Headphones, etc. - A Baker's Dozen from Munich High End 2016

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs,

Master & Dynamic MH40 dynamic-type headphones

At first glance, the Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones seem like any number of models that have appeared on the market in recent years: they are stylish, made of high-quality materials with good fit and finish, feature 45mm dynamic drivers whose motors use neodymium magnets, and are at least semi-reasonably priced at €399.  Honestly, though, that same basic description could fit any number of arguably decent but not terribly distinctive headphones on the market, so that I did not initially anticipate that the MH40’s would be able to differentiate themselves from run-of-the-mill headphones by the one thing that matters most of all: namely, their sound.

I heard the MH40’s on demonstration as fed by FiiO’s excellent X7 Android-powered portable digital audio player (€749) as supplemented by the firm’s excellent K5 supplementary headphone amp/docking station (€149). Immediately I was treated to a big, rich, full-bodied, and pleasingly articulate sound that would have many a higher-priced full-size headphone proud. Then and there, I decided to include that Master & Dynamic in this show report for the simple reason that it sounds so very engaging on a musical level—something that can’t always be said of roughly €400 headphones, or even of ones priced much higher than that. One impression I did have is that the MH40 seemed comparatively easy to drive, notionally meaning that it seems to work with your chosen amplifier—not against it.

MSB Technology SELECT electrostatic headphone amplifier

Most audiophiles, this author included, associate the name MSB with very, very high-grade, reference-quality (and often correspondingly costly) DACs and disc players, so that when I poked my head in the door of the MSB room to ask what was new for Munich, I anticipated that MSB would surely show me their latest and great digital audio source component(s).  But I was wrong and in for a big, but pleasant, surprise.

In response to my, “What’s new from MSB?” question, a company spokesman simply said, “Well, we’d like to show you our new ultra-high-end SELECT electrostatic headphone amplifier as fed by our SELECT II DAC, since we’ve concluded top-class electrostatic headphone are one of the best ways to hear and appreciate what our best DAC is capable of doing.” I broke out in a smile that probably stretched from ear to ear, and asked if I could give the SELECT amp a listen through the Stax SR-009 headphones MSB had on hand for the demonstration.

The SELECT amp (priced at USD$37,950) features balanced analogue input and output, provides two Stax-style five-pin output jacks, and is designed specifically for use with MSB’s flagship SELECT II DAC. To this end, the amp’s volume and balance controls are integrated with the SELECT II DAC, and MSB boldly states, “for the very first time in history, the output of a discrete ladder DAC drives the headphones directly, with nothing in the way to color or degrade the highest resolution (173dB dynamic range) DAC in the world, clocked by the lowest jitter (33 femtoseconds) clock in the world.”

So how did it sound? Well, on first listen my impression was of hearing a beautifully balanced and controlled presentation that offered almost blinding levels of timbral purity and clarity. Further listening is most definitely indicated.

oBravo eamt-1W hybrid dynamic/AMT-type universal-fit earphone

Up to this point oBravo has been best known for its superb HAMT-1 hybrid dynamic/AMT-type full-size headphone, but over the past two years the firm has been pursuing the same general concept, but within the much tighter dimensional constraints of a universal-fit earphone.

About now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute: are you saying someone has figured out a way to build a Heil-type Air Motion Transformer-type driver small enough to fit inside an in-ear device?” The answer, in a word, is, “Yes!”

In fact, oBravo has worked up three in-ear models that all feature hybrid combinations of dynamic mid-bass drivers and miniaturised AMT-type drivers. These are the:

·      eamt-3W (10mm dynamic driver + AMT tweeter), priced at £2,200,

·      eamt-2W (12mm dynamic driver + AMT tweeter), priced at £3,200, and

·      eamt-1W (13mm dynamic driver + AMT tweeter), priced at £4,200.

Apart from differences between dynamic drivers, the models also feature different combinations of earpiece housing materials, with the most exotic (and best sounding) combination reserved for the eamt-1W model shown here.

The sound is unlike anything I’ve heard from a universal-fit earphone before, with a big, expansive, and sumptuously detailed presentation reminiscent to that of an accomplished top-tier headphone (but one shrunk down to pocket size). Watch for an upcoming Hi-Fi+ review.

Prism Sound Callia headphone amp/DAC

One of my most pleasing discoveries from the Munich show was the new Callia headphone amplifier/preamp/DAC from the well-regarded British pro audio company Prism Sound. The Callia is priced at £1,495, €1,995, or USD$1,995.

What is refreshing is that Callia is built from the no-nonsense, no-hype, neutrality-centric mindset of a world-class pro audio manufacturer, where product performance, build-quality, flexibility, and longevity are everything and where marketing ballyhoo means next to nothing.

In the Callia, we have a straightforward, high-quality, studio-grade DAC that can decode PCM files at sample rates form 44.1 kHz to 384 kHz and that can play DSD64 and DSD128 files via DoP. Class compliant (UAC2) USB inputs are provided, as are coaxial and optical S/PDIF inputs. In turn, the Callia offers both single-ended and balanced (XLR-type) analogue outputs. One very interesting (and welcome) detail is that the Callia incorporates separate preamp and headphone level controls, meaning you can adjust either or both functions independently.

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