The revolution will not be televised, but you can hear it…
There’s a revolution going on in the world of performance-minded audio and it is taking place—and will continue to take place—with or without the approval or participation of the traditional high-end audio world.
It is a revolution involving enjoyment of very high performance headphones (and earphones) as driven by serious, purpose-built headphone amplifiers and exotic source components. It is a movement driven, as all great high-end audio movements are, by a sincere love of music and a passion for seeing just how well music can be reproduced.
But it is also a movement driven by pragmatism, good humor, a spirit of open-minded exploration, and a clear-cut desire to push the performance envelope without necessarily spending the stratospheric sums of money that top-tier speaker-based systems so often seem to command. So, think of the high-performance headphone revolution as a movement designed to re-frame or re-imagine high-end audio in terms that are accessible for Everyman.
This past weekend, I took the opportunity to visit a Head-Fi meet staged in the very much music-minded city of Austin, Texas, USA (Head-Fi, www.head-fi.org, is a member-led organization that is at the forefront of the high-performance headphone movement). In keeping with the tradition for such meets, exhibits included a number of tables from product manufacturers as well as many more tables occupied by Head-Fi members who brought their personal systems to the meet to show and to share with fellow enthusiasts.
What follows is a brief illustrated report designed to give you a sense for the great good fun to be had at the meet.
NEW EQUIPMENT/NEW DEALERS
- Key Product: Avenson Headphone Amplifier ($750)
Austin, TX-based Avenson Audio is for the most part a pro-sound-oriented company that bills itself as a “manufacturer of fine audio tools”, among which are: reference quality omnidirectional condenser mics, active DI boxes, and several other specialized, recording-studio-oriented components. Over time, however, Avenson wanted to create an ultra-accurate and ultra-pure headphone amplifier that could be used to evaluate the firm’s STO-2 reference mics. Feeling that there were many good headphone amps on the market, but none that precisely fit Avenson’s requirement, the firm created its own small but highly capable headphone amp, called simply the “Avenson Headphone Amp”, priced at $750.
Based on brief listen, we came away impressed by the Avenson amp’s power, neutrality, resolution, and robustness. It will certainly bear a follow-up listen.
- CablePro UP-OCC/Reverie modular headphone cabling systems (varies)
Cable Pro is a Dallas, TX-based specialty cable manufacturer who has come up with an interesting new take on high performance cable harnesses for headphones. Since many headphone makers (e.g., Audeze, HiFiMAN, Sennheiser, etc.) use differing types of cable connectors, the tradition is for aftermarket manufacturers to build full-length (4 – 5-foot) cables fitted with appropriate headphone-specific connectors. This works well, but can quickly become very expensive for those who own more than one set of top-tier phones.
Recognizing this problem, Ted Paisley at Cable Pro came up with a clever modular solution. First, he offers a high performance headphone such as the Freedom UP-OCC (~$169), which is deliberately terminated not with headphone connectros but rather with a general-purpose stereo connector.
Then, CablePro offers so-called “ that have CablePro’s general-purpose stereo connector on one end and headphone-specific connectors on the other. Two examples would be the firm’s Freedom UP-OCC “pigtail” cables (~$169) or Reverie “pigtail” cables (~$299).
The concept, clearly, is that you buy and pay for the extension cable only once, but then acquire additional pigtail connectors as your headphone collection grows. A clever approach, no?
- Cavalli Audio Liquid Glass headphone amplifier ($3500)
- Cavalli Audio Liquid Lightning II electrostatic headphone amplifier ($4850)
Austin, TX-based Cavalli Audio, which has earned a reputation as a manufacturer of world-class headphone amplifiers, had two key products on display at the meet. The first was Cavalli’s Liquid Glass hybrid vacuum tube/solid-state headphone amp ($3500) which specifically targets enthusiasts who want a ultra high-performance amp that support (and indeed embraces) the concept of “tube rolling.” Accordingly, the Liquid Glass incorporates a tube-powered front end, complete with user adjustable settings for tube heater voltage and tube bias voltage, and included dual sets of octal (8-pin) and nonal (9-pin) tube sockets. Backing up the tube section is an ultra easy-to-drive, low-noise, and low-distortion solid-state output stage. According to designer Dr. Alex Cavalli, the amp makes it extremely easy to hear subtle, low-level distinctions between one tube-type and another.
Also debuting at the Austin meet was Cavalli’s brand new Liquid Lightning II solid-state electrostatic headphone amp ($4850), which is geared as an ideal companion amplifier for the incredibly good Stax SR-009 electrostatic headphone ($5250). Based on a brief listen, we would say the Liquid Lightning II takes audible steps forward vis-à-vis the already superb Liquid Lightning I.
- GS-X Mk2 solid-state balanced-output headphone amp (($2495)
Charlottesville, VA-based Head Amp is perhaps best known for its terrific Blue Hawaii SE hybrid tube/solid-state electrostatic headphone amplifier and for its exquisitely made Pico-series portable amps and DACs (seriously, you’ve really got to see and hold the Picos in your hand to fully appreciate the workmanship involved).
But for the Austin meet Head Amp was proudly showing its new two-chassis GS-X Mk2 solid-state, balanced-output headphone amplifier ($2495). The GS-X Mk2 was very favorably received by listeners at the meet, some of whom noted that the amp captured more than a little of the flavour and feel of the firm’s Blue Hawaii SE electrostatic amp, but in an amp designed for conventional rather than electrostatic ‘phones.
- Symphony Interconnects ($800 and up)
- Ferrite Low-Noise Power Cord ($500 and up)
- Audeze 822 Headphone Cable ($800)
Lake Oswego, OR-based Jena Labs was showing a small portion of its product line in cooperation with Cavalli Audio, demonstrating the firm’s Symphony interconnect (starting at $800), Ferrite Low-Noise Power Cord (starting at $500), and 822 Headphone Cable (~$800 with connectors configured for Audeze planar magnetic ‘phones).
Jena cables leverage considerable know-how drawn from the founders’ extensive work in the aerospace industry and upon their deep knowledge of cryogenic processing techniques said to go far beyond most cryo-processing efforts used in the audio industry. The result is a cable that exhibits a high degree of purity and transparency, but that is also quite free of edginess and glare—a highly desirable combination for high performance headphone applications.
- Leckerton Audio UHA-6S.Mk2 portable USB DAC/Headphone Amp ($279)
Austin, TX-based Leckerton Audio specializes in the “design of audiophile-quality portable headphone amplifiers,” and though Leckerton was not directly exhibiting at the meet it was ably represented by a local headphone specialty retailer named Nice Cans.
On demonstration was the versatile little Leckerton UHA-6S.Mk2 ($279), which incorporates a 16-bit/48kHz USB streaming input, a 24-bit/96kHz S/PDIF input (with both optical and coaxial jacks), and a high quality headphone amp. Our thought: this ruggedly made little component serves up an awful lot of functionality for the money.
Nice Cans and RK Audiology
Key Products: Various headphone components from Beyerdynamic, Fostex, Leckerton Audio, Musical Fidelity, and others, with support for various makes of custom-fit in-ear monitors through RK Audiology.
Neither Nice Cans nor RK Audiology, both based in Austin, TX, are manufacturers of headphone products, but both are helping out the cause by making high-performance headphone and in-ear monitoring products more accessible within the Austin marketplace. There is also interesting and useful synergy between Nice Cans and RK Audiology, whose operations are located within the same building.
Nice Cans, headed by Patrick Sutton, is a new appointment-only retailer of upper-end headphones and related electronics, while RK Audiology, headed by Paula Rivers and Janet Krueger, is a full-service audiology service provider with extensive experience in fitting customers for custom-fit in-ear monitors from ACS Custom, JH Audio, Ultimate Ears, and Westone.
Nice Cans and RK Audiology are able to work in a convenient and collaborative way, making cross-referrals where appropriate to leverage one another’s areas of expertise.
SOME COOL MEMBER-OWNED SYSTEMS…
- Leben CX300XS tube powered integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier
- Vincent Audio phono stage
- Well-Tempered Amadeus turntable
- Dynavector 10XS phono cartridge
- Jena Labs Valkyrie interconnect cables
- Headphones (not shown): Sennheiser HD800, or headphones at brought to the demonstration by other listeners.
- Lavry DAC
- Eddie Currect S7 tube-powered headphone amplifier
- SPL Phonitor headphone amplifier
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 (connected to the Eddie Current amp) and author’s Audeze LCD-3 planar magnetic headphones
- Schiit Audio Gungnir DAC
- Other Digital Sources (not shown): Matrix Sabre DAC
- Rotel RDD-980 disc player used as a digital transport
- Bryston BHA-1 headphone amplifier
- Headphones (not shown): Sennheiser HD800, author’s Audeze HD800
Summing Up: Should you discover that a Head-Fi meet is being held near you, I strongly encourage you to attend. I think I can safely say that you will find it an eye and ear-opening experieince.