This year's Spring Festival, as usual, had 4 floors of headphone and audio goodness to explore over a whole day. My focus this show was mainly on IEMs and portable players, especially as there were some interesting new product announcements in that area, but I also found the trends in what was being made interesting. For example, recently we have seen more focus on headphones from big names in hi-fi such as Nuforce, KEF and Focal. I think this trend is a result of companies realising that they need to get their name out there with the younger generation of music listeners, so that when they grow older they'll look out for the same brands if and when they buy more serious hi-fi equipment.
Also, in Japan, like in most countries, it is the small, local manufacturers as much as the big ones that have interesting and competitive products. Numerous times I've met the owner of a new company to find that they used to work for Sony, Panasonic or another big brand. Free from corporate constraints, they come up with unique and fascinating products, in some cases modifications of existing products. The owners of Take-T and Fidelix both worked in Sony, and the latter in Stax in the past as well. Likewise, the owner of Aurorasound used to work for Texas Instruments.
Also, significantly for Head-Fi enthusiasts is that both small and large manufacturers are starting to push the envelope with what is possible. At the forefront of my mind is the Shure SE846. The reaction to that was along the lines of "$1000 for a universal? Really?". In our minds, when it comes to top-of-the-line IEMs, that means a custom-fit IEM. The origins of that idea came from custom fitting being originally intended for professional musicians with the ultra-level models, such as the multi-driver custom Ultimate Ears and JH Audio that started the trend, costing over $1000. The game changed most noticeably not only when companies other than Ultimate Ears and Jerry Harvey started to compete in that arena to cover audiophile demand, but when FitEar made a universal version of their top custom in-ear monitor, the ToGo 334. This has spurned the question: For the best sound, is a custom IEM really necessary? Shure, FitEar, Tralucent and others are certainly challenging that assumption.
Shure is obviously the first international company to challenge that assumption. For a quick recap, much like a multi-balanced-armature custom IEM, the SE846 has 3 custom-tuned drivers. Their unique take is a very advanced low-pass filter consisting of 10 very tiny and intricately carved plates that route the bass through what is effectively a long tube. The result is very clean, detailed bass, though a bit much for my tastes. The rest of the sound, using the "balanced" filters was, for me, spot-on, with nothing too forward, such as the treble (my frequent gripe with Japanese IEMs for example), but less dark and wooly-sounding than the SE535s. They didn't have the other filters to try unfortunately. For those of you who have tried universal versions of various customs, they are like a universal JH-16 in effect, but I felt less V-shaped in sound than the TG334s. Other than being, to my ears, about right in strength for the varieties of music I like (mostly acoustic) the excellent low-pass bass filter left the mids and treble, and thus vocals and instruments to be delivered cleanly and beautifully. It was rather like the first time I heard the Audeze LCD-2s, where the bass was simply so much better than I had experienced with any other headphones before. It was the absense of negatives in the sound that was so surprising*.
What is more, the sound was very good even straight out of my iPhone, if, not surprisingly, clearer and tighter sounding out of my HP-P1/Pico Power rig. In that, I have to thank arnaud here who tried them with me and wrote his impressions
. We were lucky to get in before they brought out the 3 minute egg timers (the queue to hear them during the day was very long). A good summary would be: If there was anything you didn't like about the SE535s, it has been fixed with the SE846 -- but very sorry about your wallet. Now if they have a filter which reduces the bass a bit, I'll take a pair...
*But then, no IEM I've ever heard can deliver a good delineation of instruments.
Mate. Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaate! I don't think Michael Goodman of Centrance, who came to the show, realises how Australian the name sounds. A mate is someone who doesn't let you down and not only is the M8 made of tough metal, but functionality wise it has everything and the kitchen sink in there! When Michael was struck with a choice between having it supporting old iPods, but being stuck at a maximum of 48k playback for all iDevices, versus shutting the older ones altogether, he simply worked at the problem until he found a solution. Even the rubber bands for attaching your iWhatever were re-designed a couple of times until he was happy that they were quality items! How is that for dedication.
The M8 itself, while it isn't going to be quite as neat or small as some portable solutions, it is a very serious transportable solution for full-sized headphones -- not just regular headphones and IEMs, but balanced headphones. You can even use it as a DAC with a set of female-to-female XLR connectors. If you want to connect a 4-pin XLR plug, or Kubikon connector for balanced IEMs, you can choose a suitable front plate to suit your needs.
What's more, it has a gain switch, bass boost switch, treble boost switch and will take digital input from your iDevice or computer via USB. And I'm sure I've forgotten something. Wait! A free set of steak knives! Well, ok, maybe not, but just about. It definitely could be described as the proverbial Swiss-army-knife of headphone gear.
Sound-wise, if you've heard the DAC Mini, it's similar. I would call it as being a bit more towards the clear and analytical side of things. This was probably emphasised by the balanced output which produced a very open and wide soundstage with my Symphones Magnums to the point of my wondering if it wasn't a bit bass-light in sound. Unlike with some other portable amps I've tried, it didn't give the impression of needing effort to drive them (though they are easy to drive). I'm definitely keen to see how it would go with my LCD-3s as well as high-impedance headphones.
It is rare to run into another Australian at the show. Much more rare to find a fellow Aussie who has started his own IEM company. Dave Thompson, who hails from Perth has been an entrepreneur since he was a teenager, among other things being involved in brand management and design roles for mobile (cell) phone products. With Audiofly, given his additional background as a musician, he has attempted to something a little different with his line of IEMs, both sound-wise and visibly with their organic colours and unique injection-moulded design. Get closer and a gentle black bump on the cable reveals a microphone. Pick a pair up and you find tough Cordura nylon surrounding the cable -- the same stuff climbers use and depend on. These are designed to be hard-wearing as well as attractive and it shows.
In Japan, Audiofly products will be distributed by Timelord.
The Parterre was the hot item this show, with a listening queue that rivalled Shure's. I ended up going to the Fujiya Avic store on Sunday and having a good listen, this time with a modified AK100. Anakchan had given me a listen to the Tralucent 1+2s shortly before, as well as lending me the 334s for some time. The TG334s hadn't done for me before, as they have too much bass and I didn't like the treble, finding it a bit harsh. The sound of both the 1+2 and Parterre were more along the line of what I like. Very beautiful sound, clear, open, spacious and delicate but without too much bass. I would honestly have bought them on the spot if it weren't for having ordered JH-13s. Given they are cheaper and so is the Yen, they were the best listening experience I had this weekend. People who like more of a bass kick in their music will prefer the Shures or 334s however.
At the shows, we regularly get approached by people asking, "Can you try my [something] and tell me what you think?". Phanom Slisatkorn from Thailand was one of those people. He has partnered with a friend to start Mezzo Soprano where they will be offering their own version of a modded AK100, using their selection of wire, along with various mini-to-mini docks made from high-end balanced cables. We had a chance to compare a stock AK100 to a couple of different modded version which, as many people will be familiar now, lowers the output impedance and makes it more suitable for use with multiple-balanced-armature IEMs. The guys with custom IEMs noticed the most differences between the mods, with the different wire used seeming to give a slightly different emphasis at different frequencies.
I was impressed how good the AK100 sounds, so given the discounted show price (40,000 yen or about $400) I wasn't going to miss an opportunity, so I bought one and Phanom's friend modded it for me on the spot. Given how relatively easy the mod is, I wont be surprised if we see many people doing the mod themselves or otherwise offering it. A day later, by chance I met the editor of Hong Kong's Lyra Media magazine (http://lyra-media.com
) and the sample he gave me has a whole page dedicated to discussing modding the AK100, including a mention of Head-Fi.
What would you think if a tall, burley-looking man with extensively tattooed arms offered to stick something in your ear? If that man was Jerry Harvey and the object in question was a demo version of the JH-13 or JH-16, you'd probably be most appreciative. I certainly was. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that he had made it to the show and discussing IEMs with him was enlightening. The unique aspect of his latest designs, the Freqphase system (http://www.jhaudio.com/collection/freqphase
), ensures a complete flat phase response, important to prevent different frequencies arriving in your ear canal at different times and muddying up the sound. It turns out that my disagreements with various IEMs, such as percussion sounding flat, has very likely been due to phase issues, but it hadn't made sense until Jerry explained it. The demos certainly didn't have most the issues I often encounter with IEMs, so I signed up to be fitted for a pair of JH-13s.
The latest creation from this small Japanese company is the VIDA, which stands for "Vinyl Disk Amplifier" and is a multi-function phono stage for both MC and MM cartridges. With switches for mute, degauss, mono, a subsonic filter and impedance, a separate power supply, dual-mono construction, Lundahl transformers and a unique method for generating the RIAA curve, this is a serious piece of kit for vinyl lovers. It has a serious price too of 312,900 yen (~US$3000).
They also sell a very serious DAC/pre-amp, as well as DIY headphone amps, one of which (pre-constructed rather than in kit form) is now carried by Jaben to match with Beyerdynamic headphones.
The X3 DAP was on display and ya know what? I forgot to have a listen to it! I didn't have my headphones on me when I remembered. I shall not make such a mistake again at the next show, but then I'll have IEMs which I'll be able to carry easily everywhere.
You may remember the Go-DAP which can be used as all of a portable DAC, headphone amp and battery with an iPhone. Now, however, not only are they making one for V-MODA, but have expanded their range to include a dedicated DAC version, the DD (a limited and now sold-out edition of which has the highly regarded OPA627 opamps inside). The latest version of the Go-DAP , called the X2 now also works with PCs and Android phones that support USB audio, so those of you wanting to use a Samsung phone with one now can. The big deal about this unit is, however, that it supports DSD (that is, the type of audio file used by SACD).
Final Audio Design (FAD)
They had engineering samples of two of their Pandora models available. The upper of the two models, with the round cups had smooth mids and treble but there was a weird issue with the bass, so I'll wait until the final version before having a proper listen in the future. The lower of the two models I could best describe as sounding like one of their Piano Forte IEMs, a sound signature I'm honestly at a loss to describe since they sound unlike anything else out there. However, given the unusual design with multiple drivers and hints of something smooth, clear and unique, it'll be very interesting to see, or rather hear what they come out with once production is finalised.
Joining other well-known hi-fi manufacturers, they had headphone amps, headphones and IEMs on display and, not to mention, their micro-sized speakers. Unfortunately I didn't get around to having a listen, but they are on my list to try in the future.
Joining a number of other US manufacturers, Westone had sent two members of staff to the show. I always find it fascinating to get impressions about Japan compared to the rest of the world from companies and enjoyed the chance to chat to the guys.
The M500s were on display at KEF's table, along with the M200s. Given how impressed I have been with their LS50 speakers, I'm interested in seeing what they've come up with for their headphones.
Part owned by rapper 50 Cent, SMS Audio ("Studio Mastered Sound") took the largest room with their headphones.
The new range of Extra Bass headphones took up much of their display this show. Overseas they are sold as the X Factor range, but that TV show isn't well known in Japan. As always, just about everyone at their display was an engineer of their products, rather than the marketing people often sent by other companies. I had a chance to listen to the PHA-1 amp, which had a very smooth and enjoyable sound. Impressive was the system used to attach your iPod, iPhone or the like, which used rubber straps that hook into a lip on the edges of the amp. This is much easier to manage than the usual rubber bands.
Ultimate Ears had a serious presence at the show, demonstrating their full range, including custom-fit IEMs.
New to the audio scene, if their associated company, AMR Audio isn't, they were demonstrating their amp and USB peripherals.
If you want to attract visitors to your table, one of the best ways is to have something unmissable there, such as a pair of gold-plated IEMs. They were not for sale, but they sure looked pretty.
Their 3.5mm straight and right-angled plugs have become pretty much a standard on after-market headphone cables and their power plugs much the same on power cables. Joining their headphone cable line-up for Shure and AKG is one for the Sennheiser HD-598, HD-600 and 650s headphones and others that use the same connector.
The HDVA800 was on display, though sadly the demo headphones weren't balanced. I had thought of sneaking in with my headphones and MacBook Air to have a listen before the show started, but I ran out of time. More regrettably, I couldn't borrow one, as the ones they had were all loaner units which they had to send back after the show.
The big deal of this show was the Edition 12, of which Timelord had only a single pair. Other than that were the "Romeo and Julia" Edition 8s, for those people who want a "his-and-hers" set.
Having re-vamped most of their line, from IEMs to full-sized headphones in the last year, there was plenty to try out for what is one of the biggest names in headphones in Japan. I sampled the better of their IEMs in-store a few weeks ago and while they are still quite bright, I was impressed how good they were from my Pico Power, especially given they aren't nearly as expensive as they used to be. If you like a Grado-like intense listening experience, without the on-ear discomfort, the AD1000x or AD2000x might just be the ticket too.
Got $10k, love vinyl and want a top headphone rig? Just buy the one they have on display every show, with the Clearaudio concept turntable, E.A.R. HP4 and Sennheiser HD-800s. Done! I deliberately didn't listen to this rig, because I knew it would ruin me for listening to anything else.
The big news is that the Spirit One is now available in red.
Mr Takei is now offering a unique service: IEMs with his special super tweeter attached. This is because his plug-in super tweeter is inconvenient to use with portable devices that you put in a pocket, as putting the tweeter in there will render it useless. On display was a pair of Sony XBA-1s and Apple IEMs, both modified. The idea of the super tweeter is that it increases the perceived soundstage of the music through vibrations that you'll feel through your face, rather than hear.
Musica Acoustica, importers of a variety of interesting products, had the latest Mad Dogs modified Fostex on display.
One of the other big deals this show is Bluetooth headphones, given the big improvements in Bluetooth audio. Sony wasn't the only company making them, with Focal Point (the distributors of V-MODA) showing off their Bluebuds and their unique, patented fit system.
So, as always, I wish I had 3 days to cover the show, not just one. Even 2 days last time wasn't enough! I went the whole day without eating lunch because there was too much to cover and too many people to talk to.
As always, I must thank the staff at Fujiya Avic for letting us use a room again, which was absolutely invaluable, and Sasaki-san for all the help with organising it. Also, thanks to Sean (Anakchan) for lending me his crazy 14-24mm Nikon lens for my camera. Thanks also to "Team Tokyo" -- Sean, Arnaud, ExpatinJapan, Nathan (Shigzeo) and others who turned up and hung out with us for the fun and madness.