CES 2013: Headphones & Related Electronics—Part 2 (Hi-Fi+)

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
CES 2013: Headphones & Related Electronics—Part 2 (Hi-Fi+)

This is Part 2 of a two-part Hi-Fi+ report on headphones and related electronics as seen at CES 2013. You can access Part 1 of the report from our homepage.



  • HP50 headphone ($279)
  • D1050 multi-input high-resolution DAC and headphone amp ($499)
  • D3020 multi-input high-resolution DAC/integrated amp and headphone amp ($399)​
  • D7050 Digital Network Receiver ($899)

Tracking closely with developments from its system company PSB Speakers, NAD electronics announced at CES its first-ever headphone—the HP50. Interestingly, PSB founder Paul Barton designed the HP50 for NAD. In a brief conversation at CES I asked Mr. Barton to compare and contrast the NAD HP50 with his own PSB M4U 1 headphone. Barton explained that while the two models are internally similar, the NAD version has been voiced to provide just slightly more bass lift than the PSB model does, although both headphones follow Barton’s philosophy of voicing headphones to provide low-end response curves that simulate the natural bass “room gain” that most loudspeaker enjoy in real-world rooms (as opposed to anechoic test chambers).

Moving forward, NAD also preview three impressive new compact audio components that each, in its way, speaks to headphone and/or desktop audio enthusiasts. The largest of the three components is the D7050 Digital Network Receiver, which is aptX/Bluetooth-enabled, Apple Airplay-enabled, provides and asynchronous high-res USB DAC, is UPnP compliant, and provides a 2 x 50Wpc digital amplifier.

Next in the lineup, and of direct interest to headphone lovers, is the D1050 USB DAC, which incorporates a high-res DAC with asynchronous USB and three S/PDIF inputs (AES/EBU, coax, and optical). Moreover, the D1050 incorporates a built-in headphone amp and provides both balanced and single-ended analogue audio outputs.

Finally, and this one will resonate the NAD fans of a certain age, we have the D3020 Digital DAC/Amp (and yes, that “3020” is a deliberate homage to NAD’s classic C 3020 integrated amp of yesteryear). The D3020 is aptX/Bluetooth enabled, provides a 24/192 asynchronous USB DAC, S/PDIF coax and optical inputs, a built-in headphone amp, a subwoofer output feed, and a 2 x 30Wpc digital amplifier. Think of this product as NAD’s “3020” for the digital age.   



Key Product: HP-800 headphone ($149)

NuForce’s newly announced HP-800 is the firm’s first ever foray into full-size, over-the-ear, monitor-class headphones. From the outside the HP-800 appears very nicely made and on first listen it appears to offer decent bass depth and definition with an overarching “vibe” of clarity and transparency. NuForce set us up with review samples of the ‘phones, but ours have so few hours on them at this stage that I am reluctant to offer further comments on sonic characteristics until we have given them some more run-in time. Any way you slice things, though, the HP-800 looks to be a lot of headphone for the money.


Key products:

  • ES-FC300 headphones ($149 - $179, depending on cables)
  • ES-HF300 earphones ($99 - $129, depending on cables)

Though best known for its home theater electronics components, Onkyo has now entered the world of headphone/earphone manufacturers with its new ES-FC300 headphones and ES-HF300 earphones. Interestingly, both models are offered in two versions—a lower priced version offered with standard signal cables and a slightly higher priced version fitted with higher quality, audiophile-oriented cable. If nothing else, I think this shows Onkyo’s heart is in the right place.

It was tricky for me to form much of an opinion on the ‘phones, since they were on display in the midst of the Gibson (yeah, as in “Gibson Guitars”) tent, wherein a maniacal DJ was spinning discs at volume levels loud enough to wake the dead (somebody really needs to clue those Gibson folks into the concept of avoiding volume-induced hearing damage before they all go stone cold deaf!). Even so, I was very impressed with the passive noise isolation offered by the ES-FC300s as they did a yeoman job of suppressing the racket in the tent while doing a creditable job of actually playing music at sensible levels.



Key product: E3i Smartphone-compatible earphone ($149)

Last year, Paradigm began launching a range of affordable earphones and for CES the firm gave particular emphasis to its new E3i smartphone-enabled earphone, which is billed as offering, “sound tuned to our flagship Reference speakers”—a claim we may evaluate in greater depth in the future.


Polk Audio

Key product: Ultra Focus 800 active noise-cancelling headphone ($349)

Polk Audio is moving strongly into the headphone arena and at the forefront of that move is the Ultra Focus 800 active noise-cancelling headphone. Indeed, a significant portion of the Polk display centered on demonstrations of the Ultra Focus 800 and in a very clever way. Polk was showcasing a number of indie musicians who performed from within a soundproof, glass-walled booth located near the center of the Polk stand. Outside, in the decidedly noisy environs of the main show area, Polk had set up rows of listening stands each fitted with Ultra Focus 800s. Show attendees were invited to sit down and listen to the performers, whilst the Ultra Focus 800s did a good job of blocking out noise and serving up an eminently musical sound. It was a fun way to show the benefits of a well-done noise-cancelling headphone.



Key Products:

  • Head Box S headphone amplifier ($159)
  • Head Box DS headphone amplifier with USB and S/PDIF DAC ($399)
  • Hear it One headphone ($79)
  • Hear it Two headphone ($129)

Though many people think of Pro-Ject primarily as a turntable manufacturer, the firm’s CES suite demonstrated that Pro-Ject is now stepping into the headphone world as well. Pro-Ject’s entrees come in two forms: a pair of low-cost headphones called the Hear it One and Hear it Two, and a pair of stylish and compact mini-components comprising the Head Box S headphone amp and Head Box DS headphone amp/DAC.



Key Products:

  • Momentum headphone ($349)​
  • HDVA 600 balanced output headphone amplifier ($1599)
  • HDVD 800 balanced output headphone amplifier/DAC ($1999)
  •  IE800 earphone ($999)

Like many established manufacturers of serious high-end headphones Sennheiser has felt some commercial pressure to create an upscale (but not too upscale) mid-priced “lifestyle” headphone. Unlike at least some other manufacturers, however, Sennheiser chose to address this requirement as perhaps only it could: namely, with a new headphone called the Momentum that is exquisitely made using high-grade materials, that looks cool, that feels great to wear, and that—most importantly—sounds terrific. Expect a Hi-Fi+ review of the Momentum in the coming year.

While at the Sennheiser booth, I had the honour of meeting Axel Grell, the gentleman responsible for the design of Sennheiser’s landmark HD 800 headphones and for several of the firm’s other top-tier components. Mr. Grell took time to show me both Sennheiser’s new HDVA 600 balanced output headphone amplifier and its sister product, the DDVD 800 balanced output headphone amplifier and high resolution DAC (for which Mr. Grell says he prefers through the USB input). Both these products are intended specifically to complement Sennheiser’s top-tier headphones such as the HD 700 and HD 800.

But another new top-tier model destined to garner a lot of attention will be the Grell developed IE800 earphone, which takes its place alongside AKG’s K3003 in defining what might be considered a new class of what might be termed “über-earphones.” Unlike many other top-class universal-fit earphones, the IE800 deliberately does not use multiple drivers, nor does it use balanced armature-type drivers. Instead, it uses a single, small-ish diameter, very high performance dynamic driver fitted in ceramic earpiece enclosures that sport rear-facing vent port. Grell told Hi-Fi+ that the IE800’s design was influenced in no small part by several of Sennheiser’s resident microphone experts, who suggested that various ear canal resonance issues might be solved through damped vent port in the rear of the enclosure (apparently, analogous techniques are used in designing housings for dynamic microphones). The end result, based on a too brief listen, is what I suspect will prove to be a world-class earphone that exhibits exceptional transparency and loads of performance potential.



Key Products:

  • Loop on-ear headphone ($129)
  • Mini earphone ($49)
  • SL300 headphone ($299), offered in various signature models (honoring Usain Bolt, Tim Tebow, and athletes and celebrities)

Where some contemporary headphone makers like to have their products endorsed by music-related celebrities (Beats has Dr. Dre and SMS Audio has Fifty Cent, etc.), Soul takes a somewhat different approach, frequently associating its top-tier models with high-profile athletes. A perfect case in point would be the firm’s SL300 headphone, which is offered in both Usain Bolt and Tim Tebow models, to name but a few (Euro readers may want to know that Tim Tebow is a controversial but also charismatic figure in the world of American football). Personally, I found the striking, Jamaican flag-influenced green/yellow/black colour scheme of the Usain Bolt model particularly attractive. Based on a brief listen, I’d say the SL300 is more a “fun” headphone (in a dub/club sort of sense) than a truly accurate audiophile’s headphone, but even so I think it will certainly find its share of followers.


Key Product:

  • Zinken “DJ” headphone ($100)
  • Slussen DJ App with adapter ($14.95)

The Swedish firm Urbanears is known for sleek, stylish headphones and earphones that not only look cool, but offer surprising good sound quality (which is more than can be said for a great many other “lifestyle” products). Now, Urbanears has launched its most ambitious headphone to date: the “DJ-style” Zinken headphone, which features a distinctive “turncable” reversible signal cable that allows the Zinken to present either a 3.5mm mini-plug or ¼-inch phone plug to amplifier at hand. What’s up with Urbanears product names? By tradition, Urbanears ‘phones are named for neighborhoods, districts, or regions in Sweden (many of them located in the greater Stockholm metropolitan area).

In keeping with the “DJ” theme of the Zinken, Urbanears was also previewing a new DJ App called the Slussen, where the app per se is free, but where the adapter needed to make the app work with smartphones and Urbanears headphones sells for a modest $14.95.



Key Product: Piston headphones ($50)

WESC (We are the Superlative Conspiracy) strikes me as being one part technology company, one part fashion company, and 100% hip, new, and now. As such, it is perhaps inevitable that WESC headphones will represent a compromise between sound quality and fashion statement. So it is with the firm’s new Piston lifestyle headphones, which come in an array of up-to-the-minute trendy colors. My view on the Piston was that it was more than a little reminiscent of Urbanear’s affordable Plattan headphone (also a fashion-worthy device). It remains to be seen, though, whether WESC’s Piston can match the Urbanear Plattan’s uncanny combination of stylishing Scandinavian good looks and surprisingly sophisticated sound quality. Time will tell.



Key Product: ADV “adventure” earphone ($199)

Westone is a powerhouse in the world of high-end custom-fit in-ear monitors and universal-fit earphones, but up to this point almost all of the firm’s products have been based on balanced armature-type drivers. With its new ADV “adventure” earphones, however, Westone has launched its first-ever dynamic-driver equipped product and one that promises to deliver Westone-grade sound quality in a semi-ruggedized earphone that can safely be used in environments where less sturdy ‘phone would be apt to fail (or would be prone to damage).

One interesting detail component introduced along with the ADV are Westone’s very clever (and patented) new “star-tip” ear tips. Unlike traditional semi-spherical (or bulb-shaped) ear tip, the star tips have fluted inner surfaces that look roughly like stars when viewed end on. The significance of the fluted surfaces is that they allow the tips to flex in asymmetrical ways to wrap themselves around the often irregularly-shaped contours of the wearer’s ear canals, so that it is possible for virtually anyone to obtain a good seal and without any undo pressure points. What is more, Westone takes earphone fit super seriously so that, where other manufacturers might offer only three sizes of tips with their ‘phones, Westone will typically offer five sets of tips (and several different types of tips, to boot). Plainly, these folks get the fact that there is a connection between wearer comfort and top-shelf sound quality.


Woo Audio

Key Product: WA7 Fireflies valve-powered Headphone amplifier/USB DAC ($999)

At Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2012, Woo Audio showed a prototype of the WA7 Fireflies, but by CES the product had achieved full release status. Basically, the WA7 is a valve-powered headphone amplifier driven by a pair of 6C45 valves (vacuum tubes), and that also incorporates a 32/192 (no, that’s not a typo) high-resolution USB DAC.

Apart from sound quality, the WA7 Firefly is also impressive for its looks. Indeed, it is precisely the sort of component that will leave you wondering whether to listen to it or to simply stop for a moment to appreciate it as a sculptural object. Either way, it promises rewarding experiences for the owner.

Important note: The long-term price of the WA7 will be $999, but for a limited time Woo Audio is accepting pre-orders at the discounted price of $799. If you think you might want one, now would be an advantageous time to purchase.

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