CanJam at RMAF 2016 – Part 4 of 4

This is Part 4 of a four-part report on CanJam at RMAF 2016.

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs

Sonoma Acoustics

The northern California-based firm Sonoma Acoustics was until recently best known for its state-of-the-art DSD recording and editing system, commonly known as the Sonoma Workstation. Now, however, Sonoma has expanded in a new direction by teaming with British firm Warwick Audio Technologies Ltd. to create the spectacular new Sonoma M1 electrostatic headphone system, which will sell for $4,995 in the US and for £4,595 in the UK.

The M1 system leverages the High-Precision Electrostatic Laminate (HPEL) transducer developed by Warwick Audio Technologies, but expands upon the capabilities of the driver through a jointly developed class A electrostatic “Energizing Amplifier” that incorporates a custom 64-bit double-precision fixed-point DSP engine that manages certain aspects of the headphone’s voicing. Further, the amp also incorporates a USB DAC based on dual 32-bit ESS SABRE Reference DACs, plus an ultra high-performance, multi-channel, 32/384-capable AKM premium ADC system that is conceptually positioned upstream of the amp’s DSP system. In this way, incoming analogue signals are digitised before DSP processing and before amplified signals are finally passed on to the M1 headphones.

The M1 headphone is special too, using HPEL drivers mounted in injection-moulded magnesium ear cups that are extremely light, comfortable and fitted with Cabretta hair sheep leather ear pads and headband pads. The system ships with ultra-low capacitance signal cables and a very high-performance USB cable developed in conjunction with the cable specialist Straight Wire Inc. 

In a too brief listen, I felt Sonoma’s M1 system sounded very promising indeed, so that it is a system I look forward to exploring in more depth in the future.


Sony’s CanJam RMAF 2016 display and demonstrations centred primarily on three Signature-series high-end offerings: the firm’s flagship NW-WM1Z high-res digital audio player ($3,199), the TA-ZH1ES balanced output desktop headphone amplifier/DAC(price?), and the top-of-the-range MDR-Z1R headphone ($2,299).

Words can scarcely begin to express the sheer beefiness and build quality of the Signature-series Walkman NW-WM1Z digital audio player, whose overall construction reminds me of a bank vault writ small. And that bank vault metaphor will come to mind again whenever you pick up the NW-WM1Z, which is a bit of chunk to hold in one’s hand. This 32/384-capable player also provides native DSD support and offers storage capacity up to 256 GB. The sound of the unit struck me as being almost microscopically detailed and exceedingly pure-sounding—very much cut from similar sonic cloth to Astell & Kern’s flagship AK380 DAP. It would very interesting, I think, to compare the two units side-by-side.

The TA-ZH1ES features a hybrid digital/analogue amplifier section offering both balanced and single-ended outputs. The sophisticated DAC section of the TA-ZH1ES is not one most listeners will soon outgrow as it can decode PCM files at resolutions up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD files at up to 22.4MHz. And, did we mention the unit sports the sort of elegantly simple, no-nonsense good looks that we find most appealing?

The MDR-Z1R is a closed-back, dynamic driver-equipped circumaural headphone. The key to the headphone’s transparent and wide-open sound, I think, is its unusually large 70mm dome-type driver, which features, says Sony, a “responsive magnesium dome with liquid crystal polymer-edge diaphragm for clarity.” Interestingly, Sony—a firm not typically given to gratuitous specification inflation, claims the frequency response of this driver to be a stupendous 4Hz – 120kHz. Further listening is indicated.

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