Show Report: CanJam SoCal 2015 – Part 3

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

The German firm SPL is perhaps most widely known in the pro-sound world, but offers several products that crossover nicely into the high-end headphone world. Two highlighted SPL models were the firm’s flagship Phonitor 2 headphone amp/preamp ($1999), which provides two balanced (XLR) and one single-ended (RCA) analogue inputs and one balanced (XLR) and one single-ended (6.35mm phone jack) analogue outputs.

Based on the firm’s signature 120V technology, the Phonitor 2 sports ultra-precise loudspeaker simulation controls, complete with a centre-fill image level adjustment control, a crossfeed level control, and a perceived ‘speaker’ angle control. These controls can be used and adjusted individually, or in concert with one another. The Phonitor 2 also provides a very precise left/right balance control—a touch we wish more manufacturers would include.

Alongside the Phonitor 2, SPL was also showing a newer model—the Phonitor Mini ($849). As its name suggests, the Phonitor Mini provides many of the same features as the bigger Phonitor 2, but in cost reduced and simplified form.

Ultimate Ears
The big news for Ultimate Ears at CanJam wasn’t a new earphone or CIEM model, but rather a powerful enabling technology that will make it much easier for prospective customers to order great-fitting CIEMs. Specifically, UE was demonstrating a non-invasive and highly accurate digital ear-scanning system that doesn’t involve injecting ear-mould compound into the ear at all.

Instead, measurements of the ear canal are taken via a digital/optical scanning process said to yield exceptionally accurate digital models of the user’s ear canals, from which it is then easy to create near-perfect CIEM earpieces. From a UE spokesperson we learned that, since UE’s digital scanning system has been in use, the rate of returns to have CIEM earpieces adjusted or re-made has dropped to vanishingly low levels.

Vinnie Rossi
Vinnie Rossi is an experienced amplifier designer who has often teamed with Ken Ball of ALO Audio in the design of various ALO products. Rossi’s own company, however, was showing its new, category defying LIO modular audio system. To give that somewhat vague and mysterious descriptor more meaning, let me mention that the LIO is not so much a singular audio component, but rather an audio component platform that can be defined in many, many different ways, depending on what modules and options are ordered.

The core LIO is a linestage preamplifier that is powered by dual banks of ultracapacitors in a configuration where one bank drives the LIO while the other is being recharged. Switching between banks takes about a millisecond and thus occurs in real-time without the listener ever hearing with switchover. In this way, the LIO’s audio circuitry is never directly connected to the mains, while the power supply is always able to deliver plenty of current drive on demand.

To the core LIO, listeners can add an impressive array of optional modules including an input selector module, a headphone amp module with or without balanced outputs, a DSD/PCM DAC module, a MOSFET amplifier module, an MM/MC phonostage module with or without remote control loading adjustment, a tubestage module, and several different volume control options. As you can imagine, the configuration possibilities are almost endless. Build and sound quality are extremely impressive, so the LIO would be a cool product to own purely on the basis of its sound. It hyper-versatility, though, give it multi-purpose capabilities few other components I have seen could every hope to match. Pricing for the LIO ranges from $1,995 for the core LIO on up to $6,155 for a LIO Deluxe with essentially all the options.

Wells Audio
We have been aware of the flagship Well Audio HeadTrip headphone amplifier ($7,000) for some time and have even heard it on a couple of occasions, but CanJam SoCal marked our first opportunity to hear the amp with a world-class headphone (in this instance, the Abyss AB-1266 planar magnetic phones) that we know well. The resulting sound was, quite frankly, just jaw-droppingly good, representing one of the two or three most impressive headphone amplifier/headphone demonstrations we have heard to date. Never before have we heard the Abyss headphones sound so balanced, so masterful, and so utterly accomplished in their presentation (and we have tried them with a number of top-tier amplifiers).

The Wells HeadTrip is a very powerful (50Wpc at 8 Ohms or 25Wpc at 32 Ohm), dual mono headphone amplifier that uses Bybee technology throughout to reduce noise, and that extensively applies ultra-high-quality parts to improve overall definition, detail and subtlety.  The HeadTrip provides both balanced and single-ended outputs, plus separate left/right channel phase inversion switches (since Wells contend that about 30% of digital recordings are recorded out of phase. But a list of features and specifications alone cannot show what makes this amp so special. As the US-based political pundit/strategist James Carville might put it, “It’s the sound, stupid.”  Our experience at CanJam only served to whet our appetite for spending more quality time with the HeadTrip, should circumstances ever permit

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