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: Skullcandy, SMS Audio, Stax, Urbanears/Zounds, Velodyne, V-MODA, Waterfall, WESC, Westone, and Woo Audio.
I’ve been tracking developments at Skullcandy for some years, noting with interest (and a certain amount of bewilderment) the incredible proliferation of models and SKU’s (stock keeping units). Seriously, the last time I visited the Skullcandy web site, I found the firm offered no less than 24 (count ‘em) discrete models, with numerous color/décor variations for each. That’s an awfully broad product line to keep track of.
At CES 2012, I saw signs Skullcandy was taking first steps toward streamlining and perhaps simplifying its future offerings by rallying them around one common theme, which Skullcandy terms its “Supreme Sound” initiative. This is a good thing, since it marks a point where a major, internationally-recognized headphone/earphone manufacturer is essentially driving a stake in the ground and saying, “at the end of the day, sound quality must come first.” Refreshingly, then, Skullcandy has developed demo stations (which could presumably be made available for use in retail outlets) that attempt to show what’s wrong the inaccurate and highly-colored voicing of many headphone products, and thus to show what’s right about Skullcandy’s “Supreme Sound”-qualified products.
As specific examples of headphone and earphones designed to put sound quality first, Skullcandy is focusing specifically on the four of its twenty-four models: the Mix Master DJ-style headphones (starting at $249.99), the Aviator over-the-ear headphones (starting at $149.99), the Fix earphones ($69.99), and the entry-level Hesh over-the-ear headphones (starting at $49.99), which one Skullcandy spokesperson described as, “…the best $50 headphone you’re ever likely to hear.”
50Cent is not just a contemporary artist; he’s a global brand complete with essential merchandize including clothing, personal accessories, and—you guessed it—his own line of headphones produced by SMS Audio (indeed, the URL for SMS Audio is ).
The are actually three different SMS by 50 models: the Street by 50 earphone ($129.95), the Street by 50 passive, over-the-ear headphone ($299.95), and the Sync by 50 wireless, over-the-ear headphone ($399.95). The Street by 50 over-the-ear headphones are nicely finished, features 40mm drivers, and is said to offer “professional studio sound” with “enhanced bass.” The Sync by 50 wireless model provides “16-bit lossless digital sound,” uses “custom 40mm drivers,”
incorporates “professionally tuned digital EQ,” and provides onboard controls for volume levels, muting, and bass boost. The Sync has a range of about 50 feet, and is designed so that up to four Sync headphones can be, well, synced to a single source component.
In what can often feel like a selfish “every man for himself” world, I’m pleased to report that SMS Audio is a supporter of the Feed America program where the official offer is as follows: “For each domestic purchase of a headphone at smsaudio.com, SMS Audio will donate 250 meals to Feeding America."
Stax did not have a formal exhibit at CES or at the concurrent T.H.E. Show event, but their products were ably represented in Woo Audio’s display at T.H.E. Show, which had two key Stax electrostatic headphones on demonstration: the Stax SR-007 Mk II ($2600) and the flagship Stax SR-009 ($5200). Both Stax models were connected to Woo’s spectacular two-chassis WES electrostatic headphone amp, which itself is a top contender for state-of-the-art/best-in-class honors.
Here’s my take on things: If you or I heard the SR-007 Mk II headphones in isolation, they would probably qualify instantly for a spot on a hypothetical “Top 10” list of great full-size headphones. They’re open, airy, revealing, beautifully balanced, and very comfortable to wear. At the same time, however, the SR-007 MkII’s would also face very stiff competition from manufacturers such as Audeze (the LCD-3), Beyerdynamics (the T1-Tesla), HiFiMAN (the HE-6 and HE-500), Sennheiser (the HD-800), and others.
The new SR-009, however, represents a substantial step forward vis-à-vis the SR-007 Mk II, offering across-the-board improvements in sound quality. In short, the SR-009 gives you more resolution, more delicacy and finesse, a heightened sense of transparency, bass that is more powerful and articulate, and—when driven by an amp of the stature of Woo’s WES—a level of dynamic swagger and potency I’ve rarely if ever heard from electrostatic headphones before. Is the SR-009 the best of the best? I won’t try to answer that question just yet, since Playback will soon be reviewing the SR-009, but I will say it certainly looks like a strong contender for that title.
Zound Industries is a fast-growing Swedish company that has essentially turned the development of “lifestyle” headphone brands into an art form—an art form that prospers precisely because Zound makes sure its product not only have “lifestyle” appeal, but offer something more in a sonic sense (hey, Playback is all about sound quality, preferably with a big dash of value thrown in, where possible).
Of the four Zound brands—Coloud (entry-level ‘phones), Molami (fashion oriented ‘phones calculated to appeal to women), Marshall Headphones (‘phones that leverage the reputation and mystique of world-famous Marshall guitar amps), and Urbanears (‘phones where Scandinavian style merges with good value and unexpectedly good sound quality)—my favorite is probably Urbanears. There’s a certain form-serves-function elegance about almost everything they do, which really appeals to me.
To explain what I mean, let me mention two new Urbanears models introduced at CES. First up is the new Humlan (by tradition, Urbanears models are named after distinctive districts or landmark-area in Sweden, many of them located in or near Stockholm). The Humlan is a sweet little on-ear headphone ($50) that should sound as good as (or perhaps better than) Urbanears’ popular Tanto model, but that introduces several very clever design wrinkles. For starters, the Humlan’s headband is nothing more than a thin, slim strip of spring steel, done up in one of Urbanears’ signature monochrome colors. Then, the earpieces of the Humlan attach to the headband —not with the usual fasteners—so that they can slide over the entire length of the headband (essentially offering infinite adjustability) an can, in the event of an accident or collision, safely pull away from the headband with no damage done. Best of all, the headband is so slim and flexible (an rides so close to the earpiece frames) that it will, by design, comfortably fit a hat or stocking cap. ‘Very handy for those who live in cold Northern climates and want to use headphones when going outdoors.
Next, consider Urbanears new flagship Zinken model (price TBD), which introduces what Urbanears calls a “Turncable”—a design element so clever you’ll wonder why somebody hasn’t thought of it before. Here’s how the Turncable works. The signal cable for the Zinken is detachable, and it’s set up so that one end of the cable is fitted with a 3.5mm mini-plug, while the other end of the cable is fitted with a traditional ¼-inch phone plug. But here’s the cool part: the Zinken earpieces are set up with what is in essence a “socket within a socket,” so that you can plug of the Turncable into the Zinken as you see fit. There’s no to need to lug around easy-to-loose adapter plugs; instead, you flip the Turncable around and use whichever end suits your purposes at the moment. Cool, no? One other thing I like about the Zinken is that it is the first large(r)-format Urbanears headphone to feature a beefy two-axis swiveling mechanism for great wearer comfort. Watch this brand closely: these thoughtful Swedes are building popularly priced ‘phones that sound quite good and offer an elusive “something more” that makes them fun to use.
Much has been written about loudspeaker companies beginning to explore the world of headphones and earphones, but here we have a new variation on the theme. Velodyne, a firm whose product line has up to this point centered almost entirely on subwoofers has now decided to take the earphone plunge by introducing its first-ever earphone, called the V-Pulse ($89). The V-Pulse features aluminum driver housings and comparatively large 10mm drivers, and is said to produce “precise, low distortion bass and superb sound quality.” In what may be a nod toward Velodyne’s subwoofer heritage, I couldn’t help but note that the V-Pulse product package bears this simple slogan: “Bring the bass.”
At CES, I had a very interesting meeting with V-MODA founder Val Kolton and with VP of Product Development Ruben Purificacion, through which I got previews of a number of upcoming V-MODA products (and technologies). That’s the good news. The tricky part, however, is that at this point I’m only allowed to speak about a tiny fraction of the goodies I saw (the rest are under press embargo for the time being).
Jumping ahead, then, to a new model I can talk about, let me say that I got a chance to hear pre-production prototypes of V-MODA upcoming M-100 over-the-ear headphone ($299), which should appear around April, 2012. As I have mentioned in at least one previous trade show report, V-MODA builds headphones with two core voicing schemes: M-series models (where the “M” stands for “Modern Audiophile”) offer reasonably neutral, audiophile-friendly tonal balance, while LP-series model (where the “LP” stands for “Live Performance”) offer what might be called DJ or “dance club” voicing that is less neutral than M-series voicing, but that is designed to cut through the high volume levels likely to be encountered on stage or in club settings. Thus, the new M-100 is one of the high-accuracy models, and it features dual-diaphragm, dual-voice coil drivers, and comes complete with V-MODA’s cool new Apple “Siri”-compatible “Speakeasy” signal cables. As of CES, V-MODA was still working out final voicing choices for the M-100, so that I got to hear not just one but two subtly different versions of the new headphone—both of which had merit. I’m look forward to hearing the final production model later this year.
The French audio manufacturer Waterfall Audio is perhaps best known for its relatively large and expensive floorstanding loudspeakers whose cabinets are made of what has become Waterfall’s signature material: glass. But the Waterfall product that I think will most interest Playback readers is a new, compact 2.1-channel system called the HFM 2.1 Multimedia Serio Pack ($1500). The HFM 2.1 channel rig consists of a multipurpose HFM 2.1 subwoofer plus two small Serio satellite speakers, which are framed in—what else?—glass. The HFM 2.1 sub is a multipurpose unit that houses a 120-watt subwoofer amplifier, two 60 Wpc amplifiers that drive the Serio satellites, and an input panel for connections to source components. Those looking for suave-sounding, eye-catching, 2.1-channel all-in-one system might want to consider this one; it looks like nothing else on the market.
WESC, aka “We Are the Superlative Conspiracy”, is a trendy Swedish clothing/accessories brand that also happens to make a broad range of headphones. For CES 2012 WESC’s biggest news centered on the rollout of two distinctive Chambers by RZA-series headphones, which are endorsed by the artist/producer RZA (Robert Diggs), who is best known for his work with Wu-Tang Clan.
Chambers by RZA ‘phones come in two forms: the RZA Street on-ear model ($170) and the RZA Premium (or “Cranium”) over-the-ear model ($270). The RZA Street is a passive headphone equipped with a 3-button, Apple-compatible remote/mic module, while the RZA Premium is an active noise-canceling headphone with 3-button remote/mic module, and LED-display equipped equalizer, and a distinctive music sharing function. During a very brief listening session at the WESC booth, I was struck by how well made and nicely finished the Chambers models seemed (they’re much nicer than some of the mid-fi-grade rapper-endorsed ‘phones on the market).
Long-term Playback readers know that I regard Westone’s flagship True Fit 4 earphones as falling among the three or four best that I’ve ever heard, regardless of price. Well, for CES 2012, the Colorado based firm has introduced a second version of the flagship, called the True Fit 4R ($499), where the “R” in the name signifies that the earphone supports user-eplaceable signal cables. You might think this would be purely a convenience where if, heaven forbid, you should happen to break a cable you could simply buy a new one and plug it in. But the replaceable-cable feature has more far-reaching sonic implications, especially for an earphone as good as the True Fit 4, in that it opens the door to explore ultra high-quality audiophile-grade signal cables from reputable third-party specialists such as Moon Audio, ALO Audio, Cardas, and others.
Joining the True Fit 4 in the move to “R” status is Westone’s Talk Series TS-1 earphone, which is now offered as a TS-1R ($129), which comes fitted with user-replaceable signal cables complete with an in-line mic module installed. Note: In principle, I believe this user-replaceable mic-module cable could also be installed on the True Fit 4R if users so desired.
The specialty headphone amplifier manufacturer Woo Audio had a wonderful demonstration station set up at T.H.E. Show, featuring Woo’s gorgeous, two-chassis, vacuum tube-powered WES electrostatic headphone amplifier (start at $4990 and ranging up to $7730 with all available Woo-recommended parts and vacuum tube upgrades). Company President Jack Wu was using the WES as a demonstration platform for the superb Stax SR-007 MkII and Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphones (see comments, above). Pictures, I’m afraid, don’t fully do the WES justice; it exudes a certain polish and fineness of fit and finish that seems to shout, “This amp was made by people who approach their work as a labor of love.” ‘Works for me.
The Woo/Stax combos sounded simply terrific and there is no doubt that the WES is one of the three or four finest electrostatic headphone amps being made today, though I imagine some Playback readers will immediately ask if Woo’s WES is the best of them all. To seek answers, Playback will soon begin a series of reviews of top-tier electrostatic headphone amps to see where things stand. Stay tuned.