Pros: Speed, Detail, high quality bass, instrument seperation
Cons: battery life and factory gain setting
I first caught wind of the 3a about 18 months ago in the cryptic words of the designer Jerry Harvey, telling me that he had something really big on the horizon.
Prior to CanJam Chicago word spread of a very cool innovation that Jerry was going to show at the event. Most that heard the potential of the 3a that day were blown away at the increase in quality over even the already outstanding JH 13 or 16. The concept was to take IEMs and create crossovers and amps that use sound gains made in high end live sound and high end studio monitors. Many audiophiles love single driver speakers because they eliminate the crossover unfortunately they all largely roll off at the extremes. The 3a rips a page out of the book of high end studio monitors like ATC, take the signal and divide it prior to amplification then send just the signal meant for the driver in a multi driver set up. This optimizes the signal for the amp provides a much cleaner signal for the driver.
JH is implementing this via DSP so an analog signal goes into an ADC (analog to digital converter), all signals are then converted to 24/96 and sent to the DSP chip where a digital signal processor applies the correct eq and phase correction.Then the signal is separated into three signals highs, mids and bass and then these three signals are sent to an amp section dedicated to just segment of the frequency. The signals are sent to the earpieces as three separate signals and then to your ears.
Jerry his company and customers went through a very trying time over the past year since he showed the concept. Various design changes and people who joined the project left but Jerry stayed the course along with a dedicated and slightly smaller group of customers. Well 8 months after the original release was it worth it? This customer says absofreakinglutely yes! Although I am not fully certain most headfi readers will fully understand what is going on for the current price of $1800. Given that there are three amps, a DAC, an ADC, a DSP module and the earpieces I'm amazed Jerry was able to come to market at this price. heck a JH16 and average amp from ALO, RSA or Headamp would run you $300 to $500 on top of $1100 or 1200 for the IEMs.
Well with the backstory done here are some of my listening thoughts. I'll be doing this in two parts as I am waiting on a USB to spdif cable to test 24/96 and the spdif input. Part one will focus on the analog in from my iPhone and the USB input sourced by my MacBook pro and using Audirvana software for playback.
To start the amp/DSP/DAC module is very well done there are two inputs a USB in the rear that also serves as a charging input and the mini input in front that serves as an analog in and a digital SPDIF input that will accept up to 24/96 signals. There is a switch marked B/M which is used to turn off the bass adjustment and allows for a mic input for performers ( a larger part of JH clientele). Then we've got a volume and bass knob. The gain is set high and my one suggestion is for the gain to be set lower as I've never listened above 10 o'clock and it might be great to have more volume adjustment at lower levels. That said I've not had a problem finding a comfortable listening level.
I'll be looking at the following areas Treble, Mids and Bass response, speed, overall clarity/detail as well as tone/timbre.
Sonny Rollins , I’m and Old Cowhand from the Way Out West cd. Great detail, the drum into is well done and the bass is deep and defined. Did I say these are fast and dynamic, well when Sonny Rollins who is in the far left channel hits the sax hard you feel it. Overall tone is great and it is a wonderful track for this. I love jazz tracks that have moaning, humming or other vocal sounds that players make almost unaware. There is a great bit of this that is really brought out here.
Rolling Stones, Can’t You Hear Me knocking from Sticky Fingers cd. This track is a bit bass light but if you like you can bring the bass up without overshooting the mids, which is a problem with most iems I have tried. This may be the best separation I have heard from an IEM or headphone. Each instrument is able to be picked out in the mix. The middle section the 3a does a great job tone wise with the right side guitar’s wet tone, mid headstage percussion and sax and then left guitar that comes in later with an even juicier tone.
Next up MIles Davis, All Blues from a KOB
The brush drum work is really clear and in focus here and the cymbal work is very well portrayed. Bass is ok, KOB for me has always had so so bass, it’s there but it is muddy on the recording and not alot for the 3a to do other than show it for what it is. Miles trumpet is very dynamic here. The best thing may be the way the 3a really allows you to openly hear each instrument very clearly. Mids could be a bit warmer but they are not cold just very neutral sounding.
Terrence Blanchard and Dianne Reeves, I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love Me. I got
into this track when a good friend bought a pair of ATCSCM50 Anniversary speakers. This track really blew me away and the 3a portrays both Dianne Reeves’ vocals and Terrence Blanchard’s trumpet just as I recall. The pace on this track is deceptive as its got a bit going on for a ballad type song. The 3a tracks the rhythmic section very well along with presenting the cymbals effortlessly.
Alice in Chains, No Excuses from Jar of Flies.
Holy Cow that intro was crazy tom and bass drum hits are very very physical and definitely is a top three strength for the 3a. If you have a 3a play this track just for the intro ;-).
Led Zeppelin ll I spun Whole Lotta Love, What is and Should Never Be and Ramble On.
Great job separating out Jimmy Pages multiple guitar tracks. It is great to be able to clearly hear the multiple parts he plays here. Tone is spot on guitars and drums sound just right. It is really easy to track John Paul Jones bass lines and hear each note very distinctly.
Treble : 9 (could be a bit hot on hot recordings)
Mids : 9.5
Bass: 10 best bass I have heard in the headphone world and I’ve heard a lot of headphones.
Speed/Dynamics: 10 best in class with out being sharp or hazy sounding.
Clarity/Detail : 10 best in class
Tone/Timbre : 9 to 9.5 depending on input used the analog 9 in is softer sounding and the USB 9.5 is brighter sounding. Neither are bad just marginally different.
Compared to other headphones I have like the LCD2 or the Audio Technica AD2k I believe the JH 3a to be better. The 3a represents the entire frequency range better than either with the AT having better high than the LCD2 but the LCD2 having better bass. Neither appear to go as high or low as clean as the 3a. I do like the presentation on the LCD2s and will miss them now that they are sold. Either of these full sized headphones required a great amp and source to have them compete ( and lose) to the 3a. Given a lesser amp the contest would not have been as close.
Things I’d change would be the gain it is set high and in the future I may have it set lower as it never rises above 10’ oclock. I’d love to see JH offer the SPDIf adapter cables with the amp or as an add on at time of shipping. Other than that I am one happy customer.
So I’d overall give the 3a a 9.5 overall score in round one. Jerry hit a Home Run with this product. Next up in the coming weeks will be impressions with the Halide Bridge USC to SPDIf feeding the 3a. I’ll be able to test how the 3a performs with high res materials.