2012: A Year In Review by MF
If I were to pick one overarching theme for this year---for me personally---it would be "reflection."
This was a year that involved a lot of self-assesment in all areas of my life, and both because of this and as a direct result of this, it was also a year that involved a lot of change. I finally confronted issues that had been festering for some time, getting out of an ultimately unfulfilling relationship and learning some things about myself in the process. I feel like I have a better perspective of my career and where I'm going, at least compared to where I was before; the decision to go for what I considered something of a long shot paid off. I struggled with the prospect of moving for some time, but I think I'll be happier with these new arrangements despite the temporary stress of it. Also I've been reflecting on my health issues and what they mean for my life and even my personal identity.
Getting back to audio, I've been reflecting quite a bit this year on what I want from this hobby along with the role it plays in the lives of others. I'd say my priorities have changed somewhat and are still in the process of changing, with more yet to come. This was the year of portable audio for me. I got into in-ear monitors, DAPs, and portable amps in a major way; it was the year I went through the customs-ordering process for the first time. It was also a year in which I resolved to downsize my collection and just focus on certain areas of interest: mostly open electrostatic headphones ("earspeakers") and IEMs.
As far as general trends go, it seems like hybrid earphone designs were all the rage this year in the realm of portable audio. For universals the K3003 was one of the main trendsetters, with other companies releasing designs that followed in its footsteps (some more closely than others...). Then there were some rather novel engineering feats like those Cardas Ear Mirror Vaporware IEMs and the Flat4 which just exude creativity. Overall, the emphasis was seemingly less on "raw power" and how many drivers one could fit into a shell and more on unique and creative implementation. On the customs side I think this is seen most overtly---or at least most readily---in JHA's Freq-Phase and UM's Platform Pure 6 with its active crossover. Then there's UE which is taking a different approach and extending the very definition of "customs" with their Personal Reference Monitor. This brings us to one of my favorite trends in earphones this year: the universal-fit custom. I suppose this goes back to the notion of hybrids mentioned above, only now we're talking about form-factor instead of drivers. To my thinking this offers a good compromise between universals and customs, capturing some of the benefits of the latter while eschewing some of the hassle. Now that they're freed from the constraint of using cylindrical, tube-shaped shells, I think we may see some really inspiring universals in the coming years.
This year saw the emergence of quite a few new prospects in the category of closed-headphones: the Momentum, MDR-1, UE4000, UE6000, UE9000, those Parrot Zik thingamajigs, M100, ESW11LTD, Ultrasone Signature DJ, D600, D7100, new Audez'e prototypes, Muramasa VIII, the Pandora line, TH600, TH900, etc. As far as full-sized headphones go, I think it's safe to say this was the prevailing trend for this year both in terms of products released and products announced. At the same time there were some interesting takes on older approaches: the new Jecklin Float QA for helmet-class two-speakers-on-your-head 'stats and the JPS Labs ABYSS for one-sided orthos.
This year also saw the "opening up" of the electrostatic headphone niche somewhat. With great new amps like the Liquid Lightning and Electra being released, consumers have more choices than ever before. There've been more than a few new Stax owners 'round these parts, which helps to inject new life into a scene that was frankly getting pretty stagnant and settled in its ways. New voices = usually good. Also, awareness of the Koss ESP/950 has been growing and more and more head-fiers are taking advantage of the periodic sales (when it drops to around $550 - 600) to become first-time 'stat owners. Coupled with the new Stax portables, Edifier backing Stax financially, and rumors of new Jades from Head-Direct and a new 'stat from Sennheiser ... it's a good time to be getting into electrostatic headphones.
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Some highlights for me this year (all "IMHO" of course) ...
Fostex TH900 ---> Best headphone of the year. In fact, this may be the best dynamic headphone since the R10 IMHO.
Jecklin Float QUAD Atelier ---> Runner-up. In terms of pure sound quality, these best the TH900. They'd be my top pick if it weren't for the current reliability issues.
HiFiMan HE-400 ---> Best commercial headphone under $500
Audio-Technica ATH-ESW11LTD ---> Best "not bad, but could have been better" headphone.
Denon AH-D7100 ---> Worst headphone of the year.
Final Audio Design Muramasa VIII ---> Most insane headphone of the year I can't talk about.
Sony MDR-MA900 --> Most overlooked headphone of the year.
2012 headphones I haven't tried but look promising: Momentums, MDR-1R, UE6000
FitEar TO GO! 334 ---> Best earphone of the year.
Ocharaku Flat4 SUI ---> First runner up for best earphone of the year and best earphone under $500
Final Audio Design Heaven VI ---> Second runner up for best earphone of the year
JVC Victor HA-FXD80 ---> Best earphone under $100
FitEar F111 ---> Best new reference earphone
Tie: Sony XBA series and AKG K3003 ---> Best earphone pariahs
Ultrasone IQ ---> Ugliest earphone of the year
2012 earphones I haven't tried but look promising: Ultimate Ears UE900, Stax SR-002, Sennheiser IE800
2012 customs I most want to try: FitEar Monet, JH16 Pro Freq-Phase, Ultimate Ears PRM, Canal Works CW-L51
Cavalli Audio Liquid Lightning ---> Favorite electrostatic amp this year
Cavalli Audio Liquid Glass ---> Favorite dynamic amp this year
Leckerton UHA-6S / UHA-6Smk2 ---> Favorite portable amp this year
Sony NWZ-F806 Walkman ---> Favorite DAP this year
Sennheiser HD700 ---> Most expensive thing I bought that I rarely use
iBasso DX100 ---> Runner up for most expensive thing I bought that I rarely use
Koss ESP/10 'stats and E/10 transformer ---> Best eBay find (ie. least expensive thing I often use)
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Going into next year ...
What I'll be checking out first:
Ultimate Ears UE900, VSONIC GR07 Bass Edition, VSONIC GR01, Sennheiser IE800, Heir Audio Tzar 350, Ocharaku Flat4 Maple, Stax SR-002
Headphones coming out I'm looking forward to exploring:
Fostex TH600, FAD Pandora, JPS Labs ABYSS, closed Audez'e, HeAUDIO / Head-Direct Jade II (???) and new 'stats from Sennheiser (???)
Earphones coming out I'm looking forward to exploring:
VSONIC V7007, Cardas Ear Mirror (???)
Speakers I'm looking forward to most:
Magico S1 (their new "entry-level" model...)
Audio-related projects, events, and goals (not necessarily in order):
--> Get the Jecklin Float QA sorted out or replaced; continue my journal entries about what may end up being my new favorite headphones
--> Send the Moth 2A3 in to Eddie Current for modifications
--> Eddie Current Electra
--> BHSE with custom colored faceplates
--> Customs: Spiral Ear and possibly JHA; Rooth universals
--> One-off 10-Driver CIEM project
--> New sources: Resolution Cantata (DAC / CD transport) or NAD M51 (DAC / phono stage); turntable from Michell Engineering, Oracle, Sota, AVID, or VPI
--> Get back into vinyl; get a new Dynavector cartridge
--> Desktop / smaller monitors pre-move: Harbeth, Lahave, Fritz, Clearwave, or KEF
--> Floor-speakers post-move: NOLA, Magico, Wilson, Vivid, Talon, Estalon, or Rockport
Possible themes for next year: speakers ...? CIEMs ...? Headphone transcendence ...?
Ideally, I'd like to have three main sources: turntable, the Cantata (DAC + CD transport), and a Walkman DAP.
--> Dynamic rig: Moth 2A3
--> Electrostats: Electra / LL / BHSE
--> Misc: Ayon or Accuphase integrated amp --> Float QA / TakeT H2+ ("the transformer duo")
--> Portable: Leckerton UHA-6S and possibly Sony PHA-1 or a certain secret portable amp from a manufacturer I like that may or may not come out, but I'm really hoping will come out, but I can't talk about...
Speakers by my desk: Harbeth Super HL5
Speakers in my study: NOLA Micro Grand Reference or Magico S1 / S5
Edited by MuppetFace - 12/24/12 at 3:58pm