This is a continuation of a report on the Can Jam International Head-Fi Meet held on June 5-6, 2010 in Chicago, IL. I attended Can Jam as a representative of Playback and of The Absolute Sound and at the event was able to see and hear some of the most ambitious and musically satisfying headphone/desktop audio gear on the planet.
In Part 1 of my report (click here to read) I offered some thoughts on Can Jam itself and on headphone based music systems, and then began describing some of the products seen and heard. Here, I’ll take up where I left off and offer more coverage of cool gear seen at the event.
As always, let me offer an apology in advance to any manufacturers I inadvertently may have overlooked. Manufacturers/vendors are discussed in alphabetical order.
Products Seen and Heard at Can Jam 2010—Part 2
Hailing from Austin, TX (as does Playback, by the way), Cavalli Audio offers a fascinating range of products, some targeted toward DIY enthusiasts looking to build their own headphone amps, and others offered as fully finished components. At Can Jam, Cavalli showed two prototype electrostatic headphone amplifiers (i.e., amps geared specifically for driving electrostatic headphones): the tube-powered eXStatA and a hybrid MOSFET-powered amp that, as I recall, didn’t have a formal name but could perhaps be called the “eXStatA Hybrid.” Both could potentially be offered later this year as circuit boards that the DIY crowd could use as platforms for future products. Completing the picture was the gorgeous Cavalli Liquid Fire tube-powered headphone amp, which was being used to power the AudeZ’E planar magnetic headphone demo nearby (covered in Part 1 of this report). It’s been said (by my friend and colleague Jonathan Valin at The Absolute Sound) that there can be a dichotomy between audio components that emphasize truth vs. those that emphasize beauty. Well, Cavalli’s Liquid Fire is plenty truthful, but at heart it’s all about beauty—sonic beauty of the kind that makes you want to forget everything but the music and to sit and listen for hours on end with a satisfied grin on your face.
If you looked up a Wikipedia entry for “truly clever, convenient, and well-executed headphone gear,” you might find a picture of some of Centrance’s products there. Centrance’s display focused on two products—one a current model called the DAC Port, and the other a future model called the DAC Mini (which rhymes, quite deliberately, with MAC Mini). Here’s the deal: the DAC Port ($399.95) is an in-line, USB-powered, 96kHZ/24-bit USB DAC and Class A headphone amplifier—all in a package about the size and shape of a large-ish, milled-from-billet, aluminum cigar. Cool. About now, though, you might be thinking, “surely a USB jack can’t provide enough power to drive a serious headphone amp.” That’s what I thought, too, until the Centrance folks (who turn out to have expertise at crafting small but potent power supplies that can do what seems impossible) demonstrated the DAC Port pushing a pair of notoriously hard-to-drive Beyerdynamic DT880 headphones (and set of T1 Teslas, too!). Now I’m a believer.
The DAC Mini, in turn, is a 96/24 DAC with USB, coax, Toslink inputs, plus headphone amp with DAC and line-level RCA inputs and fixed-level RCA outputs. The DAC Mini’s physical form factor exactly mirrors the size/shape of Apples popular MAC Mini, which many enthusiasts are using as their music server of choice. Pricing isn’t finalized yet, but should be “around $850.”
Cypher Labs is both a manufacturer and a digital audio “think tank” of sorts, so it should come as no surprise that the firm not only offers a Cypher-badged product, but also lends its technical know-how to projects for other firms. At Can Jam, Cypher was previewing its AlgoRhythm Solo ($579), a product that combines the functions of a digital—not analog—iPod interface and an asynchronous USB DAC in one neat package. As shown at Can Jam, the AlgoRhythm Solo was paired with an ALO Audio Rx Prescription portable headphone amp (covered in Part 1 of this report), and producing great sound.
ECP Audio focuses on developing what might be termed “high purity” headphone amps and DACs, and to this end the firm believes in using transformer coupling in both its tube powered and solid-state designs, while avoiding having capacitors in the audio signal path wherever possible. At Can Jam, ECP showed prototypes for three future products that should be released around the time of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, later this year. Future products included the tube powered L’espressivo* headphone amp (~$1600-$2500, to be offered with three possible grades of parts, a MOSFET hybrid headphone amp that could conceivably be called the Hybrid L’esspressivo (~$1600), and the high performance ECP DAC ($1000).
Interestingly, the Hybrid L’espressivo is a CCS-loaded MOSFET-powered headphone amplifier with transformer-coupled output and input stages. The ECP DAC, in turn, uses Wolfson voltage-out DAC devices and features transformer-coupled outputs. ECP has also been teaming with Beezar (covered in Part 1 of this report) to create a cost-reduced, kit-version of the tube-powered L’espressivo amp.
* L’espressivo is just a working title for now, so that the product’s name may change before it reaches production.
As the firm’s name suggest, Head Amp is all about developing high-quality headphone amplifiers. At Can Jam, Head Amp showed the beautiful, two-chassis Blue Hawaii SE electrostatic headphone amp ($5000), which is Head Amp’s rendition of a well-regarded Kevin Gilmore design, the GS-1 preamp/headphone amp, the Pico Slim headphone amp ($349), the Pico DAC 96/24 upsampling USB DAC ($349), and the Pico DAC/amp ($499), which essentially combines the functions of the Pico Slim and Pico DAC in one chassis.
As many of you already know, Head Room is both a manufacturer and an extremely well regarded distributor of a diverse range of headphones and headphone-related products. But if you mostly know of Head Room through its portable headphone amps and DACs (e.g., the familiar Total AirHead and Total BitHead), which are quite fine products in their own right, then you may not realize how very serious Head Room’s more upscale desktop audio components have become. Most if not all Head Room products were on display at Can Jam, but the ones that really caught my attention (and that of many other attendees) were the Ultra-series components, including: the Ultra Balanced Desktop Amp ($1699), the Ultra Desktop Amp ($1599), and the Ultra Desktop DAC ($1299). Two other closely related, but non-Ultra-series, components were the Desktop Power Supply ($499), and the Desktop Amp/DAC ($799).
An important tip for value-minded listeners: a Head Room spokesperson advised that listeners seeking the maximum possible “bang for the buck” would do well to consider the Desktop Amp/DAC, since it leverages much of the technical know-how from its higher-end Ultra-series brethren, while combining amp and DAC functions in a compact, cost-effective package.
Hearing Components/Comply Foam Tips
Hearing Components is a spin-off from the giant 3M Company, and it holds core patents involving use of compliant foam materials for use as eartips for in-ear headphones. Hearing Components offer a range of Comply Foam Tips to fit almost all popular models of universal fit in-ear headphones. Models include the T100, T400, and T500 eartips (three pairs for $14,95) and the TX100, TX400, and TX500 eartips (three pairs for $19.95). The only difference between the T and TX models is that the TX tips provide thin, acoustically transparent Wax Guard screens the prevent ear wax from clogging the earpieces of your headphones. I tried out a set of the TX tips on a pair of Monster Cable Miles Davis Tribute in-ear headphones, and found the results impressive, both in terms of sound quality and wearer comfort.
Headed by personal audio/headphone enthusiast Fang Bian, HiFiMAN builds a remarkably diverse array of headphones and headphone related products, which are sold in the U.S. through Head-Direct. At Can Jam, HiFiMAN previewed its upcoming new flagship HF6 planar magnetic headphones (~$1000) and demonstrated its current high performance HF5-LE planar magnetic headphones, ($699), which several Can Jam exhibitors were using as reference headphones. I am currently working on a review of the HF5-LE for Playback and can attest to the fact that it is a serious top-tier contender, offering sonic qualities of timbral purity and overall lucidity that just won’t quit.
For in-ear headphone enthusiasts, HiFiMAN showed three models: the flagship RE-262 (~$170), the RE-ZERO ($100), and the upcoming RE-242 (~$70). The RE-242, which sounded extremely good for the money by the way, offered an interesting design touch that I hope catches on in a broader way. The cable strain reliefs for the RE-242 are flexible, which isn’t unusual, but once flexed the strain reliefs will whatever position you bend them into, which can greatly improve wearer comfort and makes it easier to obtain a good fit.
On the personal audio front, HiFiMAN also unveiled two new high-end oriented portable digital music player/DACs—the HM-801 ($790) and HM-602 ($350). The new HM-801 is said to be the first product on the market to handle high-res 96/24 FLAC digital audio files, and also provides an SD cardslot for storage plus a user-accessible amplifier bay that can accommodate the listener’s choice of high or lo-gain amplifier modules.
The “JH” in JH Audio stands for Jerry Harvey, who was originally the founder of Ultimate Ears. Now that Logitech has acquired Ultimate Ears, Harvey has gone on to launch JH Audio where he has developed an ambitious line of custom-fitted in-ear monitors. At Can Jam, JH Audio’s demonstration focused primarily on the firm’s top two models: the five-driver/3-way JH 13 Pro ($1099) and the eight-driver/3-way, triple bore JH 16 Pro ($1149). The JH 16 Pro is offered purely as a custom-fit model, but for Can Jam JH had rigged up a pair to use universal-style eartips so that event attendees could try them out. I took a turn with the JH 16 Pros and found their sound very, very promising (I can only imagine what they might be like with properly fitted custom earpieces).
In a more forward-looking vein, JH Audio was previewing a new, even higher performance variation on the JH 13 Pro and JH 16 Pro themes where the in-ear monitors’ passive 3-way crossover networks will replaced by—get this—a new JH-3A outboard, DSP-controlled active crossover/tri-amplifier module (co-developed with Cypher Labs and ALO Audio). I briefly heard a very impressive demo of the system, shook my head in disbelief, and walked away—much like the Howard Hughes character in the Martin Scorsese film Aviator—repeating the phrase, “the way of the future, the way of the future…”
Though perhaps best known for its high-end, studio grade DACs, Lavry Audio also builds products that will appeal to enthusiast consumers, too. One such component is the very sophisticated DA11 DAC/headphone amp whose 96/24 DAC can accept digital audio files with data rates up to 192/24, but deliberately downsamples them to 96/24 for reasons best explained by a Lavry white paper. The DA11 provides USB, Coax, Toslink and AES inputs and balanced XLR outputs. Interestingly, the DA-11 also provides independent left/right “stereo width” adjustment controls that allow fine-tuning balance settings to perfection. Based on a brief listen, I’d say that fans of musical subtlety and of deep “inner details” might find the DA11 much to their liking.
At Can Jam, industry giant Monster Cable was highlighting several models drawn from its broad (and growing) range of headphone products—most notably the flagship Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition in-ear headphones ($399) and the new Beats by Dre Solo HD full-size headphones ($199). I recently reviewed the Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones in Playback and found them extremely impressive in their overall accuracy (though perhaps a little too revealing for some tastes); click here to read the Playback review. I sampled the new Solo HD’s and felt, on the basis of a brief listen, that they just might be the most accurate and natural-sound Beats by Dre models yet released (a point on which at least one of the Monster Cable staffers present concurred).
Moon Audio is both a manufacturer and an importer/distributor of a broad range of headphone-related products. At Can Jam, Moon showed its deceptively simple-looking Silver Dragon and Blue Dragon iPod-to-headphone-amplifier interconnect cables. The trick with both these cables, said a Moon spokesperson, is that they bypass the iPod’s OK-but-not-great analog amplifier stage, effectively delivering a purer analog signal the Moon likened to the line-level outputs of a CD player. The Silver Dragon cable ($65/6-inch) features silver conductors, while the Blue Dragon cable ($55/6-inch) features high purity copper conductors. Also on display was Moon’s Dragon Series v.1 headphone, which is essentially a tricked-out and customized Beyerdynamic DT880 that incorporates 10-foot Moon Audio signal cables.
Music Hall is perhaps best known as an importer/distributor of high-end audio components from the U.K. and from China, but it also offers an extensive range of turntables and electronics offered under the Music Hall name. On display at Can Jam were the Music Hall DAC 25.2 ($595, with USB, coax, and AES inputs) and the Music Hall PH 25.2 headphone amplifier ($395). Both components were shown as part of the Moon Audio exhibit.
Watch for more manufacturer and product coverage in Can Jam 2010—Part 3.