High-End Headphone of the Year: MrSpeakers VOCE
MrSpeakers is led by Dan Clark, a keen-eared headphone enthusiast and an engineer’s engineer. The company takes its name from an earlier phase in Clark’s career where he served as an accomplished loudspeaker design specialist for hire. The VOCE is MrSpeakers’ first (and presently, only) electrostatic headphone design.
The VOCE’s electrostatic driver diaphragms are larger than most (88mm in diameter), yet also thinner (2.4 microns thick) and lower in mass. Completing the picture are what MrSpeakers terms “ultra-thin metal stators for superior sound”. It also features a Nitinol memory metal headband frame beneath which is suspended an adjustable leather headband strap. The frame also carries a pair of elegant matte silver ear cup yokes to which open-back ear cups are mounted. The ear cups’ rear sides are protected by open-design spider web-like grills while their lower edges provide connectors for the VOCE’s included sets of custom-made signal/bias voltage cables.
“From the moment I connected the VOCE to my electrostatic energiser (that is stat-speak for an electrostatic headphone amplifier), I was struck by the sheer transparency and lucidity of its sound and by the incredible amount of musical information it was able to extract from favourite recordings.,” said our reviewer. “Even more impressive was the manner in which it managed to combine breath-taking clarity with exemplary smoothness and control. Some electrostatic headphones exhibit heightened levels of treble sheen, overshoot, or glare, but the VOCE exhibited none of these typical electrostatic flaws.”
Reviewed in Ultimate Headphone Guide Summer 2018
High-Value Headphone of the Year: HiFiMAN Sundara
The Sundara (a Sanskrit word meaning “beautiful”) from HiFiMAN follows in the company’s tradition of high-performance, affordable designs like the HE400 range. This distinctive planar-magnetic design is the latest in a line of affordable overachievers!
The frame is a streamlined variation on the Carol Catalano Design frame used on most modern HiFiMAN headphones, to allow height adjustments via adjustable ear cup yokes that slide up and down within the arms of the frame.The diaphragm itself is said to be fully 80% thinner than the diaphragms used in the HE400 series headphones.
Straight out of the box, the Sundara can sound overly muted or tightly constrained, but our reviewer discovered that “somewhere between 150–200 hours in, the headphone arrives at its happy place. Post run-in, the Sundara exhibits nearly ideal, neutral tonal balance with just a hint of desirable bass lift. The most striking thing, though, is that the Sundara doesn’t really sound like a mid-price headphone at all; instead, its resolution, transient speed, and dynamic agility (especially down low) provide sonic qualities you might expect from headphones in the high three-figure to mid-four-figure price range, which is remarkable.” He concluded by saying the “Sundara embodies the best qualities of its forebears while pushing the limits for sound quality and value.”
Reviewed in Ultimate Headphone Guide Summer 2018
High-End Earphone/CIEM of the Year: AKG N5005
AKG’s flagship earphone design is not simply a good sounding model, it’s part of audio’s fight-back against the tide of wireless audio. Unlike many brands that have resolved to ignore the fact that Apple has dumped the minijack, AKG has raised its game by providing the N5005 with a multitude of options, including a high-performance Bluetooth cable set. While most enthusiasts would agree that wired is in most cases better, the Bluetooth option is a good one if the other options include ‘going without’.
The earphone system itself is comprehensive, in that it’s a hybrid system that combines a 9.2mm dynamic driver for the bass that sits closer to the outer ceramic section of the earphone, coupled with a four-driver balanced armature array for the mids and highs. After that five-driver system comes the easy to drop-in quartet of filters to tune the sound to your tastes. Factor in a range of cables, a group of regular and optional Comply tips for most ears, the aforementioned Bluetooth dongle, and the expensive case the N5005 arrives in, and this is one heck of a product.
Although the four filters make the N5005 almost four sets of in-ear monitors in one, the N5005 is a surprisingly deft and subtle performer regardless of filter choice (although bass boost does just what it says it does). “Even at it’s most forward, the N5005 doesn’t push too far, and that restraint deserves praise,” said the reviewer, who also felt that “With the right seal from the correct tips, the bass is deep, authoritative, stentorian, and yet incredibly well controlled. And that’s without the bass boost.” You do need to experiment wth the right ear tips, but those who do are rewarded by an incredibly musically insightful performance, “The N5005 has an effortless, almost valve-like tonality and insight into the treble. It’s extended way up into the bat-eared territory,
but without harshness, just with accuracy and honesty.”
High-Value Earphone/CIEM of the Year: Campfire Audio Comet
Campfire Audio is a comparatively new brand on the personal audio scene, a spin-off from the highly rated ALO Audio. The product line has grown markedly in recent years, with a range moving from the custom made and hard to afford, to high-value models like the entry-level Comet.
These universal-fit earphones represent superb perceived value for money, as they are resplendent in their drop-forged, CNC-machined, solid stainless steel polished to a mirror-like finish and excellent MMCX-type cable structure (understandable, given the ALO Audio background), but this single, full-range balanced armature design is more than just looks. The fact that Campfire has solved the problem of combining ‘full-range’ and ‘single balanced armature driver’ in the same earphone makes the Comet more than worthy of attention. But, beyond the sophisticated and clever technology, the joy of the Comet is its performance, which places it far beyond what its price might suggest. Our review suggested that “A big part of the Comet’s success has to do with the ergonomics of its stainless steel earpieces. The earpieces are big enough (and weighty enough) to be easy to grasp and to adjust in the ear, but small enough not to get in the way or to inadvertently dislodge their own ear tips.” The reviewer also enthused that “More so than perhaps any other single balanced-armature earphone I have heard, the Comet offers an unexpectedly authoritative and expansive sound—especially in the critical lower midrange to mid-bass region” and concluded, “Is the Comet as much earphone as most listeners might ever need or want? Possibly it is.”
Reviewed in Issue 162
Desktop Headphone Amplifier or Amp/DAC: iFi Audio Pro iDSD
As far as brands go for combining lots of high technology into a small, superb value for money box, it’s hard to beat iFi Audio. Many of its smaller converters, amps, and other miscellaneous products under the Nano and Micro banners represent ‘off the scale’ levels of ‘sound per pound’, but it’s iFi Audio’s desktop Pro range that really throws the kitchen sink at personal audio, to such an extent that it’s usually easier listing what the Pro iDSD doesn’t do than listing the seemingly endless array of formats it supports. PCM to 784kHz and DSD to DSD 1024 standard are the big numbers in the spec sheet, however.
In our listening tests, we found the Pro iDSD to be something of a desktop revelation. “First, the Pro iDSD proved quiet enough (at 0dB gain) to use with extremely sensitive earphones,” our reviewer declared, “yet powerful enough (at +18dB of gain) to drive even very demanding headphones such as the HiFiMAN Susvara.” It also proved to be a detail-retreival machine, and yet not one that is aggressively bright; “The Pro iDSD offers more resolution than any other iFi DAC I have heard to date (and more resolution than most competitors at or anywhere near its price)... this is still very much a component that prioritises holistic musical integrity over ‘bleeding edge’ resolution at all costs.”
But there’s more in the shape of the Pro iCAN headphone amp, too. Our reviewer concluded that “By combining the Pro iDSD with the Pro iCAN, users wind up with an absolutely masterful personal audio playback system that has few peers at this (or really any) price point.”
Portable Headphone Amplifier or Amp/DAC of the Year:Chord Electronics Mojo+Poly
Last year’s winning DAC is joined by the clever Poly portable streamer, music player, and wireless module. Screwing into the rear section of the Mojo DAC, Poly allows wireless connection between a smartphone and the DAC. This not only helps with connectivity, but also means those wired headphones or earphones you love don’t have to be compromised by the absence of headphone jack on modern Apple iDevices. Instead, the Poly can hold a Micro SD full of sound files and be controlled by your smartphone, or stream music from your smartphone to your DAC. Or even act as a DLNA client in a networked system. All that changes is your Mojo+Poly gets a little bit longer and heavier. Installation is performed via Chord’s GoFigure app.
When we tested the Mojo+Poly (please don’t call it the ‘Mojopoly’), the GoFigure app was still in late Beta, but even then its benefits were clear. The Mojo remains unchanged in its performance, but our reviewer suggested that “You will use a MicroSD card, and you will fill it with high-res files, and you will wonder how you ever listened to music on the move without the Poly.” He concluded that, “There are few ‘done deals’ in audio, but the Chord Mojo+Poly is just that. Once you begin to get just why the Poly is so useful, the excellent Mojo becomes almost redundant without its partner. Poly is Starsky to Mojo’s Hutch, Wallace to Mojo’s Gromit, Woody to Mojo’s Buzz Lightyear.”
Reviewed in Issue 156
Portable Digital Audio Player of the Year: FiiO X7 MkII
In its ten short years in existence, FiiO has become one of the dominant forces in the rise of the Digital Audio Player, thanks to a range of affordable and flexible devices to suit almost every pocket. Literally. However, out of all of FiiO’s vast range, the X7 MkII is, we feel, the best combination of price and performance you can buy from the brand.
Based on an Android 5.1 platform, the full-featured X7 MkII’s DAC section is based on an eight-channel ESS ES9028PRO DAC device, backed by a trio of precision crystal oscillators (one for DSD/44.1kHz multiples, one for 48kHz multiples, and one for 384kHz sample rates). The DAC can handle PCM files to 32-bit/384kHz rates, DXD files at 352.8kHz rates, and (native) DSD files up to DSD128. Storage features include 2GB of RAM, 64GB of ROM, and two Micro SD card slots. Connectivity includes a 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi interface and an aptX Bluetooth 4.2 interface, plus a USB port (used for charging and data transfers).
We thought the X7 MkII, “offered up low-frequency traction, depth, and impact, plus a degree of natural organic warmth, while also delivering smooth yet highly revealing mids and highs. There were textural and transient details and nuances aplenty, yet the FiiO never sounded hard, etched, or overwrought. The player also had sufficient power to drive full-size planar magnetic headphones, yet was quiet enough to work well with high-sensitivity earphones.” In other words, all you need.