The threat of two approaching typhoons and accompanying heavy rain did nothing to dampen the spirits of either manufacturers or the general public attending this year’s October festival. All four floors of Stadium Place Aoyama were booked out completely, including the presentation hall, which had a number of manufacturers presenting new products.
Ultrasone made a big deal of their new, limited Edition 5 headphones with their rare European Bog Oak and new angled S-Logic system. While limited to 555 units and with a price tag of around $4700 the Edition 5 is only meant as a collector’s item, Ultrasone intends the new S-Logic to filter down to new models in the future.
This year, everyone seemed to be paying attention to DSD, even manufacturers that have traditionally produced consumer digital equipment, like Korg. Sony, of course, presented the PHA-2 portable digital amplifier with DSD capability and other manufacturers showed DSD-upgraded versions of their digital products.
Another big surprise at the show was that not just one, but owners or representatives of three planar (orthodynamic) headphone companies came over from the USA. Alex Rosson and Mark Harper of Audeze were there showing their new LCD-X and XC, Dan Clark of Mr Speakers was there with the Alpha Dogs and Christopher Vick of Oppo came out with prototypes of not just their new headphones, but amps as well. That put all the current manufacturers of planar headphones, including their actual owners/designers/managers in one show, all together!
The world of both high-end universal and custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) saw a boost to its ranks. Alongside Shure’s SE846 ($999), and FitEar’s Parterre ($780), which were the highlights of the Spring show, Jerry Harvey was showing his very impressive JHAudio Roxanne, which will come in both custom and universal models with optional carbon fibre moulding. Look out for a special presentation on this on Head-Fi in the future.
A new universal IEM entrant is DITA Audio. Run by a couple of high-end audio dealers from Singapore, they spent the last two years working on The Answer, an IEM intended to overcome the limitations most IEMs have. An entirely custom single-driver unit, it is available both with and without a specially made Van Den Hul cable, The Truth, for around $800 and $500 respectively. Look out for my review of these IEMs later on.
Many more photos can be seen in the Impressions Thread
. Thanks to mtthefirst, ExpatInJapan and Anakchan for some of the photos -- between us we had three D800s on hand! Living in Japan, camera gear is just as addictive as audio gear!
L-R: Jude with his Fostex iPhone video rig. Hiroaki Kawahata of Fostex (middle), Bootsy1 and mtthefirst. The room with ALO Audio, Audeze and JHAudio among others. Late Sunday afternoon with Mark, Jude and [Name forgotten] of JHAudio.
Alongside their ever-growing collection of headphone, DAP and iOS cables is their X1 iOS DAC/amp. While not particularly remarkable-looking, it is very light. Graham Coley of Furutech was on hand to explain that they chose having less weight over a longer battery life in the design.
A quick listen to the unit using familiar music from my iPhone revealed a smooth sound lacking in harshness.
It would hard to miss either of these large and gorgeous LCD-X and XC, of which many pairs were to hand for listening at the ALO table, along with a prototype of Audeze’s DAC/amp. I think Mike’s (mkubota1’s) face says it all. We were very happy to discover that Alex Rosson and Mark Harper flew over at the last minute for the show. Also on show was their DAC/amp. Everyone was impressed by the beauty of the LCD-XC's wood cups and, not to mention, the sound from both new models.
Mike Kubota (mkubota1) tries the LCD-X and chats to Mark Harper of Audeze and Sean (Anakchan).
As we were all chatting at the ALO/Audeze table, a cute girl appeared with a unique pair of vintage headphones (at least I think they are vintage). I asked if she would mind posing with the LCD-XCs on and she kindly obliged.
Jamey Warren of HeadRoom chats to Mark. The Steampunk LCD-2s made an appearance. Paul (BayaC) listens to the LCD-XCs.
Ken Ball had the new Island USB-powered headphone DAC/amp on display, which is intended to be all of simple, inexpensive and good-sounding. A quick listen, even with the new Audeze cans, suggested that he has indeed met these goals. However, while not at the show as such, I brought the Studio Six amp over with me to pass to Anakchan. We set it up in Jude's hotel room with Anakchan's Resonessence Invicta DAC and my HD-800s, as well as the prototype Oppo planar headphones. I had a lot of fun overwhelming the guys with the sheer speed and resolution playing Friday Night in San Francisco, one of my all-time favourite albums.
Last show I had a listen to the unique VIDA phono stage
, which was impressively clear-sounding and is also very fully-featured. Soon to be released will be a matching balanced amp, the HEADA. Aurorasound is run by Shinobu Karaki, who used to work for Texas Instruments. The VIDA is making the rounds currently in Europe where it is getting very positive reviews.
I didn’t have to listen to the M8 at Michael Goodman’s table this time, as half the people I knew had one and I was regularly borrowing them to try one or another pair of headphones or IEMs. Like many community-developed projects, it has everything and the kitchen sink built in function-wise, as well as no less than 8 different configurations possible, consisting of either iOS or optical digital input (as well as regular USB) with 4 different headphone/output socket options.
Also, the price of the DACPort
, which can do a good job of powering headphones from just a USB port, has dropped in price to $300.
Having another chance to listen to their range, I was quite impressed with the sound from the D600s, especially at the new, Momentum-competitive price. The D7100s were still something of a head-scratcher for me though.
Danny and Dennis from DITA Audio were on hand to launch their new IEM, The Answer. Available in two versions, with and without the Van Den Hul The Truth cable, they aimed to make a high-end IEM without the shortcomings of multiple driver designs. Using a single custom 10mm full-range driver and a custom milled aluminium enclosure, the result is pretty impressive sonically. Not to mention, it comes presented beautifully in a box along with a good selection of accessories and tips to fine-tune the sound with. Look out for a review of these in the near future. They are presently being sold exclusively by Fujiya Avic in Japan.
The X3 DAP was on display and, once I managed to figure out the controls, I liked what I heard initially.
Final Audio Design
The final production version of the Pandora was on display (see what I did there?). Unique amongst full-sized headphones in that it uses both a balanced armature and regular dynamic driver, the result is a particularly smooth and clear sound. I really think these will be worth checking out with a good amp and DAC as they really do sound quite capable. Annoyingly I only had my AK100 there by itself, as I'd accidentally left my Pico Power switched on overnight, so I couldn't give these a good run.
Last show the queue to the FitEar booth to hear the Parterre was only matched by the queue for Shure's SE846. This year there were many people eager to hear the Monet
custom IEM, which has a different presentation to the MH335DW custom.
Taken by surprise by the number of people making and selling modified T50RPs, especially the Alpha Dogs, Fostex had a prototype of a full-sized open-backed planar headphone inside a regular TH-600/900 frame. Positive comments were heard all round about the sound from this. Also on display was a newer prototype of a portable tube amp, the HP-V1. Here you can see Hiroaki Kawahata of Fostex presiding over their tables as well as talking to Mike Ting of Headfonia and Anakchan wearing the prototypes.
As Foster, their parent company, is the OEM manufacturer of a considerable number of brands of headphones, they also had on display a variety of Hallmark decorative IEMs and headphones. I definitely mustn't let my daughter see these!
Like a number of other companies, Fostex send some of their engineers and senior managers to the show and it was a pleasure as always to meet and talk to them.
Along with their new IEMs, the RE-400 and RE-600, they had a new, inexpensive DAP, the HM-700, which has, very surprisingly, balanced output, requiring one of the above IEMs that use a 4-connector plug. I plugged in a mini-SD card from my AK100 and discovered that it would only play my CD quality files. Dr Fang Bian told me that the focus was on good sound first, so the output stage was the biggest priority. By limiting it to non-high-res files, complex electronics and a large battery weren’t necessary.
Suffice to say, from what I heard of the DAP/RE-600 combo, there is something to be said for that philosophy.
The HM-901 was also on display with no less than 4 different amp modules.
Given how small they are, it was amusing to see all the iFi products in a tiny rack. Not only the DAC and headphone amp, but a tube buffer/pre-amp and phono stage, next to a beautiful red Thorens TD 209. iFi’s Thorsten Loesch, an industry veteran, was on hand to answer questions and had much interesting to say about vinyl.
Uncle Wilson had the Cavalli Liquid Gold feeding a pair of JPS Labs Abyss headphones, along with an assortment of balanced headphone amps, including a balanced Beyer T1 rig.
I always associated Jabra with mobile (cell) phone headsets but I saw they have branched out into headphones and neat portable speakers.
Jerry Harvey was once again present to show his latest creation, the carbon fibre Roxanne. I don’t recall anyone who wasn’t impressed with the almost faultless un-IEM-like presentation nor the adjustable bass and treble. The degree of improvement over my JH-13 Freqphase was wallet-destroying scary.
Like a number of other well-known hi-fi manufacturers, KEF has entered into the headphone and personal audio market. More interesting to me at the moment than their headphones are their active speakers. With a USB powered DAC as the only input, they are aimed squarely at the newer, computer-savvy market as a one-stop solution.
I almost missed Korg's new DAC/amps and headphones, as I'm used to associating them with audio recording gear. Their new products are also aimed at the DSD market.
A more interesting entry this year was KuraDa with unique-looking wood headphones. I forgot to go back and listen to them, but a couple of the other guys did. I gathered they are still in development somewhat.
My first ever high-end headphones, purchased back in the early ‘90s were a pair of MB Quarts. They survived 15 years before the foam in the pads went flat and I was prompted to hunt for something new. Now look where I am! Anyhow, the headphone division of MB Quart now exists under a new name and makes updated versions of basically the same headphones they have for a couple of decades. Their 800 series are designed to be robust — extremely so, tolerating being twisted, stepped on and even run over, as demonstrated by their local distributor.
Dan Clark from Mr Speakers was present at the Musica Acoustica table with a pair of his 3D-printed Alpha Dog headphones. Since their impressive performance has been much talked-about already, I shall leave you with pictures of the reaction from Nathan (Shigzeo) upon listening to music with them while we were at dinner. It was clearly amazing what Dan has achieved with a complete re-design of the cups but no change to the driver at all.
It is a shame that, at least at present, the owner is restricting sales to Japan only, though visiting foreigners appear to be most welcome to visit the shop and purchase them. However, ALO Audio has partnered with Olasonic to sell the Flat 4 Nami, which is going under the name "Olasonic Nami
". The Nami is apparently a Flat 4 Kuro tuned by Olasonic, but looks like a Sui. You can read more about this IEM in this thread
Imagine you could have stunning planar headphone sound, without the weight. Oppo came out of nowhere with what looks like an essentially finished product at Canjam. They were at the Tokyo show too not only with their new orthos, but a balanced amp too! Given the popularity and value of their universal players, we can’t be enthusiastic enough about this. The only thing missing with these is: The right price.
Another significant change slowly making its way through the headphone market is the use of what we call “Shure connectors” or rather, small co-axial connectors on headphones, not just IEMs. Sony are using a keyed version on their new IEMs and I recall at least one full-size headphone maker switching as well. Oyaide had, for something different, brightly coloured versions of their cables with this connector on display.
While not known outside Japan (as far as I know) I noticed that SAEC, locally well-known for their interteconnect cables have also taken to making headphone cables, adding to the list of local manufacturers entering this market.
As always, the show is a chance to meet the engineers of the products on display, whether Nao Tsunoda of their headphone division or his counterpart who developed the PHA-2. The latter includes support for DSD, quite unique for a portable amp. Recent concern over the compatibility of products between divisions (the new BA IEMs were initially not compatible with their DAPs and Android phones) is in the process of being resolved, with the divisions having moved closer to each other and increasing collaboration. The new high-res audio Walkman, the NW-ZX1 is testament to this.
A nondescript t-shirted foreigner was hanging about the Skullcandy booth without any form of ID. I might have overlooked him but Jude introduced him as ?????, lead engineer at Skullcandy! ??? comes across as a genuine headphone enthusiast, which is very encouraging for such a popular brand.
TEAC is probably more well-known in Japan for their high-end Esoteric brand but has made a strong entry in to the lower end hi-fi market with a number of components, including a DSD-capable DAC. The staff member here was certainly dressed very appropriately for that!
Gavin Chiu of Tralucent was present at the show this year and we had plenty of time to chat about audio and my long-term 1plus2 loaner pair. I was pleased to hear that Gavin had working to steadily improve the design, tweaking the sound slightly and improving the nozzle where the tips sit so they wouldn’t come off as easily. Gavin is a true enthusiast and we very much enjoying having him join us at the show and in our wander around Tokyo.
Rare European Bog Oak and a $4700 price tag were what stuck in our minds after the Edition 5 launch. That and the new S-Logic with angled ports. Both Michaels from Ultrasone were present to talk to us and admitted that the Edition 5 is more a collectors’ item and technology demonstration than anything. When a member of the Japanese press asked “Where does Ultrasone see itself in 10 years’ time?” I suggested “Edition 52?” which brought out a laugh from the CEOs.
All the same, the Edition 5s are very light, surprisingly so, and beautifully crafted. I regret that my portable rig was not up to the task of getting a handle on the effectiveness of the new S-Logic, but with time it will trickle down into the regular models and we’ll all be able to hear for ourselves. It does do quite a good job of making their closed models sound more open.
Included with the Edition 5s is a very nice box which includes space for an iRiver AK100 or AK120 (not included, but shown fitted).
The ever developing maker of iOS DACs and amps caught the tube bug this year and had a couple of prototype models on display. I felt these sounded nicer than their regular solid-state counterparts with my JH-13s. While the TMT with its full-size tube is too large to be seriously portable, it would certainly make a nice transportable amp. It'll be interesting to see what they come out with in the future.
Weird and wonderful
The show wouldn't be complete without some of the more interesting things that turned up. When I sat down in the recreation area to munch on a rice ball I found myself sitting next to a bunch of what I could describe as geeks with pairs of 3D printed headphones. Apparently there is a kit of parts available, pre-printed, which you only need to assemble to make a cheap pair of headphones. One guy had a DIY portable tube amp in a cardboard box and there were the usual collection of weird and wonderful amps and Sony Discmans.
We also ran into Head-Fi member KANA who came complete with a battery-powered, lit name badge around his neck. He brought with him a pair of headphones made from some or other old-fashioned audio device...or maybe it was torture device. The reaction to the sound from them was hilarious.
Last but not least was Ayanami Rei, shown here sporting Hifiman headphones. Despite our best efforts, she wouldn't talk to us. She seemed to like the other headphone girls better.