The highlight of this Autumn's festival came not while I was in Tokyo, but, funnily enough, on the way out. As I looked out the window as we flew out of Tokyo, I noticed we were heading in the direction of Mt Fuji. The plane then banked slightly and I feared that our course would change, for I had my Nikon D7000 in my bag, though only with a 35mm lens. It was enough, for, unannounced, we passed so close that the walking trails were visible in the snow. The sun was shining on that side of the plane, so I had to frantically find something to hold up under the camera to block the reflections off my arms and shirt. The pictures don't do it justice, as flying over the mountains, then passing, in comparison, the Fuji itself, towering above the clouds, was unbelievable. Just look at how small the mountains in the background appear.
This year the festival was held over two days, which spread the crowds out nicely and gave everyone a better chance at listening to more gear with with less of a wait. It also meant I could meet more people. Of the four floors of tables and rooms, I had only covered the first two by the end of day one, such is the variety of manufacturers and products on display. In addition, we had very kindly been given a tiny room in which we could put our bags and set up our own listening station. Once everyone had arrived and set up their equipment, we had the most awesomely envious collection of equipment to listen to. Four DACs (or DAC/amps) -- Benchmark DAC 1, Calyx DAC, Luxman DA-200 and Fostex HPA8, Sony R10s, Stax SR-009 and 007A, AKG-K1000 and Fostex TH900s sat amongst our collection of the best portable gear available -- ALO RX3B and CLAS, Fostex HP-P1, Leckerton UHA6 MKII, O2 and ODAC and more I've forgotten about.
Qubiquo's John Lee Jeongkyu, Anakchan (Sean), myself, Bootsy1 and DonnyHifi (Donny). Arnaud's daughter crashed out in our doorway, leading to many bemused stares from passing people.
As well as being amazed (and occasionally disappointed) at the new products on show, we could test and compare everything to the best available. In that manner, a number of manufacturers generously lent us their products to bring up to our room and compare. Thanks (in no particular order) to ALO Audio, Cypher Labs, Aurorasound, ADL (Furutech) and Ultrasone for letting us borrow products at the show.*
Most importantly, I'd like to give a huge thanks to FujiyaAvic for letting us use the room. As well as those guys, another huge thanks to Sasaki, because of whom we, as well as a number of foreign manufacturers were able to get involved with the show.
I'd also like to thank Sean (Anakchan) and Jeff (whose forum name I've forgotten) for lending me, respectively, their 14-24mm Nikon lens and an SB-600 flash, without which my photos wouldn't have been nearly as good.
Of all the kit we had in the room, Mike Kubota's K1000s, using an unknown amp (the black box to the left of my 11" MacBook Air) and my digital rig as the source stood out beyond the others, with an amazing presentation that totally belies what they cost new.
About my impressions
I was grateful to be able to get around and try a lot more equipment than I had at the last show. Despite that, meet conditions aren't always ideal and some things need to be taken into account with my impressions. The first is, I had a cold, which thankfully only meant I had a runny nose and sore throat and felt like crap. I don't feel it significantly affected my hearing, as there were a lot of subtle things I could still pick out easily when listening, but it definitely didn't help. The second is, what I value in music reproduction is naturalness, detail and spaciousness as I listen to high-quality recordings of acoustic music for the most part at moderate volumes. Where possible I used music on my DX100, either plugging headphones and IEMs in directly, or using an optical digital cable or analogue cable from the line out to connect to the manufacturer's system. This means my impressions and ideas of what is good may be different to someone like Anakchan, who listens to a lot of late '80s and early '90s pop music at loud volumes.
I spotted a tall, large man dressed all in black and instinctively felt that it must be someone I should introduce myself too. That man was Michael J. Di Stasio of Antelope Audio, a fellow Aussie. Turns out he has been in Japan for many years and there was much to chat about. I've had my eye on the Gold for a while as something I should try so was glad to find out that in my small city it would be possible to arrange a loaner through a local hi-fi store.
Audeze closed-back prototypes.
We had a late-night listening session on Friday at the hotel with the ALO and Cypher Labs crew where we compared them to the LCD-2s and LCD-3s. I used my DX100 to an RX3. The most striking thing about them was the very precise centre image compared to the LCD-3s, which seemed to present the musical image in a less precise way. The bass was a bit boomy (remember, it's a prototype though) but I'd almost take them as they are, lovely that they were to listen with. Pure listening pleasure. I didn't really pay attention to any other aspects of the sound, as I presumed the frequency response wasn't final. Special thanks to Ken from ALO Audio for bringing these over with him to the show.
Tested briefly at ALO's table with the Passport battery from my DX100. Quite a punchy and good-sounding piece of kit. A bit of harshness in the top end makes me want to try tube rolling with it. Ken told me that many customers had asked him for an amp under $1k with a small footprint. Didn't get a chance to test the USB DAC unfortunately. It's on my list of future review kit once I have a pair of high-impedance headphones again.
Audio Technica AD2000X
Amongst a number of Head-Fiers the Audio Technica AD2000s are considered one of the most unique and awesome pairs of headphones for their intense presentation. However they are quite dated, their actual sound quality far behind newer designs, so I was very pleased to find out that they were updating their top open headphones with improved models. I had a chance to spend a bit of time with the AD2000X which has re-designed drivers and has had changes made to he enclosure. The result is a treble with less grain, but not less of that intense and addictive, if rather mid-forward presentation. The AD1000X and AD900X are also available, the latter with a new style more like the more expensive members of that range. The AD900 was one of the top recommendations before the AD50s dethroned it as possibly the top full-size entry-level headphone.
Aurorasound HiFace 2 Pro
This is a Hiface 2 modified with a better power regulator and other features. I took this up to our room for a short testing session to compare it to my Audiophilleo 1 + Pure Power + Vaunix USB Hub rig with my Calyx DAC. Using it the sound was very good when plugged straight into my MacBook Air, but reminded me of the Audiophilleo without the Pure Power as in comparison the treble wasn't quite as distortion free sounding. I realise now I should have tried it with the matching USB Bus Power Pro (http://aurorasound.jp/BusPowerPro.html
) as it would have likely given similar improvements as my Vaunix hub and/or the Pure Power does.
Furutech ADL Esprit DAC/Headphone amp.
Furutech is famous for their cable products and much like Oyaide are getting into making headphone and line-out dock cables as well. They were showing AKG and Ultrasone cables at their table, However their audio hardware is not so well-known, so I was curious to give at least one of their products a try this time. The Esprit is the better of their two compact DAC/Headphone amp units and powers from a wall-wart. Connected via USB, coax or optical it has RCA inputs and outputs, making it a versatile unit. The Furutech guy had a spare unit on hand which he kindly lent me so I could test it in our room. I tested it using my Symphones Magnums and it sounded pretty good out of USB, as I would expect something around $800 would -- nice and clear and with nothing I could fault of it in the limited time I had to try it. Sometime I'll have to consider coming back and testing it with a variety of headphones as the Magnums are easy to drive.
Uncle Wilson was there showing off his Hippo brand of portable amps. The one I tried, which used a micro SD card sounded quite good and the aluminium build quality was great for such a small device. Unfortunately it wouldn't recognise the files on my own card so I couldn't test it more thoroughly. My best memory is though of what a wonderfully friendly guy Wilson is.
They were demonstrating a computer custom built for audio playback with optical digital output (using high quality optical fibres and not Toslink) connected to a special box that outputs USB for connecting to a USB DAC. This isolates the audio equipment from any noise generated by the computer. They were also importing some interesting headphone amps and DACs which I regret I didn't have more time to try.
Since we all know people love cute girls, we made sure to include them in the shot.
Shin Nakagawa, the president of Fidelix is a very interesting man. Not only did he work for Sony, but was the designer of the Stax hi-fi amps! The interesting thing about his Cerenate power amps (http://fidelix.jp/products/CERENATE/index.html
) is that they have 50 Ohm BNC sockets on the rear. The sockets are connected to sensors which, when connected with 50 Ohm cable to the speakers as well, creating a negative feedback circuit which improves the sound. I didn't have a chance to try this, but hope to at the next show as the owner has said that he will take my advice and partner up with TakeT. The amps have a very small footprint and balanced inputs, so might make ideal K1000 or desktop near-field rig amps as they can be used bridged as monoblock amps too. Along with his amps, he was demonstrating his Caprice DSD DAC (http://fidelix.jp/products/CAPRICE/index.html
) with classical music, which sounded great.
I showed the Paradox website to the Fostex guys and chatted to them about the unexpected popularity of modded versions of the TP50s. They said they were pleasantly surprised by it. I asked, of course, about them making a more serious pair of orthos, of course. The impression I got is that it may become a real possibility.
The TH900s were better than I remembered them, possibly due to the shop pair I listened to 6 months ago not having had a chance to burn in. Very enjoyable sound, if the bass was a bit strong. I posted elsewhere about the idea of someone buying them along with the HPA8 and being done if they like the sound signature, have suitably deep pockets and don't want to muck about choosing a system. It is one system on my list that I'd like to do a proper review of. Out of the HPA8 DAC/amp they weren't shamed by the Sony R10s, which says a lot.
Fang Bian was there with his wife showing the EF6 amp and HM-901 portable DAP/player. As there was always someone listening I missed the chance to try it myself. The dock is a unique prospect, however, making it a far more interesting piece of kit than just being a DAP. Like the 801, it has different amp modules available.
Imation / TDK ☆BEST OF SHOW No. 2☆
Whenever I think of this brand, I'm reminded of blank CDs and DVDs, numerous of which of theirs I've bought and used. They were showing off a unique Magnetic Armature IEM, the MA700 that has a shape reminding me of fan blades, as they have protrusions that help them sit in the ear better. I usually find IEMs to be awful, as the sound is flat, percussion especially being terrible and most have too much bass or a very bright treble. Unusually for these IEMs, percussion sounded great and acoustic music was presented well. Guessing the price, I thought they might be quite expensive, but they were only 7000 yen ($80 or so) which I think is impressively inexpensive. This is very pleasantly far removed from the numerous Knowles drivers-in-a-mouldedcase that is the norm for IEMs these days.
JVC ☆BEST OF SHOW No. 1☆
Another brand with unique take on IEMs. They have two new Live Beat models coming, the HA-FXZ100 and FXZ200. They feature a special separate tweeter and woofer in aluminium enclosures inside the IEM. While the bass was strong on the 200 and the treble too recessed for me, I was impressed at how natural and spacious the sound was compared to most IEMs (including the Stax portable!) and how natural even percussion sounded. The overall sound was rather like a pair of their full-sized DX1000s inside an IEM. The other guys tried the 100s and reckoned the frequency response was better, so I will definitely have to give them a go once they are released. Still, their ability to overcome the main issues I've had with other IEMs, even vastly more expensive ones, impressed me very strongly, enough that it affected my perception of other products for the rest of the show, with even top-of-the-line amps and other equipment not impressing me as much. For that, I've given it my Best of Show award.
I wanted to try their new balanced amp, but it was the end of the second day and I felt like crap. Regardless, I did my best. Source was a D-08 SACD player fed by my DX100 via optical to my LCD-3s. Unfortunately nothing particular stood out -- I'm not a fan of Luxman's digital sources so that could be the reason I wasn't impressed. They were demoing it with balanced HD-800s though, using an unknown custom cable. Will add this to my list of amps I want to review. The landed price in the US, if it is sold overseas, is going to be huge.
Mad Dogs by MrSpeakers
Musica Acoustica had these on display. Impressively good for the money - clear without being harsh. The generally "flat" FR works well with me.
They have a new, shiny portable amp, the MHd-Q7, which charges through USB.
Considering the cost of some of their more serious cables, Oyaide had a range of inexpensive mini-to-mini cables available, costing around $25, as well as headphone cables priced at a level that would be considered more reasonable compared to what some companies charge. The Sennheiser HD-800 cable costs around $200.
John Lee Jeongkyu came over from Korea to check out the scene and spent some time discussing the growing audio scene in Korea. He also gave us some samples of Korean made IEMs. Along with Japan, the USA and China the addition of Korea into the IEM market could make things very interesting indeed.
Ray Samuels Audio
Ray Samuels brought his Darkstar and A10. The SR-009s were a good sonic match with the A10, giving them a far more meaty sound than I was used to hearing from them. The Darkstar too is a very punch amp with orthos. He only had a Linn Ikemi CD player there (not his usual Boulder player) which I was unfamiliar with, along with the music from his laptop and the room wasn't ideal for listening.
The Intruder balanced portable DAC/amp was very good with LCD-3s. Unfortunately the DAC is only takes up to a 16 bit 48kHz input. Given the impressive sound quality the lack of high-res support is the only thing that would keep me from seriously considering one.
They had their balanced amp on display, but I didn't get around to trying it. I did manage to get in before the crowds and try the IE 800s however. They were very good. Unfortunately I didn't take notes on the sound, only pictures. The case for them was high quality with a metal plate showing the serial number and using good materials as well as being well thought-out, if possibly somewhat large, the plug has a special hole in the foam it slots in to.
The Momentums were there too, of course, but I'm saving impressions of these for a future review.
It was great, as always, to meet Nao Tsunoda, one of their most senior engineers who is as enthusiastic as we are about audio. They had a new range of XBA IEMs, which I totally didn't expect so soon after the release of the previous ones. I will be checking to see if the difference isn't just that they were all silver. The new MDR-R1 and its Bluetooth-connected equivalent are on my list of headphones to review in the near future. I'm very curious how capable the Bluetooth model is especially.
Sound Potion ☆BEST OF SHOW No. 3☆
Amongst all the big manufacturers and their products, here and there you can find the occasional person whom, entire by themselves with little or no support, pushes away at developing something unique. Last time I remember meeting Takanobu Kowada, who was busy working on an all discrete (no opamp) portable amp for IEMs. This time he had managed to cram it into a smaller case with 2 AA batteries. It was impressively good even with highly sensitive IEMs, presenting a black background, which is no mean feat. I don't want to imagine how much pain it must have taken to hand-solder all those SMD components on the boards.
I sat down to try their new portable SR-002s with matching amp. The sound reminded me of the SR-009s in much the same way the SR-001s had reminded me of the Omega IIs. Bass punch was good too though the overall sound suffers from a lack of soundstage due to the form factor. Everyone will be pleased to know that they have new tips in 3 sizes (I think) which are round like regular IEM tips, with comfort much improved. The sound was so good I reckoned my DX100 was the weak point in the system.
TakeT is another one-man operation that produces amazing products. The H2+ are a hidden gem (if the odd looks and fit aren't an issue), with a presentation giving the best of both words of electrostats and orthodynamics. I was always disappointed to see he was using the same, cheap Onkyo all-in-one system to power them, so I suggested, very cautiously, he might pair up with the Fidelix guy upstairs who makes both DSD DACs and small, neat Class A/B amps but only uses Sony SA3000s to demo them. Turns out he knows the guy as they both worked in Sony together! So I got to try the TakeT briefly on a DSD system! Was lovely once I got a good seal. They plan to partner up at the next show so I'll give this a good run early on. There is much potential here between them for a neat high-end system.
I didn't actually listen to any of their headphones at the show, but talked to Michael Willberg and Michael Zirkel, respectively CEO and CCO of Ultrasone, about various topics. They were gracious enough to answer even my tough questions about such matters as driver consistency and the effects of S-Logic. Lately they have ventured into IEMs with the IQ series. On the full-size front, they had new models such as the Signature Pro DJ and "Romeo and Juliet" versions of the Edition 8. The Japanese seem especially to like the styling touches and brighter sound of their closed-back headphones and Michael Zirkel emphasised the importance of choosing a pair of headphones appropriate to the kind of music being listened to along with the difficulty of creating a pair of headphones suitable for all types of music. Agreeing with my own impressions, the Signature Pros are the closest to all-rounders in their line up.
Some interesting things that came out of our conversation:
On the ED10s: They were designed for acoustic music only.
On driver consistency: Individual Ultrasone pairs have matched drivers but there is a little variation between pairs.
On the wildly varying opinions about their headphones: They require more than just a short listening time for one's brain to adapt to S-Logic.
I gave the M-100s a brief listen and liked what I heard. Though the overall frequency response doesn't match with much of the music I listen to, I love the bass response. I still have a lot of pop and rock music which these would be better suited for than my Stax rig. I'll be reviewing these in the future.
We had an incredible two days, after which it felt very sad to have to pack up all our gear and go home. What I enjoyed most was not only enjoying the K1000s and other high-end headphones in our room, but also being finding some awesome and unique gear at non-bank-breaking prices, such as my two best-of-show IEMs. Regarding my Best of Show choices, I chose them because, first of all, the JVCs totally blew me away with their IEM-defying sound. Even if their frequency response wasn't suitable for me, the memory of their sound stuck with me for the rest of the show. The TDKs similarly, not just because of their unique design and pleasant sound, but because for a new technology, they were offering them at <$100 instead of sticking a flagship price on them. The third, the amp from Sound Potion because of one man's dedication to producing a great amp. In all three cases the designers worked on producing not just yet another IEM or amp, but developed and/or used unique technology and unconventional ideas. Those three companies are, of course, not the only ones who have pushed and taken risks with unique ideas. ALO, Cypher Labs, Ray Samuels, Hifiman and Stax are just a few who are pushing the boundaries of portable audio especially. Not to mention Val Kolton and V-MODA upsetting the market and proving that headphones can both look fashionable and sound good without being extremely expensive.
*If I've forgotten anyone who lent us gear to try, please PM me and I'll update the list.