HERE WE GO AGAIN! For the fifth time running I've been lucky enough to attend the semi-annual FUJIYA-AVIC Headphone Festival. In the past when I've written about these I've asked: "Will I ever get tired or bored of going to these?" I think I will stop asking myself that because I have now been to enough of them that I know what the answer will always be- NEVER! There is always something new or something old that I haven't tried. And there are plenty of wonderful people to meet- old acquaintances and new. As with my previous write-ups, I have included (audio-related) snippets not directly related to the show including a stop I made before Tokyo.
The Shures were feeding off of the Fostex HP-A8. Egg timers were used to regulate listening time and insure that everyone got a fair chance to listen. The Shure marketing team is very smart and creative in this way. They are also the ones who give out schwag in exchange for your vote of your favorite Shure IEM/ headphone at the show. Note that the IEMs in the pictures are still prototypes, although from an acoustic standpoint they are the final product.
Westone finally came out with something new this year: Their 'Adventure Series' ADV Alpha. These are a departure from their 'W' series, as it uses a dynamic driver. More specifically it has a 'Micro Driver' which is basically a really tiny dynamic driver that we are starting to see in a lot of other IEMs such as the Yamaha EPH-100 and the JVC HA-FXD70/80. In the Westone it is encased in a tough weather-resistant housing with a really nice set of cables to match that durability. For me though, the more interesting news is the tips that go with these. That's because they are compatible with the 'W' series and you can purchase them separately.
They are color-coded by size and have a texture that is more Shure Olive than Comply foam. That is to say that they seem a bit more durable than the later and possibly the former too. As a user of the Shure Olives on my Westone 4s, these are something I'd like to try since they have the small nozzle opening and I won't need to use any sort of sleeve to make them fit as I do now with the Olives. With the 'Adventure Series' also comes a new silicone tip that has internal ribs or 'STAR' as they call it. These are also compatible with the 'W' series.
But the big consolation was that this place happened to be in a five-story mall, of which at least half of the stores were mid to extreme high-end audio shops. Not only was the equipment in these places mind-blowing, but some of the showroom floors and listening rooms were just amazing- the sort of stuff you seen in magazines or brochures.
So I was roaming one of the larger malls in Singapore. And just on a long-shot I decided to look at the store directory to see if they had any audio shops. No, I don't do this everywhere I go... honest! And wouldn't you know it- there was a store called 'Stereo'. Not much ambiguity there! But was it 'home stereo' or 'home theater'?
As it turned out, it was a headphone shop- smack in the middle of an otherwise normal (but rather big) mall. It was one of the larger headphone shops I've been to anywhere. I would definitely say one of the nicest too- nicely laid out displays, huge selection, iMac sources, and iFi components at their listening bar.
I even got the chance to listen to the JVC HA-DX2000 (available only in Asia, minus Japan) alongside the Denon D5000. Another piece of unobtainium that I got to hear was the Audio Technica ATH-W3000ANV.
Final Audio Design
Ever since discovering the design philosophy behind them, the Piano Fortes have been on my wish list of IEMs. This time I even bought a pair of their super-cheap-o Piano Forte II. These are the plastic version of the beauties you see above. But the only thing they have in common is the beginning part of their name. The IIs are around $27 USD, while their metal counterparts start at ~$650. And although they are shaped differently their tuning is somewhat similar: Neither are aimed at reference neutrality or even with modern-day pop music in mind. If you don't understand that, you will not 'get' these at all and think they sound awful.
Final Audio showed their upcoming headphones in prototype form. I don't think they were finalized in terms of sound. But rest assured, much like their top-tier IEMs they will not be aimed at cans such as Sennheiser, Sony, or anything 'conventional' sounding.
The Pandora 4 (left) had a slightly echoey sound to it. Their construction is very nice and reminded me a bit of the Sennheiser Momentum. The 3.5mm right-angle plug means this is probably meant for portable use. MSRP will be ~¥40,000*. The Pandora 6 (right) had a bit of a vintage audio sound to it. There was something a little strange going on in the midrange which led to this somewhat out-of-head soundstage. I'm not sure if this was intentional, recalling the philosophy behind some of their other products. Also, since these are not final versions I would reserve judgement until they are. I am eager to hear what these will sound like. MSRP will be ~¥60,000*. Never a dull moment from FAD! (*currently ¥100 equals about $1.)
Yup- that's me finally getting the chance to hear the legendary TakeT H2! To be really honest, I wasn't getting it. Going into this I remember reading about how difficult and crucial it was to have these in just the right position on your head in order to get the proper sound out of them. And judging from everything that I have read about them and comparing that to what I heard, I'm pretty sure I need to spend more time with these. I feel it's a bit like those 3D autostereogram posters- where everyone seems to get it but you; so you keep trying. You can check out Jude's own Head-Fi TV take on them here.
Both headphones were a bit too bass-heavy for my tastes. But considering the firm clamping force, thick cable, and 3.5mm jacks, these are clearly meant for street duty. So I'm sure ambient noise and music genre has a lot to do with the tuning of this headphone. The SZ2000s actually seemed to have a bit of a woody tone to them which is reminiscent of their regarded DX1000. I don't think you'll find a bit of wood on these though. But I'd give them an A+ for build-quality and their heavy-duty construction.
I remember at the last few shows hearing some headphones that were not made by the usual suspects and thinking to myself: Though they may look like just another company trying to get into the game or even another Beats clone, some of these things may surprise you. TDK was a brand that had little or no headphone brand awareness around these parts (Head-Fi and the U.S.); yet they surprised me with a few of their products. So this time I finally got around to looking past the candy-colored plasticky materials (and the not-so-bad-looking reps) and listened to a few of these.
These 'SMS Audio - Street by 50' (the full name if I'm not mistaken) headphones have equally perplexing model names: 'Over-Ear', 'On-Ear', and 'DJ Pro Performance'. They sound more like descriptions to me. My notes on the sound: ('Over-Ear') "These sound like Beats; maybe even more than Beats themselves," ('On-Ear') "These actually sound decent, not horrible/ quite good," ('DJ Pro') "I think these actually sound the best… well-balanced… nudged close to enthusiast territory."
Fostex is getting closer than ever to releasing the HP-V1. I got to listen to it and although the voicing is not final, it added a really nice warmth on top of the sound of the HP-P1. As reported elsewhere, this is a tube amp-only unit; no DAC. One really nice thing about it is that it has an input jack on both sides. Why don't more amp manufacturers do this?
Listening to the TH600 back-to-back with the TH900 just isn't fair. The TH600 is a really nice headphone by itself- but the TH900's versatility and ability to blend its 'WOW factor' with some neutrality and balance makes them a perfectly legitimate end-game headphone. Owning the TH600 would be like having a Porsche 911 but knowing that there is the 911 GT3. Fostex also had their new IEM on hand. It has a dynamic driver and seems tuned a bit towards the bassy side. The cable and IEM housing are exquisite. Pricing is lower-mid tier (relatively speaking) at ~$100USD.
Soul by Ludacris
Onto more celebrity headphones- Soul by Ludacris. I think I was actually more impressed by these than with the SMSs. The SL300 has noise canceling, which I though was mandatory because without it the headphone didn't sound as good. Even with it on there was some selective noise leakage which sounded a bit odd at times. The SL150 (cheaper, no noise canceling) sounded better to me. In fact, in my notes I have: "…probably one of the best voiced celeb phones I've heard yet." That cheapish creaky plastic seems to plague all of these headphones- no exception here. However, it is my opinion that the days of one headphone company owning this market are numbered. (According to the WSJ, 'Beats' were 40% of all U.S. headphone sales and 70% of premium headphone sales over last Xmas.)
It's too bad that the tips are proprietary and cannot be replaced with other brands. But I suppose the extra-large driver opening makes that necessary.
Just kidding! On this trip, thanks to a very favorable exchange rate, I decided to buy some stuff. That started with a trip to FUJIYA-AVIC and a couple of listening sessions- trying a few different amplifiers and settling on this SR-507/SRM-600 set-up. Both were used, but in mint condition. In fact, they had 3-4 pairs of used 507s to pick from.
The fun part was carrying it back on the airplane. No matter how well-packed, I wasn't about to check anything in- especially after seeing this:
Another "I finally got to hear…" was the JH3A. Wow! There is just lots of everything- "very dynamic" is what I have in my notes. You get the feeling that you're hearing everything. But I also felt that it might have been a little too aggressive at times. I'd have to spend more time with them to be sure of this.
It was nice to see the IEM legend Jerry Harvey at the show! It's always good to meet the people behind the products that we like; and they turn out to be really nice. This is definitely the case with JH Audio. His enthusiasm and positivity jump out at you- kind of like the JH-3A? Even though it has nothing to do with good sound, it's nice to give your hard-earned money to a guy like this.
Acoustune is a new company that was buried behind a crowd of people waiting to hear the new KEF headphones and FitEar Parterre. From memory and according to their data sheet, this is a Hong Kong-based company that designs their (amplifier) circuits in Japan and builds their products in China- a true multi-national. Again from their literature: "Embedded unique analogue acoustic circuit "TUBE3D" simulated through research for tube sound, delivering with "sound feeling of live performance" special acoustic portrait." This amp had a particular appeal to me because the processor's effect was subtle yet noticeable. Generally speaking, and especially when it comes to electronics, I am more of a neutrality first kind of guy. The TUBE3D circuitry, which is switchable, definitely made the sound more expansive and lively. I was trying to determine whether this came at the expense of other things like details or coherence. It was hard to tell if it did or not- which to me is good. It means they didn't over-do it. Still in prototype form, it will be interesting to see the final product.
They also had a prototype headphone with a built-in tube amplifier! Yes- and amazingly it did not feel warm to the touch and has a claimed battery life of ~10 hours. Initially I asked myself what the point of this was. But then I figured it would be one way of getting that tube sound straight from your iPhone/DAP output- no external (tube) amp needed.
ADL had their X1 DAC and a new set of headphones as well. The headphones actually sounded quite good. I didn't get a long enough listen to get a solid impression. But if you see them around, they're definitely worth an audition.
This is ORB's portable version of their JADE amplifier, appropriately name JADE to go. Its sound has a nice bit of warmth to it, not unlike the my iQube. I would consider it if I didn't already have the later.
No- these are not the same headphones. They're actually the ATH-AD-X-series from Audio Technica. Getting to listen to them all side by side was nice because it allowed me to hear their similarities as well as the gradual improvements as you went up the line. In short, I think the AD900X is a bargain and the AD1000x is the price point sweet-spot. But this being Head-Fi and all, I'd eat Top Ramen for a while and get the AD2000X. My only reservations about the AD2000X, which probably applies to all of these, are the large pad contact area and shallow pad depth.
One of the other big debuts at this show (that I didn't happen to miss) was the Ultrasone Edition 12. This is definitely a different headphone than the ED10, despite it's similar appearance. The sound leans a bit more towards neutral than the ED10. As a result, I think this headphone might be a bit less polarizing than the ED10. Although the velour pads on this headphone were completely comfortable, I prefer the leather on the ED10 for it's more luxurious appearance. The same can be said about the wood inlay (on the '10).
There is always some vinyl playing at these events. Usually it is just to garner attention and is being used as the source for whatever is on display. However, this setup is showcasing the Aurorasound VIDA phono preamp which is being fed by a Garrard 401 deck.
Garrard decks are popular at these places, as are the Technics SP10/15s. When I initially walked in, the counter in front was covered with various cartridges and headshells. I asked if I could take a photo of this back wall and was politely waved off. But as I was leaving, the gentleman asked if I would like to take a photo: He said he didn't want anyone to see the scattered mess of audio parts on the table earlier!
This would be the digital room, dedicated primarily to PC audio. I barely spent time in here. #notenoughtime
DIY & Vintage
This is the DIY group which also has a good dose of vintage thrown in. Again, I've always walked past these guys hoping someday I would have the time to stop and listen to some of these headphones, if only for a short while.
Well this time I did and I can totally see the appeal of these. Not just about nostalgia or rarity, the sound signature of these is often very different from today's headphones- typically in the upper-mid and high-frequency range. The silibance that some complain about in many of today's headphones is not there in a lot of these. To be fair, it does sometimes come at the cost of detail and other qualities. Nonetheless, they are very enjoyable to listen to, and it's nice to see that these things can be enjoyed for a long time.
And speaking of vintage headphones, my friend that I met a year ago at this show who likes vintage headphones brought some of his latest acquisitions to our private Head-Fi room on the upper floor. These Victor (JVC) HP-D35s are from 1980 but sounded like they were made yesterday. That is to say, although I felt the sound was a tad on the bright side which might have been because the flat pads didn't provide an ideal seal with my ears, in terms of overall clarity, range and balance, these could compete with many good headphones made today. We also noticed that the cable was freakishly supple and well-preserved for a 30-year-old can.
This headphone that looks like some sort of head brace is the Trio (Kenwood) KH-73 from 1977. I really liked this headphone. It not only sounded good for being ~35 years old- it just sounded good, period.
I think part of it was because of the adjustments. Not only can you adjust the height of the drivers, but you can also adjust the amount of pressure that each cup applies to your ear, resulting in both a good seal and excellent comfort. This is absolutely one of those cases of "Why don't they make them like this anymore?"
A few days after the Headphone Festival, I met up with my friend again to visit some second-hand shops. There are quite a few of these scattered around Tokyo (and I presume throughout Japan as well), and this is where he finds most of his vintage treasures- often at ridiculous prices.
These AKG K140 are NOS. He actually bought these from a guy at the Headphone Festival. If I remember correctly they were purchased and used about three times and then put back into their box. If they look brand new from the pictures, it's because they pretty much were. I listened to them via a transformer box since they are 600 ohms.
Hard Off is a chain of second hand electronics stores that carries pretty much anything that runs on electricity. With many of the items being fairly old, it was very nostalgic to see some of these things. The thought, "they don't make them like this anymore," came up more than once.
On the way back from having lunch with my friend, I stopped by Ocharaku. The last time I wrote about them, I doubt many people heard of this small IEM (and tea!) company. But now, it seems like they are well-recognized in the upper-echelon of IEMs thanks to their Flat-4. The latest version of the Flat-4 is called the 'Kuro'. While that name was also used by another Japanese brand (Pioneer) for their highly-regarded HDTVs a while back, that was because the word could mean 'black' and referred to the deep blacks that are desired by home theater enthusiasts. In the case of the Flat-4, the character used for 'Kuro' (玄) is not that of the color black (黒)； but literally translates to 'mysterious'. So don't think for a moment that this IEM sounds dark because it is definitely not. My basic impressions of the 'Kuro' is that it has a slightly higher degree of clarity when compared to the 'Sui'. The bass on the 'Sui' seems a bit looser and thicker, which I like for certain musical genres. But for an all-around IEM I think I'd pick the 'Kuro' for it's slightly better defined midrange and treble. (Above photo front to back: Flat-4 'Sui', Flat-4 'Kuro', Donguri)
The main difference between the 'Kuro' and the 'Sui' (and 'Kaede') is the use of a liquid crystal polymer coating that is applied to the inside of the IEM's housing and phase correction tube. Think of it as Dynamat for your IEM. Also, the drivers on the 'Kuro' are actually the ones found in the 'Kaede'- different from those in the 'Sui'. In the above photo and a bit blurred in the foreground are a couple of the Tornado Equalizers that are used in the upcoming single-driver Donguri. The same technology can also be found in the modified Audio Technica ATH-CKM55 that sell for ~$100USD.
These are a few of the prototypes that were used to study the effects of IEM cabinet dampening. The pair on the right shows some material that was applied to the outside of the Flat-4, as it was easier this way to try different materials during testing. On the actual 'Kuro' the dampening material (M2052) is on the inside of the cabinet. Theoretically, you can play around with this technique to tune your own IEMs.
Well, that's about it. To be honest, at times when I am writing these posts I sort of feel like I should work for the Japanese Travel Bureau. But what can I say- I'll leave you with this picture of Yodobashi @Akihabara. Many of you already know this as the electronics department store in Japan where you can buy everything including shavers, watches, books, Gundam models, and yes- stereo gear. That (photo below) is about eight, 6-foot sections of headphones- not including IEMs or their high-end stuff which is on the other side.
Edited by Mkubota1 - 7/22/13 at 11:35pm