Headphones, Earphones & Personal Audio at CES 2012, Part 1

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
AKG Acoustics K3003i,
Altec-Lansing Bliss,
Altec-Lansing Musx Core,
Audeo/Phonak PFE 132,
Audeo/Phonak PFE 232,
Audioengine 5+,
Audioengine D1,
Beyerdynamic T70,
Furutech Alfa Design Labs Cruise,
Furutech Alfa Design Labs Stride
Headphones, Earphones & Personal Audio at CES 2012, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a four-part Playback report and new headphone, earphone, and personal audio products seen at CES 2012. This section of the report covers products from: ACS Custom, AKG, Alpha Design Labs/Furutech, Altec, Audeo/Phonak, Audioengine, Audio-Technica, Audioquest, and Beyerdynamic.

Please check out Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

ACS Custom

ACS Custom is a British/US-based company that specializes in building custom-fit in-ear monitors for audiophiles and performing musicians. Much of what sets ACS monitors apart from others involves the physical construction of its earpieces. Specifically, ACS believes, as does the US-based firm Sensaphonics, in constructing its earpieces from soft-gel, cold-cure silicone—a material that is substantially more flexible than the comparative stiff acrylic material that the majority of in-ear monitor makers typically use.

In theory, the benefits of using soft-gel silicone are threefold.

•First, the material allows a superior fit. This is true because silicone earpieces can be made exactly the same size as the wearer’s ear mold impressions, whereas hard acrylic earpieces typically are made a bit smaller than the ear mold impression, partly to facilitate ease of insertion or removal for the earpiece, but also to allow for the fact that the outer ear flexes a bit when wearers open or close their jaws or shift the position of their heads. The difference, here, is that silicone earpieces can flex along with the ear.

•Second, silicone earpieces are thought to offer superior comfort for long-term listening sessions, in part because the flexibility of silicone is fairly similar to that of the wearer’s outer ears. In short, there’s no sense of having “hard objects” within your ear canals.

•Third, and perhaps most important of all, silicone earpieces offer superior noise isolation—a factor that relates directly to their superior fit, as above. At this stage the quietest in-ear monitor Playback has ever tested was the silicone earpiece-equipped Sensaphonics 2X-S, and there is every reason to think that ACS monitor will be just as quiet.

The only perceived drawback to silicone earpieces involves the fact that silicone is susceptible to deterioration owing to environment factors, whereas acrylic earpieces are thought to be more or less indestructible. However, ACS has addressed this problem (as has Sensaphonics) by creating a durable, flexible protective coating that is applied to its silicone earpieces to prevent deterioration.

ACS offers three basic models of in-ear monitors: the three-driver T1 ($999), the two-driver T2 ($799), and the single-driver T3 ($479). Company spokesman Craig Kasper told Playback that the T2 is arguably the most audiophile-friendly tonal balance of any model in the ACS lineup, and accordingly we made arrangements (and had ear mold impressions taken) with an eye toward reviewing the T2 in Playback later this year. We’re looking forward to hearing them in action.

One further point worth noting is that ACS in-ear monitors will be sold under the auspices of Altec dealers in the US (or they can be ordered directly through ACS online). Either way, the customer chooses his or her preferred model (and desired earpiece color) and then receives instructions for connecting with local, ACS-qualified audiologists for purposes of having ear mold impressions taken. At the time of purchase, the customer is given a ship to label so that the finished ear molds can be shipped directly to ACS (there are ACS labs in the US—near New York City, and in the UK—in Banbury, Oxfordshire). Once ACS has the customer’s order and ear molds in hand, assembly work begins on the monitors, which will be shipped directly to the customer once finished.


At the AKG/Harman International booth, I had the opportunity to hear a new earphone that, for me, proved to be one of the major highlights of CES 2012. The earphone I’m speaking of is AKG’s new flagship model: the K3003, which sells for a whopping $1300! The K3003 is a three-way earphone that is billed as offering “Reference Class” sound; each earpiece is made of solid stainless steel and houses a three-driver array consisting of a dynamic (moving coil-type) driver and separate balanced armature-type midrange and high frequency drivers. The K3003 comes in a special presentation case complete with an elaborate set of upscale accessories.

Interestingly, the K3003 comes with three pairs of screw-in, precision machined sound-tuning filters that can be fitted into threaded mounts in the earphones’ sound outlet tubes. The filters allow users to dial in three distinct acoustic profiles for the earphones, with one filter set designed to allow slightly elevated treble response (which AKG calls simply “High Boost”), another filter set that offers neutral voicing (which AKG calls the Reference Sound or “Son De Référence”), and a third filter set that provides elevated bass response (which AKG calls “Bass Boost”).

The K3003 debuted in Europe last year, but so far as I am aware CES 2012 marked the first time the product was shown in the US (and the very good news is that it will be sold here).

Is any earphone worth $1300/pair? You’ll hear some heated debates on that question, both pro and con, but at the end of the day the answer comes down to sound quality. Though I only got a brief chance to listen to the K3003 at CES, my initial thought was that it was easily one of the most—if not the most—revealing earphone I’ve ever heard. In short, it’s a sure-fire candidate for “best of the best” honors. If all goes as planned, Playback will be able to review the K3003 later in the year.

Alpha Design Labs/Furutech

For CES Alpha Design Labs (which is essentially the affordable audio equipment division of the ultra high-end audio company Furutech), showed one recently released product, plus two new ones—all three likely to please Playback readers and headphone/earphone/desktop audio enthusiasts everywhere.

•Recently released: the Cruise portable headphone amplifier with both a 24/96 USB digital input and an analog input ($540). Visually, the Cruise is distinguished by its sleek, wedge-shaped case, which is made of a high-tech combination of stainless steel and carbon fiber (more so than many audio firms, the Furutech people are absolute fanatics about materials sciences, so that material choices in ADL/Furutech are always made with specific performance objectives in mind, and not just as styling exercises). One very cool aspect of the Cruise is that it can be powered by an onboard battery that can be charged via your computer’s USB port, or by a wall-wart type power supply.

•New: The Stride portable headphone amplifier with both a 24/96 USB digital input and an analog input ($395). From 10 feet away, it would be almost impossible to tell a Stride from a Cruise and if you read the manufacturer’s specifications blurb for the product the same is also most true. So what’s the difference? In a nutshell, the Stride is a Cruise whose chassis/case is made of aluminum, rather than of stainless steel/carbon fiber. You might interpret this to mean that differences between the Cruise and Stride are purely cosmetic, but according to an ADL spokesperson I talked to at CES, there is said to be a sonic difference between the two that is ostensibly attributable to the differences in casework materials. This is a fascinating claim that Playback would love to put to the test, perhaps in a future Cruise vs. Stride comparison test. Stay tuned.

•New: The Esprit DAC and preamp ($999) will look awfully familiar to those already familiar with ADL’s GT-40 USB DAC/Analog Recorder, though it is substantially different on the inside and uprated in ways that should make for noticeable sonic improvements. For now, let’s review the basics. The versatile Esprit features a 24/192 DAC, a 24/96 USB DAC, and 24/192 ADC—all with “a low jitter clock recovery system, and it also serves as a high-quality preamp that includes a useful set of both analog and digital inputs and outputs. Finally, let’s also note that the Esprit incorporates what Furutech describes as “an exceptional headphone amplifier that drives 32 Ohm to 600 Ohm ‘phones with aplomb.” While the Esprit does not include the phonostage that made the GT-40 so distinctive, it offers worthwhile advances over the GT-40’s performance in every other area.


Most often thought of as a loudspeaker manufacturer or pro-sound company, Altec-Lansing is entering the headphone fray with not one but two lines of earphones, plus a line of ACS-built custom fit in-ear monitors (as noted above). Altec’s earphones are offered in two series: the Bliss family of earphones ($29.95 - $69.95) and the Musx Core family of earphones ($29.95 – $99.95).


The Swiss firm Phonak Audeo followed up the Fall 2011 release of its spectacularly good flagship earphone, the PFE 232 ($599), with a new mid-priced model called the PFE 132 ($239). In essence, the PFE 132 is a “made for iPhone” version of the superb PFE 121/122, which we at Playback regard as one of the best sounding mid-priced earphones we have tested to date.


The desktop audio specialists at Audioengine have been on a roll of late, as evidenced by three new products on display at CES. First, we have the Audioengine 5+ (or “A5+” for short) self-powered desktop/whole-room speaker ($399/pair), which is a updated version of the original A5—arguably the single product most responsible for putting Audioengine on the desktop audio map. Next, we have the adorably small, but definitely not toy-like D1 DAC ($169)—a 24/192 DAC with both USB and optical inputs, and outputs for both headphones and for purposes of driving audio systems (or self-powered speakers such as the A5+). Note: Playback will soon be reviewing the combination of a D1 DAC and a pair of A5+ speakers, which together promise to serve as a fine (and not terribly expensive) standalone high-performance desktop audio system.

The third product Audioengine revealed at CES was its way cool D2 Premium Wireless DAC ($599). Actually, though, the D2 is more than just a DAC. As Audioengine points out, the D2 serves in three different though related capacities. First, it’s a high-resolution USB wireless DAC (the DAC can accept and process digital audio files at up to 24/192 data rates, but sends the music over-the-air at 24/96 resolution). Second, the D2 functions as a wireless USB-to-SP/DIF converter. Third, the D2 also functions as a wireless optical PCM-to-stereo link. Two important points to note are that the D2 functions completely independently from your home Wi-Fi network—if any, and the D2 transmitter can simultaneously send HD audio to as many as three wireless receivers spread throughout the user’s home.


2012 marks the 50th Anniversary for the respected Japanese high-end audio/pro-sound company Audio-Technica. In celebration of its anniversary, Audio-Technica released a series of five very limited edition products, including two phono cartridges, a DJ-oriented headphone, a set of high performance earphones, and the latest in Audio-Technica’s well-regarded “W-series” full-size headphones (headphones that enjoy something of a cult following worldwide).

Of particular interest for Playback readers, we feel, will be the ATH-CKW100ANV earphones ($549.95) and the spectacular new ATH-W3000ANV headphone ($1299.95). I took an opportunity to listen to the ATH-W3000ANV headphones, and –judging by admittedly brief first impressions—I’d venture the opinion that it just might be A-T’s finest W-series model to date. What I particularly liked about the 50th anniversary model was that it retained (and perhaps even expanded upon) the natural warmth and dynamic expressiveness that have been the hallmarks of past W-series models, while introducing a much higher level of tautness and control (especially in the bass region) than I’ve head from earlier-generation W-models. In short, the 50th Anniversary W3000ANV might be one of those “best of two schools of thought” designs that do all (or at least most) things very well.


At CES the AudioQuest team was having an absolute ball demonstrating their new extended family of “Made for iPod” 30-pin iDevice connector-to-USB cables, showing—quite decisively I might add—that high quality iPod cables to make a difference you can easily hear and enjoy. Trust on on this one: you don’t need to have “golden ears” to appreciate the differences these cables make; all you need is a pulse and the standard-issue hearing apparatus you were born with.

I took an opportunity to briefly audition the complete range of AQ iPod cables, starting with the high-purity copper wire-based entry-level Forest cable ($29 for a ¾ meter cable), and then working my way up—model by model—to the top-of-the-line, pure silver wire-based Diamond cable ($549 for ¾ meter cable), which is fitted with AQ’s signature, battery-powered dielectric biasing system (DBS) module. At each step along the way, the sound kept getting smoother, more refined, and more three-dimensional. The cool part, however, was that even the entry-level Forest model handily outperformed box-stock Apple iPod cables by substantial margins.

Also on demonstration was AQ’s new family of high-performance HDMI cables. Some pundits will tell you that, in theory, HDMI cables more or less can’t make significant sonic differences, but I think there may be more factors at work that those pundits understand. All I can say is that, if you listen to AQ’s various grades of HDMI cables with open ears and an open mind, I think you’ll find that they, too, make for worthwhile differences you can readily hear and enjoy.


Many of us at Playback regard Beyerdynamic’s flagship T1 Tesla as one of the best, if not the best, dynamic driver-equipped headphones on today’s market. The only catch, as is so often the case with top-tier gear, is that the T1 Tesla (at $1295) is priced beyond reach for some enthusiasts. That’s what makes the German firm’s new-for-CES T70 headphone ($560) such a welcome addition to the product line.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the T70 is to picture it as a “T1 junior” that sells for less than half the price of its illustrious big brother. Actually, the T70 is offered in two versions: the standard 250 Ohm T70, which Beyerdynamic regards as the “audiophile” model, and the 32 Ohm T70p, which Beyerdynamic considers the easier-to-drive “portable” model. Both sell for $560. If you look at the driver photo that accompanies this article, you’ll see that the T70 driver is much beefier than a standard dynamic headphone driver—in part because it borrows much (though not all) of the elaborate magnet structure of the T1, though the T70 driver does have a noticeably lighter frame than the T1. Still, the good news is that the T70 should give listeners a substantial taste of what T1 technology is all about, yet at a much more manageable price point.

Finally, note that Beyerdynamic was showing its affordable DTX-101 iE earphones ($89) at CES, samples of which we were able to obtain with an eye toward doing a future Playback review.

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