Headphones & Personal Audio at the L.A. Audio Show 2017

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Headphones & Personal Audio at the L.A. Audio Show 2017

The inaugural L.A. Audio Show 2017 featured an extensive HeadGear showroom, plus something new and valuable: namely, an XTREME HeadGear room reserved exclusively for top-tier models of proven performance capabilities.

Since the L.A. Show followed hot on the heels of the Munich High-End Show 2017, which in turn followed closely after the AXPONA 2017 show, there was relatively little in the way of utterly new (as in never seen before, anywhere) equipment, but more in the way of models being shown for the first time in the U.S. or of models shown in a new demonstration context.

What follows, then, is not an exhaustive report, but more of a filtered report that attempts to capture the highlights of the headphone portion of the show.

The XTREME HeadGear showroom
 

Audeze

Audeze’s presence in the XTREME room focussed exclusively on the firm’s new flagship LCD-4i planar magnetic in-ear headphones ($2,499), which represent an all-out attempt to capture the performance of Audeze’s flagship full-size planar magnetic LCD-4 headphones, but in a far more compact, portable, and ad least somewhat more affordable package. This earphone had been introduced to the world only a few short weeks earlier in Munich and it is quite rightly garnering a great deal of “buzz”.

With the LCD-4i, did Audeze succeed in creating a miniaturised, portable equivalent to the well-regarded LCD-4? Yes, brilliant so in my opinion, although if pressed I think I would say the little LCD-4i might even be better than its bigger brother. Transparency, linearity, and full-throated dynamics are the order of the day. If you have the opportunity to hear these, by all means take it.

 

HiFIMAN

HiFiMAN demonstrated not one but two top class headphone systems. The first was the famous Shangri-La electrostatic system ($50,000) which consists of the Shangri-La electrostatic headphone and its matching Shangri-La electrostatic amplifier, which is powered by a quartet of 6SN7 valves driving a quartet of custom made, elevated specification 300B output tubes, which in turn directly drive the headphones. The Shangri-La system is a leading contender for state-of-the-art honours and its only realistic competitor for the title is the even more expensive Sennheiser HE 1 electrostatic system (~$55,000), which at the L.A. Audio Show was positioned at a listening station located just a few feet from the HiFiMAN demo area. Which system is better? I’m not going to try to give that one an answer as there are some quite complicated variables involved, but suffice it to say that these two world-class headphone systems offer very stiff competition for one another and for anything else that may come along.

For those not quite ready to acquire headphone systems up in the $50k stratosphere, HiFiMAN offers an alternative in the form of its new flagship Susvara planar magnetic headphone ($6,000) as powered by the mighty EF1000 amplifier ($15,000). A little known fact is that the EF1000—which most people assume is primarily a headphone amplifier—was in fact originally designed as a highly accomplished and very high-resolution integrated amplifier that was meant to power the reference loudspeakers used by Dr Fang Bian, the founder of HiFiMAN. According to Dr Bian the EF1000 works beautifully in the speaker-centric role, but we think it is just the ticket for driving the relatively insensitive (but excellent) Susvara headphones. The EF1000 is a hybrid design that uses a sextet of 6922 valve feeding the EF1000’s solid-state output stage. For its part, the Susvara can be seen as a serious attempt to expand upon every single one of the strengths of HiFiMAN’s excellent HE1000 v2 headphone. The result is not only the best sounding planar magnetic headphone HiFiMAN has ever made, but also one that—in at least some respects—offers sound quality reminiscent of the king-of-the-hill Shangri-La.


Kimber

In the headphone universe, Kimber Kable is known for its excellent Axios family of replacement/upgrade headphone signal cable. However, not so many people realize that there is an even higher-level headphone cable available from the firm in the form of the Axios Ag cable (Ag to indicated the silver conductors used in the cable). The Axios Ag sells for $4,000, so obviously it’s intended for use on top-tier headphones only, but once you hear what Axios Ag can do on, say, a set of MrSpeakers ETHER FLOW planar magnetic headphones, it’s awfully difficult to ignore the sonic benefits they provide.

 

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