This is a continuation of a report on the 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.
In Part 1 of my report (click here to read) I offered some thoughts on Can Jam itself and on headphone based music systems, and then began describing some of the products seen and heard.
in Part 2 of my report (click here to read) I continued with Can Jam product coverage.
Here, I’ll take up where I left off and offer more coverage of cool gear seen at the event, plus some final thoughts on the Can Jam event.
As always, let me offer an apology in advance to any manufacturers I inadvertently may have overlooked. Manufacturers/vendors are discussed in alphabetical order.
Products Seen and Heard at Can Jam 2010—Part 3
Music Direct is one of the nation’s leading distributors of high quality, audiophile-grade music software in all formats, and of high-performance audio components and accessories of all kinds. For Can Jam, Music Direct focused particularly on its superb Mobile Fidelity vinyl offerings, while also showing a good though somewhat small selection of digital audio discs.
As I thumbed through the MoFi disk racks, I turned to a Music Direct staffer and said, “If I stay here much longer, I’m liable to blow my kids’ college funds on my vinyl addiction.”
“Well, duh,” he replied, “that’s the general idea, isn’t it?” You’ve just gotta love the music-first attitude.
Nature Space specializes in highly accurate recordings of natural outdoor sounds geared specifically for headphone playback. Holographic Audio is a free iPhone app that comes with six sample Nature Space recordings (featuring various outdoor soundscapes, including a spectacular thunderstorm). Addition Nature Space recordings can be purchased through iTunes. Interestingly, a special earbud optimizer dramatically improves accuracy of reproduction for listeners who use box-stock earbuds.
One interesting aspect of the Holographic Audio app is that it can be set to loop, allowing users to organize very specific outdoor soundscape playlists to fit specific moods, etc. A company spokesman indicated that many listeners find the Nature Space recordings so realistic and compelling, adding that they have even been known to evoke extremely powerful childhood memories of specific outdoor events or settings. Interesting, no?
Neko demonstrated its D100 Mk2 DAC ($1395), which provides optical and coaxial SP/DIF inputs and both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs. The D100 Mk2 was recently review by Dick Olsher in our sister publication The Absolute Sound (Issue 202), so rather than providing comments here let me encourage you to get a copy of TAS and to read the in-depth review. Olsher’s concluding comments were as follows: “Neko Audio’s d100 Mk2 represents a remarkable sonic achievement that redefined my expectations at this price point. It is able to effectively ‘defang’ a delta-sigma DAC chipset without lobotomizing the music.”
Headphone maker Phiaton was showing its new PS 20 NC in-ear monitor with active noise-canceling ($179). Phiaton's design for this headphone somewhat splits the difference between traditional in-ear monitors and earbuds. I found the noise-cancelling circuit was very subtle and worked beautifully, so that you didn’t so much perceive a reduction in noise, per se, but rather an increase in apparent clarity. Also on demonstration were Phiaton’s PS 210 in-ear monitor/eadbud ($119), whose physical design seems much like that of the PS 20 NC, but without the noise cancelling module. Finally, Phiaton showcased its MS 400 headphone ($249)—a traditional, high-performance, full-size design.
Qables (pronounced “cables”) is a company from the Netherlands that offers a distinctive Class D portable headphone amplifier called the iQube V1 ($549), or an expanded version that incorporates a built-in USB DAC called the iQube V2 ($699). What neither my words nor photographs can convey is the exquisite, old-school Leica-camera-like fit and finish of these little guys. To hold them in your hand is to want to take them home with you.
Ray Samuels Audio
When most enthusiasts think of Ray Samuels Audio, they probably picture the firm’s attractive and very good-sounding portable headphone amplifiers (e.g., the Hornet, SR-71, etc.). But not all Ray Samuels products are pocket-sized, as evidence of which I give you the two-chassis Apache preamp/headphone amplifier with balanced and single-ended outputs ($2995), which was shown at Can Jam as part of the Whiplash Audio exhibit. The Apache is, like all Ray Samuels products, very finely finished and it fairly bristles with technology, sporting both single-end and balanced headphone outputs on its faceplate, and providing both single-ended and balanced rear panel outputs (both live at the same time) for purposes of driving outboard power amplifiers.
RudiStor showed two products at Can Jam, both of which showed promise. The first was the Chroma MD1 high-end headphone ($1000), which looks a bit like a Grado RS1, but with earpieces made of beautifully machined aluminum. The second was the RPS-d DAC/headphone amplifier ($890), which feature Class A circuitry.
If I had to name just one iconic, poster-child product that best represents the high-end headphone movement, I might very well choose Sennheiser’s critically acclaimed HD800 headphones ($1695).
Ever since the HD800 came out, enthusiasts in droves have been snapping up Sennheiser’s flagship headphone—apparently undeterred by the product’s lofty price (in fact, it sometimes ahs been difficult for Sennheiser to keep up with orders for this handmade product). Among Can Jam exhibitors, I would say the HD800 (along with the also superb Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla) was one of the two most widely embraced reference headphones. It’s that good.
As shown here, many Can Jammers have chosen to equip their HD800's with custom signal cables. One of the more popular options involves cabling the HD800's so that they can be driven by balanced-mode headphone amplifiers, which as a general rule brings out even finer levels of sonic nuance and detail--areas where the box-stock HD800 already excels.
For me, one of the most impressive discoveries to come from Can Jam was the firm Sensaphonics, which describes itself as a “hearing conservation” company that builds custom-fit in-ear monitors and related products. A number of the firm’s products caught my eye including the 3D Active Ambient in-ear monitor with built-in ambient sound mics, offered both in single-driver and dual-driver configurations ($2000-$2500, depending on options and configurations chosen). The 3D Active Ambient system was developed specifically for musicians who would like to hear both the monitor mix and (some) ambient stage sound, and accordingly the 3D Active Ambient system comes with what Sensaphonics calls a "bodypack mixer-amplifier" that allows the wearer to control how much (if any) ambient sound to let in. Interestingly, a custom-modified version of the 3D Active Ambient system is available with recording outputs, so that wearers can use the ‘phones to create very high quality binaural recordings.
Other Sensaphonics products of interest included the 3MAX 3-driver/2-way in-ear monitor ($1050), the 2MAX 2-driver in-ear monitor ($850), which is said to be the firm’s most accurate and therefore most audiophile-appropriate model, and the 2X-S 2-driver in-ear monitor ($750—and similar to the 2MAX, but with different sensitivity ratings for use with certain wireless onstage monitoring systems).
Sensaphonics also offers a cool product called dB Check, which is a volume-level measurement system geared for use with various Sensaphonics in-ear monitors. Users initially set up the dB Check system by indicating with Sensaphonics in-ear monitors they are using. In turn, the system measures the "dry voltage" fed to the earphones and then combines that data with "known information on Sensaphonics earphones" to calculate and display actual in-ear volume levels in dBA. Importantly, dB Check also displays "minutes of daily safe exposure" at the calculated in-ear volume levels "under both NIOSH and OSHA scales." So far as I am aware, Sensaphonics is the only in-ear headphone manufacturer presently offering such a system.
One construction detail that distinguishes Sensaphonics custom-fit in-ear headphones from competitors is the firms exclusive use of soft-gel silicone for its custom-made earpieces, whereas most competitors make earpieces from relatively hard acrylic materials. According to Sensaphonics, soft-gel silicone forces a much slower and more elaborate manufacturing process, but offers meaningful benefits in terms of wearer comfort and sound isolation.
Todd The Vinyl Junkie
Todd The Vinyl Junkie (TTVJ) is a well-respected distributor of analog and other high-end audio products, but it is also a manufacturer thoroughly involved in the world of high-end headphones. Three TTVJ products in particular caught my attention: the TTJV portable headphone amplifier ($349), the TTJV portable DAC/headphone amp ($449), and the way cool Portable Millett Hybrid headphone amp ($379).
Yes, you read that last item correctly; the Portable Millett Hybrid headphone amp is a tiny (and I mean really tiny) tube/solid-state headphone amp. Todd advises that the Millett isn’t necessarily the best solution for on-the-go (as in “listening while in motion”) applications, since its tube circuit is somewhat microphonic, but once you get the Millett where you are going, it sounds pretty darned great.
The Venture Craft folks plainly come from the burgeoning world of convenience-oriented iPhone accessories, but with a high-end twist. Accordingly, the Venture Craft Go-DAP is a combination clip-on auxiliary battery pack for the iPhone with—get this—a built-in headphone amplifier ($199). The packaging is so smooth and sleek that I could easily imagine leaving an iPhone “parked” in the Go-DAP on a regular basis, while still being able to slip the iPhone + Go-DAP combo into a pocket. Neat stuff.
Westone has been building high quality hearing-related products for what seems like forever, and the firm was showing its entire range of in-ear headphones, which comprise both universal-fit as well as custom-fit models. At Can Jam, Westone was particularly highlighting its new flagship ES5 custom-fit, 3-way in-ear monitor ($900). Westone had set up a pair of ES5’s to use universal fit eartips so that Can Jam attendees could try them, and when I took my turn I felt the new phones offered exceptional midrange nuance and clarity, among other virtues (I’m hoping to obtain a review pair for Playback).
Visiting the Woo Audio exhibit at Can Jam was, for me, a bit like becoming a little kid again and then being turned loose in the exotic, high-end headphone equivalent of a candy store. Company founder Jack Wu is a remarkably prolific creator of tube-powered headphone amplifier designs, with models starting at about $495 and ranging upwards from there.
Models that particularly caught my attention at Can Jam were the entry-level WA3 tube-powered headphone amp ($495), the WA2 tube-powered, OTL preamp/headphone amp ($1050), the WA6 single-chassis, tube-powered, transformer-coupled headphone amp ($690), the WA6-SE two-chassis headphone amp ($1050—essentially a two-chassis version of the WA6 with a significantly upgraded tube-type power supply), the WA5 two-chassis, tube-powered integrated/headphone amplifier ($3150) and the WA5 LE “Lite Edition version of the WA5 ($2500), which is optimized purely for driving headphones. And just in case you’re wondering, Woo offers—and displayed at Can Jam—even models than I’ve listed here.
Frankly, the sheer breadth of the Woo product line can be breathtaking (even daunting), with Wu opting in some instances—as you can see from my list above—to produce two models at the same price point, yet which have totally different circuit topologies. The upshot of this, however, is that Woo offers models to fit a wide range of budgets, with circuit topologies whose various combinations of sonic strengths are calculated to appeal to listeners with very specific and discerning tastes.
Can Jam Highlights
When returning from an event such as Can Jam, it’s inevitable for colleagues to ask, “What did you hear that impressed you?” By way of answering that question, let me offer a few of my favorite highlights from the event.
Four Great-Sounding Headphone-Based Systems
- * ALO Audio Rx headphone amp, Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo digital iPod Interface/DAC, Apple iPod, Sennheiser HD800 headphones.
- * Apex Pinnacle headphone amp, Meridian 808.3 disc player, and balanced-configuration Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla headphones.
- * Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire headphone amp, Denon SACD/CD player, and AudeZ’E LCD-2 planar magnetic headphones.
- * Woo Audio WA5 LE headphone amp, Original disc player, and Grado PS1000 headphones.
Four Terrific Full-Size Headphones
- * AudeZ’E LCD-2 planar magnetic headphones.
- * Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla headphones.
- * HiFiMAN HE-6 planar magnetic headphones.
- * Sennheiser HD800 headphones.
Three Promising In-Ear Headphones
- * JH Audio JH 16 PRO 3-way, custom-fit in-ear monitors.
- * Sensaphonic 2MAX 2-way, custom-fit in-ear monitors.
- * Westone ES5 3-way, custom-fit in-ear monitors.
Cutting Edge Technology
- * JH Audio active-version JH 16 Pro in-ear monitors driven by the JH-3A DSP-controlled, active 3-way crossover/tri-amplifier module.
The Three C’s: Coolness, Convenience, and Cost-Effectiveness
- * CEntrance DAC Port USB-powered 96/24 USB DAC/Class A headphone amp.
Over-the-Top, Cost-No-Object Headphone Amp
- * Apex Pinnacle tube-powered preamp/headphone amp.
Whether you’re a confirmed headphone addict, a traditional audiophile looking for a new way to enjoy music, or a music lover looking to get closer to the sounds that fuel your soul, I strongly encourage you to attend a Can Jam event at your earliest opportunity. You’ll find eye-opening gear and—more importantly—great people whose passion for music and kind, generous spirits you'll find thoroughly uplifting.