Chris Martens’ Best of CES 2017: Personal Audio

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Chris Martens’ Best of CES 2017: Personal Audio

In a break with past practice, where Hi-Fi+ coverage efforts at CES and other shows have been both exhaustive and, to be honest, exhausting (as is, “Man, that’s a lot of gear to cover in not enough space…”), Editor Alan Sircom and I decided to narrow things down a bit and focus on what we regarded as the Top 10 new products (or groups of products) we saw and heard at the show.

Since I tend to divide my attention at shows in a roughly 50/50 split between tradition two-channel/speaker-centric systems and personal audio gear, I’m going to do up two Top 10 lists—one (this one) for Personal Audio and another for Conventional High-End Hi-Fi.


Audeze iSine 10 and iSine 20 in-ear planar magnetic headphones

Perhaps the strangest but also most wonderful planar magnetic headphones I’ve heard in a long time are Audeze’s compact in-ear iSine 10 ($399) and iSine 20 ($599) models, which I consider to be some of the best things Audeze has ever done, regardless of size or price.  Both the iSine 10 and 20 look a little bit like the wings (?) of the Evil Empire’s famous ‘Tie Fighters’ from the Star Wars movie series. Within those ‘wings’ are contained tiny, very low distortion planar magnetic drivers that load into ear nozzles that get fitted with traditional semi-spherical ear-tips just as you would find on traditional earphones. One major difference, though, is that the iSine models aren’t particularly sensitive to whether you do or don't have an airtight ear-tip fit (getting the fit right changes the amount of background noise you’ll hear, but doesn’t deeply affect the overall sound of the iSines).

And what is that sound? Well, it’s a light, agile, well detailed and—I thought—very well balanced sound that would do any of the bigger Audeze headphones proud. What is more, the iSine 20 models ship both with standard (that is, passive) signal cables but also with the firm’s Cipher Lightning-compatible active (as in, self-powered and DSP-equipped) signal cable, which should make it just the thing for iPhone 7 users. And are you ready for a kind of mind-blowing factoid? The iSine 10 and iSine 20 models actually offer lower (significantly lower) distortion than the big Audeze headphones do! How cool is that?

Audioquest NightOwl headphones (and Dragonfly headphone amp/preamp/DAC updates)

Audioquest’s big release for CES was its new (mostly) closed-back NightOwl headphone, which is loosely based on the firm’s original quasi-open-back NightHawk model, but that feature almost entirely sealed closed-back ear cups done up in a very attractive, dark metallic graphite ‘Carbon’ finish (‘kind of goes with the NightOwl name, don’t you think?). But here’s the part none of us could have anticipated.

Common wisdom holds that if you have two similar headphones, one open-back and the other closed-back, then the closed-back model will likely sound more constricted, less free flowing, and less transparent than its sibling. With the new NightOwl, though, exactly the opposite is the case; heard alongside the original NightHawk, the NightOwl actually seems to offer superior openness, transparency, and resolution of low-level details. I hope we’ll have a chance to review the NightOwls in the future, because—to be honest—they appear to offer the sort of sound we had anticipated the original NightHawks would produce.

And oh by the way, right during the CES show, AudioQuest previewed a new firmware update for its DragonFly Red and Black-series USB headphone amp/preamp/DACs that introduces MQA decoding capabilities and allows the DragaonFly Red and Black models to go all the way up to 24/768 decoding. The new update is slated for release later this year (release date TBA) and will be offered absolutely free of charge; if you already own one of the newer-generation DragonFly Red or Black devices, you can look forward to enhanced performance and expanded features, coming soon.   

Beyerdynamic Xelento universal-fit earphones

Some years back the high-end headphone world was rocked by the arrival of two more or less world-class, dynamic driver-equipped full-size headphones from Germany: the original Beyerdynamic T1 Tesla and the Sennheiser HD 800, both of which set new standards for dynamic-driver headphones at the time. To be candid, the Sennheiser HD 800 garnered the lion’s share of attention from the press, but I always thought the Beyerdynamic offering had a unique appeal all its own.

Fast forward to today, though, and we find that both Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser have offered revised or updated versions of their original dynamic-driver flagships, but Beyerdynamic has now gone even further to create—get this—a universal-fit earphone that incorporates its famous Tesla-type driver technology and that is called the Xelento ($999). Frankly, having held in my hands the original (and quite beefy) T1 Tesla driver, I am surprised that Beyerdynamic was able to miniaturise the technology sufficiently to get it to fit inside an earphone, yet that is exactly what they have done. The result is an earphone that offers the same beautifully balanced, smooth, and yet also very resolving sound that many have found so appealing in the Tesla design over time.

Chord Electronics Hugo 2 transportable headphone amp/DAC and Poly streaming/serving/DAP module for use with Mojo

Chord is never content to rest upon its laurels and so the firm has seen fit to launch a substantially updated version of its now-iconic Hugo headphone amp/DAC/preamp; the new model is called the Hugo 2, which will sell for approximately £1,800 (about the same price a the original Hugo). What’s changed? Just about everything. As many of you know, Chord’s original Hugo, Mojo, and the incomparable DAVE DAC are all Rob Watts designs and all use his signature WTA digital filter algorithm in conjunction with very long tap-length filters (where, in a nutshell, the more filter taps there are, the better the sound). Hugo 2 offers:

·      49,152 filter taps (almost twice as many filter taps than the original Hugo),

·      A choice of four user selectable digital filters (including one that is essentially the same filter used in the DAVE DAC),

·      Decoding for PCM files up to 32/768,

·      Native DSD decoding and supports for DSD files up to DSD 512 (Octa-DSD),

·      Reduced distortion (<0.0001% THD @ 1kHz, 3V RMS into 300 Ohms),

·      An even lower signal to noise ratio with no measurable noise floor modulation, and

·      Even higher power output (1010mW at 8 Ohms).

In essence, the Hugo 2 is better than the original Hugo in virtually every way, yet sells for close to the same price as the original. We can’t wait to try one.

Poly (priced at approximately £500) is an ever-so-clever add-on module for Chord’s popular Mojo headphone amp/DAC that adds the functions, says Chord, of:

·      A condensed high-level PC with data server,

·      A Wi-Fi hub,

·      A DLNA receiver,

·      A Bluetooth module, and

·      An SD card reader.

In other words, Poly turns Mojo into an awesome digital audio player with extensive functions as a wireless streamer, music server, Bluetooth player, and SD card-based digital music player functions, all in one neat and still quite compact package. Once you see the Poly plugged into the Mojo, we’re betting you’ll want one for your Mojo, too.

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