was the only one I was seriously tempted to buy on the spot. No, seriously. Fine, I really have no idea why it’s so tempting, but being able to watch videos on my desktop (maybe for binge-watching Archer episodes from NetFlix, as a possible completely-random example), or play music streamed directly from Pandora, without having to touch my laptop … I dunno. It’s really nifty. I can imagine having one in the kitchen. At my desk. In the can. At my desk in the can. TMI? Anyway, yeah. Yeah, I’m getting one.

But that’s not all ….

Aurender was also showing a network-streamer version of the computer audio server that John Grandberg was so taken with, called the N100. It is, to all appearances, a X100 without the spinning local storage — all content is pulled from the network, either in a streaming service (like Tidal HiFi, where native support is rumored to be perhaps “coming soon”) or a NAS. At $2,499, this marks something of a bargain related to the $3,499 of the X100L, so if you’re savvy enough to pull the drive, this might be a marvelous way to seriously upgrade your in-rack computer audio requirements.

But that’s not all ….

Also shown was the X725. Also offered at $2,499, the X725 is a DAC + digital amplifier! Paired with the X100 music server, Aurender is offering a fully in-house solution for those that might value synergy … and a shared aesthetic. Want a second system? Here you go. Some features:

  • Designed for quiet operation
  • USB interface for high quality audio
  • Auxiliary optical SPDIF input (useful for connecting additional audio sources, including CD players.)
  • Supports all major high resolution audio formats
  • Plays up to 24/192kHz, DSD64/128 in native mode
  • Power rating : 100W per channel at 8 ohms, THD+N 0.01%
  • IR remote controller

The X725, with the matching X100L or N100, can be purchased separately, of course. But! It can also be purchased together in a bundle. The X-PAC bundle, which features a X100 with 6 TB of on-board storage, for $5,999. Opt for the network-only N100, and that N-PAC price would be $4,999. Okay, not much of a saving, but it’s convenient.

I have some Aurender products now, so expect some reviews in the months to come.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Sony’s High Resolution Walkman is totally lux

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ces-logoI have a soft spot for the old Walkman brand. I carried one of the originals pretty much everywhere when I was a kid, and echoes of those painful, turbulent and largely destructive times echo cheerfully around when I think about Sony’s latest adventures in this space.

The new ZX2 “High Resolution Walkman” is supposed to hit at around $1,200 for what is, essentially, a digital audio player. As in, it’s an iPod. Without most of the non-audio flexibility that the iPod actually has. Hmm.

The DAP market, for reasons that aren’t terribly mysterious (thanks, Pono), has taken a few healthy steps forward this past year and the new ZX2 is Sony’s top-shelf offer for those looking to carry high-res audio around in their pocket. I got some time with it, courtesy of a pair of Sony MDR-Z7 ($699). The ZX2, which is supposed to hit the US at some point early this year, supports Bluetooth and NFC for streaming, apparently can play video as well as audio files, and carries up to 128G of storage, thanks to the MicroSD slot. And unlike the tiny A17 Walkman, this one supports DSD file playback.

I’ll offer this — this thing has a really nice feel to it. Unlike the Pono, which kinda feels like air-filled hunk of junk in the hand, the new Walkman feels like it’s purpose-built. Not sure that’s worth the huge price premium, but at least that extra money isn’t going to nothing. The screen is large, easy to read, and the controls are simple, responsive and intuitive.

As for sound quality … well, I was impressed. I didn’t have any other headphones to play with, but what I heard was pretty damn good.

The ZX2 offers quite a bit more flexibility than the portable headphone amp/DAC unit Sony is also introducing — the PHA-3 ($999). This unit also supports all the latest file formats that the Walkman does, but scarifies that sweet screen and the wireless options. I’ll offer that it may sound better, however. More testing is, sadly, required … but I have happily volunteered for such arduous work. Maybe Sony will even take me up on that.

Ha!

The PHA-3 is available now.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Acoustic Zen and Triode Corp crack space, let in the monsters

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ces-logoI am entirely suspicious of Twin Audio‘s Santy Oropel and Acoustic Zen‘s Robert Lee. Neither gentleman is exactly sporting Incredible Hulk physiques, yet someone had to move those massive speakers and equally massive amplifiers both into and out of that demo room at the Venetian Hotel. Given that each of the four components is on the far side of 200 lbs, I’m guessing either they’ve been eating their Wheaties (with a side dose of some serious Captain America “supplements”), or they had an army tucked away in the hotel room’s bathroom. Like I said, it’s suspicious either way. It all felt a bit too … neat. And those grins didn’t fool me for a second.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen or heard Lee’s flagship loudspeakers, the Maestro ($42k/pair) as he tends to cart around the more affordable, but still massive, Crescendo loudspeakers ($18k/pair). The two speakers are rather similar — the driver units and layout are similar, except for the size (10″ vs 8″) and the placement of a “mid-low” woofer at the very top of the stack. Both are transmission-line designs and both have a top-to-bottom coherence that is remarkable, almost disregarding the position of the listener. The Maestro, for the record, is a 4-way with a ±3db frequency range of 20 Hz – 40 kHz, 6Ω, and 87dB.

The Maestros were obviously too much for the not-exactly-tiny hotel room. With placement far into the room, the bass loading was explosive and threatening, but with that said, it was still tuneful. Yeah, there was a bit extra going on down there, but it was so very obviously due to the room, overlooking it was part of the course. Moving up past the mid-bass, I could very much see why Robert spent all his time grinning. Holy smokes. Deep tone, gorgeous textures, and some wacky-detail retrieval were all presented as if that kind of majesty happened every day. No fuss. No muss. No greasy aftertaste. If the room had let me drag that seat about 3′ back, I might have stayed all day. As it was, the looming Maestros were just a bit visually overwhelming, and the only super-hero I was able to channel was Ant Man. Me so tiny!

Anyway, no — they’re not cheap. But given that the only speaker that came to my mind while I was ensnared there was the Focal Grande Utopia, the idea of a super-speakers for $43k (instead of $200k+) seems like a value-play to me. But when you find yourself wondering — aloud, apparently — whether your kids really need to go to college, it really is time to go. If Admiral Ackbar hadn’t walked by, shouting “It’s a trap!”, bad things would have happened.

And then, I took a really good look at those amps. I’m pretty sure both Santy and Robert started cackling at this point.

You see, I’m a fan of Triode Corp. They make tube amplifiers that over-perform at their price point and generally look like they’re worth the money — that is, with that signature “red lacquer” finish and clean metal accents, the products actually look like they should cost the (relatively modest) pile of money that they do. I dig the sound, too — an emphasis on the tone instead of the speed may put it a bit out of step with “modern audiophilia”, but I’m down with that. This is my kinda groove.

That said, the higher up the food chain you go with Triode, the more “audiophile” the sound — more refinement, more air, more detail and mo’ betta’ bass. The TRX-M845 mono block amplifiers, at 130 lbs each, were alarmingly robust in the “down low”, for example. But here, with the Reference M-212, things just got dialed up to monstrous. First, the tube-chain is just silly — you have 310 inputs going to 300b, thence to 845 and thence to the ultra-massive 212 for output. And boy-howdy, we’re talking output — 100 watts of pure Class A in a (paralleled) single-ended triode circuit. Holy mega-tube, Batman. This thing is insane. Yes, it’s 200 lbs per side. And yes, it is $43k/pair. But I have never seen an amp this big, offering this much SET glory, so while I am taken aback by the price, I’m gobsmacked by the whole package. This would be hilarious to use on just about any loudspeaker out there. Just … whoa.

In the rack, almost hiding behind the wall of kaiju in the front row, was a “matching” Reference One preamplifier ($20k). This fully-balanced pre is tubed, like just about everything from Triode Corp, and fully dual-mono. The power supply is also separate, and also dual-mono. ALPS volume control and Silver/Gold Mundorf caps are featured, as are a vintage quartet of Raytheon 6KZ8 tubes, a pair of vintage RCA 22DE4 tubes, and a pair of EH 6DJ8 tubes. Two XLR and 4 RCA inputs are paired with three RCA and one XLR output. It’s a bit of a lightweight, at a mere 60 lbs. Ha!

There were some very pretty turntables from Triangle Art tucked into that rack, too. Perhaps I was overawed by the rest of the room, but I failed to get any information on them.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: DeVore Fidelity, a new Gibbon, and a ride with The Driver

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ces-logoIt was 9 p.m. Time to go and The Driver was ready.

A quick shuffling. Half of us were pointed one way, the others went to the other car.

DeVore had been rather deliberately vague. If Darko had any idea of what was about to unfold, he gave no sign. We found ourselves ushered outside into the temperate Vegas air. Back home, the family was “enjoying” single digit temps, but out here, it was 60. Almost balmy. I could get used to January’s like this.

Origami time. Watching first John Darko and then John DeVore fold up into a car — any car — would be hilarious. But into a Citroën SM? Well. I admit, I almost missed it. This thing was art. We pulled out from Circus Circus, merged, found an open lane. DeVore handed me something from the front seat. Night vision goggles. Wha -? 

And that’s when The Driver gunned it. 30 hours later, we were in Miami.

I’d heard about Alex Roy‘s cross-country cannonball in a modded BMW M5 years ago. On numerous occasions since, I’ve tried to imagine what it would take to make it from Manhattan to Long Beach in just over one day. In a car. In any car. My reaction, then and now, is the same: that’s f***ing insane. The average speed has to be well over 100 miles an hour …. Look, I’m intimately familiar with the M5, and I know that 100 is just about the sweet spot in that car’s highway cruising attitude … but you still have to stop … to buy gas, if nothing else! But that means that a lot of the drive time would be spent going way faster than 100 mph in order to make up for that … WAY faster. That’s 30 hours of nail-biting terror — flying — crammed into a tin can jammed full of only partially legal cop-detecting gear, just you and the certainty that, if caught, you were DEFINITELY going to jail.

These finer points, I remember ticking over and over with a couple of friends. Usually over beer … yeah, we visited this technological marvel a lot. 30 hours. Coast to coast. Un-f**-ing-be-LIEVE-a-bull. No way. NO-F***ING WAY! I remember all of us just shaking our heads at the massive, clanky brass ones Roy and team must have had to even attempt that run.

So, I might have been a little pie-eyed sitting next to him at dinner, that night. And yes, for the record, he clanked when he moved.

The trip to John DeVore’s “top-secret Vegas steak house” was book-ended by a ride in Roy’s completely cherry SM. Roy was offering some supplements, but it was John DeVore with the spooling commentary filled with odd little facts about the car. He was practically giddy sharing as we floated through the Vegas night on mint-condition 30-year-old car tech. I’m pretty sure I caught Darko’s eye several times that night, marveling. DeVore’s eyes would get round, and he’d talk faster and faster, the enthusiasm pouring off like steam. Great food, plentiful drink, wildly diverting conversation and not a word about hi-fi all night. My face still aches from the memory of the grin I had plastered across it that night.

Seems that Roy and DeVore have been friends for years, both having done time at Manhattan’s Stereo Exchange in early 90’s. At some point, DeVore went off to build loudspeakers, and Roy, well, he did something different. “Some folks, growing older, seem content with just cultivating a whole new smell,” says DeVore. “And then some just unfold into a whole new level of wonderful weirdness.”

Here’s Alex Roy explaining some of the mods to his car.

Back at the Venetian earlier that day, Roy and DeVore showed me around the suite. The room was typical DeVore Fidelity, in the best way: vinyl, Japanese tubes, and loudspeakers that vanish into the soundstage. During my tour, I was treated to the new Gibbon X ($15,500), DeVore’s latest loudspeaker and one of Part-Time Audiophile‘s Best of 2014. I loved this speaker back at RMAF, but John shrugged and grinned and said, “Yeah, well … about that ….”

The X was not that X. That is, this was a whole new thing.

Since RMAF, DeVore had made a … few changes. Like all new drivers. Yeah. Apparently, the final midrange driver was something he’d developed to work with a special new, fully suspended tweeter, but the samples coming from SEAS had never managed to get it quite right. So, the speaker at RMAF had pulled in the already-excellent tweeter from the flagship Silverback and he’d modded out a midrange driver to match it.

But then, SEAS nailed it … so DeVore dusted off the matching mid, and pulled in a pair of the significantly more expensive and upscale woofers he used in the Silverback, and bam, done. Say hello to the new Gibbon X.

“Hello there, you temptress.” Sorry, did I just say that out loud?

DeVore says that this new, and totally, completely and most definitely final version of this Gibbon has a higher output at lower distortion than the version shown at RMAF, with a bigger and bolder sound and more bass energy. I can’t comment on that — but I will say that this may have been the most impressive sounding room at the show. Yeah, I’ll stick to that.

Availability for the new Gibbon X will be in about two months (Q2). Some more specs: Frequency extension: 26Hz – 40kHz, with a flat 8Ω (min 7.5Ω) impedance at a 91.5dB sensitivity.

About the other bits in the room ….

A Brinkmann Bardo turntable ($9,490) was paired with an EMT 997 tonearm ($5,295), mounted with an EMT TSD15i stereo cartridge ($2,200). An Auditorium 23 Homage T2 MC SUT ($4,995) fed into a Leben HiFi RS30EQ MM Phono pre ($2,695).

The amp was one of my favorite bits of eye-candy, a Leben CS600 integrated ($6,495). This amp has gold-plated knobs (no, really, it does), wood side panels, a vintage chic that puts modern designs to absolute shame, and, almost uniquely, it features LEDs in three different colors. I love that.

Box Furniture, the company that also makes DeVore’s speaker cabinets, supplied the racks. All analog cables were from Auditorium 23.

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Alexander Roy goes in search of his inner happy place, finds a French car instead

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Citroën SM

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I swear, John Darko does — in point of fact — smile. No, really!

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Pass Labs and a suite full of new gear

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ces-logoPass Laboratories doesn’t really “do” audio shows. Sure, you can find their amps at AXPONA, T.H.E. Show, RMAF and others. In fact, it’s damn near impossible to not find them at shows. But they don’t show up. That is, neither designer Wayne Colburn nor CEO Desmond Harrington will be there. No, if you wanna catch up with them — or with what’s new or “coming soon” — CES is the place.

Walking into the huge suite that Pass reserves at each CES, you’re greeted by the Tower of Power. It’s intimidating — the full stack of just about every new amp currently on offer, all powered up. Silent. The big central dial glowing a patient blue. Heh heh. Heh heh. Awooooooooo!

Okay, so after that rather intimidating showing, it was fun to see all the new-new littered across the suite’s built-in bar. And there was plenty to look at.

First up? A headphone amplifier.

Yes! A Pass Labs headphone amplifier!

Desmond shrugged. “It’s still an amp,” he said. This is a particularly on-point point here, most especially given Pass Labs’ almost religious focus on the importance of those first few watts and ironing out every last potential barrier to audio awesome. Making an amp that only does those vital few? Yeah, that’s pretty much right in their wheel house.

I almost hate to say it but this is yet another example in what’s quickly becoming a trend and not just a “good idea” — hi-fi is heading toward head-fi, with a bullet.

The new, as-yet unnamed, amp sports two single-ended inputs, with both pre and single-ended headphone outputs. It’s fully Class A (with a mosfet output, low-feedback, circuit). According to the data sheet, it’s designed to drive headphones with impedances of 20Ω and higher. A low-noise PSU with “discreet regulators with over 40kμF of capacitance”, with a “custom over-designed toroidal power transformer with Faraday shield”, rounds out the details. The price-target is $3,500, with a release later in the year. A fully-balanced version will follow the single-ended version.

Going to extreme other-end of the audio market, I found the new Xs Phono Preamplifier. The price of audio mastery? $45,000. This piece, obviously, sits in Pass’ new top-of-the-line Xs series and is part of their no-holds-barred assault on the ultimate in performance. An external PSU in a dual-mono platform, with three inputs and custom settings for each. The internals feature six ceramic input boards and two ceramic gain modules. Fun, fun. Availability? In the next month or two.

Last, and certainly not least — a pair of new integrated amplifiers! The INT-60 ($9,000) and INT-250 ($12k) are part of the dot-8 upgrades announced last year that so wowed us. The INT-60 is going to be all Class A, after the XA-series, while the INT-250 will be Class A/B, after the X-series. A big glowing meter and a digital volume display round out the cosmetic changes. These guys look sweet — and 60 watts, in that architecture, is pretty much whispering “take me home”. Yep, that was me, absently reaching for my checkbook. Whew.

After getting almost strung out just walking in the room, I found that actually sitting down for a few minutes was non-optional. And there, before me, was spread audio joy all turned up. Some big TAD Reference loudspeakers, driven by an all-Xs front-end, was one of the most achingly pretty experiences I had at CES this year. So, naturally, we changed things up. In with the 1980’s pop, out with the classical. And … the room cleared. [Sigh]. Oh well. Sorry about that, Desmond.

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CES 2015

CES 2015, The Personal Audio Perspective: Beyerdynamic’s Custom Street, Custom Pro Plus, Custom Studio

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by Warren Chi

ces-logoIt’s almost a firm rule nowadays: whenever a portable circumaural (over ear) headphone is met with success, an even more portable and supraaural (on-ear) version must follow. That is the way of things my friends.

Beyerdynamic_T51iIt makes good business sense, as it’s very practical. Beats, Bose and Monster have employed this strategy with great success throughout their product line. Sennheiser has followed suit with their Momentum and Urbanite models. Even Beyerdynamic is no stranger to this concept, as they have shown with their baby Tesla models, the T51p and T51i (shown at right).

But in the case of Beyerdynamic’s Custom One Pro (COP), coming up with a supraaural derivative was easier said than done.

Beyond the goal of leveraging and extending the COP’s sound signature into a smaller and more portable form factor, there were additional and formidable factors to take into consideration.

Would they be able to physically incorporate the COP’s sound sliders into a smaller space? If so, would the sliders still be as effective in mechanically tuning the acoustics? Could the new model remain as customizable in appearance, without resorting to Beyerdynamic’s MANUFAKTUR service?

These questions and more are the stuff that engineers’ and product managers’ nightmares are made of. Luckily, Beyerdynamic seems to have answered all of these questions to their own satisfaction.

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Though it was launched before the 2014 holiday season, CES 2015 was the first opportunity I’ve had to check out Beyerdynamic’s new Custom Street (CS) headphone.

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As you can see, the new CS retains the COP’s Stormtoopery good looks. TK421, eat your heart out! And it definitely takes up less space than the COP, which makes it more portable by far. However, it’s worth noting that the CS is also larger than most supraaurals, especially when worn.

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So if compactness is your main criteria, you’ll want to make sure that you’re okay with its size. For me, personally, I love the slightly-larger-than-average-size, as I found the CS’s large pads supremely comfortable. Why is the CS so much bigger than standard supraaurals you might ask? To fit the sound sliders and customizable shields of course!

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And how does it sound? Well let me tell you, right off the bat, I wasn’t expecting much at all. I thought it would sound like a mini bass cannon, which it kind of did when I set its slider to the “Heavy Bass” setting.

But in switching the CS to its “Analytical” setting, I was rewarded with a far flatter and much more balanced presentation. In fact, at several points during my audition, I remember musing that it sounded like the progeny of a DT770 and DT880. In short, I wound up being very pleased with it.

That said, I still prefer the combination of refinement and detail found in their T51p/T51i models. But I would happily recommend the CS to anyone if their budget didn’t allow for a T51p/T51i.

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The COP is dead, long live the COPP! Epanaleptic confusion aside, the Custom One Pro is actually – and technically – discontinued. In its place, we now have the Custom One Pro Plus.

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Essentially, the new COPP (or COP+) is just a Custom One Pro with the addition of a new mic-remote cable, as well as the same shield designs available in the Custom Street.

Hey, that’s just more gear for less money, which I’d take any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

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Beyerdynamic Custom Studio

By Michael Liang

Like the more portable Custom Street, Custom Studio also made a debut at CES.  Both models features the company’s unique CUSTOM sound sliders found in the original Custom One Pro, but the Custom Studio features a more reference-level sound-signature targeting studio work.  Hardware changes from the original Custom One Pro are an 80Ω impedance vs. original 16Ω, with replaceable velour ear pads, and a cable without an in-line remote. By contrast, the Custom Street is geared towards the mobile user with its smaller ear cups, foldable housing shells, in-line single button remote on cable, and easier to drive 103 db sensitivity at 38Ω.  Availability is late Q1 — so, think February/March.  Custom STUDIO retails for $299 while Custom STREET will be at $199.

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CES 2015

CES 2015, The Personal Audio Perspective: Audiofly’s AF250 and AF240

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by Warren Chi

ces-logoI am a sucker for finely-crafted second acts. Protagonists, having glimpsed their destiny, resolve to embrace the unknown, and embark on an epic journey of transformation and self-discovery. Along the way, our hero traverses vast distances to arrive in far away lands, undergoing trials and tribulations, and discovering new-found knowledge and secret powers – ultimately forging the weapons that will bring triumph and victory.

Enter Audiofly.

Founded and based in Australia, Audiofly has been quietly working on series of increasingly-better IEM designs since 2010. While they may not be the first name that enthusiasts think of for high-end personal audio, they are certainly known to Head-Fiers, having been inducted into the Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide as far back as 2012 with their hybrid AF-78 and dynamic AF-56 IEMs – which are still in production to this day.

A few years ago, Audiofly journeyed across the Pacific to set up a second shop in Laguna Hills, California – where they continued to increase the breadth and depth of their product line. This includes their universal in-ear stage monitors…

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• AF120: 9mm dynamic driver + balanced armature driver; crossover; 12 Ohms; 108dB sensitivity; $249.99
• AF140: Single dynamic driver + dual balanced armature drivers; crossover; 38 Ohms; 118dB sensitivity; $349.99
• AF160: Triple balanced armature drivers; crossover; 18 Ohms; 110dB sensitivity; $449.99
• AF180: Quad balanced armature drivers; crossover; 18 Ohms; 108dB sensitivity; $549.99

…as well as their new Tiesto-collaborated “Clublife” in-ear monitors.

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• Paradise: Single 9mm dynamic driver; Available in black, green, aqua and pink; $29.99
• Maximal: Single 11mm dynamic driver; Available in red, silver and gold; $59.99
• Adagio: Single dynamic driver + single balanced armature driver; Available in black and red; $149.99

But what I’m really excited about are Audiofly’s new full-sized headphones, which feature a novel headband that auto adjusts in three directions to fit the wearer in an instant.

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I first came upon these about a year ago when I visited with them in Southern California. We weren’t allowed to take any pics at the time as they were just mere shells of their future selves (literally, there were no internals). But even back then, the headband’s autofit feature looked very promising in terms of ease. And now, they’re real!

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The AF250 (shown above) is the flagship of the line, their Slayer of the Lifeless. It’s set to retail for $349, which puts it in immediate competition with Blue Microphone’s Mo-Fi, another headphone with a unique headband system. The AF250’s headband and cups consist of a die-cast aluminum alloy that sounds much heavier here in words than it feels in real life.

Sporting a dual-membrane diaphragm in its 40mm neodymium drivers, the AF250’s signature is promoted as being “beautifully balanced, honest” and I think I could agree with that on many levels. It’s certainly more balanced than the AF240. I am definitely looking forward to evaluating these in greater detail.

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The AF250’s lesser-capable, and more consumer-friendly sibling, is the AF240 – their Sword of a Thousand Truths. It will retail for only $249, which puts it squarely in competition with Audio-Technica’s ATH-MSR7 and Sony’s MDR-1R. Unlike the AF250, the AF240’s cups are polycarbonite (though the headband is still die-cast aluminum alloy), which goes a long way towards making them much lighter.

Sound-wise, it’s billed as being “for the passionate listener who craves rich, detailed sound” – which I interpret to mean on the bassy and peaky side, a v-shaped signature. Though I look forward to hearing it, I haven’t yet, so please discount my words appropriately. That said, like most Head-Fiers, I’ve become reasonably adept at deciphering market speak, so how wrong can I be?

Both models are fairly easy to drive, at 16 Ohms of impedance, and will hit 103 dB @ 1kHz… so it’s clear that these are meant to be portable, despite being full-sized circumaurals. I’m happy that both of these will be entering the market shortly, and look forward to giving them a spin.

The stage is set, and Audiofly’s third act awaits!

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Questyle brings cool tech to portable players

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ces-logoThe portable digital audio player (DAP) market has heated up considerably in the last 12 months, much to the surprise and chagrin of just about anyone who owns an iPhone. But it’s true — with some truly excellent offerings in this space from Astell&Kern and others setting the stage, and then a disruptive crowd-funding campaign from rocker Neil Young, a market many of us had assumed dead (okay, maybe that’s just me) has not only life, but a wild, thriving, Reanimator-style gusto to it, too.

Into this mix now steps Questyle.

Questyle has been very effective with its headphone offerings — and the CMA800R amplifier ($1,999) has earned some very favorable attention from our friends at Audio-Head, 6moons and many others. The key (well, among other things) is that the brand uses an unusual method for handling the amplification, which they call “current mode” (with a patent pending). From the website:

What is Current Mode Amplification? 

“Current Mode Amplification” means the amplification is processed in Current version, instead of Voltage version. It’s widely applied in high-speed communication industry and video processing industry, but it’s Questyle Audio’s patent technology to apply it into headphone amplifier. Current Mode Amplification, same as Voltage mode, also take transistors as amplification components. But the amplification circuit loop is totally different from that in voltage mode, in the whole closed-loop all the capacitors in between those transistors which affects speed and bandwidth are working under ultra-low impedance, so it can easily achieve large bandwidth and ultra low distortion. 

Why we choose Current Mode Amplification 

1, Low distortion and large bandwidth is what all amplifiers want to achieve. Only with ultra large bandwidth and high-speed processing can an amplifier wonderfully process sudden pulse wave signal, and achieve real playback of music signal speed and transparency. Like Questyle CMA800i, designed with ultra-low distortion as 0.00026% and ultra large bandwidth as 850KHz.   

2, Traditional Voltage mode amplifiers always cause a Transient Intermodulation Distortion (TIMD), which brings a harsh “metallic sound”, badly destroyed the sound.To eliminate TIMD, designers usually adopts feedback circuit loop (low feedback, partial feedback or negative feedback) in hardware but these don’t totally settle the problem, and cost is very high.   

3, While Questyle gives up the traditional voltage mode format, designed with a “Current Mode” amplification. When the components is working in Current mode, amplifier Slew Rate (SR) achieves a linear increase as input signal amplitude increases, it is in proportion to input signal amplitude. When it’s input with large amplitude signal, Current Mode amplifier SR is much larger than traditional Voltage mode devices, it can totally eliminate TIMD and ensures large amplitude signal and low distortion real playback. 

Got all that? Great.

The interesting part, to loop back in the intro, is that this technology is now coming to their upcoming DAPs, the QP1 (TBD, but ~$600) and the QP1 Pro (also TBD, but ~$900).

The players will support file resolution of up to double-DSD (and everything below that) and all file formats. The chip is the same as found in the top-of-the-line Astell&Kern AK240, a Cirrus Logic CS4398 (well, one of them — the AK240 uses a pair). Both the QP1 and the Pro will feature a pair of MicroSD card slots, for up to 256G of storage. Beyond that, the two units are rather similar and will offer the same functionality. The difference will come down mainly to parts — at 32G, the Pro will have four times the internal memory of the QP1, and will also feature a host of subtle parts upgrades across the output path, all adding up to a superior sound. Questyle VP Bruce Ball also mentioned that there may be a few more cosmetic changes to the two units between now and general availability in late April, possibly including an upgraded screen. We’ll have to wait and see on that — but not long, as Bruce plans to show fully-funcitonal pre-shipping units at CanJam SoCal in late March out in Newport Beach, CA.

So, what else was new? Glad you asked.

CES also saw the debut of the CMA800i ($2,495 — available now), an “integrated” product that combines the functionality of the CMA800R amplifier and the CAS192D ($1,999) digital audio converter in one chassis. Bruce describes this as “80% of the CMA800R and CAS192D for just over half the price”. That spells “value” to me. Brian will be getting a unit for review, so stay tuned for that.

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CES 2015

CES 2015, The Personal Audio Perspective: HiFiMAN’s HE1000 (Part II of III)

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by Warren Chi

ces-logoStepping into HiFiMAN‘s booth was like stepping into a personal audio clubhouse. Not only was it chock full of gear, but it seems that many of our friends descended upon them right around the same time.

Brian Hunter (Audio-Head), Ethan Opolion (Audio360.org) and I ran into Jamey Warren (HeadRoom) right away. Mike Mercer (Audio360.org) and Tyll Hertsens (InnerFidelity) were relatively nearby, followed by Drew Baird (Moon Audio) and Frank Iacone (Headphone.Guru) shortly thereafter.

I think it’s safe to say that we all made a beeline towards the HE1000. Jamey got there first.

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The HE1000 rig on display consisted of HiFiMAN gear through-and-through, cables excepted. The source was an HM901s DAP, docked via a DOCK-1 to an EF-6 headphone amplifier, which in turn drove the HE1000. Next up was Ethan.

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If you’re curious as to how the HE1000 will look on you, the photo above should be a decent indicator. Ethan has, in my opinion, a nominally-sized head. It’s neither too big, nor too small. As we can see, the HE1000 is a bit on the large side, due to the ginormous driver employed. This bodes well for our listening pleasure, even if it won’t get much play with the ladies.

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Both Jamey and Ethan came away with very positive impressions of the HE1000’s sonic capability. And from what I could gather from others there, the sound quality was – by all accounts – absolutely brilliant. As for myself, I didn’t listen. I know that sounds crazy, but I just couldn’t imagine coming away with authoritative impressions due to CES noise levels.

A Brief Note About CES Noise Levels

The Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) is a fantastic venue in which to see and hear many things at once, a veritable and euphoric cornucopia of sensory input. It’s also a horrible place to gather impressions of open-backed headphones. The ebb and flow of traffic means that dB levels tend to vary throughout the day, but on average, here’s what it’s like in a nutshell:

Imagine that your neighbor’s kid has just discovered car audio, in the worst way possible. His only two priorities are loudness and bass. Now let’s add a few of his friends who are doing the same thing. And finally, let’s give each of them their own corner, in a CostCo, during the holiday shopping season.

There ya go.

Personally, I would only accept impressions of open-backed gear, gathered in such an environment, with a huge salt lick — including my own. This is why, more often than not, I decided to forego impressions on the LVCC show floor. Sorry to disappoint you guys, but I’ll make it up with detailed impressions gather from final production units in a controlled environment soon enough.

Luckily, HiFiMAN had also taken a suite at the Venetian, which is where I’d be spending Day Two. I resolved to gather some decent impressions there, so stay tuned for that report, which should be up shortly. But before we close out HiFiMAN at the LVCC, I did want to point out one thing that got me all wet. On a whim, I decided to take a look that the connectors on the HE1000, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Fang went with 1/8″ mono mini jacks.

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WOO HOO! Were I a lesser personal audiophile, I’d have spoodged right then and there. Like many of you, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with the mini-BNC connectors on my HiFiMAN cans, so I’m quite pleased that we don’t have to deal with those for the HE-1000. I’m also happy because this means I get to try out some other cables that just happen to be terminated in the same way… like the new Kimber cables made for Sony’s MDR-Z7.

Even without having heard it, the HiFiMAN HE-1000 was already looking quite promising indeed.

On a separate note, I am very pleased to report that HiFiMAN liberally offered complementary hand sanitizer to any and all who wished to partake. In my opinion, hand sanitizer should be found in abundance at every booth. Thanks HiFiMAN!

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CES 2015

CES 2015, The Personal Audio Perspective: HiFiMAN’s HE1000 (Part I of III)

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by Warren Chi

ces-logoYou’ve probably heard all about the HE1000 by now.

It’s the newest flagship headphone from HiFiMAN‘s latest generation of headphones, which includes the HE-400i and HE-560, both of which are very good in their own right. And from the moment it was first announced, approximately a week before CES, the HE1000 has quickly earned itself a reputation as one of the very best headphones that many have ever heard – even in its current pre-production form.

“To be ignorant of the past is to be forever a child.”

-Marcus Tullius Cicero

If you’re new to personal audio, that’s probably all you’ll ever need to know before scheduling an audition, or just taking the plunge and buying it blind when it’s eventually released. But if you’re curious as to how the stunning HE1000 came about… seemingly out of the blue… then you’ll want to know the full back story to this saga, which began over seven years ago.

Back in 2007, an obscure Chinese company named HE Audio had employed (at that time) an even more obscure Fang Bian to create an electrostatic headphone capable of holding its own against the very best the world had to offer. This meant taking on the Sennheiser Orpheus, Stax SR-009, Stax Omega, etc. In other words, this was not a trivial undertaking by any stretch of one’s imagination. By 2008, a few incremental models had been released, culminating in what is today known as the HE Audio Jade. Like the Sennheiser Orpheus, it was produced in limited numbers for a relatively short time span before it disappeared into Head-Fi lore.

What made the HE Audio Jade so special, was that it sounded absolutely glorious if you got your hands on a good pair. And with just a little bit of modding, it became something absolutely transcendent and heavenly. Unfortunately, product consistency was an issue, as it always is whenever one pushes the envelope, and that’s how that story goes.

But it doesn’t end there.

Departing HE Audio, Dr. Fang Bian went on to found HiFiMAN. And over the years, he has churned out a string of planar magnetic hits known for both exceedingly good sound quality and unbeatable price vs performance ratios.

However, for those in the know, for those who had heard it, and certainly for many that owned one, the HE Audio Jade stood as a testament as to what was possible. And through the years, many yearned for the return of the HE Audio Jade, or an HE Audio Jade II. There’s even a long-running petition on Head-Fi begging for exactly that.

For a long time, that quiet yearning by a small minority of enthusiasts, was all there was in the way of a new Jade.

Then, about a year ago, something suddenly showed up on the Interwebs. And just like that, the fire for a Jade II was re-kindled. As you can see from that link, it was obviously an HE1000 prototype or pre-cursor, but no one knew that at the time.

As 2014 progressed, anticipation continued to build, tempered only by the exemplary performance of the HE-560, which was just good enough to make people forget about a random Jade II photo for a short while. More importantly, the HE-560 was actually available for purchase, which certainly helped those who wished to enjoy it.

But it was too late. Pics or it didn’t happen right? And there were pics, so clearly something was happening somewhere.

On December 29th of 2014, Head-Fier cCasper TFG started a thread about the new HiFiMAN HE1000, and we were off to the races. It was the “Jade II” seen nearly a year before, but this time it was real, the unit had a model designation. Of course, as the world would subsequently learn, the HE1000 is a planar magnetic headphone with a single-sided magnet structure and the world’s first nanometer driver membrane. It was not an electrostatic headphone as was first believed.

Honestly, does that even matter? I won’t get into specific impressions now, and I know I’m about to spoil parts II and III, but the fucking HE1000 sounds totes amazeballs! It’s the bee’s knees, the goat’s cheese, and everything in between. And as such, it is very likely the Jade’s spiritual – if not technical – successor.

Here endeth the lesson.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: ADL hits with the updates

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By Michael Liang*

ces-logoAlpha Design Labs (ADL) is a subsidiary of Furutech, Japan. Yes, the same Furutech that supplies high-end audio connectors to premium cable companies. ADL specializes in personal audio products. Their variety of premium Apple MFI certified cables, X1 portable DAC/amp and H118 studio reference headphones caught my attention last year. So naturally I had to visit their exhibit at CES to see what they had in store for us this year.

New for 2015 is the improved H118 dubbed H128 studio reference headphones. Thankfully, the new model has the same over all design as the H118. I found the Alpha Triform Contour Earcups extremely comfy and the headphone isolates outside noise very well. ADL tells me much of the changes were under the hood e.g. entirely new drivers with high flux Alpha-Cryo treated magnets, vibration damping aluminum band under the leather headband, rhodium-plated mini XLR socket and many more.

Another new under the hood product is the GT40a USB ADC/DAC/headphone amplifier. This is a rather unique product featuring an internal low-noise MM/MC phono preamp. Those of you with a collection of vinyl with the intent to digitize for archive or upload to music server would appreciate this high-performance all-in-one box. Digital in and out are 24/192 chips so your vinyl transfers will not be compromised by hardware. I’ve got boxes of old EDM LPs waiting for me to convert to digital. It looks like the ADL GT40a is the tool to do the job.

*Ed note: Just wanted to throw out a special thanks to Woo Audio‘s Michael Liang, who happened to be at loose ends and wandering CES this year (instead of working it, like usual). When one of my regularly-scheduled Travelers was massively delayed, he cheerfully and freely offered to pitch in — and we’re very grateful for his support, thoughts, and photos!

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CES 2015

CES 2015: GamuT is a sexy beast

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ces-logoI will admit that I’m a newcomer to GamuT, with my only real experience with the brand being enthusiasm from George Counnas of Zesto Audio for their amps (Newport 2012, RMAF 2012, and Las Vegas 2013) and an enthusiastic endorsement of their loudspeakers from TONEAudio’s Jeff Dorgay.

Regarding the loudspeakers, it was something of a surprise to see Robert Greene of TAS pan their mid-level offering, the new $30k/pair RS-5. Having heard these loudspeakers in New York, and again at RMAF a couple of weeks later, I can honestly say I have no idea how Greene got to his conclusions, but I do wonder if he set them up right. Seems to be the only way I can reconcile his view and the universal acclaim that these speakers received at those two shows — something’s really off in that review. Just sayin’.

Anyway, the RS-7 is what was on display here at CES. The RS-7 ($40k/pair) is a full 3-way, unlike the smaller RS-5, adding a second woofer at the top of the cabinet. Were it up to me, the RS-7 would be the one I’d want in listening room. Well, sure, the mammoth RS-9, at a whopping $110k/pair, would be awesome, but I’d need another room (in a different house) for that monster. So, back to reality (ha!) — the RS-7 would be pretty much an ideal game-ender loudspeaker. A 4Ω (3.2Ω minimum) loudspeaker at 89.5dB and capable of 22Hz – 60kHz, the entire line sports a very clean look. A raked-back fascia, with grooved, textured and a deep sweeping curve to the side panels, all conspire to make the speakers appear much smaller than they are — they’re 150lbs+ each, for one thing, and 51″ tall and 20″ deep. Most definitely not tiny.

Shown here with the same equipment from RMAF, including the M250i mono power amps ($12,990 each), the D3i Dual Mono preamplifier ($8,290), and a GamuT CD3 player ($7,990). Cables were all GamuT also, including their new leather-clad “Wormhole Reference” speaker cables ($14,990/biwire set @ 5′), and the Wormhole Signature interconnects ($2,990) and power cords ($3,490). Pear Audio Analogue provided the complete analog source path, based on their gorgeous Kid Thomas turntable from the new Pear Blue line ($5,995) with a Cornet 2 tonearm ($2,195), an external PSU ($1,995 extra) and Reference 2-box phono pre ($4,495), an EAR MC4 SUT ($2,295) for the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze moving coil cartridge ($2,309).

This system, like the last several GamuT setups I’ve heard, was powerful, eloquent and tonally rich, with more than enough bass to irritate the neighbors several floors away. That said, what I kept thinking, kind of over and over, was: “Really, there aren’t tubes in there? You’re SURE?”

The sunset on the strip didn’t hurt the overall presentation, either. This was magic, pure and simple.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: AudioQuest strikes with NightHawk headphones

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ces-logoOne of the highlights of this year’s CES was the release of the NightHawk from AudioQuest. This may be placing some undue pressure on the headphone to over deliver, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. No, I mean that they were pretty much CES 2015 in a nutshell: this year was “The Year that Hi-Fi found Head-Fi”.

I wrote about this trend a bit over a year ago — that “traditional” hi-fi brands would look at the emerging market segment that is headphones, and say, “hey, we can totally do that, and better!” And then attempt to do just that.

These new cans, at $599, are not inexpensive enough to see them wipe out the newest Beats offerings or the other mass-market players, most of whom are floating products at and below the $300 mark. Like the new EL-8 from Audeze, I think what’s most striking about them is the bridge being make. It’s not about dominance, not exactly — I kinda think it’s more about credibility. Hi-Fi? Meet Head-Fi. Bam! And for the record, this NightHawk is a very credible headphone. It’s also pretty sexy to boot.

My first impression was that this may be the lightest headphone I’ve picked up in a long time. I nearly launched a pair attempting to get a listen. Designer Skylar Gray didn’t find that nearly as funny as I did, but there you go — they’re wicked light.

The head band is a single wiry cable with a leather strap, and the ear-cups are made out of something called “liquid wood”; I’m told this is very sustainable and highly formable. The result was touch-me comely, and was what I thought was finished to a gloss and painted with a sweet-looking burl … but wasn’t. From Stephen: “Actually, the earcups are not painted at all. The patterning of the earcups is simply a result of the processing of the material, and because Liquid Wood is a natural material, every earcup will be exhibit subtle variations in color and pattern.”

A semi-open-back design, the NightHawk has “50mm high-excursion drivers [with] biocellulose pistonic diaphragms and compliant rubber surrounds. The biocellulose material is rigid and self-damping, making it far more accurate and musically pleasing than Mylar.”

The sound of these headphones, paired with gear from Schiit Audio and played back in the middle of a release party, was a little challenging to pick out. I blame a crowd bubbling with enthusiasm and high spirits — and the buckets of IPA that were emptied rather promptly — but I hope I’ll get some more time on them soon.

Brian has some more thoughts over on Audio-Head and there’s a lot more on InnerFidelity.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: D’Agostino brings new MLife and Cinema Standards

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ces-logoThere are a lot of things you can say about audio’s high-end. But every now and again, you’re faced with a product that is so awesome-looking that you can’t help but look at the price tag and say, “Oh. Yeah, I can understand that.” For me, D’Agostino is that brand.

Now, I have to be honest — it’s not like I see those price tags and scream, “Shut up and take my money!” I think I might have mentioned the neglect I’ve been getting from the Lotto Fairy at some point, so no need to rake over old insults. But there are more than a few components out there in hi-fi that do leave me scratching my head as to what possible calculus allowed them to arrive at their MSRP.

D’Agostino, it appears, has chosen to make all that pretty obvious — their flagship products are so unbelievably pretty that my first reaction is “Yeah, I can’t afford that,” followed quickly by “But my-oh-my, ain’t that something.” And if a steampunk chic isn’t really your thing, well, you’re wrong. The Momentum line, with their green and softly-glowing clockwork dials, highly machined casework and copper accents, are amazeballs.

Anyway, the new MLife integrated amplifier ($48k, shipping in April) features a 24bit/192kHz DAC with built-in UPnP-compliant streaming capabilities and support for AirPlay, aptX Bluetooth. It also comes with a native TIDAL HiFi client, with support for Deezer, Spotify and Sirius XM yet to come. The MLife has “the same amp circuits as the Momentum integrated, but replaces the tone controls with a 5″ color LCD display.” There’s also an app, for both IOS and Android, which also allows for vTuner Internet radio streaming.

Not shown here (not sure what happened to those photos) was the new Cinema Standard multi-channel amplifier. Interestingly, the new line of amps are meant to be rack mounted — that is, not necessarily placed on the floor, front-and-center, but rather squirreled away somewhere not readily seen. Stripping away the incredible shell and replacing it with something a bit more pedestrian allows the price to come down to $12.9k for the 2-channel version and $15.9k for the 3-channel version. These new amps come with RS-232 inputs for custom-installation setups and will come with customizable high- and low-pass filters for tuning to your multi-channel rig. The specs put the output on the Cinema Standard at 250 watts into 8Ω, doubling down into 4Ω and doubling again into 2Ω. For those not interested in the home-theater features, a “bare” version of the Cinema Standard stereo amplifier will also be available for $12k.

General availability is “a few months”.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: Burson and Audeze light up the phones

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ces-logoBurson Audio has been a player in the personal audio space for long enough I’m not bothering to do a fact-check on. They’ve just “been there”, hovering in my audio line-of-sight. Like a bat. Not that bats hover, but, hey, this is Vegas. Anyway, Burson also marks the first collaboration Brian Hunter and I had when he reviewed the Conductor for Part-Time Audiophile back in ’13. Our relationship survived that encounter, but for those keeping track, the restraining order is still in effect.

Burson is known for big hunks of aluminum that can drive the bejeebus out of your headphones. One of the first brands to happily crank several watts of pure Class A goodness into your single-ended cans (feel the power), I’ve been using them as a baseline in what can be accomplished ever since that first head-on collision.

So, it was entirely sweet to find them here at their first CES. Now with even hunkier hunks of aluminum!

The eye-catcher from Burson was the new (as in, “not released”) Timekeeper Virtuoso and Virtuoso Integrated (prices are $TBD, but expect them to hit at a bit over the $3k mark). The latter sat, kinda like the Tesseract Cube, on the coffee table. Alone. Untouched. Untouch-able. Manly ….

I say that, but for a two-channel amp, it’s actually quite tidy it its squat cube-like-ness. Blocky. Nice. Want. What? Hmm. 300 watts into two channels sounds pretty tasty. We should be seeing that one in about 3 months, with the integrated to follow. Note that these are “just” two-channel widgets — there’s no DAC, and no headphone output. Surprised? Don’t be! That stuff was on a different shelf.

The new Conductor Virtuoso is a straight-up upgrade to the old Conductor, but like it, puts out 4 watts of headphone output power and does so in a chassis very similar to the model it displaces. The headphone section is lifted directly from the Soloist line and added to a form factor that includes a line-out function. Prices start at $1,495 and end at $1,950, depending on which user-upgradable DAC chipset is chosen, either the Burr Brown PCM1793 or the ESS9018 Sabre DAC. Both versions include a 100-step volume control.

This was also the room that let me squeeze my head into the new Audeze EL-8 headphones. Wait, what?

Yes, Audeze has a new headphone. By the time you read this, this product launch will have been trumpeted all over Audio Land, and all will have received The Good Word. Yes, it’s true. Audeze has a new headphone. And yes, they’re also $699.

I’m not going to relate how many breathless show-goers wanted me to pay special attention to the price. $699! For an Audeze!

This is interesting, on several levels. One, $699 is the cheapest thing Audeze makes and by a not-inconsiderable margin. A top-shelf brand that makes, arguably, the best headphones currently available in the land of head-fi, has just reached down market. Usually, that reach goes the other way. The fact that Audeze has chosen to invert this Common Approach is telling — and probably should be read as an case study on market viability. $699 is not cheap. Not for a “commercially viable” pair of headphones — Beats and the like have hit the $400/pair price, and bounced, so I’m not expecting this new headphone to be a silver bullet crafted to take down that segment. But it is a wake-up call. If Audeze can hit $699 with a mallet, they might be able to hit $399, too. And that will be very interesting. What this headphone says, to me, is that Audeze is getting ready to go absolutely bananas on the high-end headphone space. That’ll be fun to watch. In the meantime, those looking to make a big step up from “commercial cans” now have another rung they can grab before they have to stretch to reach the monkey bars where the rest of the Audeze lineup resides.

Family-Guy-quagmire-in-chairTyll Hertsens at InnerFidelity has an excellent technical write-up of the new cans, so I won’t repeat Mr Information here, but instead simply seek to “add color”.

These headphones are crazy. For shizzle! Shish-boom-ba! Giggity giggity goo!

Overall, I was really impressed. The look and feel are quite fancy, with an elegant and purposefully sculpted design that’s almost a radical upgrade from Audeze’s traditional, more home-grown, look. They’re lighter, sexier, and available either as a closed-back or an open-back design. Either way you go, the headphones are a huge step away from the plastic trash littering the down-market segment. These actually look like they ought to cost some dough.

The voicing was a little different from what I was expecting — on the one hand, there was extension and air, and a lot of it. That was a very good thing, in my book, and I made noises about how this may be the most open-sounding the brand has produced to date. On the other hand, compared with the overall “dark” voicing of the LCD-2 and LCD-3 (as opposed to the LCD-X, which seems “faster” somehow), the EL-8 felt tonally tilted. That is, the bass was there, but not anywhere near as impactful as what I was used to out of an Audeze. For my part, I simply assumed that the earpieces (and therefore, the drivers) were smaller than the LCD line, so I didn’t take this impression as all that weird. You want Big Bass, get a LCD!

But hold the presses, we’re not done.

The EL-8 is still several weeks away from general release. Not sure I read that anywhere, but it’s worth noting. According to “my sources”, the headphones are getting some final tweaks to voicing … specifically, some ear-cup modifications … to improve the overall bass response.

And there you have it. Expect deliveries to start in February.

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