STEREOMOJO SPECIAL REPORT
FT. LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA
Stereomojo knows that there is a huge galaxy of people who are just as knowledgeable and passionate about headphone listening as those who only listen via conventional speakers. We enthusiastically review headphones, cables and dedicated headphone amplifiers. How many publications feature a pair of headphones in their logo?! We also take every opportunity to travel to various headphone meets and shows to report to our readers about new products and to learn more about this important hobby ourselves.
This year, the International Headfi meet, affectionately dubbed "CanJam 2008", was held in sunny Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Hundreds of men and women came from all over the world to see the newest headphone gear and meet the people who make it. And to paaartay!
There were a lot of new and very innovative products at the show, so let's get to it!
This is Tyll Hertsens, CEO of Headroom. He's not showing his surfing technique - if you look under his right foot you will see what is actually a speaker stand - the same as pictured below underneath those Harbeth speakers. He was illustrating how strong they are and also how heavy - good for reducing speaker resonance.
The stands are part of his new desktop listening solution. "It's for people who want something better than the cheap plastic stuff everybody else sells for desktop computing. This is a serious audiophile system for those who want real music while they are working", he told me.
The system includes two mini-sized Class D power amps which fit into the right stand and a power supply dedicated preamp on the left. Since Headroom is famous for portable headphone amps, I asked Tyll if an owner could pull out one of the units and use it as a portable. "Not in this
configuration, but there are plenty of options if someone wants to go that way". That's true - Tyll had a whole room full of different Headroom products all designed for portable listening and more.
To me, the interesting thing about the setup was that it introduces audiophiles to joys of nearfield listening. The speakers may be close to your face, but the music is not "in your face". The speakers disappear leaving you with a deep and wide soundfield behind them that has to be heard by any serious audiophile or music lover. It's very different than the far field experience most know. For about $5,000, the Biamp System shown includes everything you need to plug and play high end audio at your desk - except the computer.
Vinnie "Testa" Rossi unveiled his new and much anticipated Isabella preamp that incorporates two 6922 tubes into his SLA battery powered design. THere are three inputs via RCA and two outputs. It comes with remote control. A built-in DAC is optional. What it does not have is a headphone jack. That's ok though, some headfiers actually do listen to regular speakers. The price is $4000 for the Isabella, $5,500 with the DAC.
On the right is Jack Wu who runs Woo Audio. On the left is his father who does the design work.
Woo makes some of the best looking headphone components on the planet, including the breathtaking WA5 that uses two chassis to make music. It was our Headphone amp of the Year for 2007. Our full review of the $3,5000 pre by two different reviewers will be published soon.
The Wu's also make several other headphone products including the new WA 6 (left), which at only $570 is actually a lesser design than the 5. "We name them chronologically - when we come up with the designs - rather than which one is the top model and so on", said Jack who is the second model in the Wu (not tang) clan. The "6" includes one 5AR4 rectifier tube and two 6DE7 drive/power tubes which means there are no semi-conductors in the entire circuitry. A high or low headphone impedance switch lets you plug in everything from Grado's to Senn's - as long as it's not balanced.
Woo was also showing a WA5 Lite (LE) model which is essentially the same as the WA5 without the K1000 and speakers circuitry for $2,400."
If you're looking for an amp for your Stax or Senn electrostatic phones, they have that too, in the form of the GES for $1,450.
Here was a surprise. Klipsch is not a name associated with headphones though they've been making speakers for upteen years. So how did they get into the cans biz? "I was designing speakers when one day there was a knock on my office door and I was told they wanted me to head up a new project; in-ear headphones", said Mark Blanchard, pictured left. The result was a line consisting of 5 models from $129 to $349.
The $349 "Image" model is claimed to be "The World's Smallest High Performance Earphone". The "Custom" range starts at $129 with a full range drive and adds features such as better drivers and more of them - seperate woofers & tweeters in the Custom 3.
Debuting at the show was the new Image X5, a lesser version of the $349 Image for $249.
Across the aisle, Sennheiser's Eric Alone was the new MX 1 wireless in-ear's. They look like the Blue Tooth devices you might use for your cell phone, but they are not Blue Tooth and they are audiophile quality earphones. The new KLEER technology eliminates Blue Tooth's lack of speed and bandwidth to produce hi-end sound. It operates at 2.4 GHz and transmits with no compression. Retail is $599, "but the street price is more like $500", said Eric.
There has been a lot of rumors about a new Senn statement headphone, so I pressed Eric for some info. His official statement?
"The HD700 does not exist".
NEW STAX ULTRA HIGH END $10,0000 ELECTROSTATS FOR KIDS!
Well, okay, it's a little late for April Fools jokes, but when we were in the Todd the Vinyl Junkie room and amp designer Pete Millett showed me the phones he'd picked up in the hotel gift shop, the one liners stared pouring out. So I stuck them in front of the empty Stax display and took some pictures for fun. I told Pete I would publish them as the Stax new kids phone. Then there was a tap on my shoulder and a guy introduced himself to me as the Stax US rep. He was not smiling. I was mortified.
Turns out the joke was on me as he thought it was pretty funny, too and gave me permission to go with it.
In fact, the empty can holder was the pedestal for the new flagship SR-007 MK2. The new product features improvements to the connecting area between the unit and the cable and achieves further improvements in transmission capacity and reliability. The mechanism unique to the SR-007 series whereby the enclosure and the ear pads rotate independently of one another makes it possible to achieve a positioning that exactly fits the ear shape of each individual listener. The pads are now real sheepskin. And they come with that spiffy James Bond case as well.
Sitting next to the007's was an elegant looking amp that uses tubes for juice.
When I asked the price of the combo, the rep said $4,200. Since I knew the older models were $3,000 each for phones and amp, I replied that I assumed that was $4,200 for each."Nope, that's for the pair".
Excellent! We will also be getting this set for review so stay tuned!
I had also heard rumors of a new STAX top-o-the-line model. When I asked about that, I got a sly smile in return. "Well, I know they're working on something".
When I pressed a little more, he said I could say that a new model was indeed "rumored". So...that's not a flat out Sennheiser style denial, so maybe...
Speaking of TTVJ, Todd was showing his hybrid tube/ss phono preamp. Yes, that's pho-noh, not headphone. This goes with your turntable. You do have a turntable, right?
From the "Hey man, them's too big to fit on my head" files, these are self-powered speakers from Genesis. Well, the bottom end is self powered, you still need something like the pictured Cary monoblocks to power them. So what's the deal, you ask? Big speakers at a headphone meet are as rare as re-sealable condom wrappers, you say? Well, this crazy guy named Oswaldo Martinez had the temerity to actually open a new hi-end audio store in nearby Plantation, Florida. A new brick and mortar audio store when those that have been open for years are dropping faster than the US dollar? And, he carries TUBE amps? In Florida? I've lived in Florida for about 30 years and I know tube amps are a hard sell here. It's all about the heat, you see. Martinez's place is called "Let There Be Sound". If you're in or near Plantation Florida, stop by. I plan to.
Here's something different.
It's called the Clari-fi from Intunition and its purpose is to help clarify playback of mp3's and take away some of the graininess and digititus associated with them. Neil Schwartz explained that it uses a special progressive, totally passive circuit to filter and process the sound. I listened to several cuts and found that it works well on some things and not as well on others. I thought the lower the bit rate of the mp3, the better it worked. Neil agreed with my findings. If you have a bunch of 128 mp3's on your Ipod, this could be just the thing for $40 to help bring them to life.
While most headfiers are probably well aware of these things, I admit the quantity and quality of these micro portable headphone amps was a surprise to me. Seemed like they were everywhere. Some even have built-in DACS. The prices are all over the place as well, but the Pico (below on the left) is $329 for the stand alone amp and $499 with the 24/96 USB DAC. How popular are they? A quick check on HeadAmp.com shows almost five hundred pre-orders for the thing in one version or the other. The other company is Go-Vibe but there wasn't much info available.
Ray Samuels offers his version called "The Predator".
Ray told me that the components are mil specs grade with high quality Vishay SMDs, caps by Panasonic. "They are amazingly quiet with a very low noise floor", he said.
The Predator has a 3 position gain switch; One, Four & Eleven, making them able to drive anything save 'stats or balanced phones.
The USB/Source switch selects between a mini input and the USB input. When the amp is used with an external source, the USB circuitry is completely disconnected from that of the amp as if it never exists and no battery power is going through it. "The Predator can play while it is charging, with no loss of sound quality", Ray continued. "You can charge is for a couple of hours and play it all day with the Li-On battery. It's very efficient".
The Predator is priced at $475.00 plus shipping. Ray has three other ultra-portable models that vary in features and cost less. I did get to audition the Predator - kind of. The floor noise of the show rather negated the noise floor of the Predator - the room was pretty crowded and Tyrion was handing out door prizes. Still, from what I could hear, the sound was very impressive for such a miniscule device.
Rudi Stor is one of my favorite headfi guys. Classy guy who makes excellent headphone products at reasonable prices. Talking to him about his products, it's easy to see the pride he takes in his work.
Take the new upgrade RudiStor RP5.3 "Tridens". It's a hybrid design that uses three double triode ECC82/12AU7 tubes for the pre section to give you that glowing, 3Dvalve sound while the output is pure Class A Solid State with no negative feedback. "There is no transformer in the circuit", smiled Rudi."The frequency response is almost perfect flat from 2 Hz all the way up to 50KHz. I use only silver cables inside", at which point he insisted on taking the top off so I could see the internal quality and detail.
The output impedance is 16-600 Ohms while gain is 8-12 db.
A lot of technology and quality for $1,300.
The NX-33, also $1,3000, is an super high quality Class A, all Solid State design that has a fully balanced section with stereo XLR connects, as well as the standard quarter-inch jack.
The RPX-33 goes up to $1,8000 and adds a dual mono design.
The $900 RudiStor NX-03T is completely linear from DC to 100KHz, and the damping factor is so high that it can drive small speakers. No capacitors or global negative feedback are used on the signal path. The amplifier uses OP Amps as signal amplifiers and bias voltage servo actuator with a very short signal path.
The current output devices are Darlington Bipolar transistor assisted by a solid state constant current generator.
STEREOMOJO PRESENTS THE
BEST OF SHOW
The first award goes not to a product, but to a person. Mike Baker, a.k.a "Tyrion" on Headfi, is an ardent headphones guru who somehow manages to also be an attorney in Florida. Mike almost singlehandedly put together and organized this event. I can't imagine how many hours he booked finding the venue, working with hotel people and caterers, talking to all the vendors and organizing each table and room. There is so much to do, co-ordinate and juggle. And the work doesn't stop when the show starts. There is always some little detail or snafu that needs attending to which kept him running throughout the show. Kudos and thanks to Tyrion for his heroic efforts.
- MOST INNOVATIVE NEW PRODUCT -
Here's a quick quiz for you; Who invented this?
Answer: His name is Dr. Stephen Smyth Ph.D
He actually wrote the code for the theatrical as well as consumer DTS. What's that got to do with headphones and CanJam?
He was there! Steve has started his own company called Smyth Research. The name is not very innovative, but his product is. Introducing the Smyth SVS system.
This unimposing box houses some extreme technology and a breakthrough in surround sound listening via headphones. It is not some gimmicky manipulation of phase to simulate 5.1 surround, it is a totally new concept and process, and I can tell you, it works.
When I walked in the room, there was a conventional small home theater setup with small surround speakers and a flat screen TV. Steve invited me to sit down in the centered chair where he proceeded to stick a couple of what I assumed to be earbuds in my ears. But they are the opposite of headphones - they are tiny microphones! Frankly, I was blown away just learning that such microscopic omni-directional microphones even existed.
He explained that I was going to hear a series of surround test tones for which I was first to look straight ahead, then at the left speaker, then the right. The device actually measures what your ears - and only your ears - hear in your specific listening environment. And it measures the room, too, as your ears perceive it. From three different angles! In other words, this is a highly personalized process. All people hear differently and all playback/speaker systems produce sound differently in different rooms.
Why are measurements taken looking straight ahead and at each speaker? Because, friends, the system includes a tracking device that detects when your head turns, even a little bit, and adjusts the balance in the surround field to reflect where you are looking! When your eyes focus on that explosion on the left side of the screen, so do your ears.
When the measurements were complete, the ear mics were replaced with a pair of headphones - the kind and style matter not to the system - that had a small transmitter attached to the top which sends signals to the receiver atop the flatscreen. It reads your head position 20 times per second.
This is important to understand; This process is not about some trick happening within the headphone itself, it's about the processed signal being sent to the cans. That's why any headphone can be used. Of course, the better the phones, the better the sound. Steve was using a pair of Stax for the demo.
Once my personal recordings were registered, Steve selected a scene from "The Bourne Supremacy", a car chase using, of course, the DTS surround version. Now, I have heard many surround systems and device, including those by Nakamichi and others that simulate surround sound from a single speaker, or even things like QSound that simulate surround from a pair of stereo speakers. Of course, Ultasone headphones have a simulated process called S-Logic. Well, what I heard sounded nothing like any of those. In fact, it did not sound like a simulation at all. There was real air, space and room ambience that told me I was not listening to headphones at all. And when I turned my head, the sound tracked with me perfectly. in fact, the little green LED's on the TV receptor lights up to indicate the angle left vs. right.
Nothing sounded artificial or frequency response limited. There was only one thing that sounded a bit contrived. "Steve", I mentioned, "I was expecting the center channel to sound like it was coming from in front of me in the vicinity of the TV screen. But I'm hearing it inside me head".
"That's because we didn't take time to measure the center channel", countered Steve. If we had put a speaker in front of the TV, not above or below like typical installations that skew the sound, you would have heard the dialogue coming directly from the TV image. We can actually do even more, multiple measurements to further refine the sound. We are just limited by time at the show so we can get as many people to hear the concept as possible." Indeed, there were many people waiting for their demo.
Then Steve threw something even more intriguing at me. "Suppose you have a crappy system and a crappy room. If the dealer where you buy this had a great room and a great setup, an owner could go into that room and have his measurements taken there. The dealer could transfer that personalized data and dump it to a small memory card. The owner could take that card home and load it into his processor and then he would hear his movies and concerts exactly as it sounded in that $250,000 room and system".
Now that is pretty incredible. Imagine if there was a processor that made your cheesy Ipod earbuds sound exactly like a pair of Stax electrostats! Great googly-moogly!
Price? About $3,000 which includes everything you need to get up and running - including Stax's entry level phones and a headphone amp.
- MOST INNOVATIVE NEW IN-EAR PHONE -
Mark Krywko has been in the hearing aid business for many years, so he knows something about hearing and in-ear devices. Now he has started a new company dubbed Sleek Audio. His first product is billed as the first in-ear phone that has an adjustable frequency response.
It is not accomplished by some kind of electronic EQ, but rather tiny plug-ins that acoustically boost or reduce bass and/or treble by different levels of decibels.
For me however, his in-ear phone was the first that has ever even worked for me. I have spent a couple of frustrating (and rather embarrassing) hours at various audio shows with reps from Shure and Sennheiser among others, just trying to get a proper fit and seal so that the sound does not resemble a bad AM radio. I was sure that the world of in-ear devices was forever closed for me. When he offered a demo of his product, I told him my experiences. That's when he told me about his hearing aid business and encouraged me to try his. He took a quick look at my ear canal and fitted a seal to his phones and - surprise - I heard real music!
I told him that there was a bit too much bass, so he removed a small black piece of plastic and replaced it with a different one from a pack labeled
"-6 db". I listened again and the bass was reduced to a more liveable level. Pretty cool! He showed me other little plastic bags that were labeled with several different plus or minus variables for both treble and bass.These things really were tuneable!
"The shape of the ear canal varies from person to person. The length and diameter of the ear canal changes the acoustics of the sound environment. For the same reason a bell rings at a certain tone based on its size and shape, the ear canal can increase or resonate certain tones more than others. This is why some people hear a tone as light and shimmery while others hear it as tinny and harsh. The only solution is to make an earphone that is tuneable to every individual's ear ear canal". Makes sense to me.
The price is a pretty reasonable $249 that includes multipack ear tips, tip cleaner, treble & bass tuning ports and carrying case. He also pointed out that the cables were free-turning as well so you can put them behind your ears or wear them however works for you. They are easily replaceable too, so you don't have to scrap the whole earphone if the cable dies. He also said he had talked to other custom cable makers and they are very interested in making upscale cables for his designs.
As I was about to leave, he pointed to three artificial ears with plugs in them. He said he will also fit his product to a custom ear form if you supply him with one from and audiologist. He said it normally costs about $50 to get a custom for made, so you can have a totally custom pair of phones for about $300 or so.
2008 BEST SOUND AT SHOW
Pete Millett is and Electrical Engineer who has a passion for great audio sound, tubes and headphones. He got together with Todd Green, a.k.a. Todd the Vinyl Junkie to bring to market a no-holds-barred headphone amplifier named the TTVJ Millett 307A.
The good news is that it might just be the best sounding dedicated headphone amp on the planet. The bad news is that at
$5,995 it ain't cheap. But hey, neither is a Mercedes SL500 AMG or a Ferrari.
The "307A" designation comes from the 307A triode, direct heated tubes Pete uses in the output section. "These were made in about 1940", said Peter. "They're older than I am", I replied.
The input stage employs a 7N7 tube. Pete chose those because very high-quality, old-stock tubes are available that he believes outperform any modern 6SN7 tubes.
The amp will power any phone on the planet, whether hi or low impedance, dual or single-lead balanced, or standard quarter-inch unbalanced. There is even a special setting for sensitive IEM's. Other than that, the circuitry is very simple and the signal path very short.
But why so expensive, Pete? "First of all, it's all hand built by me. One at a time. It takes about 20 hours to build one. The transformers are all hand wound to tight tolerances and those are very expensive. I did everything humanly possible to make it as quiet as possible".
The proof, as always, is in the listening. Donning a pair of Beyer DT880's sitting nearby (and not one of my favoirte phones), the sound was startleling quiet. The soundstage sounded as "unphone like" as I have ever heard. Huge. Wide and deep. It reminded me of the first time I heard a pair of K1000's. I came back a second time with a borrowed pair of K's and that just gave me chillbumps. If I didn't have to check out of the hotel about then, I might still be there. The sound is so enticing and seductive.
Congratulations to Todd and Pete for bringing this wonderful product to life.
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