High End 2015

High End 2015: AudioQuest


HE15_Logo_GB_01Though there are quite a few pretenders, there are few true giants in high-end audio today. AudioQuest is one of those giants.

There are, I think, two knee-jerk reactions that the “typical audiophile” will have to the name. One will be about cables. The other will be about (asynchronous) USB DACs. Neither will be the whole story, but who ever really gets the whole story? We are the sum of our biases and misinformation.

For cables, I will note that AudioQuest is probably the number one audiophile cable vendor in the world right now, and yes, I’m not including Monster on purpose. AudioQuest have sold enormous quantities of built-to-spec digital cables (which is far more unusual than you’re probably assuming) like USB cables, HDMI cables and even Ethernet cables. Yes, they still sell analog cables, too, and all of their cable lines feature a variety of build-levels, many which leverage unusual cable geometries, dialectic approaches, and rare metallurgies. In short, AudioQuest has the most complete audio cable catalogs I’ve ever even heard about, much less paged through.

Talking with the AudioQuest team will, in almost every instance, be a remarkable grounding for the run-of-the-mill audiophile — these guys sell crazy stuff, and they’re unabashed about how close to the fringe some of their products will go. But it’s their core stuff, and in many cases, their most inexpensive stuff, that they want to talk about.

You see, much of the crap you can buy off of Amazon — take network cables, for instance — are just that. Total crap. They say they’re built to a spec, say Cat 6e. All things being equal, you say, a Cat 6e cable is a Cat 6e cable. It’s just bits, am-I-right?

Except it’s not.

The cable isn’t to spec. First, the connectors are trash. No, they don’t need to be carved from billets of unobtainium. But it would be great if they actually worked. The cables don’t need to be solid silver. But they do need to be twisted just-so. Shielding doesn’t need to be dialectrically biased, but it’d be nice if it was actually appropriately attached. Or grounded. Or even present. But when you’re buying your wire on price, you get what you pay for. And yes, it matters. My review will be coming shortly.

But the Big Wall of Wire aside, what caught my eye and ear at High End was the coming flight of the Nighthawk.

I first saw and heard these at CES this year, and I’ll say it — they’re quite good. They’re also rather different from the current slate of planar headphones that seem to be ruling the roost over at Head-Fi these days, and I quite like that. The “liquid wood” earcups are still interesting, and I’ll say it again, these may well be the lightest reference-class headphones you can buy. They’re unreal.

Paired where with a Dragonfly USB DAC, right off you’re run-of-the-mill laptop (running Amarra, perhaps), and you’ve a reference-caliber system for your desk, whether that desk is at work, your fold-down seat-back table, or your restaurant tabletop.

Another thing falling into the “new” category is another affordable two-fer. The first is the Jitterbug, a $49 USB-filter, with conditioning of both the voltage and data bus. Darko likes it.

The other is the Beetle, a $149 system DAC with Toslink, USB and Bluetooth inputs. The Beetle will be again featuring the 24bit/96kHz decoding and feature-set familiar from the Dragonfly — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, says I. Again, Darko has more.

As for me, I’m hoping to have a set of bugs in-house shortly.


Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015







Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Hi Fi Centre and McIntosh Labs


by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomImagine my surprise running into Tom Cruise at the Vancouver Audio Show.

OK, well it wasn’t exactly Tom Cruise but Andrew Ward of McIntosh could pass for the Risky Business star and he was rocking the Wayfarers while serving up some fabulous white-guy moves no matter how many times his McIntosh co-worker Scott Newbrough begged him to stop.

He would not be stopped.

I don’t blame him, the room was absolutely rocking at stadium-volume levels (plus I was egging him on to Moon dance).

Ward and Newbrough served up the funnest room at Vancouver 2015 in the Hi Fi Centre‘s all-McIntosh set up. These two were riffing like a pair of AM radio, early-morning, mid-’80s disc jockeys and spinning an eclectic mix off a MacBook streaming Tidal and I’m here to tell you; it sounded pretty damn good.

Andrew said one of the goals of the room was to show how good a McIntosh system could sound with a stripped-down set-up (as much as McIntosh can be stripped down) using a laptop and a streaming source.

Utilizing the somewhat-iffy hotel wi-fi the two managed to succeed in making mp3 files sound way better than they had any right to.

The set-up I heard consisted of everything plugged into a PC-1500 power controller ($5,000) a pair of MC 301 mono blocks ($5,000 each), driving a pair of XR-100 speakers ($10,000), a C-2500 DAC/pre-amplifier ($7,000) and using all AudioQuest cabling.

The sound was a rollicking good time that I would describe as the ultimate college kegger: big, loud, expansive and detailed with a slightly euphonic tinge that served to reveal the tubed pre-amp and warmed everything up.

The XR-100s served up excellent soundstaging and never hinted at strain, especially in the highs, despite the really, really, really loud SPLs going down.

Distortion was non-existent despite the low-res source files being used. A testament to McIntosh’s Quad Balanced Autoformer design in the 300w amplifier.

And you can’t help but sit there in a bit of drugged state just taking in all that glowing green and black goodness that defines McIntosh to so many.

I can see why budding audiophiles turn to the black and green when they start to put together their first systems, it’s a true classic with great sonic attributes that ticks a lot of boxes for many people and seems to age well and has incredible resale value.

While it’s difficult for me to truly comment, ultimately, on the sound this system was capable of reproducing due to the mp3 files being used, I enjoyed myself immensely during my time in the room.





CanJam SoCal 2015

CanJam SoCal 2015, Part 1: Headphones


MrSpeakers new Ether, with Schiit Audio electronics. Photo courtesy of Lee Shelly Photography (http://leeshellyphoto.com/).

CanJam_SoCal_2015_AnnouncementBy Lee Shelly

CanJam … the very term inspires thoughts of great gear and fantastic fun as this community gathers to enjoy the music and the friendship.

Scot asked me to cover the meet for him and pass along the interesting bits to you readers, so here goes. This report will be presented in 5 parts:

  • On-/Over-ear Headphones
  • In-Ear Monitors
  • Amplification
  • Sources
  • Accessories

Continue reading

CES 2015

CES 2015: AudioQuest strikes with NightHawk headphones


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.






New York 2014

New York 2014: KEF flips another Blade, goes for the throat


Legacy_at_NY_Audio_Show_2014KEF knows how to throw a party.

First, you invite the coolest kids on the block. Or in this case, an entire block of your fancy loudspeakers — check that wall! That’s a Muon! Oooh, a Blade! Hey, wait — that’s a Blade Two!

… Oooh, aaah ….

Johan Corg was once again whipping up the crowd, demoing this now-available novelty from KEF, the Blade Two. The Blade, if you’ll recall, is that insanely elegant looking pillar of gorgeous curves that recently debuted to much fanfare and sighing. The Two, then, is another Blade. Yes. But it’s also a bit more wallet friendly ($24k vs $30k for the original Blade). We like that. The specs are rather similar, with a bit more bass extension going to the larger model, but your in-room expectations will probably not be far apart. Driven here by electronics from Parasound, with cabling from Audioquest (the board, immediately below, has the makes and models), I heard absolutely nothing to complain about.

Also shown were the new Reference 5 ($18,000/pair) and the stand-mounted Reference 1 ($7,500/pair). In a rather interesting but perhaps unsurprising turn, there is a shocking amount of “family resemblance” for these speakers and their upscale siblings — it seems the voicing is very similar. Good news for the more budget constrained!

Sadly, I did not get to hear the $200k/pair Muon loudspeakers. I mean, there was only one and it was a static display, but I’d still love to hear what all the fuss and bother is about with the stately Silver Surfer of the line.

Anyway, an extremely impressive demo here.