CanJam SoCal 2015
Impressions and Thoughts from a First-Timer
As I start to compile my thoughts on what has been a jam packed weekend, I find that I am going to need to separate them into two sections. I will discuss the gear, and I will discuss all the rest of the CanJam experience. You see, CanJam ended up being about much more than just gear. It was an amazing experience where I got to meet like-minded folks, talk about many different things, and make some new friends.
This really ended up being much longer than I first expected so I wouldn’t blame you for just hitting <CTRL>+F and skipping to the bits that interest you. Seriously, it’s fine; there will not be a quiz at the end.
First up, what everyone wants to know about first:
Part 1: The Gear Section
Before I talk about the gear that I came to see, though, I want to just touch on the gear that I brought with me: the HiFiMan HE-560, Audio-GD NFB-28, SoundMAGIC HP100 and Fiio X5.
HiFiMan HE-560 (with Focus-A pads) – This is my daily driver at home and it doesn’t need much description. The important thing is that it’s the culmination of my Head-fi journey to date. It’s everything I like in a headphone: a balanced, reference level sound but a little on the bright/fun side; a comfortable headphone that’s not too heavy or intrusive; an extremely detailed headphone from the sub-bass through the top of the treble. I mention this to give you an understanding of my tastes.
Audio-GD NFB-28 – This fully balanced DAC and Amp combo is my current workhorse at home as well. It’s detailed and expansive, with enough power to make the HE-560 shine. It’s also a very smooth implementation of the Sabre DAC so it’s not too harsh and it works well with the HE-560’s treble so it never gets too hot.
This combo was setup in my hotel room and I made sure to give it a few minutes’ listen every morning and evening. The goal was to reset my brain burn-in so that I could listen to all the new gear with my brain tuned to what I normally like. This was really important to me and I believe it helped.
On a side note, whenever I listened to this in my room after a long day of listening to some top-of-the-line stuff like the Ragnarok/Yggdrasil or a Stax SR-009, I still found myself enjoying the setup immensely. I think it says a lot for the setup.
SoundMAGIC HP100 (with Shure 1540 pads) – This is my daily driver at work and my portable. I love it because it’s not great at anything but it’s good at everything. It’s a closed can -- comfortable, easy to drive, portable, and has a very balanced sound signature. I brought this to use to test DACs and Amps with something familiar. Obviously I wanted to test all the great headphones too, but I wanted a baseline.
And wow, this thing really held its own. I haven’t heard anything yet under $400 that I’d replace it with. Listening to it on nice gear really brought out its strengths: a wonderful sub-bass with an otherwise balanced sound. Tyll measured these recently and I find that they match up reasonably well with the Harmon response curve. Perhaps that’s why I find them so enjoyable.
Fiio X5 – My workhorse DAP. I used it as a desktop DAC at work and as my portable when I need something on the go. It has a headphone out, line out and digital (coax) out. I brought enough cables to use it with all three should the need arise (which it did!). It had all my FLAC files loaded up as well as a special playlist of my test tracks.
I brought it to use as a source with anything and everything. How well can a DAP drive the HE-1000? Can I listen to my songs with that Schiit Ragnarok/Yggdrasil stack? How good does this portable amp sound with my DAP? All of these things were answered and the battery was only half empty by the end of the day. Awesome little device!
The Show Gear
Now on to the gear that I saw. I’m going to go through this in alphabetical order just to make sure I don’t miss anything. If there was any vendor that I didn’t mention, it means I didn’t have the opportunity to check them out. Also, given the size of this post, I’m going to try to keep my impressions relatively concise. I’m happy to expand on anything should anyone want more detail.
Abyss Headphones – I have to admit, I didn’t give them as much time as they deserved. They sounded amazing, but knowing the price point, I didn’t feel the need to waste their time or my own. I’ll say that I was relatively unimpressed until the gentleman there showed me how to wear them properly…then I was like, “Ooooh, now I get it!” They are epic. And WAY more than I’d spend on a headphone.
Affordable Audio / King Sound – These guys were demoing an affordable electrostatic headphone and amp combo. I believe the SS amp version was only $1000 for the pair and the tube version was $1200 (though don’t quote me on it). I was really impressed at the electrostatic sound at that price point.
They were confident enough to have a Stax SR-009 on the same table for comparison. Obviously, the Stax was better, but at more than 4 times the price (taking the amp into account makes it even more!) it had better be. The important part is that it got a fair bit of the way there for a fraction of the price.
The build quality was rather cheap and the fit was pretty bad for me. But compromises must be made to get the price that low. I think for anyone looking for that pure electrostatic sound without breaking the bank, these are really intriguing.
ALO Audio – These guys were showing off a new portable Amp (the Rx), which I didn’t listen to. But they were also showing off their new ALO Continental Dual Mono amp and DAC. This thing sounded GOOD. It’s a tube amp running in dual mono mode with balanced ins and outs. It’s also got a built-in Wolfson DAC. You can find all the specs in the linked thread.
The sound was outstanding. Warm without losing detail or getting too syrupy. TONS of bass but all under control and non-intrusive. I was really really impressed with the sound. It’s also built like a brick, beautiful looking, and made in the USA (if you’re into that sort of thing).
It’s on the pricey side at $1500, and I think the obvious competition is the Chord Hugo. While the Hugo has it beat handily in the DAC department, the amp sections are no competition (to be clear: the ALO wins easily). I think when taken together, the overall sound of the ALO is significantly better than that of the Hugo. And at $1000 cheaper, that $1500 price tag isn’t looking so bad after all.
Astell & Kern – This is another table where I didn’t waste too much time because everything was priced in the region where I wouldn’t even consider it (a $2500 DAP? Really?). But @moedawg convinced me to give the JH Audio Layla a try and boy, I’m glad I did.
As an open, over-ear headphone guy, I’m not too into IEM’s. At $2500, these things are competing with the likes of the LCD-3 and the HE-1000. Well yeah, they definitely sound like $2500! With twelve (!!!) balanced armature drivers in each ear, these have the whole spectrum of sound covered wonderfully… they’re also massive. But who cares, they sound fantastic! Still, if I were to spend that much, I’d probably get a headphone rather than an IEM. Sorry, that’s just how I roll!
Atomic Floyd – I’m going to do my best to keep this one brief, but I had so much fun at this table that it may be tough. The founder of the company, James, was running the table. He’d flown in from England and this was his first trade show in America as I understand it. We must have talked for half an hour about his business and how they are meticulous about quality and care about the environmental impact they’re having (if you’re into that sort of thing). They even monitor the working conditions in the factories where they’re made! It’s clear that he cares very much about putting out a quality product.
All that’s good and well, but does he succeed? Well in short, I think so. These are IEM’s, which again I’ll say that I’m not generally into. I tend to stick to the $200 and under (waaay under) price bracket.
The ones he showed me were just beautiful. The casings were all metal, with lots of detail put into the texture and finish. The cables, in a gorgeous red, were sleeved up to the Y split (in order to prevent tangles) and then rubber to the ears (in order to reduce microphonics). The connector, the Y split, and the inline remote were all metal and very high quality feeling. Quality? Hell yes.
How about the sound? Well, before he handed me anything he asked me about my sound signature preference and then handed me the one that he felt matched best. And boy did it! The HiDefDrum is a semi-open IEM (!!!) which gave it a very spacious soundstage for an IEM! It also was very easy to get a good fit and deal, thanks to its unique shaping. The sound was really balanced and flat, with slightly elevated bass. I felt that it lacked a bit of extension at the bottom, but that was a small weakness for an otherwise excellent sounding $199 IEM. SQ? You bet.
I also had a chance to demo the SuperDart, which was a step up in price and overall SQ. But of course James had nailed my sound preference perfectly. While, I think it sounded excellent with crazy bass and sparkly treble, the slightly V-shaped sound is not as appealing to me as the more balanced HiDefDrum. The SuperDarts Titanium were made of titanium, expensive, classy and sounded great.
Overall I came away extremely impressed with these IEM’s. They were one of the surprise hits of the show for me. James was a really great guy to talk to and I really got the feeling that he CARES and wants to make the best quality product he can. It was refreshing to see that level of quality in both build and sound at that price level. Kudos, James!
I also feel compelled to mention that the Dunu Titan 1 IEM is a clone of the Atomic Floyd HiDefDrum, which was developed eight years ago. James is too English to make a big deal of it, but I find it a little upsetting that someone as genuine as he can be taken advantage of like that with no repercussions. It’s the nature of the business but that doesn’t make it morally correct. I encourage anyone considering the Dunus to instead consider the originals.
(I did not do a good job of keeping it brief, sorry!)
Audeze – These were at many, many tables around the show so there was plenty of opportunity to listen to all the models. But the big question in my mind was this: how do the EL-8’s sound now?
As some of you know, I was less than impressed with them after CES. I found the open-back model had issues with clamp force, peaky highs and a weird disconnected feeling to the sound. The closed-back model had all these problems to a greater degree and was pretty bad (sorry guys!).
Since then, they’ve made some tweaks to the design and gone into full production. I’m happy to say that the clamp force and peaky treble has been resolved. I think these sound significantly improved since CES. Unfortunately, I think they still sound… weird. There were at least four of us sitting around at dinner on Saturday who said the same thing. We think it’s maybe something with the mids?
I don’t know, but it just sounds a little off. And at that price range, it’s competing with the excellent Oppo PM-2 and HiFiMan HE-560 (MSRP is a little higher but they can be found in the $700 price range), which are both two amazing headphones. Unfortunately, the EL-8 just doesn’t hold up at the price point IMO.
Audio Plus – These guys were showing off the Focal Spirit Pro and SPL Phonitor. Tyll is a big fan of the Focal so I was eager to see what the hype was about. I’d tried it at CES and found it to be… unmemorable. I was hoping I could give it another chance here to see what was up.
To quote myself from earlier, I found the cups to be way too small for comfort, but that wasn't the issue. The issue was how unclean it sounded. It just sounded muddy or distorted or something. I listened out of my X5, which drove even the HE1000 to wonderful sounds, and the Spirit Pro just sounded... bad.
Not sure what's up with that. One time, I chalk it up to random bad pair. Twice, I start to wonder.
Audioquest – The Nighthawk was one of the more anticipated headphones, though at $599 it wasn’t garnering the attention of the new flagships. Still, I was eager to try these out. They’re another eco-friendly company (if you’re into that kind of thing) and they use a lot of cool new tech in the headphone. The grill is 3D printed in a pattern that matches the diffusion pattern in a butterfly’s wing! WTF, how cool is that?!
I can say that it’s the most comfortable headphone I’ve ever worn. It feels like fluffy marshmallows caressing the side of your fact and top of your head. Effortless fit and seal. What a pleasure to wear!
Unfortunately, I found the sound to be a little sub-par for the price. It’s really disappointing because I want to like these, but I just don’t. The bass was overpowering and leaked all over the mids. At that price, that’s just not acceptable. Sorry, fellas. :-/
Auralic – These guys made the Vega and Taurus II DAC and Amp (respectively). They’re TOTL and sound like it. And they’re priced like it. It was a pleasure to listen to them but I didn’t give them much thought, seeing as they were way out of my price range.
Aurender – Another surprise for me was the fantastic Aurender FLOW DAC/Amp/Storage device. It’s gorgeous, well-built, simple to use, versatile and… it sounds really good! The folks showing it off were really enthusiastic and friendly. This is one of the smoothest Sabre DAC implementations I’ve ever heard; I was very surprised to find out it was a Sabre.
I admit that I was really hoping to win one of these at the drawing because I can’t purchase it at $1299. I highly recommend checking this sexy little gem out!
Cavalli Audio – We’ve all heard of Cavalli amps. We’ve all dreamed of owning one. Hearing that there was going to be a new sub-$1000 Cavalli amp was a pleasant surprise. Hearing that it’s going to be $500-700, even more so. Hearing that there’s also going to be an even cheaper portable was eye-popping.
So how were the Liquid Silicon and Liquid Carbon? As good as you’d expect. Not much more to say there. This is a really big deal and I think there will be a lot of these sold.
By the way, it was wonderful meeting the man himself, Alex Cavalli. He was like a proud papa showing off his newest creation and he really seemed to enjoy how excited everyone was about the new products, despite his obvious reserved nature.
Oh and there was a Liquid Gold over at the Mr Speakers table that was paired with an Aurelic Vega (and the Ether, obviously). This might have been my favorite setup of the show.
Chord Electronics – Well I heard the Hugo at CES and was blown away. I didn’t want to listen to it again and have to struggle with the desire to buy it. It was touch-and-go for a week or two, but my wallet survived intact. I didn’t want to go through that again!
Creative – They were showing off the new X7 and I know all about it. It’s currently one of the best gaming DAC/Amps you can get. If you want the best but don’t want to spend $3000, get the second best at $400: the X7.
Echobox – As some of you know, I don’t have the greatest history with these guys. I won’t go into details (it’s on the internet, you can find the details if you want) but let’s just say that I disagree with their sales methods.
That said, I am still curious about their new DAP, the Explorer X1. On paper it offers a lot, the highlight being an Android-based DAP that can use any Android audio app like Tidal or Spotify. It’s shaped like a flask to fit well in the pocket and give it a touch of class (if you’re into that kind of thing). It’s got (effectively) the same DAC as the Fiio X5. And its target price is an astonishing $350.
So despite our history, I took the opportunity to stealthily hide my name tag and go give it a demo. It’s a pre-production unit so obviously there are going to be some niggles, but overall it was in great shape. As expected, it sounds very similar to my X5, which I A/B’ed with extensively. The Echobox is slightly darker with more pronounced bass and recessed highs. Nothing crazy, just a different flavor (I prefer a bit brighter, as I’ve mentioned, but I could understand if someone preferred the alternate tuning).
The OS was responsive and it drove my HP100 just fine. There is definitely room for improvement in some areas, but they had heard all my feedback from others and will be correcting it.
Overall, it’s shaping up to be a great device for the price. I think the big advantage of the Echobox over the X5 is obviously the Android OS with its ability to stream from the net. The big advantage of the X5 is its versatility to be used as a USB DAC and its multiple different output modes. For the price, I think both are great. Congrats to Echobox, I think they’ve got a winner on their hands if they can get the details down before release.
On a side note, I was really amused when Gilly wanted to demo MY headphones against his DT770’s. “Now you’re the exhibitor for me!” lol
ENIGMAcoustics – Yeah, baby! The Dharma 1000 is my top pick of the show! Amongst the headphones being shown, most of the hype was surrounding the big three: the HE-1000, the Ether, and the Dharma. It’s a hybrid electrostatic/dynamic headphone and it is awesome. Oh and you don’t need a magical electrostatic amp to drive them either.
I’m going to quote myself again here: Dharma is the cheapest of the three headphones mentioned above ("only" $1200) and, while it's not the most neutral or reference of the three, it is really fun and I had a really emotional/visceral reaction to the electrostatic mids and highs. The only thing there that it sounded like was the Stax SR-007 and SR-009. Except this had way more bass. And you can listen to it off any amp. It was really weird to have that much bass that good of a treble and yet not feel like it was V-shaped in the slightest. But it makes sense when you think about it: since they don’t have to tune the dynamic driver to reproduce treble well, they can focus on excellent bass.
Once you get to the top of the line gear, improvements in objective sound become really marginal. As Mike from Woo Audio mentioned to me, it becomes about the musicality at that point. What moves you and sounds the best emotionally? The Dharma let me feel the music emotionally in a way I haven’t experienced before. The HD650 let me feel something as well, but in a warm, fuzzy kind of way; this was something different and exhilarating. I want more of that feeling!
These, too, were pre-production models. There were some really obvious issues with the construction and fit but they were well aware of it and are working on fixes. But the important part is the sound, which I feel they’ve nailed. If I were to get picky, I think I’d prefer a tighter bass (hey, I’m a planar guy!) but I suspect brain burn-in will fix that. Oh and they were really solid and metallic feeling. No need to baby these!
They were also showing off their new Athena A1 tube amp. At $1500, it ain’t cheap. But it looks fantastic and sounds as good as it looks. And of course it paired wonderfully with the Dharma.
I really can’t wait to hear more of this thing!
Final Audio Design – Beautiful IEM’s. But I’m not an IEM guy. I didn’t give them the time they obviously deserve. I’ll let others go there.
HiFiMAN – I’ve owned the HE-4 and I’m currently rocking the HE-560 so you know I’m a fan of these guys. I also made no secret of how much I enjoyed the HE-1000 after CES. Once the pricing on them was announced ($2999), it became clear that I was likely not going to purchase one after all, which was a huge disappointment. But that didn’t stop me from binging on them at CanJam!
Jude graciously offered to let me listen to his demo pair in the calm before the storm show floor opened on Saturday. I stood there and listened to those guys right out of my humble Fiio X5 for about 30 minutes (with breaks here and there to let Jude or others hear some particularly good song.
It still sounded absolutely amazing. In fact, I got chills when listening to “Thank You” by Dido. The physical reaction doesn’t happen to me with many headphones (I can think of exactly two more: HD650 and Dharma) and certainly not out of just a DAP. These things are something special.
And let me just talk about the bass for a second. It’s both thick and impactful, yet in no way does it bleed out into other frequencies. It’s just as controlled and detailed as any planar bass. I have no idea how it be both thick and detailed at the same time, but it does. It’s uncanny, in a good way.
At this point, all I can say is that I’m really excited to see how this tech trickles down into the rest of the HiFiMAN line. The venerable HE-6 is due for a refresh and I’m expecting great things in the $1500-2000 range next! It’s going to have to be pretty good to compete with the $1200 Dharma tho!
JDS Labs – There’s not much to be said here as these guys are a known quantity. The O2 and ODAC are well-known and respected at their respected price points. The C5 and C5D are supposed to be great as well.
Well I’ll know soon enough. I was fortunate enough to win their prize in the SHaG contest! I’ll be getting a C5 amp and I’m looking forward to rocking it with my X5! Huge thanks to the folks at JDS Labs for making that possible. I’m really grateful!
JH Audio – See Astell & Kern.
Massdrop – “The site that shall not be named” is now exhibiting at CanJam! Things have changed and for the better! It was wonderful meeting the crew and checking out the AKG K553, Audio Technica MSR7 and AKG K7XX.
I was very interested in the new K553. I’ve never heard any of the K5xx line of headphones. They were a bit disappointing with their wonky fit and thin pads. Not interested.
I was also very interested in the MSR7. I came really close to joining the recent drop for these, but opted to wait until Canjam to demo them. Tyll has them on his Wall of Fame now and I was demoing them as a possible replacement for my HP100. In short: they’re very good, but not better than my HP100. If I didn’t already have the HP100, I’d be sorely tempted. They’re a bit bass-light but otherwise they sound really good. And the construction and quality is unheard of at their $249 price point.
The K7XX is something that I had a chance to demo in home, thanks to Conquerator2. It’s the best open-back headphone under $199 in my opinion. If you’re looking for something in the category, look no further. Unless there’s no drop for them… then you’ll have to keep looking or wait patiently. LOL
MIT Cables – Let me just get this out of the way: I’m not a cable believer since I’ve never heard a cable that makes an audible difference. But I’m certainly open to having my mind changed if presented with evidence to the contrary.
Well, consider my mind changed. Those MIT cables very noticeably change the sound. I haven’t decided if I think it’s for the BETTER or not, but they definitely change the sound.
To be fair, though, these cables have passive electronics (resistors and such) in-line. It’s not just some magical material that changes the sound, they’re tinkering with it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there were one or two unicorn tears in each cable. ;)
Moon Audio – Just wanted to give them a shout out for bringing a sick collection of gear to demo. I tried the Shure 1540 and the Fostex TH900. Both are excellent but far too bassy for my taste.
MrSpeakers – The third of the big three, the Ether! These, too, are something special. It’s funny, all three are special in different ways. We, as consumers of these products, are spoiled for choice and it’s awesome!
The Ether is, first of all, very comfortable. It’s light without feeling cheap; in fact, it feels quite flexible and sturdy at the same time. Its weight is notable because it’s a planar dynamic, which can tend to get heavy due to the generally massive magnets in the cups. I don’t know the details of the tech, but he got them light and that’s awesome because you’ll want to keep these on for a long time!
How do they sound? In a word: transparent. These are the most transparent headphones I’ve ever heard. Dan (Mr Speakers himself) has these all over the place demoing all sorts of equipment. I heard it on no less than four TOTL setups and it sounded different on every one. I actually find myself stumped in trying to describe the sound of the headphones themselves. They’re that neutral/natural/transparent. That is an astonishing accomplishment.
It’s a double-edged sword, however. You will really want to find the amp and DAC combo that sounds the best to your ears because the headphones don’t color the sound at all. You may find yourself amp-rolling! I told Dan that I was worried this would happen to me. He pointed to his table with 8 different amp/DAC combos and said, “You don’t say…” LOL!
I think these sounded best off the Cavalli Liquid Gold and Auralic Vega. But the Schiit Ragnarok and Yggdrasil were amazing too. The Chord Hugo and Cavalli Liquid Silicon held its own, quite nicely. You’ve got one of those setups, right? o.O
These are a real treat if you’ve got a good sounding source chain. At $1500, I’d say these are the new reference king. Sorry, LCD-3 (you’re too warm anyways!) But be careful getting them if you’re not confident in your source chain. I’d love an opportunity to try them with my NFB-28 some day to see how it holds up.
Oh and Dan likes Shpongle. That means he’s alright in my book!
oBravo – These were… weird. I’m not sure what they’re going for but it wasn’t working.
OPPO Digital – One of my goals for the weekend was to get the PM-3 on my head to see if they’re a worthy upgrade from my HP100.
I had a chance to demo the PM-2 for a week and I was really impressed with them. While I wouldn’t replace my HE-560 with them, had I gotten them instead, I think I’d have been just as happy. I find the PM-2 to be superior to the LCD-2f in every way (including price).
Given my love of the PM-2, I had high hopes for the PM-3, a closed portable can coming in at $399. My impressions from the show were that it had the Oppo house sound and it was very comfortable. I’m really excited to get my demo unit in soon and try them for a week at home to decide whether to buy them or not.
Spoiler alert: I probably will.
On a side note, the HA-2 portable DAC and Amp was really nice too. I spent just enough time with it to grok it, but since I’m not in the market for such a device, I didn’t give it much more time. But it’s classy and well-designed and it sounds good. A very nice pairing with the PM-3 if you’re looking.
Peachtree Audio – These guys were demoing their Shift, a new portable DAC/Amp combo. Similar to the HA-2 above, I’m not really looking for such a device. BUT, I did really like this one. It sounded excellent. Also worth a listen if you’re in the market. (Did I mention how spoiled for choice we are?!)
PENDULIMIC – They were demoing a wireless headphone called the STANCE S1+. At $199, this is a surprisingly good sounding headphone…and it’s wireless! If you’re in the market for one of these, try to give them a demo!
Philips – While they had many headphones on offer, I had eyes only for their flagship, the Fidelio X2. There is a lot of talk about this headphone in the gamer community and it’s ALL good. I used to own the X1 and it had some minor flaws that resulted in me eventually selling it off.
Well I’m happy to report that they’ve fixed all the flaws from the X1 and the X2 is a fantastic headphone. It’s got the best bass of any open dynamic headphone I’ve heard. The overall tonality is fun without straying into the V-shaped territory that I dislike. The bass no longer bleeds into the mids and the ear pads are now removable. It’s also a smexy beast… mmmm.
This gets my vote for best headphone under $300, period. I really like it!
Questyle – These guys were demoing some cool stuff there but the big one in my mind was their new QP1 and QP1R DAP’s. They were preproduction units so the UI wasn’t in working condition yet, however these look really promising. They’re built really well, they look classy, and they sound good.
They’ve got some magic tech inside, but the important part is that they weren’t afraid to demo it right into an HD800. I find that headphone to be unlistenable when not driven properly, since I’m really sensitive to certain treble ranges. Well, that was no problem with this little guy. I was pretty impressed. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the finished product in a month or two!
They were also demoing wireless monoblock amps called the R100 into some sick ass ENIGMAcoustics Mythology M1 speakers with electrostatic tweeters. Hoo-whee, did that setup sound good! I’ve no doubt that it’s at least partially due to the AnnaLyric cables they were using as well. (It turns out, I may have been converted to a cable believer this weekend!)
Overall, the Questyle and AnnaLyric guys were really great and I hope they do well!
RIVA – These folks came with their Turbo X BlueTooth speaker. This has already gotten a lot of positive talk and I think it’s well-deserved. I haven’t yet heard a BT speaker in the price range that sounds that good. While it’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread, I liked it enough that I bought one for my wife.
This is literally the only thing I bought at (or immediately after) the show.
And once again, a really great bunch of folks! I’m glad to support them.
Schiit – I think there’s only one thing on people’s minds from CanJam when it comes to Schiit, and that’s the upcoming Yggdrasil DAC. I think this has more hype than the HE-1000 and the big question on everyone’s minds is: is it all it’s hyped up to be? Well… sort of.
Objectively speaking, I tested it first using my music (from the X5) and using an HE-560 at the demo table (not mine, but close enough). In between the X5 and the HE-560 were the Yggdrasil and Ragnarok. On this rig, using my test tracks that I’ve heard a million times on headphones that I use every night, I heard details that I’d never heard before. I can’t stress enough how much that impressed me.
Subjectively speaking, I spent over an hour with it on Sunday afternoon when things were winding down. I was at the Mr Speakers table listening to the Schiit stack with my music and the Ether. I went through every genre of music I had on my card, trying to get a wide variety of fast and slow, electronic and analog, male and female vocals, new and old, well- and poorly-mastered, etc. Everything sounded really good. It was musical and the soundstage was wide and the details were all there. It was a wonderfully enjoyable experience.
When I went to the Dharma booth to give it one last listen right after that, my poor X5 sounded TERRIBLE. I frowned down at it and “closed-in and muddy” were my first thoughts. Normally I find the X5 to be reasonably bright and crisp.
So yeah, objectively, there’s an improvement over anything I’ve used before. But is it worth the price? Well at that price point, it’s about the subjective experience too and I found it to be very enjoyable. Your mileage will likely vary, but I’m a believer now. The hype is real. I hope to own one someday.
Smyth Research – The Smyth Realiser is legendary, almost mythical, amongst gamers. Before the Creative X7 came out a few months ago, there was exactly one virtual surround device that was better than the $120 Astro Mixamp and it was the $3000 Realiser. It does two things that nobody else does: it is customized to you specifically (to make it sound as convincing as possible to your brain) and it tracks your head movement so that sounds always seem to be coming from the same place even if you turn your head. As you can imagine, both would be amazing features when gaming.
I was very excited to see this here and give it a demo. Well it did not disappoint. Even though they were using a generic customization, so that the sound wasn’t as good as it could be, I was shocked at how realistic it sounded. Two seconds into the demo, I took off the headphones because I thought someone had turned on a speaker that I was hearing. But no, it was tricking my brain into hearing the sound coming from 5 feet in front of my face.
Even more uncanny, when I turned my head to the side, the sound did not move. It stayed right on that spot on the wall in front of me. Then he moved the sound through all 7 surround speakers and… I just caught myself literally shaking my head in amazement while typing this and recalling it. Absolutely amazing tech.
I eagerly sat down to talk about how great it would be to see a budget version of this for modern gamers, especially given the current revitalization of VR. I think Smyth has something really special and if they can make it affordable to gamers, they’re going to do very well!
Sony – Sony brought along a bunch of toys, but I only spent a few minutes there. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice their flagship MDR-Z7 sounded with their PHA-3 portable amp. It was a bit bassy for my tastes, but credit where credit is due: it’s a good sounding setup!
Ultimate Ears – These guys hosted a tour of their factory, which I unfortunately was unable to attend. They gave away a $2000 custom. Needless to say, I didn’t win it. LoL
They were working with United Sciences (see below) and you could order a set of customs right then and there. It was a slick setup. They had magical demo IEM’s that were connected to a tablet. You could play a demo track and swap between all their different custom IEM’s and the sound would change to sound like the appropriate IEM. This let us get an idea of the differences between the models.
They have my ears on file now and should I ever decide to get customs from them, I can just order and boom! How cool is that?!? Too bad I’m not an IEM guy.
United Sciences – Lots of hype around these guys after Jude’s article about them after CES. Well the tech works, it’s fast and painless. There’s not much else to say about it really that hasn’t been said by others. Hopefully this becomes the new standard… I saw some folks getting silicon impressions at the Noble booth and it looked foul.
Woo Audio – I’ve always admired these beautiful amps, but knowing how they’re out of my price range, I’ve never given them much thought. After having a nice conversation with Mike from WA over breakfast, however, he invited me to the booth to sample some specific gear (which I’ll go into in the next major section of this write-up).
While there, I got to demo the new WA8 portable Amp prototype. As impressed as I was with the ALO CDM, this is going to give it some stiff competition. These guys know how to make a mean tube amp and I’m looking forward to hearing (and seeing) the final product. If nothing else, WA amps are all stunning to look at and I expect this to be no different.
It was an absolute pleasure hanging out with Mike. One of many great folks I met that weekend.
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Edited by Stillhart - 4/1/15 at 8:07am