For those of you not able to make it to Denver, CO for the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I’d like to let you in on a little secret. These days, by teaming with HeadFi.org, RMAF now offers attendees a show within a show thanks to an event called Can-Jam. What’s a Can-Jam? In simple terms, it’s an exposition and celebration of all things pertaining to high-end headphones, earphones, and the specialized electronics required to drive them.
Below, I describe some of the coolest new products seen and heard at RMAF/Can-Jam 2012. As always, my apologies in advance to any manufacturers whose worthy products I fail to mention.
KingRex is a Taiwanese company founded in the late 1980s that has a rich background in the development various entertainment-related electronics products. Through a process of ongoing evolution, though, the company eventually moved into the audio product arena and, by 2006, had dedicated itself to the development of very high quality computer audio and, as KingRex puts it, “mini audio” components. At Can-Jam, five specific KingRex products were highlighted in a demo area sponsored by KingRex’s U.S. Distributor, Moon Audio. These products were the:
- --Headquarters HQ-1 headphone amp/preamp ($899), an ambitious, Class A MOSFET-powered design packaged in in two companion chassis—one housing the audio circuitry and the other housing a compact linear power supply.
- --PSU MkII power supply ($419), an uprated power supply module compatible with a variety of KingRex components.
- --UD384 DAC ($499), a 32/384-capable, asynchronous USB DAC with very low-jitter (1 ppm) clock.
- --UD2 uPower battery pack ($199), the preferred companion power supply for the UD384 DAC, which is “recommended for completely off-the-grid and noise-free operation.”
- --uArt Y USB Cable ($599 for a 2M cable), an unorthodox and highly specialized USB cable with two input-side connectors cabled via a “Y” junction to feed a single output-side USB connector. The key concept behind the product is that one leg of the input pair supplies USB power while the other leg supplies USB audio data—a separation of functions said to yield substantial sonic benefits. In practice, a user would connect the signal USB leg to a computer or server, would connect the power USB leg to the UD2 uPower pack, and then connect the output USB leg to the UD384 DAC.
Monster Cable is plainly looking to regain its footing in the headphone marketplace after its break with Beats by Dre (a company that Monster Cable was instrumental in putting on the audio map). Thus, over the past year Monster has launched at least three new Monster-branded models:
- --Inspiration Active NC self-powered, active noise-cancelling, full-size headphone ($299).
- --Inspiration Passive full size headphone ($199), essentially a passive version of the Inspiration Active NC.
- --Miles Davis Trumpet earphone ($399), arguable the most distinctive looking of all Monster’s Miles Davis-branded products, this earphone features earpieces the loosely resemble the bell of Davis’ trumpet (hence the product name).
Mr. Speaker is not so much a headphone manufacturer as a very serious headphone modifier whose key product is an extensively re-worked version of the Fostex T50RP headphone. Specifically, changes include revisions to the headband, ear pads, and other comfort features, plus a thoroughgoing set of revision to the headphone’s acoustic envelope. Mr. Speaker’s version is called the Mad Dog headphone ($314), and it sounds very, very impressive for its price; it’s truly one of the few mid-priced ‘phones that manages to sound like a much higher priced product typically would. Moreover, the Mad Dog is extremely comfortable to wear, which was one of Mr. Speaker’s primary goals in developing the product.
Musica Acoustics (representing Fischer Audio GmbH)
Musica Acoustics is the sales arm of a very unusual headphone/earphone manufacturer named Fischer Audio GmbH. What makes Fischer so unusual? Well, for starters we have a company based in Russia (where all Fischer products are designed and many are manufactured, with a seemingly German name (Fischer Audio, GmbH), whose sales offices are based in Japan (go figure).
Musica Acoustics was showing a representative sampler of products from Fischer including:
- --Fischer Audio FA-002 Master Series High Edition full-size, closed-back headphone ($650 - $450 depending on hardwoods chosen for the ear cups), click here to read my Playback review of the FA-002 High Edition. Even designers of competing ‘phones have told me they consider the FA-002 High Edition a “very good headphone,” and one that offers uncommon levels of transparency, even though that quality is not usually considered a strong point in most closed-back headphones,
- --Fischer Audio FA-011 full-size headphone ($195).
- --Fischer Audio FA-006 Jubilate full-size headphone ($150).
- --Fischer Audio Oldskool 33 1/3 on-ear headphone ($144).
- --Fischer Audio DBA-01MkII earphone with dual balanced-armature-type drivers (price TBD but said to be </= $200).
- --Fischer Audio Tandem earphone ($100), with dual driver.
- --Fischer Audio Consonance earphone ($65), a model that—based on a brief listen—I think sounds uncommonly good for the money.
Ray Samuels Audio
Earlier this year our online sister publication Playback reviewed Ray Samuel’s SR-71B fully balanced portable headphone amp and pronounced it one of the two best products of its type on today’s market: click here to read the review. Now, however, Samuels is back with what is arguably an even better product: namely, the Intruder fully balanced portable headphone amp/DAC ($650).
Here are the key things that are changed in the Intruder vis-à-vis the SR-71B. First, the Intruder offers a three-position master gain control whose highest gain setting offers much high gain (a gain of 21) than the SR-71B did. This is important because the SR-71B, powerful though it is, has only just barely enough gain to drive extremely inefficient headphones such as the HiFiMAN HE-6—a headphone the Intruder now drives with the greatest of ease. Second, the Intruder adds a 16/44-capable USB DAC, which the SR-71B. But perhaps the coolest point of all is that the Intruder is offered at exactly the same price as the original SR-71B; you get more, but without paying more. Who wouldn’t appreciate that math?
Schiit Audio (yeah, it’s pronounced pretty much the way you think it would be) is a company that designs and manufactures serious headphone amp and DAC products in the U.S., yet sells them for modest prices. Indeed, looking at and hearing Schiit gear with their price tags left out in the open can cause a split brain experience of sorts; your eyes and ears behold high-end products, while your mind drinks in the price tag and wonders if there’s a significant digit missing somewhere.
Two great cases in point would be a pair of products that Schiit was highlighting at Can-Jam: the Mjolnir fully-balanced desktop headphone amp ($749) and the companion Gungnir balanced output 32/192-capable DAC ($749 for the standard version or $849 for the model equipped with optional USB inputs). The Mjolnir uses distinctive “circlotron” circuit topology and is based on a beefy power supply with 90V supply rails feeding 100V JFET devices. In practice, this means the Mjolnir should be perfect for “problem headphones” that have terrific sonic potential but are—at least for lesser amps—almost impossibly difficult to drive.
The Gungnir DAC not only supports high-resolution digital audio files and provides balanced outputs, but also offers a distinctive “adapticlock” feature. The adapticlock feature analyzes jitter-levels of incoming digital audio streams and then applies either of two onboard re-clocking systems as appropriate. Somewhat humorously, when digital source have really awful jitter levels, the Gungnir will do its best to fix things but will also trigger a “Caution: you-need-a-better-quality-digital-source” warning light on the Gungnir’s front panel (and no, I solemnly swear I am not making this up).
As you may have surmised, Schiit has a fondness for product names drawn from Norse mythology. A company spokesman explained that Mjolnir was the name of Thor’s indomitable hammer, while Gungnir was the name of Loki’s spear that never misses its target.
For Can-Jam the German firm Sennheiser showed two previously announced (but now on the cusp of release) top-tier products, plus a new mid-priced model. The top-tier units included the firm’s flagship IE 800 universal-fit earphone ($999) and flagship HDVA 600 headphone amplifier ($1599), while the new product is the firm’s Momentum headphone ($349).
In a move that might seem odd to some earphone aficionados, Sennheiser has opted to fit its top-of-the-line IE 800 earphone with a single, 7mm dynamic driver (which Sennheiser calls a “dynamic linear phase ultra-wide bandwidth (UWB) driver”). The IE800’s UWB drivers, in turn, are fitted into earpiece housings that sport “dampened dual-chamber absorbers,” which I gather are something akin to miniature damped transmission line-like enclosures. What’s unusual, here, is that the IE 800 bucks the trend toward basing top-flite earphones on multiple balanced driver arrays such as those used in flagship products from Phonak Audeo, Shure, Ultimate Ears, or Westone. A Sennheiser spokes told us, though, that the firm is convinced that the IE 800’s single dynamic driver actually offers higher overall performance, superior sonic purity, and greater unit-to-unit uniformity.
The HDVA 600 is, along with the firm’s HDVD 800 ($1999), one of the two most ambitious headphone amplifiers Sennheiser has ever offered and as such it is intended as the ideal companion for the firm’s four top tier headphones: the HD 600, HD 650, HD 700, and flagship HD 800. Both the HDVA 600 and HDVD 800 are fully balanced amplifiers, but what differentiates the models is the fact that the HDVA 600 is an all-analog design, while the HDVD 800 is a “digital” amplifier that incorporates a 24/192-capable DAC.
The Momentum headphone is an iDevice friendly full-size headphone that combines, in roughly equal parts, an emphasis on sound quality, upscale materials and fit and finish, and minimalist “urban” style. Importantly, an optional signal cable with built mic/remote control functions allows the Momentum to serve not just as a headphone but also as an iPhone-compatible headset.
Todd The Vinyl Junkie (representing Apex Hi-Fi Audio)
Todd Green (the vinyl junkie, himself) works in very close association with Apex Hi-Fi Audio, and is effectively Apex’s sales and distribution partner. At Can-Jam, Mr. Green proudly showed Apex’ latest creation: the Apex Glacier portable headphone amplifier/USB DAC ($495). A big part of the draw for the Glacier (or really any Apex Hi-Fi component) is the firm’s time-proven sonic know-how: Apex products have, in the past, been favorably reviewed in both The Absolute Sound, where the Apex Pinnacle received a 2012 Editor’s Choice award, and in Playback, where the Apex Peak amp with Volcano power supply is highly recommended.
But a major element of the Glacier’s appeal is that it offers a very ambitious features set, yet seems almost impossibly compact, thin, and gem-like. Consider this: the Glacier is roughly the size of the skinny new iPhone 5, yet it manages to contain: a 24/96-capable USB DAC based on a Cirrus Logic DAC device, a separate USB charging port, a high-output and entirely DC-coupled headphone amplifier, adjustable master gain switches, a high-performance stepped attenuator volume control, a 12-to-15-hour/charge long-life battery, and the works is fitted with a super-slim (just 9mm thick!) stainless steel case.
For earphone and custom-fit in-ear monitor maker Ultimate Ears, this year’s most significant new Can-Jam product was the recently released UE 900 quad-driver universal-fit earphone ($399). From previous discussions with Philippe Depallens and Chuck Reynolds at UE, I know the UE 900 has been conceived to play two roles in the marketplace. First, it serves as the long-awaited replacement for one of UE’s best-loved and most commercially successful products: the three-driver Triple.fi 10 PRO. But perhaps more importantly, the UE 900 serve as a transitional or “bridge” model that straddles the gap between UE’s universal-fit earphone product family and the firm’s extensive range of custom-fit IEMs. As Depallens and Reynolds explained in a conversation with me several months ago, the UE 900 is aimed at customers who need or want sound quality close to that offered by custom-fit IEMs, but who prefer—either for reasons of price or convenience—to stick with a universal-fit model. Watch for our upcoming review of the UE 900 over the next several months.
Unique Melody is an extremely high-tech manufacturer of custom-fit in-ear monitors; the firm is based in China, has sales offices in Australia, and build its monitors using, in some cases, select components sourced from North America and Europe. But for Can-Jam Unique Melody was debuting a product bundle that transcends the concept of a custom-fit IEM, per se, and rather represents a complete, integrated custom-fit IEM playback system.
The product in question is called the Unique Melody PP6 (for “Pure Platform Six”, $2,280), which consists of the following:
- -- PP6 Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitor earpiece modules, which feature six balanced-armature-type drivers/earpiece (two tweeter, two mids, and two bass drivers) but, interestingly, contain passive crossover components at all, plus
- -- A dedicated PP6 portable stereo tri-amplification module amplifier with both left and right-channel low, mid, and high-frequency amps; a 32-bit DSP-controlled 3-way active crossover with digitally-controlled variable bass boost; and a front end section featuring a 24/96-capable DAC with coax, optical, and USB digital inputs plus an auxiliary analog input.
According to Unique Melody the PP6 package surpasses even the performance of their previous flagship passive custom-fit in-ear monitor: the Unique Melody Miracle ($950). Benefits are said to include a cleaner, clearer, more accurate, more dynamic, and more spacious sound.
At Can-Jam V-MODA highlighted two key products: the brand new Crossfade M-100 headphone ($300) and the VAMP headphone amp/DAC/iPhone charger designed specifically for iPhone 4/4S ($600—a $50 drop from the price initially announced earlier this Summer).
The Crossfade M-100 is the newest of V-MODA’s accuracy minded M-series ‘phones, but one key distinction is that it may be the first headphone to benefit from a true, “crowdsourced” design approach where the firm sought input from literally hundreds of audiophiles, journalists, record producers and DJs before finalizing the M-100’s design. Not surprisingly, the effort yielded a very versatile design with unexpected features at every turn. For example, the M-100 features dual inputs that allow the headphone “to act as a virtual on-the-go mixer” and it also incorporates “V-CORK” seals that offer some measure of voicing control and that allow “the discerning listeners to perfectly balance the audio.” A SpeakEasy microphone cable enables the headphone to function as a headset, while and optional boom mic lets users adapt the M-100 for use as a gaming headphone.
The VAMP iPhone-specific headphone amp/DAC may just be the coolest snap-on device ever to enhance an iPhone in that it combines the functions of an iPhone-specific DAC, headphone amp, and iPhone charger all in a format that is perfectly style and shape-matched to fit the iPhone 4/4S.
We’re all in favor of audio products that offer breathtakingly beautiful industrials provided they also deliver the sonic goods at a very high level; happily, Woo Audio’s exquisite new WA7 desktop tube-powered headphone amp/high-res DAC does both.
The WA7, which will be offered in silver or black, combines a 32/192-capable DAC with a tube-type headphone amp driven by dual 6C45 tubes. The demo unit on display at Can-Jam sounded very promising indeed, though we’ll hold further comments until the full product release model is available. But frankly, we just couldn’t take our eyes off the thing; it’s truly one of the most beautiful audio components we’ve seen in a very long time and my friend and colleague Steve Guttenberg from CNET put it, “it’s really the sort of design even the late Steve Jobs at Apple would have appreciated.” It’s that well done. Final pricing for the WA7 has not yet been set, but company President Jack Wu indicated the price would surely fall at or below $1000.