Can Jam/RMAF 2011 Report, Part 1

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Audeze LCD3 Planar Magnetic,
Beyerdynamic T70,
Bottlehead Audio Crack,
Bottlehead Audio S.E.X. 2.1,
Bottlehead Audio Smack,
Burson Audio HA-160D,
Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire Headphone Amp,
CEntrance DACmini CX DAC/Headphone Amp,
Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo
Can Jam/RMAF 2011 Report, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a three-part Can-Jam report. Please check out Part 2 and Part 3.


•LCD-3—World-class planar magnetic headphone. ($1995)

Those of you who have already heard Audeze’s famous LCD-2 headphones (especially those with the new Rev. 2 drivers) might think the firm had pushed the limits of its planar magnetic headphone technology about as far as they could go. But, not so. Amazingly, the Audez’e guys have found even more performance upside and have tapped it for their new flagship LCD-3 headphone.

Folks, this headphone is very, very impressive, building upon the acknowledged strengths of the LCD-2, but providing even better (as in more finely textured and detailed) bass, a noticeably more open midrange sound, and more prominent and finely resolved highs. Whereas the LCD-2 sometimes occasioned debates about whether it did or did not sound slightly “dark” or overly warmly balanced, the LCD-3 will strike most listeners as being plainly more neutral in overall balance.

Differences in the LCD-3 include a significantly larger and thinner diaphragm than in the LCD-2, an all-new magnet structure (with more magnets), a new cable jack arrangement, and subtle cosmetic and fit-and-feel changes. In sum, Audez’e has revised an already great design to make, well, an even greater one.

Is it the best headphone in the world? It is certainly among the top three contenders (the other two being, IMHO, the Stax SR-009 and the HiFiMAN HE-6). Given that the Stax costs more than twice as much ($5200) and requires a dedicated electrostatic amp (also expensive), while the HiFiMAN ($1199) is extremely difficult to drive, I suspect many high-end listeners will turn to the LCD-3 as their ideal “middle path” to the sonic mountaintop.

ALO Audio

•Rx Mk3-B—Fully balanced portable headphone amplifier. ($649)
•Continental—Portable, Raytheon 6111, tube-powered headphone amplifier. ($485)
•Studio 6—Tube-powered SET headphone amplifier, shown in pre-production prototype form. ($TBD)

Playback greatly admired ALO’s Rx Mk2 portable headphone amplifier, but the fact is that ALO has moved the ball forward in a big way with the Rx Mk3-B—especially for folks who may have dreamed of finding a portable amp capable of powering hard-to-drive full-size ‘phones such as Sennheiser HD-800’s or HiFiMAN HE-6’s.

From what we could tell on the basis of a brief listen at RMAF, the ALO Mk3-B fears no load, and it should be able to drive just about anything you’d care to name. There is, of course, a similarly configured competing portable amp that can make (and back up) similar performance claims; namely, the Ray Samuel’s Audio Blackbird SR-71B fully balanced portable amp. Which is better? Only carefully listening will tell. Our thought is that both firms have clearly raised the bar for what portable amps can do and be, so that it’s good to have two well-made options to consider.

Also very cool from ALO is the tube-powered Continental portable amp, which is built around NOS (new old stock) Raytheon 6111 tubes. That’s right; it’s a tube-powered portable. Unlike some past efforts at building tube-driven portables, says ALO, the Continental is more or less immune to problems with vibration-induced microphonics. If you dig tube amplification, the Continental is definitely worth a listen, though you should be aware the battery life is a relatively low 6 hours between charges (hey, there is no free lunch and tube goodness does have its price).


•T70p—Mid-priced, closed-back, circumaural Tesla-series headphone. ($699 MSRP, $569 MAP)
•T50p Manufaktur—Factory customization program for T50p Tesla-series on-ear headphone.

Playback has long regarded Beyerdynamic’s T1 Tesla as one of the finest, if not the finest, dynamic driver-equipped headphones on the planet, but there’s just one catch. The T1 Tesla is quite expensive and thus priced beyond reach for some music lovers. Enter the new T70p headphone, which is a full-size headphone that makes Tesla-technology available at a much lower/more accessible price point.

Based on a brief listen at the Beyerdynamic table at Can Jam, I was struck by how open and clear sounding the T70p, despite the fact that it is a closed-back headphone. The cool part is that you get the desirable noise isolation characteristics for which closed-back designs are known, yet also enjoy a headphone that seems able to “breathe” with the music in much the same way that today’s better open-back designs do.

Bottlehead Audio

•Crack—Entry-level, kit-built, tube-powered, OTL, headphone amplifier, optimized for high-impedance headphones. ($219, or add $99 for Speedball upgrades.
•S.E.X 2.1—Kit-built, high-output (2Wpc) speaker or headphone amp. ($539)
•Smack—Kit-built, high-performance tube-powered headphone amplifier with switchable output impedance and balanced outputs. ($549)
•Paramount—Kit-built, monoblock. 300B tube-powered headphone amplifiers. ($1549/pair)
•Also on display and demonstration, the Bottlehead-modified Nagra reel-to-reel tape deck

For enthusiasts who know their way around hand tools and soldering irons, there is an awful lot to like about Bottlehead’s very reasonably priced headphone amplifier kits. There’s real value in each of these creative designs, though a personal favorite is the entry-level Crack, which sounds much better than it has any right to for just $219. My friend Steve Guttenberg of Audiophiliac/CNET fame tells me that the Crack works spectacularly well with potentially tricky headphones such as Sennheiser’s HD-800, giving them a desirable touch of warmth, harmonic richness, and all-around “life.”

About the only thing not to like here are Bottlehead’s humorous but—let’s face its—also potentially offensive, R-rated product names. But if you find Bottlehead’s bizarro “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll”-oriented names a bit hard to swallow, just put some painter’s tape over the nameplates, then kick back, relax, and revel in their sound.

Burson Audio

•HA-160D—desktop headphone amplifier/DAC. ($1250)

We at Playback are great admirers of the desktop audio products created by the Australian firm Burson Audio, the first two of which were the HA-160 headphone amplifier and the excellent (though admittedly somewhat controversial) AB-160 audio buffer stage.

The HA-160D, though, represents an attempt to answer the question, “What comes after the HA-160?” The answer, as it happens, is to combine a mildly enhanced version of the HA-160 amp with a really well-done 24-bit/192kHz DAC in a single chassis, and then to price the product at a very fair, though by no means cheap, $1250. Given how much we like the original HA-160, we can’t wait to here the HA-160D.

Cavalli Audio

•Liquid Fire—Hybrid tube/solid-state desktop headphone amplifier. ($3250)
•Liquid Lightning—Solid-state desktop electrostatic headphone amplifier, shown in pre-production prototype form. (Projected price, about $5000)

Cavalli’s Liquid Fire headphone amplifier was the first, and is thus far the only, headphone-related product to be praised in Playback as a state-of-the-art product, but at Can Jam the firm rolled out a new, dedicated solid-state electrostatic headphone amp called the Liquid Lightning that may also be vying for state-of-the-art recognition. We like what we’ve heard thus far, but need to hear the Lightning driving a true top-shelf electrostat such as the new Stax SR-009 in order to know for sure just how good this amp really is. Stay tuned.


•DACmini PX—Class A desktop headphone amplifier/25 Wpc integrated amplifier/DAC. ($1475)
•Master Class 2504 speakers—Desktop monitoring speakers. ($700/pair)

When CEntrance’s DACmini first appeared on the scene, Playback reported—quite accurately as it turns out—that the DACmini was not just a singular product, but rather a platform from which an entire family of products was likely to evolve. This has, in fact, proven to be the case as you can tell from CEntrance’s decision to release its new DACmini PX. In simple terms, the PX version is what you get if you take the original DACmini CX combination DAC/class A headphone amplifier, and then add in in a very high-quality 25 Wpc integrated amplifier suitable for driving desktop or console-top monitoring speakers.

And just to reinforce this point, CEntrance also decided to release its first-ever set of desktop/console-top monitoring speakers, called the Master Class 2504’s. Sadly, I did not get a chance to hear the 2504’s since their output would surely have disturbed the many vendors conducting headphone demonstrations nearby, but they certainly look promising as they sport what appear to be very high quality roughly 4-inch coaxial mid-bass/tweeter drivers. In practice, this means you can now buy a complete, very high performance desktop system from CEntrance (talk about “one stop shopping”).

Cypher Labs

•AlgoRhythm Solo—Portable iDevice-compatible DAC. ($579)

Turn back the clock about a year and a half and the Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo was only a proof-of-concept prototype. Now, it’s a reality. What exactly is an AlgoRhythm Solo? In a nutshell, it’s a fully portable, very high performance DAC (with support for audio data files from 16-bit/44.1 kHz on up to 24-bit/192 kHz) that is geared specifically for use with Apple iDevices. Cypher emphasizes that the AlgoRhythm provides, “decryption of the Apple USB output (not a ‘pass through’ of the line out).” The AlgoRhythm Solo also provides, “Aynchronous mode USB to SP/DIF conversion,” adding that, “Clock timing is embedded in the signal for jitter free performance.”

The upshot of all this is twofold. First, the AlgoRhythm is compatible with a wider range of iDevices than just about any competing product, including:

•4th and 5th generation iPod nano’s,
•2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation iPod touches,
•iPod classic (80 GB), iPod classic 160 GB (2007-version), and iPod classis 160GB (2009 version),
•iPhone 3G, 3GS, and iPhone 4, and
•iPad and iPad 2 (models few other iDevice DACs can support).
Second, the AlgoRhythm, which features a Lithium battery power supply and Wolfson DAC chips, gives you what is claimed to be the highest sound quality of any all-digital Apple iDevice-compatible component.

As icing on the cake, the AlgoRhythm Solo is exactly the same size and features the same footprint as ALO Audio’s RX Mk2 and new RX MK3-B portable amps. Just strap the two together and you’ve got a killer (digital) audio source/amplification package for on-the-go listening (though the AlgoRhythm Solo also pairs very nicely with theRay Samuel’s Audio portable amps—especially the Blackbird SR-71B).

Eddie Current

•Balancing Act—Fully balanced, tube-powered desktop headphone amplifier. ($3950)
•2A3—2A3 tube-powered desktop headphone amplifier. ($2800)
•Super 7—6SN7 tube-powered desktop headphone amplifier, shown in prototype form. (Projected price, $1300)

Designer Craig Ulthus founded Eddie Current in 2005 with the goal of offering extremely high performance tube-powered headphone amplifiers through a factory-direct sales model. Ulthus’ background is an interesting one in that he has previous worked for UREI, JBL Pro Sound, Surround Sound Inc., and also co-founded—along with Jim Marshall—the also tube-oriented high-end audio firm Moth Audio.

I spent most of my time listening to the gorgeous Balancing Act, which is Eddie Current’s flagship model, and to the prototype of the firm’s new entry-level Super 7 amp, both of which showed real sonic panache coupled with a retro-cool design vibe (think in term of some the great Mesa-Boogie guitar amps you may have seen and you you’ve got a good idea of the Eddie Current design ethos.). Meanwhile, Eddie Current’s middle model, the 2A3-powered “2A3” was winning friends over at the Audez’e table, where it was doing a fine job of driving Audez’e’s new LCD-3 headphone.


•Signature Headphone Amplifier—Tube-powered desktop headphone amplifier with “Surround” imaging control and bass trim controls, shown in pilot production prototype form. (Projected price, about $1500).

Designer Jim Fosgate is probably best known for his work on surround sound (he is credited as one the primary creators of Dolby Pro Logic II) and in high-end car audio (Rockford-Fosgate), but in truth one of his first loves is high performance, high-end tube circuit designs. This fact is already crystal clear to those who’ve had the privilege of hearing Fosgate’s award-winning Signature Phono Stage (which is sold under the auspices of high-end audio distributor Musical Surroundings).

But now, Fosgate has leveraged some of the design thinking behind the Signature Phono Stage to create a new product called the Signature Headphone Amplifier. Indeed, the Headphone Amplifier uses the same SRPP (shunt-regulated push-pull) circuit topology employed in the phono stage, a topology Fosgate feels offers an ideal combination of optimal linearity, low noise, and low distortion. Two very interesting design “wrinkles” are that the amp provides switch selectable bass EQ settings and—get this—separately switch selectable Surround effects setting. Purists need not worry, though, as it is of course possible to set bass EQ for flat response and to disable surround processing, if so desired.

The Signature Headphone Amplifier wasn’t shown at Can Jam, per se, but rather was part of the larger RMAF exhibit where it was proudly being demonstrated outside the Musical Surroundings demo room (which was reserved for loudspeaker-based audio systems). Final pricing isn’t set yet, but Musical Surroundings folks projected the price to be “about $1500.” Did I mention the Fosgate is real “looker,” too?

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