This is 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: NuForce, Paradigm Shift, Phiaton, Polk Audio, PSB, Scansonic, and Sennheiser.
NuForce was showing its versatile Dia Digital Input Amplifier ($299), which is a remarkably compact tabletop integrated amp that features three digital inputs (two optical, one coax), a built-in 24/192 DAC, an amplifier that puts out 24 Wpc @ 4 Ohms, and that even incorporates a front-panel output that can be used to drive headphones or an outboard subwoofer. NuForce envisions the DIA being used for desktop audio applications, or as a means of adding an affordable high-quality sound system to flat panel TVs (whose built-in speakers sound, at best, mediocre). Either way, the Dia is perfect for use with small, 2.1-channel speaker systems.
Also on display at the NuForce stand at the Las Vegas Convention Center was the slick new U192S USB-to-S/PDIF converter ($149). The extremely compact U192S provides an asynchronous USB input that can accept up to 24-bit/192kHz digital audio files and provides front panel data rate/data sync indicator lights. The tiny U192S may just be the smallest device of its kind that we’ve ever encountered.
Over at the Venetian Hotel, NuForce had a second display whose purpose was to preview the firm’s upcoming flagship monoblock power amplifers and matching preamp, which were being demonstrated in conjunction with Amphion Argon7L loudspeakers. I won’t attempt to discuss those ultra high-end NuForce products here, since they fall outside the usual definition of “desktop” audio products, but I’ll include a photo just to whet your appetites.
After giving previews at several trade shows over the past year, the new Paradigm Shift brand, which is the personal/desktop audio arm of the famous Canadian speaker manufacturer Paradigm, is now up and running in a significant way. At present, Paradigm Shift product offerings fall in two areas, but with more product families coming very soon.
Earphones (available now): Paradigm Shift offers a range of three earphone products, which loosely correspond to the three tiers of the Paradigm loudspeaker family, which are—in ascending order—the Monitor, Studio, and Signature familes. At the entry-level or Monitor end of the range is the E1 earphone ($49), followed by the mid- or Studio-level E2M earphone ($99), plus the top- or roughly Signature-level E3M earphone ($129). In Paradigm Shift parlance, the “M” in in the names of the E2M and E3M signifies the fact that the earphones include microphone module. Playback plans a review of the E3M earphones in the near future.
Powered Speaker (available now): Paradigm Shift launched with the A2 self-powered desktop speaker ($279 - $329/each, depending on finish), which offers a number of subtle wrinkles on the self-powered speakers theme. The A2, which is loosely based on Paradigm’s passive Atom Monitor, features a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter, a 5 ½-inch satin anodized aluminum mid-bass driver, and two 50 Wpc DSP-controlled amplifiers. Interestingly, though, the A2 is set up so that you can use it as a standalone monaural speaker, or as either the left or right speaker of a stereo pair (a configuration switch is provided for this purpose). What’s more, you can daisy-chain multiple sets of A2’s together (there are pass-through stereo analog inputs and outputs for this purpose), and where desired, you can equip the A2 with Paradigm Shift’s optional BD1 Bluetooth dongle so that you can stream music directly to the A2, rather than using the speaker’s traditional stereo analog inputs, which are implemented via conventional RCS jacks.
Soundbar System: At CES, Paradigm Shift was previewing its upcoming Paradigm Shift 2.1 Soundbar system with wireless subwoofer (projected price $799).
Coming Soon: Paradigm Shift has adopted the practice of telegraphing upcoming products on the Paradigm Shift website. According to information available there, we can soon expect to see Paradigm Shift Gaming Headsets and full-size Headphones. Stay tuned.
Although Phiaton was not officially exhibiting at CES, I did have the chance to meet up with Phiaton’s Akio Strasser, senior manager of sales & marketing, and Hyo-Jung Lee, assistant manager of marketing, to discuss and then briefly listen to the firm’s cool new PS 20 BT Bluetooth wireless earphone ($149). Loosely based on the “half in-ear” design of the firm’s PS 20 NC active noise cancelling earphones, the PS 20 BT is elegant, simple to use, and support v3.0 Bluetooth technology, which offers a lot more sonic potential than earlier versions of Bluetooth did. Since I heard the PS 20 BT in a comparatively noisy environment, I’ll hold off on offering detailed comments on its sound quality, but my initial impressions were quite favorable. I was also favorably impressed by how easy the ‘phones were to pair with a Bluetooth-3.0 phone, and by the overall look, feel, and ease of navigation for the user interface module. This product, which was announced this past fall, should strongly appeal to enthusiasts who find it frustrating to be tethered via signal cables to their playback devices of choice. With the PS 20 BT you’re free to get up and move around as you see fit, while the music continues to flow without a hitch.
Many of Polk Audio’s first offerings in the personal audio space were sports headphones/earphones, but at CES 2012 the firm rolled out two new UltraFocus-series active noise canceling models that I think will have much broader appeal to those who focus more on sound quality than on an earphone’s ability to stand up to the rigors of vigorous sports activities.
First up is the UltraFocus 6000 earphone ($149), which provides both passive noise isolation and active noise cancellation technologies, promises “audiophile performance” sound quality, and features a distinctive in-line control module through which listeners can adjust volume levels or toggle a push-to-hear switch that temporarily disables noise cancellation so that users can hear outside sound without removing the headphones.
Next comes the UltraFocus 8000 over-the-ear headphone ($349), which features Polk’s proprietary 40mm “dynamic balance” transducers, passive noise isolation and active noise cancellation technologies, and a 3-button remote control and microphone. One very cool visual touch is the 8000’s sophisticated “reflective carbon fiber headband.” I got a brief taste of the 8000 in action, which was very encouraging, but I’ll hold further comments until I get some quality listening time with Polk’s newest models.
Both the UltraFocus 6000 and 8000 are slated for release later on in Q1, 2012. Judging by preliminary blurb sheets put out on these models by Polk, we can expect both models to come with an uncommonly broad and thoughtful range of accessories.
We have mentioned PSB’s upcoming M4U2 active noise-cancelling headphone ($400) in show reports from CEDIA 2011 and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2011, the fact is that the eager awaited M4U2 (along with associated packaging, etc.) now appears to be in its final production form. Along the road from prototype to production model, it appears that there may have been a few subtle changes in the M4U2 (the ear pads of the current version, for example, look slightly different from those shown on the earliest version demonstrated last Fall at CEDIA), but all of the key features and ingredients happily remain intact. It also appears that the M4U2 will be offered in colors other than the basic black in which it was first shown (see photos, where you will see there are now black, white, and grey versions).
For those of you who may have missed our earlier coverage of this important new design, let me summarize the basics:
•The Paul Barton-designed M4U2 was voiced in accordance with extensive research conducted at Canada’s NRC research facility.
•The M4U2 is an over-the-ear design with swiveling ear cups and exceedingly comfortable ear pads.
•By design, the M4U2’s detachable signal cable can be plugged in to either the left or right ear cup of the headphone—whichever the wearer find more comfortable.
•Unlike most active noise-cancelling headphones the M4U2 offer not two but operating modes: passive mode, active mode with noise cancellation disabled, or active mode with noise cancellation turned on.
Playback is scheduled to receive review samples of the M4U2 as soon as full production commences. Stay tuned.
Scansonic is a Danish loudspeaker manufacturer that is one of several audio brands managed by the Danish firm Dantax Group (Dantax also oversees the perhaps better-known high-end speaker company Raidho Acoustics). Through talks with Lars Venning, managing director, I learned that Scansonic’s mission is focus on building speakers that are affordable, eminently musical, and deliver unexpectedly high performance for the money. One such product that caught my ear was the lovely little Scansonic S5Active loudspeaker (US pricing TBD, but roughly $599/pair), which is an attractive and sweet sounding little 2-way monitor driven by a built-in 2 x 50 Wpc stereo amplifier. While not a spectacular performer in any one area, the S5Active is very well balanced, hardly ever puts a foot wrong in sonic terms, and is easy and engaging to listen to.
The German firm Sennheiser came to CES, as the old expression goes, absolutely “loaded for bear” with not one but rather significant new headphone/earphone products. Let me address each in turn.
Earphones: Not long before CES, Sennheiser announced two new top-tier earphones called the IE80 ($449.95) and IE60 ($249.95). If I am reading the “tea leaves” correctly, the IE 60 effectively replaces the next-to-the-top-of-the-line IE7 model, featuring dynamic drivers equipped with Neodymium magnets, and promising “impressive precision and high resolution bass reproduction.” The IE80, in turn, replaces the earlier IE8 as the flagship model in the line. Like the IE8, the new IE80 offers an adjustable sound tuning feature that allows users to set bass output levels to suit their tastes or to address environmental conditions (e.g., environments with tons of low frequency noise). Interestingly, the IE80, like many other top-tier earphones, now introduces user replaceable signal cables. Playback has a set of IE80’s on hand for review and will present a “First Listen” article and subsequent full-length review on them in the near future.
Wireless Headphones: At Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) 2011, Sennheiser debuted, but was not ready to release pricing on, its very high performance RS 220 wireless headphones. Now, however, pricing for the RS 220 has been set at ($599.95). Without repeating all the comments I made on the RS 220 in my RMAF 2011 report, let me simply observe that the RS 220 sounds a fair amount like Sennheiser’s HD 600 model, yet costs only about $200 more, which seems a fair price to pay for the greater freedom and flexibility that a self-powered, wireless phone confers (especially when you consider that you won’t have to spring for an outboard headphone amp with the RS 220, as you would with the HD600). The RS 220 uses 2.4 GHz DSSS wireless technology and has an effective range of up to 300 feet. Very cool.
High-Performance DJ-Type Headphones: I know, I know, some of you would contend (and perhaps with some justification) that the terms “high performance” and “DJ-Type Headphones” don’t belong together in the same phrase. Be that as it may, Sennheiser’s new HD 25 Amperior DJ-type headphone ($349) represents an honest attempt to provide “natural, lifelike sound reproduction” in a highly sensitive, 18 Ohm headphone that “can cope with an extremely high sound pressure level.” As added bonuses, HD 25 Amperior is fitted with a mic for telephoning, and sports a satin anodized aluminum finish that looks stunning (especially in blue). Expect the Amperior to arrive around March, 2012.
High-End Headphones: Sennheiser’s essentially handmade HD800 headphones are an acknowledged high-end benchmark, but at $1499.95 they are priced well beyond reach for many music lovers. Happily, at CES Sennheiser introduced its gorgeous new HD700 headphone ($999.95), which in very many ways can be considered an “HD800 junior.” While the HD700 does not have the HD800’s huge 56mm ring radiator-type drivers, it does have very, very low distortion 40mm drivers that, says Sennheiser, are angled to “simulate a high-end speaker array’s soundstage.” The impedance of the HD700 is rated at 150 Ohms whereas the impedance of the HD800 is rated at 300 Ohms, which may explain why the HD700 seems somewhat easier to drive than the HD800. During a brief listening session, I found the HD700 was very revealing, yet was just slightly warmer sounding and more “relaxed” in its presentation than its big brother. In practice, I think this means the HD700 foregoes that elusive “Nth” degree of resolution that the HD800 can—at least when driven by top-flight amps—provide, but in exchange the HD700 seems noticeably less finicky about amplifiers and delivers a sound that I think many listeners might find more accessible than that of the flagship model. Throw in the fact that the HD700 is two-thirds the price of the HD800, and I’d say Sennheiser has a winner on its hands.