It perhaps goes without saying that the purpose of the high-end audio movement is to create home audio systems that sound so beautiful and true to the music that they bring literal tears of joy to listeners’ eyes. And for many enthusiasts, the most fundamental assumption of all is that these systems will as a matter of course entail playback of music through loudspeakers. But does that presumption really make sense? What if music lovers decided to take a substantially different approach—one where they based their prized music systems on extremely high-performance headphones instead of speakers?
As most Playback readers already know, this a hypothetical question, since a large and growing number of audiophiles (of all ages and both genders, by the way) have shifted their interest and attention to headphone-based systems, and are having a ton of fun doing so. For evidence of this, you need look no further than to the recent Can Jam International Head-Fi Meet held on June 5-6, 2010 in Chicago, IL. I attended Can Jam as a representative of Playback and of The Absolute Sound and at the event was able to see and hear some of the most ambitious and musically satisfying headphone/desktop audio gear on the planet.
What follows is Part 1 of my Can Jam report
Headphone-Based Music Systems: What’s the Draw?
For those of you who are arriving late to the headphone party, some background information is probably in order.
First, let me explain that many Can Jammers are, as you might expect, familiar with and appreciative of the traditional high-end audio world. Even so, many have made the conscious choice to focus on headphone-based systems, and it is reasonable to ask why. I posed the question to some Can Jam attendees and got answers that I think may be of interest to traditional, speaker-centric audiophiles.
Many Can Jam attendees said that while they felt speaker-based systems might have an edge in terms of reproducing spatial aspects of music, headphones enjoy a significant edge in many other areas of music reproduction. Specifically, many argued that ‘phones could more easily deliver extended full-range frequency response, realistic dynamics, sonic purity, and overall levels of resolution, detail and musical “intimacy”— that would be difficult for most reasonably priced loudspeaker-based systems to equal (let alone to surpass).
There is also the matter of convenience. High-end headphone rigs needn’t take up a lot of space, typically do not require dedicated listening rooms, and can be enjoyed at satisfying volume levels at most any time of day and without disturbing other family members. There is also the possibility of assembling very high performance portable systems small enough to fit in backpacks or duffel bags. There’s a certain freedom that comes with being able to take your top-tier audio rig with you, with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Another key factor involves cost. You can get a more or less state-of-the-art set of headphones for $2000 (or potentially for much less), whereas true state-of-the-art loudspeakers can run well up into the five- or even six-figure range. Similarly, state-of-the-art headphone electronics, while by no means cheap, are much less costly than the top-tier gear needed to drive exotic high-end speaker systems. The bottom line is that high-performance headphone systems are not just a little but a more accessibly priced than their loudspeaker-based counterparts.
Put all of these factors together and it becomes clear that headphone-based music systems allow a broad range of music lovers (young, old, and in between) to tap into very high levels of sonic performance, yet without experiencing bank account meltdown. What’s not to like about that?
What’s Can Jam?
The name “Can Jam” is indirectly derived from the informal recording studio term “can,” which is slang for “a pair of headphones.” Organized by the Head-Fi group (www.head-fi.org), Can Jam is in essence both a festival and a conference that showcases all things pertaining to high-performance headphones and personal/desktop audio systems.
Accordingly, manufacturers reserve tables (or even entire rooms) where they show and in most cases demonstrate their products, while several groups of rooms are reserved for display tables where individual members set up and demonstrate their personal headphone systems (some of which are astonishingly exotic and musically delightful).
Over the course of the event, conference space is reserved for industry experts to give talks on subjects of general interest to the members, while in the background manufacturers meet to discuss strategies and methods for growing the personal audio/headphone/desktop audio industry as a whole. At the end of each day, raffles are held where attendees can win door prizes contributed by exhibitors. On the evening between the first and second day of Can Jam, there is typically a concert held for the enjoyment of attendees (this year’s featured an ensemble lead by Patricia Barber bassist, Michael Arnopol).
But what is perhaps hardest to convey is the incredibly sweet-spirited nature of the Can Jam event, which reminds me a bit of what traditional high-end audio gatherings used to feel like back in the 1970s. There’s a refreshing sense, shared between manufacturers, event organizers, and enthusiasts alike, that “we’re on to a very good thing, so let’s pull together and try to keep this rolling and growing…” Wouldn’t it be nice if of high-end audio felt that way?
Products Seen and Heard at Can Jam 2010—Part 1
ALO (Audio Line Out) is both a manufacturer and also a reseller of other manufacturer’s products. At Can Jam, ALO showed the Isabella battery-powered, vacuum-tube headphone amplifier from Connecticut-based Red Wine Audio ($4500 and up, depending on options chosen), plus its own ALO Amphora solid-state desktop headphone amplifier ($1150) and the exquisite little ALO Rx Prescription portable headphone amp ($345), which was being used as a reference/demonstration amp by several exhibitors at Can Jam. The tiny RX Prescription features dual 3.7V Li-ion batteries with an “intelligent charging circuit,” a digitally controlled stepped attenuator volume control, and a high current amplifier circuit capable of 200mA output. The result is a tiny, iPod-sized amp that offers an unusually full-bodied sound and that can drive both in-ear monitors (IEM’s) and full-sized over-the-ear headphones with ease.
From a manufacturer perhaps best known for its ultra high-end studio grade clocking systems comes the Zodiac + DAC/headphone amp ($2495). The Zodiac + is a highly versatile, high-end 192/24 DAC with 2 x Toslink, 2 x SP/DIF, 1 x AES and 1 x USB inputs, plus a unique oven-controlled clocking system. The Zodiac + can provide a de-jittered digital output with ground isolation. Note: An even higher performance Zodiac Gold model (~$4000) is due out in the October/November timeframe.
Apex products, showcased in Todd The Vinyl Junkie’s exhibit room, included the new all-tube Pinnacle ($10000) and hybrid tube/solid-state Peak ($1400-$2000) headphone amplifiers, both of which can double as stereo preamps Of the two, the Pinnacle probably garnered the lion’s share of attention and with good reason. The versatile Pinnacle provides both single-ended and balanced headphone output jacks on its front panel, plus a control that allows users to choose high or lo-gain singled-ended or balanced headphone output configurations, or a setting for using the Pinnacle as a conventional stereo preamp. The sound: remarkably pure and accurate, effortlessly revealing, and subtle as could be.
AudeZ’E (pronounced “odyssey”) showed its very impressive LCD-2 planar magnetic headphones ($945), which are—to state things simply—serious state-of-the art contenders. A company representative showed me a set of measurements taken of the LCD-2 on an elaborate test system on display at Can Jam, and the headphone’s frequency response plot was almost pool-table flat from 10Hz to over 1kHz. What is more, the LCD-2 could actually reproduce pretty convincing square waves at both 30Hz and 300Hz. The sound: full-bodied, very revealing, and yet almost shockingly smooth. A true sonic “chameleon,” the LCD-2 instantly and effortlessly reveals even small differences between associated electronics, as I learned when trying the headphone with two of the excellent amplifiers AudeZ’E had on hand.
Many high-performance headphone enthusiasts enjoy DIY electronics-building projects, and they are served my manufacturers like Beezar (the company was named, humorously enough, after a beloved household pet) that offer core circuit boards and parts packages or even full-on audio component kits. Examples would included Beezar’s kit for the Pete Millett/Colin Toole-designed Millett Hybrid MiniMAX headphone amp ($220), the Eric Soosalu-designed Grub DAC (a tiny inline USB “cable DAC” ($35 for parts plus PCB, or $50 for the full kit), or for an upcoming ECP Audio-designed headphone amp currently given the working title of the “L’espressivo Headphone Amp” (a cost-reduced, roughly $300 version of an amp that ECP Audio plans to sell as a fully finished product).
The German firm Beyerdynamic was proudly showing its flagship T1 Tesla headphone ($1295), which was being used as a reference ‘phone by many, many Can Jam exhibitors. In addition to the T1 Tesla, Beyerdynamic showed a host of other models, including its brand new T50P closed back headphone ($349), which uses trickle-down driver technology drawn directly from the T1 Tesla.
From the Japanese firm Blossom Audio came the BLO-0299 balanced output headphone amp ($1499), which was shown as part of the Moon Audio exhibit. The Blossom can—through Moon Audio--be ordered with an upgraded Welbourn outboard power supply module for an additional $250.
From the Australian firm came both the HA-160 headphone amp ($695) and AB-160 buffer stage ($499). Both were shown as part of the Moon Audio exhibit.
Cary product featured in exhibits both from Moon Audio and Whiplash Audio. Highlighted products included the new MS-1 Music Server ($2500), which provides 1 TB of storage, separate USB I/O and USB outboard storage interfaces, and the ability to be controlled directly from iPhones or iPads via an available app. Also shown were the Exciter Integrated ($2750), a tube-powered headphone/integrated amp with an Auto Bias circuit that enables the amp to use many different types of tubes, the Exciter DAC ($1500) featuring 32-bit internal circuitry and USB, SP/DIF, Toslink and AES inputs, and the new CD 303 T SACD player/DAC ($6500), which provides both tube and solid-state outputs and can serve as a 192/24 USB DAC. Of particular interest was Cary’s CAD-300-SEI integrated, which as offered by Moon Audio (at $6500) provides a headphone-optimized, reduced output (7Wpc), pure Class A circuit and features numerous sonic and cosmetic upgrades.
Watch for more manufacturer and product coverage in Can Jam Chicago, 2010—Part 2, coming soon.