Can Jam/RMAF 2011 Report, Part 2

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Fostex HP-A8 Headphone Amp/DAC,
Fostex HP-P1 ,
Fostex TH-900
Can Jam/RMAF 2011 Report, Part 2

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


•HP-A8—Desktop headphone amplifier/32-bit DAC, shown in pre-production prototype form. (Due in early 2012, priced at about $2000).
•TH900—Closed-back, circumaural headphone with dynamic drivers featuring magnet systems rated at 1.5 Tesla (!!), and lacquered cherry wood ear cups, shown in pre-production prototype form. (Due in early 2012, priced at about $2000)
•HP-P1—Portable headphone amp with built-in digital iDevice-compatible DAC. ($649)

The giant Japanese firm Fostex exhibited a wide array of products at Can Jam, but three in particular caught my eye: the HPA8 flagship desktop headphone amplifier/32-bit DAC, the TH900 flagship dynamic driver headphone, and the HP-P1 portable headphone amplifier with digital iDevice-compatible DAC. The first two of these were new product announcements for Can Jam, while the third was an already released product that has generated significant buzz within the headphone community of late. Let me provide a few key details to describe each in turn.

The HP-A8 is an extremely ambitious headphone amp/32-bit DAC. The DAC section of the device can support audio files with up to 32-bit resolution (or 24-bit resolution from Windows-based sources) at data rates up to 192 kHz. Digital inputs include USB (asynchronous mode with high precision clock), AES/EBU, coaxial, and a pair of optical inputs; the HP-A8 also provides a switch selectable 2x or 4X upsampling feature (or allows upsampling to be turned off). Finally, the DAC provides two digital filter settings—one allowing “sharp roll off” and the other allowing “short delay.” One very interesting (and quite uncommon) feature is that the HP-A8 also supports playback of DSD (direct stream digital) files from a built-in SD card drive. The analog section of the HP-A8, says Fostex, provides a “large-capacity toroidal power supply,” features an “all-discrete analog circuitry headphone amplifier,” and offers an “audiophile quality electronic volume” control. We’re looking forward to hearing it.

The TH900 headphone appears perfectly straightforward at first glance, but the genius may well be in the details, as is so often the case. The TH900 is a closed-back, dynamic driver headphone, with ear cups exquisitely finished in traditional Japanese “Urushi”-style lacquer (the finish looks almost unbelievably deep and rich). But it’s what’s inside that counts and there you’ll find 50mm drivers powered by motors whose magnet assemblies—please note—provide a staggering 1.5 Tesla of magnetic flux density. To put that remark in context, note that Beyerdynamic’s flagship T1 Tesla headphone was the previous all-time record holder in this area, with driver motors that provided 1 Tesla of magnetic flux density (a feat never before achieved until the T1 Tesla came along). The upshot of this is that the TH900 offers a remarkably open, articulate, and finely resolved sound—a sound that may in fact challenge some of today’s most advanced planar magnetic or electrostatic headphones, at least in some respect. We can’t wait to hear what the final production version of the TH900 sounds like.

Last but not least comes the Fostex HP-P1 portable headphone amp/DAC, which may pack more sonically meaningful features per cubic inch than we’ve seen in a portable product before. For starters, the HP-P1 features an iDevice compatible 32-bit DAC interface. The DAC section, in turn, provides two switch selectable digital filter settings—one for “sharp roll-off” and the other providing “minimum delay … without pre-echo.” The analog section of the amp provides three switch selectable gain settings, so that the amp can accommodate very high-sensitivity in-ear monitors, yet can dial up enough clout to power relatively insensitive full-size headphones (or something in between those two extremes). Finally, the HP-P1 offers both SP/DIF digital and analog line outputs so that it can be used as a recording interface. The last bit of icing on the cake is that the HP-P1 can be powered either by its onboard Lithium-ion battery or by a USB cable. Needless to say, this little portable is incredibly versatile.

Furutech/Alpha Design Labs

•Cruise—Portable headphone amp/DAC. ($540)

Within the traditional high-end audio community Furutech is best known for its exotic and expensive audio cables, power distribution products, and accessories, but in the headphone community the firm’s sub-brand Alpha Design Labs (ADL) is winning a reputation for products that offer innovative design and high build quality at much more accessible prices. First came the ADL GT-40, which is a combination USB DAC, headphone amplifier, and phono stage (and which also doubles as a digital recording device for transcribing vinyl to digital format).

But at Can Jam, Furutech/ADL rolled out its slick new carbon fiber-sheathed Cruise portable 24/96 USB DAC and headphone amplifier. Based on a brief listen, I’d say the Cruise sounds very promising, though I would offer one small safety tip. The Cruise offers a thumbwheel-style volume control that works backward from 99.99% of such volume controls I’ve seen in the past (i.e., rolling the wheel from right-to-left increases volume rather than turning it down). This can lead to some extremely unpleasant surprises for the unwary (don’t ask me how I know this).

Head Amp

•Blue Hawaii SE—2-chassis, tube-powered electrostatic headphone amplifier. ($4995 - $5995, depending on volume control options)

Head Amp is led by Justin Wilson whose firm not only builds very high quality portable headphone amps and DACs, but also builds—under license—the Gilmore-designed, tube-powered, 2-chassis Blue Hawaii SE electrostatic headphone amplifier.

At Can Jam, Wilson created a terrific amount of “buzz” among show attendees by demonstrating the Blue Hawaii SE with the latest and best Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone, which quickly demonstrated terrific sonic synergy with the amplifier. Indeed, many on site felt this combination offered Best-of-Show sound quality. The Blue Hawaii SE sells for $4995 with its standard volume control or $5995 with a special (and extremely costly) ALPS volume control. Wilson offers the amp with either a black faceplate (which is how I have seen it in the past) or with a silver faceplate, as shown at this year’s Can Jam RMAF event.


•Tektron Headphone Amp—Tube-powered desktop headphone amplifier imported from Italy, shown in evaluation prototype form. (Projected price, $2700)

Not exhibiting in the main Can Jam area but rather up in one of the traditional RMAF suites was Headroom, which is both a manufacturer of its own line of desktop and portable headphone amplifiers and DACs, but is also a major distributor of other brands of gear.

For Can Jam the firm was showing/evaluating a gorgeous new tube-powered headphone amp from the firm Tektron (projected price, $2700). Interestingly, the amp comes mounted on a plinth which also incorporates a stylish headphone stand, as shown in the accompanying photos.


•EF6—Class A, high-output (8 Wpc) headphone/speaker amplifier, shown in pilot product form (but without final production faceplate/cosmetics). ($1399)
•HE-300—Dynamic-driver, circumaural headphone. ($299)

Playback has done in-depth reviews of HiFiMAN’s superb planar magnetic headphones, including the HE-5LE, the HE-500, and the flagship HE-6. Apart from excellent sound quality, however, HiFiMAN’s planar magnetic ‘phones are known for being power hungry and relatively difficult to drive—a comment that applies especially in the case of the HE-6, which has been known to expose the output limitations of any number of otherwise very good headphone amps.

To address this problem, HiFiMAN has just created a new, very high-output class A headphone amplifier that puts out a whopping 8 Wpc and that can therefore be used not only to drive the HE-6 headphones, but also can drive high sensitivity loudspeakers. The amp provides both XLR and phone jack-type output connectors, and thoughtfully includes speaker taps, too. The EF6 will sell for $1399, though no one knows exactly how the final version will look as the production faceplate design has not yet been finalized. Stay tuned.

Recognizing that planar magnetic headphones may require a bigger investment than some listeners are willing or able to make, HiFiMAN also used Can Jam as an opportunity to roll out its first dynamic driver headphone, the HE-300, priced at $299. It’s too soon to say without an in-depth taste, but based on first impressions from a brief listen at the show, we think the HE-300 is likely to become one of the strongest competitors in its price class. Interestingly, it’s styling exactly mirrors that of the higher-end planar magnetic HiFiMAN models, though the HE-300 is dressed up in a distinctive, model-specific metallic silver finish.

As many of you know, HiFiMAN is led by Dr. Fang Bian, who is about as passionate and dedicated a headphone enthusiast as we have ever encountered. Sadly, Dr. Bian could not be (physically) present at Can Jam RMAF, but he “attended” nonetheless via a live Skype connection at the HiFiMAN table. It was fun to watch visitors move back and forth between the HiFiMAN listening stations, and then shift down to the Skype area to share impressions and comments with Dr. Bian.

High Resolution Technology (HRT)

•HeadStreamer—USB-powered, compact headphone amplifier/DAC. ($140)

High Resolution Technology has earned an enviable reputation as a go-to resource for affordable yet very high performance USB DACs and related components. For Can Jam RMAF, HRT debuted its cool new HeadStreamer USB-powered combo headphone amplifier/USB DAC ($140).

This bargain-priced unit will, I think, win friends with its ability to deliver digital audio in a manner that really doesn’t sound “digital,” but rather offers a touch of pleasingly natural, organic warmth—this in contrast to a large number of digital components that are afflicted with a sound that, while in a sense “pristine,” is marred by a certain sterile, icy coldness that can be quite off-putting over time. Thankfully, the HRT “house sound” is much more natural sounding (though perhaps less overtly detailed), and is therefore enjoyable for longer periods of time.

JH Audio

•JH3A/JH16 Pro System—Portable DSP-controlled, triamplifier/in-ear monitor system. ($1748)

JH Audio is lead by Jerry Harvey (and his wife Brittany) and the Harveys are regarded, with good reason, as among the prime movers-and-shakers in the world of custom-fit in-ear monitors. Playback has very favorably review JH Audio’s flagship JH16 Pro in-ear monitor (a three-way, 8-driver miniature in-ear monitor that many listeners regard as the best of its kind currently available).

But as early as a year and a half ago JH Audio began showing prototypes of an even more radical in-ear monitoring product, which was essentially the combination of a custom-modified set of JH16 Pros powered by—check this out—a dedicated, portable, DSP-controlled, tri-amplification system (called the JH3A) capable of applying both time domain and frequency domain correction to the JH16 Pro, effectively creating a “perfect” monitor. From the outset, this was a terrifically ambitious design project, so that it is not too surprisingly that it took a while for the design to progress from the prototype stage to finished product, and there have been, Jerry Harvey acknowledges, more than a few twists and turns along the way.

Specifically, Jerry Harvey explained, the circuit topology and overall signal flow path were re-evaluated and revised several times, with several important benefits for the end-user. In the original JH3A/JH16 Pro prototype system, the in-ear monitor—once modified for use with the JH3A—always had to be driven by the JH3A (meaning the monitors could no longer be used in passive mode at all). In the full production JH3A/JH16 Pro, however, the signal path has been revised so that users can either connect their specially modified JH16 Pros to the JH3A (for time and frequency-corrected triamplified-mode operation), or they can plug the JH16 Pro’s into a supplied adapter cable and run them in traditional passive mode (just like a standard JH16 Pro). Another welcome touch is that the production JH3A contains a bass trim control, so that users can add (or not add) a dab of low-end reinforcement to suit their listening tastes.

Interesting, the bundled price for the JH16 Pro/JH3A combo is just $1748, which is pretty reasonable once you consider the fact that the standard JH16 Pro sells for $1149—meaning the triamp rig is really no more costly than many other top-tier headphone amps. Cool. Watch for an upcoming Playback review once the initial backlog of JH3A pre-orders has cleared the factory.

Moon Audio

•Silver Dragon-series Analog and Digital Audio Cables—A range of hand-built, high-performance analog and digital audio cables with specialized terminations geared for various desktop audio, headphone, and high-end audio applications.

oSilver Dragon IEM ($65)—a Moon Audio/Silver Dragon silver-conductor replacement signal cable for high-end in-ear monitors such as the Ultimate Ear In-Ear Reference Monitor.
oSilver Dragon USB ($150 - $175)—a Moon Audio/Silver Dragon 3’ USB cable.
oSilver Dragon V3 ($75)—a Moon Audio/Silver Dragon digital iPod-USB adapter cable.

Here’s the point: If you like the core sound of your headphones and portable or desktop audio system, but suspect the have untapped performance potential, Moon Audio can build you a set of high-end (but not terribly high-priced) cables for almost any application you can dream up. Watch for an upcoming Playback review of Moon’s Silver Dragon IEM cable.


•PFE 232—Flagship universal-fit earphone/iPhone-compatible headset ($599)

Long-term Playback readers know that we hold Phonak’s mid-priced PFE 122 earphone in every high regard, and now the PFE 232 comes along with the promise of even higher sound quality. What’s different? Well, from the outside the earphones look fairly similar, though astute observers will note that the back side of the 232 sports what appear to be tiny vent grilles where the 122 has none. On the inside, the PFE 232 is a high-end design all the way, sporting dual-balanced armature-type drivers fitted within its earpiece enclosures. The 232 offers, as did the 122, Phonak’s signature acoustic filter (color-coded in gray, black, and green), which allow users to dial in the voicing parameters that sound the most natural and realistic to them. One significant difference, though, is that the PFE 232 ships with a set of all three types of filters, which the 122 does not. Recognizing that high-end users are divided on the question of whether to choose the convenience of a a headset with matching mic and remote control switches, or to choose the sonic purity of a straight, high-quality signal cable sans mic module, Phonak ships the 232 with both types of cables—giving users the freedom to choose. I got a brief chance to listen to the 232 at Can Jam, and when asked what I thought I replied that the 232 “sounded a fair amount like the 122, but with the imaginary ‘Resolution’ and ‘Refinement’ knobs both turned up to 12.” That off-the-cuff assessment will have to stand for the time being, until a full Playback review can be completed.


•M4U 2—Circumaural, closed-back, self-powered headphone with switch selectable noise-cancelling circuitry. ($399)

The Canadian speaker manufacturer PSB was not exhibiting in the Can Jam area proper, but upstairs in one of the standard RMAF demo rooms the firm was proudly showing its cool new M4U 2 self-powered headphone ($399)—or at least the ‘phone was on display for the first two days of the event.

Designer Paul Barton had given me guided tour of this exciting new headphone at the recent CEDIA Expo 2011, and I can vouch for the fact that it is chockfull of thoughtful design touches that effect both sound quality and ergonomics. Barton explained that the target frequency response curve for the M4U 2 was born out of extensive research into the characteristics of human hearing as conducted at the NRC research facility in Ottawa, Canada. But the headphone also pays careful attention to usability factors. Thus, the amply-sized ear cups are positioned in gimbal-type mounts that allow the ear cups to swivel side-to-side and up-and-down to obtain a comfortable fit. Moreover, the ear cup pads, as viewed from above, are asymmetrical (thicker toward the rear of the head than towards the front), again with an eye toward achieving an ideal fit.

One of the most interesting, albeit subtle, features of the M4U 2 is that it offers three modes of operation: passive mode, active mode, and active mode with noise-cancellation engaged. This is a clever touch that allows travelers to turn on noise-cancellation when it is need, but that also allows purists to disable noise cancellation to avoid any possible traces of DSP-induced “sonic haze.”

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