Part 2 of our report covers: Cavalli Audio, Cayin, Clear Tune Monitors, Echobox Audio, E-Mu Systems, Empire, ENIGMAcoustics, Etymotic Research, Fender, FiiO, Final, FLC, Focal, and Fostex.
Find Part 1 our CanJam report here: http://www.hifiplus.com/articles/canjam-at-rmaf-2016-part-1-of-4/
The Austin, TX-based firm Cavalli Audio is in the midst of a ‘sea change’, where many of the firm’s legendary, hand-built, full-size headphone amplifiers are now in final production and a new family of models is just beginning to appear.
Leading the way is the new Spark portable headphone amplifier (USD $499), which represents a concerted effort to bring the vaunted ‘Cavalli sound’ to a smaller, more convenient, and lower-priced format than the firm has ever before offered. The angular, futuristically styled, chrome-finished Spark is nothing if not eye catching; indeed, it would not look out of place if it appeared on the set of the latest Star Trek film. But the Spark’s sound is good, old-fashioned Cavalli—meaning that it is taut, transparent, muscular, and well defined. The Spark features fully discrete circuitry, offers two gain settings (1x or 3x), has very low output impedance, and produces an honest 350mW @ 50 Ohms. As a welcome touch, the battery circuit is set up to allow simultaneous charging and music playback—something not all portable units support.
At the other end of the price/performance spectrum, Cavalli again showed working prototypes of its upcoming, valve-powered Liquid Tungsten desktop headphone amplifier. Many who have heard this statement-class amplifier feel it is among the best of the best, so that the only questions remaining are A) what will the final production version of the amplifier look like?, B) when will it go into production?, and C) how much will it cost? The answer to the latter question is, says Cavalli, “about $6,000”, but on the industrial design question the firm is much more close-mouthed, saying only that, “we have some design concepts in mind, but we aren’t ready to show them to you yet.” My best guess, then, is that the Liquid Tungsten will appear on the market early in 2017. Stay tuned.
The Chinese firm Cayin is well known in many audiophile circles for its full-size source component and both valve and solid-state powered amplifiers and preamplifiers. At the same time, however, the firm’s range of personal audio-orientated electronics continues to grow by leaps and bounds, with the firm’s cool new i5 Android-based digital audio player ($499) particularly capturing our attention at CanJam/RMAF. The i5 is an uncommonly versatile and beautifully made DAP that incorporates an AKM AK4490 DAC (the same device seen in DAPs carrying four-figure price tags), a PGA2311 volume control IC, dual crystal-controlled clocks, and a headphone amplifier that puts out a healthy 2 x 190mW @ 32 ohms. The DAC section of the i5 supports PCM/DXD decoding at up to 32/384 resolutions and also support native decoding for DSD64 and DSD128 files.
But that is only the beginning, as the i5 also provides WiFi, Bluetooth, and USB 3.0 connectivity, and supports apps such as Google Play, Tidal, and Spotify, while also offering playback from Cloud servers, LANs, DLNA sources, and from Dropbox. Further, the i5 provides 32GB of internal storage with support for up to 200GB of external microSD storage. Last but not least, the i5 provides a beautiful and highly intuitive graphical user interface that leverages the embedded HiBy Music Player app. We hope to spend a lot more quality time with this high-sophistication/high-value DAP in the year to come.
Clear Tune Monitors
A new, or at least new to us, firm we encountered at CanJam/RMAF is the Orlando, Florida-based CIEM and universal-fit earphone maker Clear Tune Monitors. In broad strokes, the firm offers an extensive range of nine models of CIEMs, a smaller three-model range of Vintage-series universal-fit earphones, custom moulded earplugs, complete onstage monitoring systems, and accessories.
Perhaps of greatest interest to us and to Hi-Fi+ readers were the firm’s CT-series CIEMs, which promise all the performance of premium-priced competitors, but at roughly half the price. For example, CTM’s entry-level CT-100 model features a single-balanced armature driver and custom moulded acrylic earpieces, yet is priced starting at just $300 (which is a very low price for any CIEM).
At the other end of the pricing spectrum is the CT-6E Elite CIEM, which has six balanced armature drivers, features custom moulded acrylic earpieces, and is priced from $1000 on up (depending upon finish options chosen). In terms of design and sound quality the CT-6?E is the most sophisticated model that Clear Tune Monitors knows how to build, and on the basis of a brief listen we found its sonic performance impressive indeed. The CT-6E is priced starting at $1,000, which is not bad at all when you consider that many top-tier CIEMs are priced anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 times higher.
I did not have time to investigate the firm’s Vintage-series universal-fit models, but their marketing materials seek to evoke a retro vibe, while their tagline read, “The SOUL of the past; the SOUND of the future”. The Vintage range comprises the dual balanced armature driver VS-2 ($399), the triple balanced armature driver VS-3 ($499), and the quad balanced armature driver VS-4 ($599). Best of all the VS models are offered in cool colours reminiscent of those used on late 1950’s US automobiles. (UK and European readers might wish to note that, in the time period referenced, US automakers often went in for some rather daring hues, such as salmon pink, vivid aquamarine blue/green, etc.).
Echobox Audio edges ever closer to the long awaited release of its Explorer streaming DAP, which as many of you already know looks very much like a hip flask (only this one is full of fine music, not fine single malt whiskey). In keeping with this visual theme, the undeniably sexy Explorer is offered in a range of hardwood case options: mahogany, ebony, maple, or zebra (complete with optional, matching wood finish docking stations). Depending on finish and other options chosen, the Explorer sells for between $550 - $599.
The versatile Explorer is based on an Android 4.2 platform and uses a Rockchip RK3188 Quad Core processor, provides 2 GB of DDR3 RAM, 64GB of internal storages, and supports a microSD card slot for storage expansion. However, almost any discussion of the Explorer with the Echobox team reveals the firm’s hope that users will use the DAP as intended: namely, as a true Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and DLNA-enabled player that comes complete with a trial Tidal subscription.
The Explorer is based on a TI PCM1892 DAC device with support for up to 24/192 PCM files and for DSD, while the Explorer’s amp section uses a TI TPA6120AS amp chip, delivering 30mW peak power output.
Complement developments on the Explorer front, Echobox’s range of Finder X1-series titanium earphones is also expanding, so that in addition to the original Finder X1 (as reviewed in Hi-Fi+ issue 139) there are now Finder X1i (Apple iDevice compatible) and Finder X1a (Android compatible variation. Finder X1 models range from $200 - $229.
A new-to-me CIEM and earphone-maker I discovered at CanJam/RMAF 2016 was the Buford, Georgia-based firm Empire Audio, which has recently teamed up with Asius Technologies—a firm that promotes use of the ADEL (Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lens) technology developed by Asius founder Stephen Ambrose.
Empire, itself, is an aspiring manufacturer of no-compromise, exclusively USA-made CIEMs and universal-fit earphones, but the relationship with Asius adds an interesting new dimension. I say this because ADEL technology, which will soon be available as an option on many Empire offerings, promises to relieve the pneumatic overpressure conditions to which most CIEMs and earphones are prone. In the process, ADEL technology is said to promote better hearing health (and safety) while also enhancing sound quality.
Until recently, Empire’s CIEM ranges comprised nine models ranging from the entry-level dual balanced armature-type driver equipped Supra II ($429) on up to a pair of flagship, 14 balanced armature-type driver-equipped models known as the Zeus XIV and the Zeus R (both priced at $2,099). The Zeus R (for ‘Reference’) features scrupulously neutral voicing, while the Zeus XIV deliberately offers slightly mid-centric voicing with noticeably more lush and full-bodied mids. Now, Empire has seen fit to offer a new flagship, called the Zeus XR, with both the sound signatures of both the Zeus R and Zeus XIV models. In other words, the Zeus XR is intended as a true, best-of-two-world’s design.
Empire’s universal-fit model range exactly parallels its CIEM range with models that are identically priced.
In a brief listen to the Zeus R, I came away thoroughly impressed by both the earphone’s admirably neutral tonal balance and remarkable top-to-bottom transparency and coherency. Clearly (no pun intended), further listening is indicated.