In our tiny room (and it was really small, and hot, but we loved it) we had so many amps and headphones at one point the entire table was completely covered in cables, amps and everything. The photos were taken after we'd given everything back and cleaned up. While the floors were reasonably quiet (Japanese people are not noisy) it wasn't good for getting impressions of equipment, even IEMs sometimes. However, we incredibly grateful to have a reasonably quiet room to sit and listen and it helped a lot.
Unfortunately a bunch of my impressions of equipment was useless as I found out after I got back to my hotel room that my DX100 at some point during the day had started distorting, as both through the headphones and digital out the sound was very off with instruments sounding like they'd been badly re-sampled.
The rig in our room, for those interested, was:
Digital transport (mine, used for the DACs):
MacBook Pro with Amarra (latest version) - Vaunix USB Lab-grade hub - Audiophilleo 1.
Optionally: A Van Den Hul Optocoupler from our DX100s or the like.
DACs: Metrum Octave, Yamamoto DAC, Benchmark DAC Pre.
The rest: Stax SR-727 - SR-009
Final Audio design. (At their table)
I'd been wanting for a while to try their vase-shaped metal IEMs to see what they were like. The weird chamber design definitely had something going for it, not having the odd faults of IEMs that I'm used to. However, the frequency response was totally off. When I told them this, they explained that they were voiced by the owner of FAD to emulate the sound of an old movie theatre and weren't intended as flagship models in the manner that other companies make. This was to fill an unusual niche and not intended to be generally liked. That took me by surprise, but explained much. The same will go for the Muramasa -- it will be for a particular kind of person and not everyone.
However, of their IEMs, the Heaven IV and Adagio V are (and I say this cautiously not being as experienced with IEMs as many of the other members) quite good. Considering the compromise IEMs are, I tend to like the least offensive sounding pairs. By that, I mean ones that don't have the common faults of dead-sounding percussion (almost all dynamics) or stupid frequency response curves with insanely peaky treble or boomy bass (many of the new dynamics). At least from the DX100 those two were appreciable. They insisted I try their $50 IEM that has a plastic body and looks like a jet engine. It certainly pumped out bass like a jet pumps out air. That is as much as I need to say I think!
Edit: They gave me a pair of Adagio V after I gave them my serious opinion on the range. The stock tips have the usual fault of being a long rubber tube that adds distortion. Trying them without the tips suggested that there is possibly good sound to be had with different ones. Might be worth investigating.
Sony (in our room)
This is the first chance I had to try the MA900s in a quiet environment for some time. Having our own room at the show gave us the perfect chance. If you've heard the ageing SA series or the F1, you'll guess why it has a 70mm driver. BASS! These are a good take on Sony's very open angled-driver style and the bass is very punchy (short decay) and the overall FR seemed too work well with most music I had. I didn't give them a comprehensive run, but my main negative impression would be a little harshness in the treble at louder volumes, though this is more because I'm used to the treble in Stax headphones and probably wouldn't be noticed by the people this headphone is aimed at.
The main criticism of them seems to be that they feel flimsy but I was assured that the materials used aren't cheap, and while the unusual rubber-tube-around-metal method of holding the headband adjustment feels cheap, it is novel and the result is a very light and comfortable pair of headphones. For someone sitting at home listening at moderate volumes who doesn't need to use them as a portable I'd say they hit the spot at their price point of around $200. I think I would have liked these as a first pair of headphones when I came to Head-Fi back in 2007 to get a pair to replace my MB Quarts.
For the kids who blast their ears out with their iPods on the bus, it's the M80s with the safer shelved-down treble. For dad who wants to listen at home it's the MA900s. Mum probably wont like the all-black design.
We were encouraged to try the 7520s, which are pure recording studio 'phones. To audiophiles, the sound is forward and "in your head", but for recording engineers, it presents the mix cleanly, with a very clear image of the musicians' positions on the stage and are as effectively close to flat as possible. Since Mokobigbro, who owns his own recording studio, was with us, he confirmed their capabilities with positive comments. For me, it was interesting to get the perspectives of people who make music, as their priorities are quite different to mine.
I'd like to thank Nao Tsunoda from Sony for coming to chat and hang out with us and bring us headphones to try.
Ultrasone (in our room and at e-earphone)
I have a shock announcement. But first, some background. I've owned their Edition 9s, twice; the ED8s and tried the ED10s. They were all awful. The ED9s were the best, after they were fixed with better damping and I can't stand either the ED8s or the ED10s. I suspect that, unlike some people, the S-Logic system just doesn't do it for me. There has always been hope in the back of my mind that they'd make a good pair of headphones without all the unnecessary bling and a better focus on all-round sound quality. So, I was completely shocked when I tried the Signature Pros and they actually sounded good. I could be going insane, but everyone else agreed. There was even talk of buying a pair from some people. Yes, totally unbelievable.
Thanks to Timelord for lending us a pair to play with for a few hours.
ALO and the high-end portable shoot-out. (In our room)
Special thanks to Ken here for bringing our t-shirts out with him, despite also bringing his family with him. He kindly lent one of his only three RX3s for display and a bunch of cables to us for a couple of hours. I regret I didn't get a chance to do a proper shootout as we had the L3 and RSA amps there. It was hard to pry them out of people's fingers! So we didn't get a "winner" but I did feel the balanced amps gave a wider (and possibly slightly cleaner) presentation than the L3. The L3 is very source picky, which is its downfall too. I didn't feel they were going to replace a $1k+ balanced desktop amp anytime soon, but I did feel they do a very good job with headphones all round and I wouldn't think someone crazy for using one (or the L3 actually, especially as it works much better with regular DACs) as their main amp for full-size headphones.
It was also hard to focus on comparing my DX100 to the CLAS, with too many cables to switch to be able to do it reasonably quickly. Not to mention I had to have the same tracks ready on both my iPhone and the DX100. I do think the DX100 sounds a bit better than the HP-P1 and CLAS as sources. However, there is a big synergy thing in all this, as I still very much like my HP-P1 + L3 combo (more than the DX100 + L3) and, likewise, the CLAS/RX3 combo sounds very good too. Those combinations are better than the DX100 or HP-P1 by themselves in my opinion.
Thanks for lending us a Dacport to try. Unfortunately my computer was tied up the whole time with our Stax rig so I didn't get a chance to try it. It has been on my list of devices to try for such a long time.
Speaking of the HP-P1, they don't officially have any newer portable in the pipeline (or they aren't saying), however, going by my conversation with them, they are paying attention. I was lucky enough to meet the designer and speak to him and chat about what I liked and didn't like about the design and discuss what was possible and what wasn't, as well as their goals.
The day before the show we went into e-earphone in Akihabara and I whipped out my.... optical cable to try their new TOTL system using my DX100 as a transport. I quite liked the sound and I think it would be worth a serious audition. However, at $2k for the headphones, they are up against the the Audeze LCD-3s and HD-800s and, not to mention, Stax.
Venturecraft and V-MODA
Now the cat is out of the bag, the VAMP is being made by Venturecraft. The Tokyo guys have started to take a big interest in OPAMP rolling the GO-DAP and the timing couldn't be more appropriate. Val personally selected the ones he liked for the design. I didn't get a chance to try it unfortunately, though I'd been meaning to. What I did notice was their very strong enthusiasm to make not just a good product, but an excellent one, just as Val is. I only tried the M-100s (with their snappy folding design and case) briefly. The best I can say is "full-sized M80s". I'm curious to see if they are more resolving than the M80s as I'm the kind of guy who expects better genuine sound quality when the price goes up.
Thanks to the guys from both companies for hanging out with us during and after the show and shouting us dinner.
Who? This tiny company you've never heard of makes a digital player that can play or up-sample to DSD and DXD, as well as ES9018-based DACs that can play those files back. I couldn't use my own music as I didn't have an SD card to use, but they had some violin music and were using Sony SA3000s (which can play back frequencies well beyond the range of hearing) out of the speaker taps of their own power amps and the result was impressive, along with the prices, which are too. No fancy boxes, just good sound.
They also make high-grade audio equipment power supplies, which was my interest last year.
I've already heard the Take T H2, which are amazing and sound like something between an ortho and a 'stat. They use a unique adjustable super tweeter system which changes the perceived soundstage. However, it was only being demonstrated with a very basic all-in-one audio player as both the source and amp. What I want to see is Fidelix demoing their gear using the H2 headphones. THAT would be fantastic I reckon.
I missed the new models! Sorry. There was a BIG queue to listen to them. Next time.
The big news was their new portable SRM-002 amp. The kit has yet to be numbered, but while they have no isolation, being able to take a 'stat rig with you when travelling will be hard for me to pass up. Unfortunately it was only a non-working unit, but I could see it takes 2 AA batteries and the connector is the same as on the older model.
They had a demo of the new HM-901 on display, but only using the line out, along with 2 non-working mock-ups. Since all the equipment was unfamiliar, along with the music, I don't have any useful impressions to give, other than the layout of the controls was good held in my right hand. It would be easy to operate without looking while it was in your right jacket pocket. I forgot to ask, but the connector on the bottom looks the same as the current iPhone/iPod connector.
I tried the DA-11 at their distributor's table (whom had never heard of Head-Fi!) using my DX100 as a source and I quite liked it. Good all-round sound from the headphone out to my Magnums. Both very clear and very engaging. I'd definitely consider it as a one-box solution and aim to give one a long-term evaluation if I was in the market for such a thing.
More to come, with more pictures as I'm sure I missed someone or something, such as all of Friday and everything else we did those two days.
Thanks to those companies I have yet to write about who took the time to let me try their gear and answer all my tough questions.