•iCube V3—Portable Headphone Amp/DAC. ($799)
A little over a year ago, Drew Baird of Moon Audio opened my eyes to the joys of the beautifully made iCube-series portable amps and amp/DACs from the Dutch firm Qables. Now Qables is offering an all-new and improved amp/DAC called the iCube V3 ($799), which is said to provide both a better (class D) amplifier and significant improved DAC vis-à-vis the earlier iCube V2.
The gist of things is that the V3 provides both a USB (16-bit/48 kHz) DAC input, as well as higher resolution (24-bit/192 kHz) Toslink and coaxial digital DAC inputs, plus a standard analog input. In turn, the V3 offers and improved amplifier section driven by a higher capacity battery than in the original V2. What words can’t easily convey, though, is the fine German camera-like fit and finish that the iCube displays; to hold one in your hand is to covet the darned thing. Honest.
Ray Samuels Audio
•Dark Star—2-chassis, fully balanced, high-output desktop headphone amp. ($2995)
•SR-71B—Fully balanced, portable headphone amplifier. ($650)
If you ever meet Ray Samuels at a show, or take the opportunity to visit RSA’s website, you may well be struck, as I have been, by the man’s passion for the entire sport of headphone-based audio, and by his seemingly limitless creativity.
At last year’s Can Jam RMAF even, Ray was exhibiting a “breadboard”-level prototype of—check this out—a fully balanced portable headphone amplifier capable of driving even the most notoriously power-hungry headphones (e.g., the HiFiMAN HE-6’s). This is a stronger claim than you might think, since the fact is that many (perhaps even most) full-size desktop headphone amps have a hard time driving ‘phones like the HE-6 to their full potential. Nevertheless, Ray Samuels found a way to pull off this feat, and the result is the now finished Blackbird SR-71B fully balanced portable headphone amp ($650). This pint-sized powerhouse is not only powerful, but also very refined and it manages to deliver a wonderfully expressive, lively sound. Playback returned from Can Jam with a review sample of the SR-71B in hand, so a full review will be forthcoming fairly soon.
But for some audiophile’s there is nothing quite like a great desktop headphone amplifier, and with power-hungry ‘phones in mind Ray Samuels has recently created his fully balanced and extremely powerful new Dark Star headphone amplifier ($2995). Naturally, the amp provides both balanced and single-ended outputs and features switch-selectable gain setting of 11 (which is about as high as some amps ever go) or 21 (which is enough gain to more or less pin your ears back no matter how power hungry your ‘phones might be). To borrow a line from Spiderman, though, let’s acknowledge that with great power comes great responsibility. Samuels somewhat sheepishly admitted that, when turning the volume waaaay up on the Dark Star during a particularly exuberant listening session, he had actually managed to fry the drivers of his personal pair of HiFiMAN HE-6’s. Important safety tip: Feel free to enjoy the massive power the Dark Star provides, but treat that big ol’ volume control knob with the respect it deserves (and don’t hurt yourself, OK?).
•Asgard—Single-ended, class A JFET/MOSFET-powered desktop headphone amplifier. ($249)
•Valhalla—(Triode) Tube-powered, no feedback, desktop headphone amplifier optimized for high-impedance (300-600 ohm) headphones. ($349)
•Lear—High-output (6 Wpc at 32 Ohm, 4 Wpc at 40 Ohms) desktop headphone amplifier. ($449).
•Bifrost modular DAC. ($349 with coax/TOSLINK inputs, $449 with standard plus USB inputs).
At the risk of sounding like an uptight prudish old guy, let me say that there are an awful lot of things to like about the Mike Moffat-led firm Schiit Audio; the company name, however, is not one of them. Personally, I can’t really see the upside of telling my audio buddies that my new headphone product “is a real piece of… Schiit.” Thank goodness the firm has the good sense to use a stylized letter “S” logo in lieu of the full company name on its product faceplates.
But here’s the deal; if you can force yourself to look beyond this company’s bizarre moniker, you’ll discover that Schiit offers some exceedingly clever and downright beautifully made products that sell for what must be considered bargain prices. What seals the deal is the fact that Schiit products offer the elusive combination of design pedigree (hey, Mike Moffat was one of the original gurus behind Theta Digital), fine sound, and readily apparent build quality.
First up is the lovely solid state Asgard headphone amp, which is one of the best sounding desktop amps I’ve yet heard in its price range ($249). Quite honestly, if someone told me the price was 2X what it actually is, I’d still think it was a pretty good deal. The middle model is the (triode) tube-powered Valhalla, which offers a zero-feedback circuit and is optimized for higher-impedance (think 300-600 Ohm headphones) and that sells for an eminently reasonable $449. Then, at the top of the Schiit product pyramid is the versatile, high-output tube-driven Lear headphone amp ($449), whose only weakness is that its high gain may make it unsuitable for use with, say, high-sensitivity in-ear monitors.
Yet another cool (and very clever) product is the new Bifrost DAC, which is offered in two forms: standard ($349) or USB ($449). What’s slick, here, is that the Bifrost is not so much a DAC, per se, but rather a “DAC platform” whose actual DAC circuitry is completely modular. Thus, if a superior DAC device comes along in years to come, Schiit intends to offer upgrade modules for the Bifrost to make it something of an evergreen product. No “planned obsolescence” for these guys; a cool idea, no?
•RS 220—Wireless headphone system. ($599)
The RS 220 is Sennheiser’s finest wireless headphone to date, and once you hear it in action you may conclude it’s also the finest wireless headphone anybody has produced to date. Here’s what I mean by this comment. If you listen to the RS 220 in a side-by-side comparison with Sennheiser’s HD 600 (which was, not so very long ago, Sennheiser’s flagship model), you may be struck as I was by the fact that qualitative differences between the two ‘phones are relatively small. But the weird part is that, on the level of official list prices, the two are also fairly close in price. Is the HD600 better in an absolute sense? Probably so, but not by a huge margin. On the other hand, does RS 220 give radically better freedom of movement than the HD600 while obviating the need for a standalone headphone amp? Yes, indeed it does, and that’s the beauty of the thing. If you want wireless convenience without making a big (or even a small) sacrifice in sound quality, and without paying a stiff premium for the privilege, the RS 220 is your go-to solution.
Sound Performance Lab (SPL)
•Phonitor—Pro-sound-grade, solid-state headphone amplifier with distinctive “Crossfeed” and “Speaker Angle” imaging controls. ($2149)
•Auditor—Essentially the Phonitor headphone amp, but without the imaging control features. ($1000)
•Control—Basic solid-state desktop headphone amplifier. ($600)
The German firm SPL is, quite frankly, a lot better known in the pro-sound world (think in terms of very high performance recording-oriented hardware and software) than it is in the headphone universe, but that state of affairs could easily change, given what I saw of the firm’s products at Can Jam.
SPL, you see, makes a range of very high-quality headphone amps that were originally developed with an eye toward giving recording engineers (and producers) an alternative to monitoring through tradition near-field speaker systems. One very interesting implication of this approach is that SPL’s flagship Phonitor headphone amp ($2149) provides two special controls that are geared toward helping headphones produce three dimensional soundstage images similar to those produced by fine speaker systems. Thus, the Phonitor includes a precision, variable “Crossfeed” control, plus a “Speaker Angle” control; together, these controls allow the listener to dial in as much or as little 3D imaging effect as desired (or, the controls can be defeated for a more purist-oriented headphone listening experience).
SPL’s next model down, the Auditor ($1000), is essence the headphone amplifier section of the Phonitor with all of the special spatial imaging controls stripped away. Finally, as a decidedly classy “entry-level” model, SPL offers the Control ($600), which is their most basic headphone amp. After a bit of research, though, I’ve discovered that the firm also offers a variation on the Control amp, called the Control 2, which is what you get if you take a standard Control model and then add in a simplified, minimalist version of the “Crossfeed” feature from the Phonitor (though I’ve only seen the Control 2 in photographs; it wasn’t on exhibit at Can Jam).
•SR-009—World-class electrostatic headphone. ($5200)
Stax was not officially an exhibitor at Can Jam or at RMAF, but even so the firm’s latest and best electrostatic “earspeaker”—the new SR-009—was well represented and on demonstration at both the Head Amp and Woo Audio displays.
While I haven’t logged enough time with the SR-009 to be able to issue any sort of definitive proclamation as to its merits, let come right out and tell what I think on the basis of first impressions. I think that the SR-009, when powered by a good enough dedicated electrostatic headphone amp (and that’s a big “if”), may very well be the finest headphone on planet Earth. This one really does it all; low level resolution, blinding transient speed, smooth and neutral tonal balance, all the subtlety and nuance you could ever want, and—this is the factor that sets the SR-009 apart from other electrostats I’ve heard—truly potent and expressive dynamics.
Todd The Vinyl Junkie (TTVJ)/Apex Audio
•Arete—Desktop solid-state headphone amplifier. ($1095)
•Volcano Power Supply—Upgrade power supply for use with TTVJ/Apex Arete or Peak headphone amplifiers. ($750)
•Butte—Compact solid-state headphone amplifier. ($500)
We at Playback are big fans of the Apex Audio headphone amplifiers as sold by Todd The Vinyl Junkie (TTVJ). Indeed, the mighty Pinnacle amp ($10,000) won favorable commentary in our sister magazine, The Absolute Sound, while the next model down—the Peak headphone amp with Volcano power supply ($2095 - $2230, depending on tube options chosen) won critical acclaim in our own Playback review.
But for Can Jam, Apex and TTVJ teamed up to roll out new models that help further flesh out lower price points in the Apex product line up. In particular, Apex showed the new Arete solid-state headphone amp ($1095), which can be thought of as a solid-state version of the tube-powered Peak amplifier and that—like the Peak—is meant to be used with Apex’s upgraded Volcano power supply ($750).
Interestingly, though, the Apex product the was really wowing Can Jam attendees was the significantly lower priced, and much more simply configured Butte headphone amplifier ($500), which was providing an almost heartbreakingly beautiful, clean, pure sound. It’s really something special for the money.
•Marvel, Aero, Mage, Merlin, and Miracle—Custom-fit in-ear monitors with, respectively, 2, 3, 4, 4 +1, and 6 drivers/earpiece. ($450, Marvel - $930, Miracle)
A new discovery for me was the Australian custom-fit in-ear monitor maker Unique Melody. The firm’s product line is, with perhaps one notable exception, pleasingly straightforward. At the bottom of the range is the Marvel ($450) featuring dual-balanced armature drivers. Next up is the Aero, which Unique Melody terms a “triple” (as in using three balanced armature drivers); above the Aero is the Mage, which is UM’s “quad” (configured as a three-way, four balanced armature in-ear monitor with one high frequency driver, one midrange driver, and dual bass drivers). Then, and the very top of the Unique Melody food chain is the three-way, 6-driver Miracle ($950), which uses six balanced armature drivers grouped as two HF driver, two Midrange drivers, and two woofers). A company spokesman told me that the Miracle is hands down the most accurate, audiophile worthy of all the Unique Melody products, so that I am hoping to be able to obtain review samples for Playback. Stay tuned.
The one “odd man out” model I alluded to above is UM’s three-way Merlin monitor, which offers a hybrid combination of four balanced armature drivers plus one dynamic driver—a combination I’ve not seen in any other in-ear monitor. In terms of price, the Merlin slots in above the Mage and below the Merlin, but sonically it breaks away from UM’s traditional house sound, offering admittedly elevated bass response and thus moving away from the realm of strict textbook accuracy into what UM terms “the world of unabated fun.”
•Crossfade LP2—Second generation, “Live Performance”-series (think “club sound” voicing) headphones. ($200)
•Crossfade M-100—M-series (think audiophile or “music sound” voicing) over- the-ear headphones. ($230)
•Faders—High-performance hearing protectors designed to let just enough high frequency content through for listeners to enjoy the perception of full-range sound without damaging their ears. ($20)
I recently had the opportunity to review V-MODA’s Crossfade M-80 on-ear headphone and came away with positive impressions, so I was glad to see that Val Kolton, the founder and head honcho of V-MODA was on hand at Can Jam to represent his company.
Kolton explained that part of his product line provides what might be termed “club” or “DJ voicing” as denoted by V-MODA’s “LP” (for “Live Performance”) nomenclature. Other models in the V-MODA range, however, make more of an effort to provide neutral, accurate voicing as denoted by V-MODA’s “M” (for “Music”??) nomenclature. No wonder I liked the M-80’s so much.
At Can Jam, V-MODA was showing its new second-generation Crossfade LP2 model, but I was frankly drawn to the new Crossfade M-100 ($230), which you could think of as a larger, over-the-ear version of the already very good M-80 on-ear headphone.
One other neat new product from V-MODA was the Fader family of high performance in-ear hearing protectors. Kolton explained that, as a veteran DJ and record producer, he feels an obvious need to protect his hearing and to encourage V-MODA customers to do likewise. At the same time, he concedes that most hearing protectors chop off so much sound that the music no longer sounds vibrant or alive. The Faders represent a serious and careful effort to reduce sound pressures to safe levels, while at the same time allowing through just enough upper midrange and high frequency content to allow the music to “sparkle” and “breathe.” ‘Works for me.
I also found it fascinating to meet Kolton, in that I quickly learned that not only does he care deeply about his products’ sound quality and style, but that he is also an absolute on the subject of giving V-MODA products truly exceptional levels of ruggedness. Kolton explained that he has a brother in the U.S. Air Force who had introduced him to the wonders of Mil-Spec build quality and that, driven by this influence, Kolton had methodically pursued construction and testing techniques that would enable his products to—as the old Timex wristwatch ads used to put it—“take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.”
•WES—2-chassis, tube-powered electrostatic headphone amplifier. ($5000)
•Woo 234 Mono—World’s first monoblock, user-adaptable, tube-powered headphone amplifier/speaker amplifier system. ($10,000/pair)
•WTP-1—CD transport, shown in pre-production prototype form. ($1099)
•WDS-1—Desktop DAC, shown in pre-production prototype form. ($1099)
Judging by the very wide range of headphone amplification products offered by his firm Woo Audio, company president Jack Wu must surely eat, sleep, and breathe headphone-based audio systems. But for Can Jam Mr. Wu really outdid himself, introducing not only two new top-tier headphone amplifiers, but also two remarkably beautiful value-priced digital audio products targeted toward the traditional high-end audio enthusiasts. Let’s begin, though, with the headphone-centric products.
Woo introduced its new 2-chassis WES electrostatic headphone amplifier ($4990), which was paired with the amazing new Stax SR-009 electrostatic earspeaker ($5200) to create what Woo unabashedly describes as a “world class headphone system.” The system sounded very, very good, though it was difficult to determine (on the basis of a brief listen under trade show conditions) which aspects of the sound were attributable to the Woo amp and which to the Stax headphone. This package will certainly bear further listening; it’s remarkably good.
Adjacent to the WES/Stax display, Woo was showing what was if anything an even more imposing product: the Woo WA-234 MONO, which is billed as “the world’s first monoblock headphone and speaker amplifier.” Apart from its gorgeous industrial design and plainly over-the-top build quality standard, the thing that sets the Woo 234 Mono’s apart is the fact that they ship with two types of plug-in “switching keys”—one set that serve as Tube Switching Keys (allowing users to equip their 234’s with 2A3, 300B, or 45-series vacuum tubes), and another set that serve as Output Switching Key (allowing users to configure their 234’s to drive speakers or headphones, as they see fit). Interestingly, Woo has developed output switching keys for “cathode and plate outputs for high and low impedance headphones.” As you can imagine, the WA-234 MONO offers tremendous versatility and provides all sorts of opportunities for comparatively listening using different types and brands of tubes. The only catch: a pair of WA-234 MONO’s will set you back a cool $10,000. Still, by high-end audio standards that figure is by no means as crazy as it might at first sound; indeed, if you simply judge just the product by its looks, it will make you start itching for a spare 10 large to spend.
Completing the picture for Woo were the sweet new WTP-1 CD transport (projected price $1099) and the matching WDS-1 desktop DAC (also projected at $1099). Woo was using this transport/DAC pair for many of its headphone demos, and they sounded extremely good for the money.