Headphones and Personal Audio at CES 2011, Part 4

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Logitech/Ultimate Ears UE200,
Paradigm Shift A2,
Peachtree Audio iDac,
Sennheiser CXC700,
Sennheiser HD 650,
Sennheiser MM450,
Sennheiser MM550,
Westone 4
Headphones and Personal Audio at CES 2011, Part 4

This is part 4 of Chris Martens' 4-part CES personal audio coverage.
Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 3.

Paradigm Shift

At CES, the famous Canadian speaker manufacturer took the opportunity to launch an entirely new sub-brand called Paradigm Shift, which will focus on desktop audio, headphones, earbuds/in-ear ‘phones, and gaming headsets and controllers. The first product in the new range will be the Active Atom (or “A2”) self-powered desktop monitor, which will arrive in April and sell for approximately $500/pair. The A2 is loosely based on Paradigm’s critically acclaimed Atom monitor, but will feature a cool onboard bi-amplification system (2 x 50 Wpc), along with facilities that allow an Apple Airport Express module to be plugged onto the rear of the Active Atom, effectively turning it into a wireless self-powered monitor. We can hardly wait to see how the new Paradigm Shift brand evolves over the coming year.

Peachtree Audio

Leveraging expertise acquired through development of its critically-acclaimed Nova and iDecco integrated amp/DACs, Peachtree Audio unveiled a killer new DAC called the iDAC ($999) that provides switch selectable USB, SP/DIF, and Toslink digital inputs, plus—get this—a digital iPod dock built directly into the top of the iDAC’s chassic. Digital audio doesn’t get a whole lot more versatile or convenient than this.


Phonak is one of the largest and best-respected hearing aid manufacturers in the world, but what you may not know is that the firm also builds a very ambitious series of audiophile-grade in-ear headphones, collectively known as the Aud?o line. Two models I got a chance to see were the Aud?o PFE 022 ($89, or $99 with headset mic/send/end module) and the top tier Aud?o PFE 122 ($139, or $159 with headset mic/send/end module). Interestingly, the Phonak phones are universal-fit models shaped to mimic at least some of the fit characteristics of custom-fit monitors. Another signature element of the Phonak design calls for use of color-coded in-line filters that serve both as ear-wax filters and to shape the sound of the ‘phones. For example, Phonak’s green filters enhance bass, while gray filters enhance vocals, and black filters offer optimally neutral voicing overall. Playback will soon be reviewing the Aud?o PFE 122.


The British firm Rega showed what may well be one of the most versatile DACs on the market. Called simple the Rega DAC ($995), the unit sports one galvanically isolated USB input (limited—purely for sonic reasons—to a maximum resolution of 16-bit/44.1kHz files), plus two SP/DIF and two Toslink inputs that can support data formats up to 24-bit/192kHz. Interestingly, the DAC provides a five-position digital filter switch that is context sensitive (that is, the switch knows whether you are using standard or high-res files, and varies filtering options accordingly). Significantly, two of the filters available for use with standard (CD resolution) files are appodising filters.


An exhaustive listing of all of Sennheiser’s new CES offerings would take up more space than I’ve got here, but let me mention three highlighted product that I think will be of interest to AVguide readers. First up, we have Sennheiser’s very impressive CXC 700 Travel in-ear headphone with active Noise Guard digital noise cancelling, including three separate digital noise cancellation modes targeted to different types of noisy environment. Users can simply press a Mode button on the CXC 700’s amp control module until they find a mode that optimally addresses noise problems in their specific listening environments.

Next, Sennheiser offer not one but two new full-size noise cancelling phones: the over-the-ear MM550 ($499) and the smaller on-ear MM450 ($450). Both models can function as wired or wireless headphones, provide Bluetooth support, offer onboard track skip/volume controls, and incorporate switch selectable SRS processing said to give a wider apparent soundstage. The MM550 and 450 are among the best Sennheiser noise cancellers I’ve heard, though my sense was that—in an absolute sense—the MM550 outperforms the 450 by a narrow yet worthwhile margin.

Finally, Sennheiser officially released a HD-Series high-end headphone it had previously previewed at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest Can-Jam event (sponsored by our friends at headfi.org); namely the new HD 598 (MSRP $349, MAP $249). The HD 598 sports a delicious looking cream and tan color scheme that reminds almost everyone of the interior décor of BMW sport sedans, but the real draw of the 598 is that delivers performance that is more than a little reminiscent of Sennheiser’s famous HD650, but at roughly half the 650’s price.

Ultimate Ears

Ulimate Ears showed off almost all of the elements of its previously announced range of universal-fit in-ear headphones, including the 200 ($29, or $39 in headset version), 350 ($49, or $59 in headset version), 500 ($69, or $79 in headset version), 600 (a multi-driver model that replaces the Super.fi 5Pro, $99, or $119 in headset version), and the 700 ($149, and not yet offered in a headset version). The firm’s previous universal-fit flagship, the Triple.fi 10PPro, continues in the line, but with all new packaging and a revised mix of eartips. Not on display at CES, but of interest to readers, is the entry-level 100 model in-ear headphone, which is available through online sales only.


Westone rolled out a new flagship universal-fit in-ear headphone called the Westone True-Fit 4 ($449). The Westone 4 is a three-way headphone that sports four balanced armature -type drivers (grouped as two woofers, one midrange driver, and one tweeter). The Westone 4 is the most ambitious universal-fit model the firm has ever offered and one goal of the design is to come as close as possible to the performance of Westone's superb, five-driver ES5 custom-fit in-ear monitor, but at a significantly lower price. Playback will soon begin the review process for the Westone 4.

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