As many Hi-Fi+ readers know, I am an ardent fan of all things headphone-related, so naturally I volunteered to cover the product category at CES. What I present, below, is a handpicked list of ten of the most significant new models (or groups of models, in some cases) as seen at the show.
As always, I apologise in advance to any worthy manufacturers whose products I fail to mention. No slights are intended; rather, it’s a case of there being too much show and not quite enough ‘me’ to cover it all. Enjoy.
Astell & Kern AK320 portable digital audio player, $1,800
Astell & Kern’s flagship AK380 digital audio player has won considerable praise from reviewers, but there is also the sense that its $3,499 price may have placed it a bit too far ‘over the top’ for the unit to appeal to a widespread audience (veteran headphonistas love the ‘good stuff’, but even so there are limits).
To tackle this issue head on, Astell & Kern introduced at CES a new cost-reduced model called the AK320 that is directly based on the AK380 platform, but that sells for about $1,699 less (the AK320 is still an expensive player, to be sure, but one much more in line with what many enthusiast feel premium DAPs ought to cost). To achieve this substantial reduction in price, the AK320 makes the following changes:
- 128GB of onboard memory vs. the AK380’s 256GB,
- No native support for DSD vs. the AK380’s full native DSD support (although the AK320 will happily play DSD files via DoP, but converts them to high-res PCM format for playback),
- Support for DSD playback up to DSD128 vs. the AK380’s DSD support for up to DSD256,
- Bit-for-bit support for 24/192 files vs. the AK380’s bit-for-bit support for files up to 32/384, and
- USB DAC functions limited to 24/96 vs. the AK380’s USB DAC functions, which extend to 32/384 PCM and up to DSD256.
The great news, though, is that in many respects the AK320 is almost identical to the AK380, sharing the same dual AK4490 DAC devices as its big brother, plus the same amplifier circuitry, the same professional grade PEQ (parametric EQ) system, and the same ultra high-tech Femto clock. What is more, the AK320 also shares the same DLNA functions, the same AK Connect app compatibility, and the same elaborate accessory set as the higher priced AK380. Cool though the flagship model is, our guess is that many will conclude the AK320 offers most of the important features of the AK380 at a far more accessible price.
Audeze Sine planar magnetic headphone & Cipher DAC/headphone amp, offered as a bundle, $599
Last year, the big news from Audeze involved its then new EL-8 family of planar magnetic headphones (both open and closed-back versions were offered), priced at $699, which certainly helped pull down the typically high cost of Audeze ownership. Even so, the EL-8s were fairly big headphones that did not necessarily lend themselves to true on-the-go listening. Very early on, I also wondered whether the EL-8’s voicing might be work in progress, as I initially encountered some samples whose voicing showed a noticeable degree of unit-to-unit variation (an issue I am sure Audeze has long since sorted out).
Now, however, Audeze has launched a new compact and very lightweight planar magnetic headphone, called the Sine, priced at $499, which I feel is certain to be a runaway smash hit, and for all the right reasons. For starters, the Sine offers an immediately likable and accessible sound that is chockfull of the traditional Audeze virtues: wide range frequency response, high resolution, evocative dynamics, and a downright enchanting quality of musical expressiveness. Next, the Sine is compact (but not too compact, if you know what I mean) and light enough to qualify as a headphone you could and would want to take along with you when you travel. Finally, the Sine is remarkably comfortably—especially so as on-ear headphones go (yes, the Sine is an on-ear model!). Roll in an ever-so-manageable price and I foresee Audeze setting off (please pardon the awful pun) a veritable Sine wave.
But wait; there’s more. Along with the Sine, Audeze has also whipped up an amazingly clever little device called the Cipher that is—get this—a combination Apple Lightning connector equipped headphone signal cable, a remote/mic module, an in-line amplifier module, a DSP-drive EQ engine, and a 24-bit DAC! And did we mention there’s an iDevice/Cipher app to allow users to create and store EQ presets for their favourite headphones? Better yet, the presets are stored in the cable module, so that your favourite setting travel with you as you plug the Cipher into different iDevices (a very clever idea, no?). My understanding is that Audeze will in time offer the Cipher as a standalone, add-on accessory for its headphones, but that in the immediate future it plans to offer a Sine + Cipher bundle priced at about $599.