Once again, it was that time of the year for the bi-annual Tokyo Headphone Festival put on by FUJIYA AVIC and I was lucky enough to attend this ever growing event. It is estimated that about 3,500+ visitors came out, which seemed about right given that it felt more crowded than the last two. And this time it occupied four floors (some partial) of the 'Stadium Aoyama' complex.
As with the previous posts this one isn't so much about listening impressions as it is just a simple feast for the eyes along with some random bits, pieces, and ramblings. This year with the help of Ishizone-san (FUJIYA AVIC) and Sasaki-san (Head-Fi blogger), Head-Fi was able to have a small private room just for quiet listening and meetings with select manufacturers. Otherwise 'critical' equipment evaluation is always difficult under these show circumstances. The Headphone Festival is a great place to see what's new, get a basic idea of how some things sound, and of couse meet people with the same passions including those who actually manufacture and design the equipment.
And that brings me to a quick story before I get into the show itself- one of several sidebars that I will sprinkle throughout this post:
The Big Stack
Both Sennheiser and Denon used this occasion to premiere their HD700 to the public and give a sneak peak of their new, not yet named headphone, respectively. As I was waiting to hear the Senns, I looked over and noticed this portable stack of another attendee:
I asked if I could take a picture of it and he gladly obliged. With my limited Japanese I overheard him say to his friends how a lot of people had been asking to take pictures of his stack. As we we continued waiting in line he noticed the Head-Fi logo silicone straps I had on my portable rig and commented how much he liked them. Being a bit surprised he knew of Head-Fi, I took them off and gave them to him. He and his other friends were so excited and started the discussion on where the bands would go on the big stack and how to begin taking it apart.
After we all had our turn to demo the HD700s the guys asked me to listen to their rigs- one of them knew a bit of English. They wanted to see what an American thought about their systems; very often the Japanese are fascinated by other cultures, particularly the American culture. The thing that really made me smile was before these guys let me listen to their rigs, they must have heard one of my demo tracks through the sound leakage of the open HD700s: Michael Jackson's 'Man In The Mirror'. So as they handed me their rigs to listen to they each had the track on their DAPs all cued up and ready with that song. I guess music really is the universal language! The huge five-stacker was running Audio Technica ATH-W5000s while the other rig had the Beyerdynamic T70p.
The big stack, despite it's Rube Goldberg contraption-like appearance, was not as heavy as it looked and sounded fantastic through the ATs. The other setup (below) had a one-off DIY (!) tube amp which made the normally-bright-to-my-ears T70p very nice sounding.
I also heard both rigs with my UE Reference Monitors and liked what I heard. Another amp they had (not pictured), a Chinese-made portable tube running 6DJ8s, also sounded really good and took a bit of the clinical edge off of the UE-RMs. In the end we all walked away learning a bit about each other's sound, preferences, and things we had in common. The guy who knew some English even shared his Twitter feed with me... feel free to follow if you can read Japanese!
Sennheiser used this show as a public premiere for their HD700 and RS220 headphones.
I remember how Jude raved about the RS220, calling them near sonic equals to the HD600. And for the short time I got to spend with them I would have to say that they do sound really good and are also equally as comfortable- a huge plus in my book.
I thought the HD700 sounded quite nice- maybe a tad warmer (or less clinical) than the HD800. They can get a bit 'essy' and splashy as many have reported, but I think I have a reasonably high tolerance for that sort of thing so it didn't bug me that much. As I find with a lot of these headphones that people discuss (and speculate about) around here, they usually turn out to be not nearly as bad as often reported. Then again these are $1000 headphones; so compared to all of the great ~$300 cans out there the bar should be raised a lot higher and we should be less forgiving for that kind of money.
Yes- they even have headphone models at these events. In Japan, headphone and portable audio are growing subcultures which I will get into more later.
Denon showed their yet un-named headphone and (dual BA) IEM.
I've had limited time with D7/5/2000s and I enjoyed them all. To me there is no question that these new Denons share the same house sound and should satisfy Denon fans with their sound. However, I must say that I like the wood finish of the earlier models. One thing these do have going for them is removable cables.
The new IEMs sound good... really good. They are fairly balanced but definitely not lacking in fun, much like their headphone relatives. My only worry is their price, which will be more inline with triple balanced armature IEMs despite these being doubles. But if people judge them more on their sound quality, these should sell. A few features that I noticed were 'sealed' silicon tips and a new type of cable material that I have not seen before. For the tips, think of your regular IEM tip that has an open flap on the large end; whereas these tips have that part closed off. The result is something that is a bit more rigid than 'regular' tips, but not as stiff or hard as (Monster) gel or foam filled ones. The cable has a really durable feel to it. Yet it is very compliant despite having a more plasticy than rubbery feel. I wish I had asked about it because it is some really nice stuff!
I also wanted to pass on a thank you to the Denon people at the show (Kunihiko Tamura, Senior Product Development) for chatting with me in English (I always feel guilty), and staying well after closing time to give everyone a chance to hear their new headphones.
Sony really covers all users, from casual to audiophile as you can see.
I heard some not-so-flattering reviews (okay, just one) on the new MDR-MA900s so I was a bit worried going into hearing these. My fears were for naught though as I found them quite nice sounding. They seem tonally well-balanced and certainly not lacking at the bottom end. The environment I heard them in (a store) was not ideal for such open cans so I'll have to leave final judgement for another time. But I think they are definitely worth an audition if you have the chance. Currawong wrote a little bit about them here in his write-up of impression from the show.
Fang from HiFiMAN was there showing their latest DAP. I love the updated look; although I did not get to hear this prototype unit.
JVC just released a new line of IEMs, headed by the HA-FXD80.
I didn't get to hear these. But they boast a new 'microHD' driver (a smaller than usual dynamic driver) that is directly coupled to the earpiece via a pipe made of carbon nanotube material. This is opposed to the typically larger diameter driver that is funneled to a smaller tube and then to the ear tips. It is not a flagship IEM- more around the sub-$100 price. I think these are only available in Japan for now.
Canal Works makes custom IEMs in Japan.
Here are some artwork and shell samples.
Canal Works CW-L51
These customs have a really cool feature: You can change one of the components in the crossover (a resistor) to adjust the frequency response of the IEMs. This resistor sits on the outside of the IEM shell so it is easily accessed. But it's done in a fashion similar to a DIP socket so the resistor is quite secure. This is a really nice feature because demo customs never quite sound the same as fully fitted and molded (hence custom) IEMs. So what if you find that the sound you thought you were getting just isn't quite to your liking? I've often thought that if my UE-RMs had about 1.5-2 db more bass, they would be perfect. This is a very cool thing indeed!
I had the chance to have lunch with Ishizone-san (gentleman responsible for the Headphone Festival) from Fujiya Avic a few days after the show and he showed me around a bit. Fujiya Avic goes a long way back starting in 1926 as a camera shop. As they grew and evolved they created separate stores for the different kinds of gear: Audio, professional video and sound, and still photography. They also have a camera accessories shop and a 'junk' shop which sells old camera gear for parts or repair. I thought this was sort of cool as I saw things that I myself used to own many years back. I've seen a few places in Japan like this for computer gear as well. For camera equipment, Fujiya Avic is widely known in Tokyo and Japan to be the spot to go to.
Getting to the store is easy. Nakano is just on the westside of Tokyo, just a few minutes from Shinjuku. Exit the JR station at the north gate and walk up the mall full of shops until you reach the end- Nakano Broadway. This is a multi-level mall that is well-known in Japan (and the world) for otaku items. Fujiya Avic is on the 3rd floor.
Here is just a sample of some of the pre-owned items you can buy (or sell!) at the store. Japanese for the most part are used to buying at retail and generally prices are the same for new items wherever you go. Buying second hand is a great way to get nice stuff that you normally wouldn't be able to afford. Everything is well taken care of and you can try the stuff before buying.
The Nakano Broadway store carries all forms of consumer audio gear- from headphone to speaker stuff.
High-end items (Accuphase, Esoteric, Luxman, Mark Levinson, etc.) piled high! Despite being used everything appears as if brand new.
I think that sign says, "Please do not handle or your will ruin an expensive speaker when it falls on your head."
They even have DJ gear here, along with keyboards and synthesizers.
And of course there is a listening station where you can sit down and compare the best there is, back to back.
Need an LOD or aftermarket (or OEM) cable for your earphones? They've got it.
They also have all the top custom IEMs to demo including: JH Audio, Fit Ear, Canal Works, and Westone.
Lunchtime! I follow Fujiya and Ishizone-san on Facebook, and he always posts the most delicious lunches. So I just had to have one when we met at the store. There are a million places to eat around the Nakano area. Living in the SF Bay Area, I am lucky to have quite a few good ramen shops close by. But I have yet to find one with 'tsukemen'- basically ramen noodles separated from the soup. It's good on a warm day and the soup flavor is a bit more strong compared to regular ramen.
Aaaaaand we're back (sort of). If you go one floor above the Fujiya Avic audio shop they have their 'Pro Shop' which carries pro audio, video, and broadcast gear.
This camera is a little bit over $30,000 USD. It can take full-HD movies through clothing.
Go outside of the mall and down the outer mall a little bit and you'll run into the Fujiya Avic camera store. Knowing that most of us are into the same sort of things (it's all too predictable), I wanted to post photos of this store too.
The first floor carries mostly Canon, Pentax, and Olympus. The second floor has Nikon as well as medium-format, range finders, and everything else.
Again, used gear can be had for good prices here. Plus there are so many of them that you can choose!
The 'junk shop' is across from the main camera shop. It was fun going through this place- seeing old classics like the Canon AE and Pentax ME. Very cool.
Can we get back to headphones now? Okay... how about we start with some gold Grados?
Everyone knows them for their DACport and DACmini, but they also make these wonderful speakers. They use a two-way point source driver, similar to KEF or Tannoy, that was designed in-house at Centrance. That must've cost a lot of money! The other thing that makes this system unique is you can purchase it in a package which includes the speakers, the DACmini, nice cables (not in the photo), and a case that all of this fits into. The case is similar to the Peclican hard-plastic type which almost seems flight check-in worthy; but who in their right mind would?
ALO had quite a bit on hand to listen to.
The last time I heard it (at the fall show) I was impressed by its power and well-implemented bass control. Now that it is in production form nothing has changed. It's a really solid feeling and sounding amp that makes you wonder if full-sized amps are really that necessary, especially if space or cost is an issue. They drove the LCD3s with ease.
What a cool little tube amp! The real neat thing here is the power options- if I recall correctly there are three ways you can do this. You can power it with the included wallwart. In this case you only get/need one box- the top one with the tubes sticking out. If you want to run AC but want to beef up your power supply, then you can purchase another box that the main unit sits on top of. Option three is if you want to run off the grid via battery- think Red Wine Audio. Again, fantastic sounding on the HD800s, this is another space-saver that seems to give up very little in SQ compared to larger amplifiers.
Mixwave distributes JH Audio, Audeze, and Beat Audio among other things here.
These Beat Audio cables are really nice. Project86 reviewed them here. And yet again I missed out on hearing the JH-3A! I have started a list- sort of a bucket list, but not as morbid and having more to do with things I want to hear on my next trip. The JH-3As are on that list.
FitEar's new release is the TO GO 334. Most of us know it as the universal custom (universal based on custom technology) or one of the most expensive universals today.
The build quality is what you would expect from a 'regular' custom IEM. From my very brief listening these IEMs reminded me of the HD650s- as opposed to the other expensive ultra-universal, the K3003 which sounds a bit more forward and analytical to me. These 334s seem good for extended listening sessions. But that cost is hard to overlook! Other Head-Fiers at the show seemed to have positive impressions of them too.
These are the titanium tubes that are used to channel the sound of the four balanced armature drivers.
Musica Acoustic (and Demitri) is no stranger around here. They distribute EarSonics, Fischer, and Colorfly among other things.
This Vorzuge amp caught my interest at the table. Designed in Germany and made in Singapore (I think), this is a new company to me. The amp is certainly not lacking in power and it has the rare feature of a treble boost switch as well as a bass boost switch. Top shelf parts are used throughout. But at around $500 ($400 without the tone controls) they have their work cut out for them.
Guess who that is? It's Shigzeo from TouchMyApps! He was helping Demitri translate at the show as well as do some photographic work for the company.
The Digizoid ZO- I finally got to listen to one of these.
I've really been wanting to hear one of these. In short, I agree with others who say that it takes a while to understand how to adjust the processing level on it. It's not a linear one-dimensional adjustment like a conventional shelved or parametric EQ. I would definitely have to spend more time with it to see if it is something I want to add to my portable setup. Typical of devices like this, it might benefit people who are still stuck using iBuds or those who haven't shelled out for high(er) end IEMs or headphones. Or maybe those who want to add some fun to their IEMs at the push of a button.
TDK has some nice looking headphones and seems to be moving up in quality. I just haven't gotten around to listening to them yet. They're on the 'list'.
I've given them plenty of my money already. Moving on.
Parrot is an interesting company that can easily be dismissed as a design- and appearance-first company. But their stuff really packs a ton of technology that normal people (not us) might really find useful and enjoyable.
I'm a sucker for design, so these Zik headphones did catch my eye. I didn't find out until later how much technology went into these really good looking headphones. They are wireless. They have a sophisticated multi-sensor/mic noise cancellation system. There is a touchpad (trackpad) on one side to control volume and tracks. A built-in sensor knows when you have taken them off your head so that you don't kill the battery too quickly. And even if you do, you can connect a cable to them and use them like conventional wired headphones.
They also had a demo of their Zikmu (is it me or do these sound like IKEA products?) wireless speaker system. You can also put these in front of your house so that your neighbors won't block your driveway.
Audio Technica released a ton of stuff last time for their anniversary. So it seems like their lineup this time around was status quo. That's not to say that they didn't have anything good to listen to.
Audio Technica ATH-AD2000
After hearing much about these (forbidden fruit here in the U.S.), I finally got a chance to hear them. And I liked them a lot! Midrange and soundstage seem to be their strengths, although everything else was quite nice. I could do without the large, flat pad contact area and the drivers touching my ears. But still, very nice.
Canor is a company from Slovakia. And while I didn't get to hear this amp, I thought its origins were interesting (why Slovakia?) given that a lot of the well-sought after tubes come from this geographical region.
Burson and Fanny Wang... I couldn't think of two more different approaches to aesthetic design.
Ahhh- much better!!!
I've always liked this device (as I dump my Droid I'll consider one), and here is their latest version- apparently now compatible with most iDevices (no longer form fitting). It seems like more and more companies are grabbing licenses to do digital extraction from iDevices which can only be good.
Here is more information on this from AnakChan: http://www.head-fi.org/t/609906/new-venturecraft-go-dap-x-for-both-idevices-and-pcs
Among the well-known stores in Japan, especially to people like us, is a place called TokyuHands. It's a very hard place to describe: The closest I can come is to say it's a mix of hardware, crafts, hobby, stationery, toy, and gadget stores all in one spot. And that description doesn't really do this place justice. Where else can you buy a styrofoam egg in several sizes, perforated sheets of aluminum and steel in different gauges, bearings of all types and sizes, pre-cut shapes of wood, plants for your aquarium... the list goes on. And whatever they carry will often come in a dozen or so sizes and colors. It's the kind of place where you'll find something you weren't looking for or had no idea existed; but you want to buy it and find a use for it because it's so cool.
So what does this have to do with headphonia? Last time I went I was looking for something to tighten the feel of the knob on my Fostex HP-P1, and I found these silicon bands that did the job perfectly.
So after I gave away my Head-Fi bands, I was in need of something to replace them with at least for the rest of my trip. While I thought of just picking up some Fiio ones from Yodobashi in Akihabara, I though about trying something different. These silicon bands come in all sizes- small like the ones you used in the braces on your teeth, to 5-6 inches in diameter. So I purchased ones I thought might work, tried them out in the cafe upstairs, and they turned out to be perfect! See for yourself:
TH900 headhphone and HP-A8 amplifier
It's funny how fast things move- just six months ago at the last Headphone Festival there was a line to hear these headphones. There wasn't nearly as long a wait this time, which was not a bad thing. I had a very favorable impression of these headphones and of the matching DAC/amplifier. The later is particularly attractive as it can act as either a DAC and/or amplifier with a remote. The fit and finish is second to none and the price in Japan is right alongside (actually less) that of similar remote controlled units such as the Benchmark or Anedio.
They came out with a special 'Suara' version of the TH900. Rest assured, these are mechanically the same as the 'regular' TH900. Suara is a popular singer in Japan and these headphones have the marque of her last concert tour embedded underneath the lacquer in silver leaf.
Kazunari Furuya (Fostex Engineering) is standing next to the engineer for the HP-P1. 'Kazu' remembered me from the last show! I told him how I knew where the Fostex office was (just on the edge of Tokyo) because I had spent a summer very close by there about 30 years ago when I was a kid! Back then I was into boomboxes. It's funny how things come around again.
This company sells a DIY portable amplifier kit (far left side of photo). Their website lists features such as replaceable opamps, metal film resistors, Alps pot, and so on. The price seems reasonable (with today's horrendous exchange rate) at around $100. The case is optional but with the provided template and a quick trip to Akihabara you can also customize like crazy.
They are also coming out with what appears to be a balanced desktop amplifier kit.
These are actually quite nice. You can't fault them from a build quality and design perspective; and the sound is quite pleasing- slightly warm and mid-centric is what I heard. I thought the bottom-end might have been a bit lacking, but it usually is in demo environments.
I've see a few devices like this CAV at stores in Japan. The neat things about this particular one, other than being Bluetooth (because "everything is better with Bluetooth" - Sheldon, 'Big Bang Theory'), are the docking method and the speaker. The unit couples with and transmits vibrations to whatever surface it is on to create the sound. The angled top plate where you would rest the phone is a tacky silicon material- sort of like those pads you put on your car's dashboard so that your stuff doesn't slide all over the place when you slam on the brakes. It's under a hundred bucks and oh- did I mention that it's Bluetooth?
They had their new K550 and wonderfully expensive K3003 on hand.
I don't think there is much new going on here. However, I had the chance to hear the PS210s (at another place) and I really liked what I heard. I had only heard these once before and came away with a favorable impression. This second time around I must say that I really like them- although I need another IEM like... you know. What they lack in sealing out noise (I wouldn't use them on a bus, subway, or jet ski), they make up for with nice, smooth midrange and a pleasing soundstage. And they're quite inexpensive for the level of sound quality.
So that place where I heard the Phiaton PS210 (again) was actually this amazing shop in Seoul:
Before going to Tokyo, I dropped by Seoul for several days. Under the topic "You know you're an audiophile when...", I did the obligatory search for electronics and headphone shops in the area and found Earphone Shop. Another Head-Fier posted about it a while back. Is it the best? Pretty darned close. There are things I like about the different shops in Tokyo, and this one also has it's ups and downs. But I'd say all things taken into consideration it's easily among the best if not the best I've been to.
One IEM that I almost ended up buying here was the EXS X20 reviewed here. I really liked it for its detailed, forward (if not a tad bright) sound. For the price, it's a dual-BA IEM that's hard to beat if you like the sound sig. From what I understand, EXS is Earphone Shop's own brand that is designed and made in Korea. I think Phiaton is designed in Korea but made where everything else is.
This is a new line from this Japanese IEM company. As their carbon construction would indicate, these IEMs are really light. The 'Basso' has lots of bass. Everything else is nice but this is a bass-head IEM. I have to admit though that on certain tracks it does bring a smile to my face.
The 'Tenore': Ahhh... much better. These have a warm balance and are really smooth. As the name would imply, there is much less emphasis on low frequencies here; but the bass is still plenty ample. This is a really good sounding IEM.
I heard this last time and thought that while pleasing to a mass audience, the effect was a bit too strong. Well now they have an app for it so that you can have complete control over what this thing does to your music. The interesting thing about this device is that it operates out of the LOD of your iPhone/Pod, has no battery (drains your 'Pod), and you plug your earphones directly into it (as opposed to the iPod's own headphone jack). So rather than just taking the analogue line out and processing it, this seems to interact directly with the iDevice. Interesting.
Boy- this is becoming one crowded area of the marketplace: The under $150 portable headphone segment. But as they say, competition is a good thing. I think we can all agree that we've lived with one choice (begins with a 'B') a little too long. These are pretty nice- much better sounding than you-know-what. It's sound is not your classic 'vee'; but still plenty lively and got a little better as the pads warmed and settled to form a better seal. Their fit for me was just okay and their construction about the same. The sliding metal bands remind me of those on my Beyer DTs. These would go on my must-hear list if I were shopping in this category.
There was nothing really new here except iPod compatibility for the model '1'. Is there a W5 or UM4X waiting to come out? Maybe the next show?
Having sort of given up on trying to make those metal Piano Fortes fit in my ears, I glossed over their table this time.
But Currawong spoke with them and had a very interesting conversation regarding those IEMs:
"...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."
When I read that, it reminded me of Lion (you'll see in a minute). And all of a sudden the light bulb (well, energy-saving LED) went on full-bright in my head!
Lion Cafe, Shibuya
Not having anything to do with earphones but certainly with audio and music, this is an amazing old cafe (if you can call it that) in the heart of the Shibuya district in Tokyo. It was built in the 20's and rebuilt in the 50's after the war. I've never seen anything like it and it's hard to describe, but here goes: It's set up like a theater (some also describe it as an old train car) with velvet seats that have seen better days, creaky floors, assorted dim lighting, the slightly funky smell of an old theater, and the center piece which Ishizone-san perfectly described as a speaker reminiscent of the old JBL Paragon. In this case, the speaker is a permanent fixture with assorted old and new audio equipment beneath it and an extensive collection of classical vinyl with some CDs as well.
The sound itself is definitely 'vintage hi-fi'. I'm not even sure if it can be called stereo in the traditional sense, as the two horn tweeters (?) are mounted to the left and the woofers appear to be larger on the right side (15" is my guess). It's almost like a single stereo cabinet that was flipped on its side. But ultimate fidelity is not the point here. It is the experience. Like many things in Tokyo and Asia for that matter, the contrast between what is inside and outside of this place couldn't be any greater. It's an amazing little sanctuary and step back into time. You can read more about it here.
I went twice. The second time I sat upstairs in the 'balcony' area.
Among the few accessories that were being sold at the show were these LOD kits:
The cool thing about them is that since they were indeed a 'kit' you could completely customize them. The price was really fair too considering the Oyaide connectors used. The only thing that kept me from getting one (other than not really needing one, but that's another issue of mine) was that I know there are a few variations for pin-outs on iDevices. And while these came with instructions, they were of course in Japanese. Food menus I can almost read- technical manuals and instructions, not so much.
Anti-bacterial IEM tips
This would definitely fall under that 'why didn't I think of that' category. I'm actually surprised that these people decided to market these themselves rather than license the technology to someone like Sony or AT. I wonder if or when they will come up with a similar product for headphone pads. I ride bikes quite a bit and for years they have had antibacterial pads so that your helmet wouldn't smell like an old running shoe. Can't they apply the same technology to headphone pads?