Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and I spoke about the magazine’s coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NV, USA and decided we would take a “divide-and-conquer” approach where each of us would focus on a handful of specific product categories. As it happens, one of the product categories assigned to me is a personal favourite; namely, high-performance headphones, earphones, and related electronics components. Below, I will summarize highlights from the headphone category as seen and heard at CES, providing photos of most of the products I mention.
Let me apologize in advance to any manufacturers whose worthy products I fail to mention in this report. The show was a dauntingly large one, so it is perhaps inevitable that a certain number of vendors and products will be missed. But, as you will learn in a moment, there were many excellent products on display and sounding great.
This is Part 1 of a two-part Hi-Fi+ report on headphones and related electronics as seen at CES 2013. You can access Part 2 from our homepage.
Key product: AB-1266 planar magnetic headphone ($5500)
The Abyss AB-1266 headphone was shown in a prototype form at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2012, and shown in an updated pre-production form at CES. To state things simply, the AB-1266 is pursuing a single-minded goal; namely, to be the finest ultra-high-end headphone in the world (one capable of doing battle on an equal footing with the impressive and class-leading Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone). On the road to production, the AB-1266 has undergone several changes, with refinements to the headphone’s voicing, a new and more rigid (but still adjustable) frame, new foamed aluminium driver protection screens, specially gauged JPS Labs Illuminati signal cables, new asymmetrical magnetically-attached and position adjustable ear pads, and an exquisite tool leather carrying case. All in all, the AB-1266 should be a very impressive offering—one that we look forward to reviewing in final production form.
Alpha Design Labs/Furutech
- X1 high resolution iDevice/Android/USB DAC & headphone amp (price TBD; ~$550)
- H118 headphones ($299)
For CES, ADL/Furutech showed two key products: a prototype of the firm’s upcoming X1 portable, high-resolution DAC and headphone amp, which was sounding extremely good at the show. Of particular significance is the fact that the X1 DAC section has been designed from the ground up for iDevice, Android device, and USB compatibility, and is also fitted with optical outputs, giving the little portable exceptional flexibility. The X1 should make a terrific follow-on to the firm’s already popular Cruise and Stride portables.
The H118 headphones had debuted at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2012, but Hi-Fi+ learned that the headphone had in the intervening months been re-voiced in a beneficial and very musical way. Stated simply, the production version H118 sounds not just a little but a lot better (warmer, more natural, and more organic and musically correct) than the version shown at RMAF. Good work, ADL.
Key Product: Stello 100-series HP-100 headphone amplifier/DAC ($1200)
As many of you know, April Music offers three ranges of components, with Eximus models at the top of the range, Stello 100-series models in the middle, and Aura components representing the (relative) entry level. April’s newest offering, as shown at CES, is the Stello 100-series HP-100 headphone amplifier/DAC, which was sounding very promising during a brief listening session. What words (and for that matter, photos) cannot easily convey is the exquisite but understated fit and finish that makes all April components—the Stello 100 HP-100 included—a joy to behold and to use.
- ATH-ANC33is Smartphone-compatible noise cancelling earphone ($79)
- ATH-ANC29 noise-cancelling headphones ($99)
- ATH-A500x closed-back headphones ($169)
- ATH-AD500x open-back headphones ($169)
- ATH-AD700x open-back headphones ($199)
- ATH-AD900x open-back headphones ($299)
Amongst a plethora of new product announcements from Audio-Technica, two groups of new products stand out: first, a pair of new active noise cancelling ‘phones (the ATH-ANC33is and ATH-ANC29) and second, a quartet of new audiophile-series headphones.
The new ANC models come in two distinctly different formats: in-ear (the ATH-ANC33is, which claims up to 90% noise noise-cancellation) and on-ear (the ATH-ANC29, which claims up to 87% noise-cancellation). Both models claim to offer a healthy measure of musicality and performance-minded sound quality in conjunction with their active noise cancellation features.
Music lovers, however, will likely be drawn to A-T’s four new audiophile-series models, which again come in two forms: first, the closed-back ATH-A500X, and second the open back ATH-AD900x, ATH-AD700x, and ATH-AD500x. Common wisdom holds that open-back ‘phones typically offer a more open and transparent sound, and to a certain extent A-T’s new open-back models follow this pattern, though in a broader sense the intent behind these models seems to be to give listeners a generous taste of upper-end sound quality at a mid-fi price.
In turn, common wisdom holds that closed back ‘phones typically offer better noise isolation with punchy and extended bass, but sometimes at the expense of a more “closed in” sound. Here, though, the closed-back ATH-A500x may prove the surprise of the bunch, in that it delivers the expected noise isolation and bass power and grip we want while also serving up an unexpectedly clear and open sound (especially so in light of the ATH-A500x’s modest price).
- T90 quasi-open-back headphone ($699)
- Custom One Pro headphone ($249)
Both the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro and T90 headphones debuted at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2012, but it was great to hear them again at CES and—in the case of the T90 in particular—to take time to compare the T90 to the firm’s flagship T1 Tesla.
The Custom One Pro might be considered a “lifestyle” headphone, but one that places a much higher premium on sound quality and on visual personalization features than most others of its genre. One of the most distinctive features of the Custom One Pro is a “sound slider” system that presents mechanical “slide switches” on the bottom of each ear cup, where the switches either open or close a series of vent ports that directly affect the voicing of the headphone. As you can see from the images provided, the Custom One Pro can be configured in a variety of visual styles to suit the owners’ tastes.
The T90 was one of our favourite discoveries from this year’s CES show, in that listening comparisons between the T90 and the T1 Tesla showed just how much of the sonic goodness of its big brother the new mid-priced T90 is able to capture. In truth, the sibling relationship is readily apparent, so that the T90 perhaps should be considered as a “T1 Junior”, but at about half the price of the flagship model. Based on a preliminary listen, we thing the T90 may well turn out to be one of the best mid-priced headphones on the market.
Key Product: BHA-1 balanced output headphone amplifier/preamp ($1395)
Candidly, the BHA-1 balanced output headphone amp is not a new product per se, but at CES Hi-Fi+ learned from Bryston’s James Tanner that the BHA-1 now includes as standard a key feature not included in the original designer: namely, the ability to function not only as a headphone amplifier but also as a minimalist stereo preamplifier. We weren’t able to check out the BHA-1’s preamp functionality at the show, but the BHA-1 certain sounded good when powering a set of Grado’s flagship PS-1000 headphones. Watch for a possible full-length review in an upcoming issue of Hi-Fi+.
Key Product: HH-1 hybrid valve/solid-state headphone amplifier
Not long ago I favorably reviewed the Audio Electronics by Cary Audio Nighthawk headphone amplifier and now Cary has released its externally similar but internally quite different HH-1 hybrid valve/solid-state headphone amp. The sonic differences between the Nighthawk and the HH-1 hinge, as near as I could tell on the basis of a brief listen, on the Cary models subtler, more nuanced, and notably richer and more full-bodied sound.
Key Product: HiFi-M8 balanced output headphone amplifier/USB & Apple IOS-compatible DAC ($699)
CEntrance is a fascinating company in that it was a well-regard digital audio technology development and consulting company (complete with a client list that read like a Who’s Who of High-End Audio and Pro Audio), long before it began building products consumers could buy. But once CEntrance took the plunge, it has built a series of winners including the DACport, DACmini, and MasterClass 2504 desktop monitoring speakers, to name just a few.
Now CEntrance brings us the HiFi-M8—one of the most ambitious portable headphone amp/DACs we have seen thus far and an amp that provides high-resolution iDevice and USB inputs, plus a fully balanced high-output headphone amp that provides extensive controls for master gain adjustment, bass and treble EQ, and more. As heard at T.H.E. Show (which was staged in conjunction with, but not under the auspices of, CES), the HiFi-M8 was used to drive a pair of Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla headphones that had been modified (rewired, actually) for use with balanced output amplifiers. The resulting sound was stupendous—easily some of the best headphone sound we heard at the show.
Key Product: Fosgate Signature headphone amplifier ($1500)
Now up and rolling along in full production is the Jim Fosgate-designed, tube powered Fosgate Signature headphone amplifier. Apart from an elegant and very wide bandwidth (2Hz – 200kHz) amplifier circuit, the amp also includes two other Fosgate inventions: a special user-controllable bass EQ circuit (using Fosgate’s patented “Single Element Controlled Twin T Filter”) and a switch selectable surround sound or imaging control circuit (using Fosgate’s also patented “Panorama Control”).
Prospective buyers may be interested to know that Fosgate enjoys an almost Thomas Alva Edison-like reputation as an inventor/designer. He is credited with having created the worlds first high-powered/low-distortion/bass EQ-equipped car audio amplifier (the famous Fosgate PowerPunch amp), the Fosgate/Audionics surround sound decoder (which ushered in the era of surround sound-equipped home theater as we know it), the Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound decoder circuit, and now a growing line of Fosgate Signature high-end audio components.
- RE-400 Waterline earphone ($99)
- HM-901 high resolution portable player/DAC (price TBD; ~$1000)
The Chinese headphone/earphone specialists at HiFiMAN conducted a press breakfast where it announced both its new RE-400 Waterline earphone (available) and prepared the way for the release of its very ambitious HM-901 high-resolution portable music player/DAC (slated to arrive within the next few months).
The RE-400 is intended as the middle model in a three-model range of high performance earphones. Company founder and President Dr. Fang Bian explained that he had always like the Dire Straits song “Down to the Waterline” and had, in a sense, named the RE-400 for the song. But he then quipped that any competing ‘phones that cost as much as the RE-400 but failed to sound as good could be considered, “…below the waterline.”
The HM-901 is one of the most ambitious personal digital music players ever conceived, with ability to play digital music files at resolutions of up to 24/192, or to serve as a high-resolution DAC, if so desired. The HM-901 will incorporate user installable amplifier modules, giving buyers the flexibility to install amp modules specifically geared to fit the power requirements of their chosen headphones or earphones. Finally, the HM-901 will be offered with an extra-cost dock that provides a USB input module and that is intended to remain connected to the owner’s high-end audio or home theater system. In this way, the HM-901 can be used both as a portable device (its primary purpose), but also as a top-tier DAC in a home-based system. Is the HM-901 up to the task? HiFiMAN’s CES show demo suggests that it is, as Dr. Bian invited direct A/B comparisons between the HM-901 and a $2000 high-end component-style DAC—comparisons in which the HM-901 fared very well indeed.
- Emperor electrostatic headphone ($500)
- Emperor electrostatic headphone bundled with solid-state electrostatic amp ($800)
- Emperor electrostatic headphone bundled with vacuum tube electrostatic headphone amp ($1600)
Though Kingsound is perhaps best known for its full-range electrostatic loudspeakers, we suspect the firm is about to become even more famous for its shockingly good (and also unexpectedly affordable) Emperor electrostatic headphone with matching amps (offered in both solid-state and tube-powered versions).
The Emperor headphone alone sells for $500 (a bargain basement price for a full-range electrostatic headphone), but we expect most interested parties will buy one of two King Sound headphone + amplifier bundles: the Emperor + Solid-State amp bundle (priced at $800, which must be considered a screamin’ good deal) or the Emperor + Tube-Powered amp bundle (priced at a still quite reasonable $1600). After listening to both packages, my personal conclusion was that the solid-state package was good, but that the tube-powered package was even better—so good, in fact, that it basically upended many of my preconceived notions about value for money in the world of very high performance headphones. This is a product that bears watching and will surely become a Hi-Fi+ review subject in the not too distant future.
After hearing the Emperor + Tube-Powered amp combo and then learning its price, Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom offered up a succinct, two word commentary: “Oh, wow…” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
- Striva Pro Wi-Fi headphone ($450)
- Striva Tap Wi-Fi earphone ($500)
- ESP950 electrostatic headphone & energizer module ($1600)
Koss is one of the (if not the) oldest headphone manufacturers in the world and is widely credited with creating the world’s first music-oriented (as opposed to spoken word-oriented) headphones. This tradition of innovation continued at CES with the announcement of the world’s first Wi-Fi-enabled (note that I did say Bluetooth-enabled) headphones and earphones: the Striva Pro and Striva Tap, respectively. What makes the Striva models special is the simple fact that they can, from any Wi-Fi hot spot, access a special MyKoss.com web site, which can in turn allow users either to access a number of music channels provided by Koss or to access personalized music channels through which their home music servers are connected (again via Wi-Fi) to the MyKoss.com site. If that last sentence sounds a little convoluted, then let me diagram the audio data flow path, below:
Home Server --> Koss-provided “CAP” module--> Network connection to MyKoss.com --> (Wi-Fi) --> Koss Striva-series Wi-Fi headphones.
In short, Koss’ self-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled headphones and earphones enable you to access your home music library from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Cool concept, no?
But, in the oldie-but-decidedly-goodie department, Koss also had something very special to show high-end listeners; namely, its venerable ESP950 full-range electrostatic headphone with energizer (that is, amplifier/bias voltage module). In truth, the ESP950 was one of the very first commercially viable full-range electrostatic headphones and it is almost certainly the one that has been in continuous production for the longest period of time. Even so, I thought the ESP-950 sounded as if it still had plenty of modern era, top-tier-grade performance on offer. Accordingly, expect to see an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review of this very special Koss model, if only so that we can get a better handle on a product that helped get the whole electrostatic headphone movement rolling in the first place.
- Mikros 70 earphones ($149)
Mikros 90 on-ear headphones ($299)
An ever-growing number of loudspeaker manufacturers have taken the plunge to become headphone manufacturers and MartinLogan is no exception. Last Fall the firm announced its Mikros 70 in-ear ‘phones and for CES debuted its beautifully made Mikros 90 on-ear headphones. The MartinLogan demo room was geared primarily to show loudspeakers and subwoofers so that I really didn’t get a chance to hear the Mikros models in action. But never fear: both Hi-Fi+ Editor Alan Sircom and I have samples of the Mikros 70 in hand so that between the two of us a full-length review will appear in Hi-Fi+ before too long. Stay tuned…
This concludes Part 1 of a two-part Hi-Fi+ report on headphones and related electronics as seen at CES 2013. You can access Part 2 from our homepage.