Headphones and Personal Audio Components at CES 2011, Part 1

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Audio-Technica ATH-AD900,
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23,
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 Noise Cancelling In-Ear Headphones,
Audio-Technica ATH-W1000X,
Audioengine N22,
Audioengine P4
Headphones and Personal Audio Components at CES 2011, Part 1

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


Audioengine’s CES display focused on two models that had been demonstrated at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest: the N22 class A/B integrated amplifier ($199) and the P4 passive desktop speakers ($249/pair in standard black and white finishes, or $325 in bamboo, which is said to be the preferred audiophile option in that laminated bamboo construction makes the cabinets more rigid).


A-T debuted three new high-end full-size headphones: the ATH-W1000X with wood earcups ($699.95), the open-back ATH-AD900 ($299.95), and a closed-back companion model to the AD900 called the ATH-A900 ($249.95). I briefly sampled all three models and came away with the impression that A-T is definitely stepping up its game in terms of sonic value per dollar. Playback will attempt to review at least one—and possibly all three—of these new models. Also new from A-T for in-ear fans: the ATH-ANC23 noise-cancelling in-ear headphone, which comes complete with a set of Comply foam eartips.



The German firm highlighted two previously announced new members of its T1 Tesla product family—the full-size, over-the-ear T5p headphone ($1295), which is construed as a high-sensitivity sibling model to the T1 suitable for use with portable devices, and the more compact, on-ear T50p ($349), which is presently the smallest and least costly Beyerdynamic model to feature Tesla-technology drivers.

One of the most fascinating new offerings from Beyerdynamics was not, however, a headphone, but rather the thoroughly innovative Headzone headphone amplifier/5.1-channel surround processor ($1595 in basic form), which allows—get this—standard stereo headphones to deliver highly believable 5.1-channel surround sound. The concept behind the Headzone is that it can accept digital audio signals in Dolby Digital, Dolby ProLogic, DTS, or Stereo (PCM) formats, and then, using very clever HRTF (head related transfer function) calculations, render the individual 5.1-channel signals for reproduction by conventional 2-channel headphones. The Headzone also allows the user to control precisely certain key aspects of surround sound reproduction, such as the apparent size of the listen “room” and the reverberant characteristics of the that “room” (simulating the effects of more or less damping materials in the room). I tried the Headzone for several minutes and was simply transfixed by its performance; in my view, it’s a brilliant though certainly not cheap product that I can’t wait to test as a viable way to enjoy late-night movie watch. Home theater fans might just discover that the very best sounding surround sound “speaker” system available might actually be—get this—a headphone.


B&W revealed the Zeppelin Air—an all new and substantially improved version of its classic desktop Zeppelin iPod speaker. Interestingly, the Zeppelin Air is exactly the same price as its predecessor ($599.95), though the changes incorporated in the new version are many. First, the Zeppelin Air becomes a five-driver speaker system featuring two tweeters (similar to those used in B&W’s desktop multimedia speakers), two dedicated midrange drivers, and a single shared bass driver, which B&W terms a “subwoofer.” Second, the Zep Air gets five dedicated amplifier channels: 4 x 25 Wpc amps for the tweeter and midrange drivers, plus a 1 x 50 Wpc amp for the woofer. Third, the dirigible-shaped enclosure is subtly revised with a black rear panel that now provides the British firm’s signature Flowport low-noise bass reflex ports. Fourth, the Zep Air provides a digital iPod dock backed by a 24/96 upsampling DAC, along with carefully programmed DSP circuitry to help give the speaker dramatically better bass performance than the original Zeppelin. Finally, the Air supports Apply Airplay functions, which—among other things—mean that your Apple portable device could be used to control multiple Zeppelin Airs placed throughout the house.

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