By Andrew Park (@Resolve)
2019 was a great year for headphone enthusiasts. We saw a number of high profile releases, along with companies pushing the boundaries as far as transducer technology goes. While my personal journey this year included discovering a number of products from previous years, many of us in the Headphone Community have had a chance to reflect on this year's new and exciting gear. Beyond just the gear though, this was a year with opportunities to meet people in the community and to share our experiences - and importantly our gear - with one another. The following is an exposition on what we've been talking about this year and what we've had a chance to experience. This is not a comprehensive list of everything that was released, just the ones that caused heads to turn. To get a sense of what we've each been excited about, check out the Headphone Community 2019 Year in Review thread on the forum.
This is currently my favorite closed-back headphone. When rumors of the Stellia first started circulating, there was an expectation that it would be like a closed-back Utopia, with a similar kind of neutral-bright tonality. This may have been due to the knowledge that just like the Utopia, the Stellia uses a solid beryllium driver. But the Stellia is something completely different from the Utopia, even if its technical ability hits a similar benchmark. Instead of a lean yet clarity-focused ultra-analytic detail machine, the Stellia is a much warmer, more laid back and relaxing listen, along with many of the same technical qualities that make the Utopia great as well. The Stellia is in my opinion the most detailed closed-back headphone, with exceptionally fast decay, owing in part to beryllium's self-damping properties. The closed-off design was achieved with a similar concept to that of their aluminum/magnesium Elegia, where the inside of the earcup is designed to resemble a treated room with an array of box-shaped cutouts to break up standing waves. To many listeners, myself included, this also imparted larger than average stage for a closed-back.
The Stellia's physical design was also highly talked about, with its unique luxurious aesthetic of 'cognac' and 'mocha'. To some it was a bit too eye-catching, with the circular pattern over a fully leather exterior to the cups. But the Stellia's comfort is undeniably amazing - easily the best yet from Focal.
Check out Ian Dunmore's (@Torq) full written review of the Focal Stellia.
With the success of the original Vérité, the Vérité Closed was met with similar praise. As someone who personally owns the open version, this is a headphone I hope to get a chance to spend some time with in 2020 for a full review. Just like the open version, the Vérité Closed uses a beryllium coated polyethylene naphthalate driver, giving it superb detail retrieval, speed, control and dynamics. There are a few differences with the closed version in the way these technical characteristics come across, however the design objective has been to provide a similar tuning to the open version. To be more specific, these headphones are able to deliver better than anything else, the often sought after "warm yet highly detailed" sound. Many Headphone Community members have already purchased theirs - one has even been kind enough to bring them to one of our meets.
I find myself often looking for truly flagship closed-back headphones, and so this one is near the top of my list for the new year.
Check out Ian Dunmore's (@Torq) full written review for the ZMF Vérité Closed.
One of the big announcements this year was the re-branding of the well-known planar magnetic headphone manufacturer MrSpeakers to Dan Clark Audio, taking on the name of the company's founder Dan Clark. Given that they make headphones, not speakers, this change fixes that confusion.
With this re-branding comes the release of two new planar magnetic headphones, namely the Aeon 2 (open and closed). Just like the original Aeon, these are lightweight, comfortable planar magnetic headphones (and if you know something about planars, that's a rarity). This time they're even more portable with cups that collapse inwards with a folding mechanism on the back of each yoke.
The Aeon 2 also features a completely redesigned driver structure, with the magnetic array on the inside of the driver, rather than on the outside. This redesign has lead to substantial performance benefits like better detail retrieval, stage depth, and dynamics over the original Aeon. To read more about it, check out my full review of the closed version.
Audeze has had a busy year with a number of releases, but perhaps most important is the LCD-1. This is a new entry level planar magnetic headphone that everyone has been talking about, as it apparently shakes up its price bracket around $399. Finally the HiFiMAN Sundara has some competition. The nice thing about the LCD-1 is that it's also fairly lightweight for a planar, which is a nice departure from some of Audeze's traditional designs. It's also good to see them paying attention to the demand for lighter, more usable headphones, so the LCD-1 is definitely on my list to review in 2020.
The LCD-1 is also designed to be portable, with folding cups so it only takes up a minimal footprint in a bag or backpack. Reports from those who have heard it indicate it's got some of the most target-accurate frequency response, with the added technical benefits of planar tech. If all goes well, this should be an important benchmark headphone to pay attention to.
2019 continued Audeze's foray into the gaming market with the LCD-GX. This is a lightweight design based on the older MX4 that's intended to appeal to the crossover between gamers and headphone enthusiasts. Many audiophiles have emerged from the gaming scene, being fed up with some of the less than ideal sound quality offered by most gaming headphones and headsets. Needless to say this was a natural product to make, having already produced the very popular Mobius headset.
But the LCD-GX isn't just a better Mobius, in fact it's a very different idea. Instead of introducing all the digital signal processing that the Mobius takes advantage of, the LCD-GX sticks with a more traditional design of its LCD series, and instead provides both a spacious and evenly distributed stage, and a tonality that makes the sound in games that much more fun to experience. Combine this with the technical performance of a full-sized audeze planar, and you have a very interesting product.
After releasing the original D8000, Final Audio released a 'pro' version that they aimed at more modern genres. This involved primarily a few tweaks to the transducer, and some changes to the pads. This is a flagship planar magnetic headphone that took me completely by surprise. I had liked the original D8000 for its technical ability, but found that its tonality was maybe not quite for my taste. The D8000 pro is a little bit brighter, but with improved bass extension (even if the bass sits slightly lower than it does on the original). While the technical capability isn't quite on the same level as that of the famous LCD-4, it's the closest I've yet heard, and it has a much more balanced tonality - even if it may be a bit bright for some - and it comes in at a much more reasonable weight.
You can read my full written review on the D8K Pro as well.
Since starting his own company, Alex Rosson, one of the co-founders of Audeze, released his first headphone this year, namely the RAD-0. Each unit has a unique color scheme to personally fit your preference, but more important than the crazy colors is how it sounds. The 'graffiti' unit I was able to review has some impressive technical capabilities, and you can see my thoughts on it here. It should also be mentioned that no two RAD-0 headphones are exactly alike, and the newer models have considerably reduced weight and improved comfort with some changes to materials.
I did, however, also notice some changes to the sound as well, so there is likely some commonly found planar magnetic unit variation going on. Plus, the fact that these are all deliberately made to have a different look means that maybe we shouldn't expect a consistent sound here either. In any case, these have been some of the coolest looking headphones I've ever seen, and I'm very interested to see and hear what Rosson Audio gets up to in 2020.
The folks over at AKG have been hard at work trying to get their consumer preference curve dialed in, and with the K371 they've been able to implement their research into an entry-level closed-back headphone. While this is a consumer preference tuned headphone, I see this also as an important milestone to finally overtake the commonly found Audio Technica M50x and its various iterations. These have been incredibly popular for both consumers and professionals who need something easy to take with them for field recording. I remember working on documentaries where the 'sound guy' was inevitably wearing them - and I think these were largely so popular for their convenience, less so their sound quality. Well now they have real competition, and my hope is that these start showing up more frequently in pro use environments, again for their convenience - but this time with Sean Olive and the Harman target curve at the ready.
Check out Anthony Nguyen's (@antdroid) full written review of the AKG K371.
The LCD-i3 is Audeze's latest in-ear, but just like the rest of the iSine series (and the i4), this uses an open-back design, with a planar magnetic transducer that sits outside the ear. While this eliminates a primary convenience of using in-ears, the performance benefits of planar tech are definitely tangible. Moreover, Audeze have bit the bullet on digital signal processing, and have supplied Bluetooth and Lightning DSP modules with the i3 that drastically change (and improve) the frequency response. What I wonder, however, is that if they were going to use DSP to improve sound quality with a digital cable anyway, why not make it a closed-back? Much of the reason to make it an open-back is to avoid the inherent design challenges of closing off the housing in such a small space for the planar driver, but if the frequency response is altered anyway with DSP, why not just close it off? Maybe we'll see this in the future. In any case, the LCD-i3 was very interesting to use, and I applaud Audeze for pushing the boundaries on this type of tech, especially the DSP idea.
Feel free to check out my full written review of the Audeze LCD-i3.
Apple released their new Airpods Pro in 2019, and while this type of product is normally not squarely in the sights of the seasoned audiophile, this time around it's worth a closer look. The Airpods Pro are a wireless, active noise cancelling in-ear, that have the potential to change our relationship to auditory information, making access to it all the more convenient. But more importantly, the Airpods Pro have an impressively agreeable frequency response that warrants a second look at them for music listening as well. No it doesn't compete with wired equivalents on the technical ability front, and you do still get the usual ANC burble effect when it's on, but these may be the kind of product that brings a more 'audiophile' tuning to the masses, and that has to be a good thing.
To see what we're saying about the Apple Airpods Pro, check out the Headphone Community forum thread.
I got a chance to hear the Z1R IEM at a meetup in Seattle, and sure enough it's just as impressive as everyone has been saying - especially in the bass. It will be interesting to see how this compares with the current crop of flagship IEMs from 64 Audio. My initial impression has been that for anyone wanting a warm, smooth, yet highly detailed experience with exceptional definition and texture in the bass, the Z1R is a strong candidate. For those wanting that hyper-analytical treble detail, the U12T is likely the better option. For me, I can easily see a use case for both.
New Campfire Audio IEMs
Campfire Audio released two new IEMs and refreshed the famous Andromeda with a new case and an updated cable to the new "Smoky Jacket" Litz - which is a big improvement on usability. The two new IEMs are the Campfire Io and the Polaris V2. These received somewhat mixed impressions from the community, but I personally found the Io to be a treble benchmark for its price-range. It's a dual BA driver IEM, that aims at being fairly neutral, and while it does have some issues in the midrange, for the most part I enjoyed it as an entry level IEM. The Polaris V2 has more of a 'v-shaped' sound, making use of a hybrid driver configuration.
You can read more about the Io by checking out Anthony Nguyen's (@antdroid) full written review.
Amps & DACs
Along with the Stellia, this year Focal also released their companion DAC/Amp combo, the Arche. The Arche uses a balanced Class-A topology for the amp section, and dual AKM 4490 DAC chips to handle the conversion. But perhaps most interesting is that this unit features a number of presets for each of Focal's headphones. Ian Dunmore (@Torq) has put together a review of the unit here.
Perhaps the most interesting discovery for me in 2019 was getting a chance to experience the degree of difference flagship source gear can make. I had heard top of the line DACs and amps in the past at various shops, but this was the first time I had a chance to spend some time with one at home for a longer period of time. Rupert Neve Designs released their Fidelice line of source products, which includes a standalone headphone amplifier, a flagship DAC/amp combo, and a phono pre-amp. For me this was a bit of a wake up call that many of the "good enough" DACs and amps I've been using over the years may no longer be good enough, and it's time to start looking at more high end equipment.
Schiit Audio released two new headphone amplifiers, namely the Magni 3+ and the Magni Heresy. These new units are Schiit Audio's answer to the well-measuring JDS Atom, and other entry-level benchmark amplifiers. With the Magni 3+ and Magni Heresy, Schiit have provided capable alternatives that are competitive not only when it comes to measurements, but in terms of how they sound too. Check out Ian Dunmore's (@Torq) comprehensive review of both units to learn more.
While we enjoyed hearing and learning about these new products in 2019, the Headphone Community was also able to connect with one another in person to try out new or unfamiliar gear at a number of meetups that were hosted by headphones.com. I was fortunate enough to attend two of these events, and I have to say it was great meeting everyone and comparing notes on my favorite headphones and source gear. I have to give a huge thank you to community members who brought gear that we were able to try out. Among the standouts for me were a number of ZMF headphones (Verite C and Aeolus) and the Pendant Amplifier, the Meze Empyrean, Sony IER-Z1R, 64 Audio Tia Trio, Audeze LCD-1, Drop X KOSS ESP/95X, Rosson Audio RAD-0, and the Raal Requisite SR1a.
At one of these meetups, we were fortunate enough to get a chance to try the upcoming Aurorus Audio Borealis (open-back) and Australis (closed-back) headphones, otherwise known in some circles as "Ruckphones". One of the great things about this hobby is that a lot of great products emerge from the DIY scene, and these two new headphones have been quietly generating a lot of interest.
Credit to Den-Fi for the image above.
Just like the way ZMF, Dan Clark Audio, and a number of other emergent headphone producers, these are headphones by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. So we can expect the frequency response to be extremely well-refined and carefully tuned once they get fully released. When I tried them, I was particularly impressed with the open-back model, the Borealis. It has a sound signature that emphasizes clarity, similar to that of the Focal Utopia, which suits my preferences for jazz and acoustic music. Look out for these headphones in 2020.
So if you get a chance, join the community and check out one of the meets to try some of these products.
- Andrew Park (@Resolve)