Headphones, Earphones & Personal Audio at CES 2012, Part 2

Blog
Categories:
Audio,
Headphones,
Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
|
Products:
Cambridge Audio Azur 851C,
Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100,
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus,
Cardas Audio EM5813 Ear Speakers,
Definitive Technology SM45,
Dynaudio Xeo 3,
Etymotic ER-4P,
Focal Spirit One,
HiFiMAN EF-6,
HiFiMAN Express HM-601 Slim portable 24/96 USB,
HiFiMAN HE-400,
HiFiMAN HM-101 Portable USB Sound Card,
Klipsch Mode M40
Headphones, Earphones & Personal Audio at CES 2012, Part 2

This is Part 2 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: Cambridge Audio, Cardas, Definitive Technology, Dynaudio, Etymotic Research, Focal, HiFiMAN, Klipsch, and Monster.

Please check out Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4.

Cambridge Audio

The British firm Cambridge Audio showed up at CES with an impressive array of new products, at least four of which have far-reaching implications for personal and desktop audio. Let me talk a bit about each one in turn.

Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100 ($369): From almost the beginning of the modern computer audio movement, one of the best loved, most versatile and most affordable DACs around has been Cambridge’s acknowledged classic, the DAC Magic. I’ve been listening to one quite a lot of late, and even though the unit has been around for several years (an eternity by DAC standards), it still holds its own quite nicely with like-priced units that were more recently released. But for 2012 Cambridge has released the new DAC Magic 100, which in spirit—if not in terms of precise features and functions—is the logical successor to the original DAC Magic. Based on a Wolfson WM8742 DAC chip, the DAC Magic 100 is an asynchronous 24/192 USB DAC that also provides three additional digital inputs (2 coaxial and 1 optical). Interestingly, the tiny DAC Magic 100 has essentially the same footprint as Cambridge’s previously released digital iPod dock, making the two units an attractive, multi-input digital audio pair.

Cambridge Audio DAC Magic Plus ($599): Taking up where the original DAC Magic left off, but carrying the performance baton much further forward, is the new DAC Magic Plus (which uses, as did the original DAC Magic, a relatively large chassis that can be position horizontally or tipped up on its side and placed in an included cradle for applications where desktop space is at a premium. As you’ll see in a moment, the DAC Magic Plus is a deceptively high-performance DAC that nevertheless sells at a mid-fi price. It offers a tremendous amount of flexibility for the money. Technical highlights include:

oThe DAC Magic Plus is based on twin Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DAC chips used in dual differential configuration, and featuring Anagram Technologies 24-bit/384 kHz audio upsampling/jitter reduction technologies/
oThe DAC Magic Plus provides an asynchronous USB input that supports 24/96 digital files when connected to USB 1.0 sources, or that can support 24/192 files when connected to USB 2.0 sources while using “ASIO or kernel streaming modules.”
oThere are also two additional digital inputs, each of which can be fed from either coax or Toslink input jacks. Finally, the DAC Magic Plus can be used with Cambridge’s options BT100 Bluetooth receiver.
oThe unit incorporates (as did the original DAC Magic) three switch-selectable digital filters with settings for linear phase, minimum phase, or steep filtering.
oThe output side of the DAC Magic Plus is equally special as it provides both single-end (RCA) and balanced (XLR) output jacks, with the ability to deliver either fixed-level output signals or to be operated in an optional “Digital Preamp” mode with variable-level outputs.

Stream Magic 6 ($999): The easiest way to think of the Stream Magic 6 is to picture it as a larger and even more versatile version of the DAC Magic Plus whose capabilities have been expanded to include streaming Network Media player functionality. What is very cool is that the Stream Magic comes with a free iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad app that allows those devices—in conjunction with a home Wi-Fi network—to remotely control the Stream Magic 6.

Azur 851C DAC/CD Transport ($1849): A bit of history is in order here. The original Cambridge 800-series CD player was regard as one of the best sub-$5000 CD players available—and at a selling price well under $2000 dollars. Obviously it was a tough act to follow, but Cambridge has answered the call by essentially redefining the new 851C as a very high performance DAC (and Digital Preamp) that just happens to include a CD transport. Cambridge sources told me the 851C incorporates what is hands-down the best-sounding DAC that Cambridge makes—one based on twin Analog Devices AD1955 DAC chips, which Cambridge calls the “Rolls Royce” of DACs. For those who plan to use only digital audio source components, the versatile 851C, which doubles as a digital preamp, may well be the only source and pre-amplification component needed.

Cardas

For several years now I’ve been saying that headphones and earphone are the high-end audio transducers of choice for a new generation of music lovers, and now I have independent confirmation of this viewpoint from an old-school high-end veteran whose name and credentials are beyond reproach. I’m speaking of none other than George Cardas—the legendary founder of Cardas Audio (a firm best known for its wonderful high-end audio cables). But at CES 2012 Cardas broke new ground by offering not one but two new very high performance earphones, the Cardas EM 5813 Model 1 ($325) and Model 2 ($425), which Cardas call’s “Ear Speakers.”

Cardas describes his Ear Speakers as using what he terms “Ear Mirror” technology said to provide a more effective and sonically pleasing connection between the earphone and the wearer’s inner ear. I was able to do a brief bit of listening through both the Model 1 (which uses steel-frame drivers) and the Model 2 (which uses non-magnetic brass-frame drivers) and found that both had considerable promise (though I had left my reference portable amp in my hotel room, and thus was not able to hear them through an amp I knew well). My initial take was that, while the Model 1 is very good in its own right, the Model 2 is substantially better and well worth the extra $100 investment required. I’m encouraged to see a high-end product developer of George Cardas’ stature enter the headphone world, and can only hope that other high-enders follow his example.

Definitive Technology

Every once in a while speaker manufacturers manage to pull off trade show demonstrations that stop listeners in their tracks, and this was certainly the case with Definitive Technology’s demonstration (held off-site in a suite at the Residence Inn) of its diminutive SM45 Studio Monitors ($400), which were driven by an Audio Research Corporation tube-powered integrated amplifier and an Oppo universal player. These tiny two-way monitors produced a focused and intensely evocative sound that could easily have put many of the costly monitors I heard in the Venetian Hotel to shame—a point made even more compelling by the SM45’s oh-so-manageable price. In a world where value is paramount, the SM45s are disarmingly good—not state of the art, to be sure, but close enough to give you huge musical rewards for your hard-earned dollars.

Dynaudio

Dynaudio’s cool new wireless Xeo 3 stand-mount monitors ($2300/pair) are part of the first family of loudspeakers created specifically for people who want high-end sound, but hate all the cabling and componentry that are part and parcel of typical high-end audio systems. Accordingly, the Xeo 3 (and its bigger brother, the $4500/pair Xeo 5 floorstander) is a self-powered, wirelessly controlled speaker featuring high-quality Dynaudio fabric dome tweeters and mid/bass drivers, DSP-controlled crossovers, and built-in tweeter and woofer amps each rated at 50Wpc. The included 2.4GHz multi-input X12 wireless module is used to select sources and set playback levels. I found the Xeo’s sounded much like Dynaudio’s better mid-priced passive speakers, but with the benefit that they require no amplifiers, preamplifiers, or speaker cables whatsoever, and can be placed wherever there are AC outlets nearby. Just connect analog and/or digital source components to the wireless transmitter and you’ve got instant high-end audio. I couldn’t help but think the Xeo 3’s would make a killer desktop/computer audio system—but one that could also be used to fill an entire room with sound.

Etymotic Research

One could build a compelling argument that Etymotic’s flagship ER-4P earphone was the first truly great high-performance earphone (and some would contend that it is still the gold standard against which other upper-end earphones should be judged). But a lot has happened since the ER-4P first arrived on the scene many years ago, so that high performance earphones are now much more commonplace than they once were, with listeners of all ages getting into the act.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. Many children (especially those in kindergarten, elementary school, or perhaps middle school) love earphones, but lack the knowledge and/or self-restraint needed in order make wise choices and thus to listen at sensible (i.e., non-self-destructive) volume levels. Etymotic Research, which has more than a few concerned audiologists on staff, decided to tackle the problem head-on by release a new set of youth-oriented earphones, called the ETY-Kids Safe Listening Earphones, which by design “will not exceed safe listening levels.” In fact, Etymotic says that, “even at the maximum volume setting on portable players, kids can listen safely for up to four hours per day.” Two models are offered: the EK5 ($49) or the 3-button remote-equipped EK3 ($79), both of which are said to maintain the “exceptional sound quality” for which Etymotics earphones are known.

Focal

Yet another high-end speaker manufacturer, this time the French firm Focal, has thrown its hat into the high-performance headphone ring. Focal’s new Spirit One headphone ($279), which was first shown in the US in prototype form at CEDIA 2011, is now ready for prime time. The Spirit One is an over-the-ear design that will ship with an Apple-compatible 3-button remote equipped signal cord, an airline adapter, a ¼-inch phone jack adapter, an Android adapter, and a padded case. As is typical of Focal products, the overall fit and finish of the Spirit One are exquisite, and the entire design has—on numerous subtle levels—been optimized for superb fit and wearer comfort.

Unlike many headphones at its general price level, the Spirit One proved more than sensitive enough to be driven directly from an iPod or iPhone. But what struck me as being even more unusual is the fact that the Spirit One tends, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, to sound better when powered straight from an iPod than when powered by any sort of outboard amp (including the very, very good reference amp I carry with me when I travel). Watch for an upcoming Playback review of the Spirit One.

HiFiMAN

The Chinese firm HiFiMAN made a big splash at CES by releasing four highly significant new products at once.

First up was the HiFiMAN Express HM-101 portable USB sound card ($39). The HM-101 is a very small, matchbox-sized, USB-powered, USB sound card with both line-level and headphone outputs. The tiny HM-101 is based on a PCM 2702E DAC and TDA-1308 headphone amp device. The concept behind this and other “HiFiMAN Express”-branded products is to offer unexpectedly high sound quality at exceptionally low prices—prices rivaling those normally seen on obscure “no-name” house brand products found at big-box retail stores.

Next came the delightful HiFiMAN Express HM-601 Slim portable 24/96 USB DAC/high-resolution music player ($199-$249, depending on configuration). The HM-101 offers about the same footprint as an iPod (though it is slightly thicker), and it combines the functions of a high-res DAC and a relatively high-output headphone amplifier in one neat package. HM-601s are offered with either 4GB or 8GB of memory on Flash memory onboard, but storage capacity can be expanded by inserting an up to 32GB SD card in the HM-601’s SD card slot. Most importantly, the HM-601 sounds good (very good, actually) and—get this—it is capable of powering HiFiMAN’s most sensitive planar magnetic headphones (the new HE-400’s described below) with dynamic headroom to spare.

Third, and representing perhaps the biggest news of all, we have the all-new HiFiMAN HE-400 planar magnetic headphones ($399), which are the least expensive planar magnetic ‘phones on the market (by a country mile) and among the most sensitive (92.5 dB) and easy to drive. Up to this point, the least expensive HiFiMAN planar magnetic model sold for $699, with prices climbing upward from there. How was HiFiMAN able to pull off such a low price for the HE-400? Company founder Dr. Fang Bian explained that the higher-end HiFiMAN planar magnetic models use drivers that require a significant amount of hand assembly, but that with the HE-400 he and the HiFiMAN engineering team had made some changes that allowed the drivers to be mass produced via automated machinery. The result is arguably one of the very best and most revealing sub-$400 headphones on the market, and one that is unexpectedly easy to drive. In fact, says Dr. Bian, it is possible to drive the HE-400 directly from an iPod (something that would never be feasible with HiFiMAN’s higher-end planar magnetic ‘phones). The HE-400 has slightly more prominent bass than other HiFiMAN models, while retaining much of the clarity, openness, and definition that make the upper-end HiFiMAN ‘phones so much fun to use. Interestingly, the HE-400 is finished in a dark, sumptuous cobalt blue—a break from HiFiMAN’s traditional silver/grey/black color themes; it looks terrific.

Last but not least, we have the full production version of HiFiMAN’s pure class A EF-6 headphone amplifier ($1499). I am a fan of HiFiMAN’s flagship HE-6 planar magnetic headphone, but would be the first to concede that it is hard (OK, very hard) to drive properly. The real intent behind the EF-6 was not only to offer a top-tier headphone amplifier at a reasonable (though by no means cheap) price, but also to provide a HiFiMAN amp that could properly power the HE-6 headphones with ample dynamic reserves. In short, the EF-6 is intended as an amp that is ready, willing, and able to make the mighty (but mighty hard-to-drive) HE-6 headphone really stand up and “sing.” Watch for a Playback review of the EF-6 in the not too distant future.

Klipsch

Last Fall, at CEDIA 2011, Klipsch showed a pre-production prototype of its first-ever active, noise cancelling headphone, called the Mode M40 ($349.99). Now, the Mode M40 is currently available. Several things struck me about the Mode M40. First, it preserves the wide-range, dynamically vigorous sound that is the hallmark of Klipsch’s popular Reference-series loudspeakers. Second, the M40’s active noise cancellation circuit seems to work well without being overly ham-fisted or riding roughshod over the music. Third, the M40 is arguable the prettiest and most sleek headphone that Klipsch has yet produced. Finally, beneath its sleek exterior, the M40 exhibits the kind of “strong-like-bull” durability that should enable it to stand up to even the most rigorous day-to day use. Credit, here, goes to the incredible tough, durable material from which the M40’s headband and earcups are made. I saw a Klipsch rep almost brutally twist the headband of the M40 into a gnarled pretzel, only to release the headband, which promptly sprang back into its original shape—apparently none the worse for wear. Impressive.

And speaking of brute strength, I got a chance to see a forward-looking prototype of Klipsch’s new Stadium tabletop music system, which features two 1-inch titanium tweeters, two 3-inch mid-bass drivers, and two 5.25-inch, horizontally opposed, vibration-cancelling woofers—all in a stout-looking metal enclosure that gives new meaning to the phrase “carved from billet.” The Stadium will feature a total of 190 watts of onboard amplification, and will be equipped with a stereo analog audio input, both optical and USB digital audio inputs, and also configured to support Apple Airplay functionality. The final price for the Stadium has not yet been determined, but should fall somewhere between $1500 and $1700. If that seems a bit steep, bear in mind that Klipsch envisions the Stadium not as a comparatively low-output “desktop” system, but rather as physically compact but very high output replacement for a whole-room stereo system.

Monster

Monster’s headphone product display suggested to me that the firm is exploring an ever-expanding range of third-party partnering opportunities, although there were at least two cool examples of pure Monster-branded new headphone products.

To appreciate what I mean by my remark regarding partnering, note that Monster has joined forces with Nick Cannon’s NCredible Entertainment to produce a family of NCredible-branded models, including the NErgy in-ear headphones (~$69), and the NTune on-ear headphones (~$149). Following in much the same vein, Monster also showed its upcoming Diesel-branded Diesel Noise Division VEKTR headphone (~$279), which features dark, angular, stealth fighter-inspired styling.

New models being shown under Monster’s own brand included the Inspiration self-powered/noise cancelling headphone (~$279) and the new Diamond Tears on-ear headphone (~$279), which a Monster spokesman said was intended primarily for East Asian markets. The Inspiration is essentially a more neutrally voiced version of the famous and by now iconic Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones, but with an interesting visual twist. The Inspirations feature user-replaceable headband décor strips that can be swapped out to suit the user’s mood, tastes, or fashion requirements (opening up a potentially lucrative aftermarket for replacement décor bands of every color/texture imaginable). The Diamond Tears headphone features striking (some might say wildly over-the-top) styling that prominent features the ‘phones clear, diamond-themed, crystal-like earcups. Apparently the intended marketing slogan will be, “edgy like diamonds; smooth like tears.” My only question: Would a headphone that simultaneously sounds edgy and smooth actually be a good thing? Just asking…

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