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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
The 2016 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest took place October 6 - October 8 in Denver CO.
The aptly named ‘Mile High City’ (um, in more ways than one) showed off glorious sunny fall temperatures into the upper 60s, a lucky break for the Can-Jam headphone portion of the event which was held in a hastily erected outdoor ‘pavilion’ - i.e., a big-top circus tent - due to the Marriott Tech Center hotel’s behind-schedule reconstruction. Thanks for kindly looking out for us headphone geeks, Mother Nature!
Our headphone.com review team spent two full days checking out basically every table in the Can-Jam pavilion tent as well as meticulously going through 11 floors of the high-end audio displays housed inside the Marriott hotel. Below are our impressions on the products we found the most intriguing this year.
No surprise that Focal high-end headphones were all over the place at Can-Jam and at various other audio displays throughout the Marriott Tech Center. The Focal display table showcased the Focal Utopia and Focal Elear dynamic open-back headphones released in late summer, both of which are true marvels of audiophile headphone engineering. In our estimation, the Elear and Utopia represented some of the best sound to be found anywhere at the event. The $4,000 Utopia in particular continued to wow us with a wide array of audio sources and amps and sounded totally awesome regardless of the set-up. Both headphones remain in short supply due to slow production and overwhelming demand but our suggestion is to get your ears on either of these world-beating Focal headphones ASAP.
The guys at California’s Audeze headphones introduced the final production versions of their iSine planar magnetic in-ear headphones with Apple Lightning connections. Most on our team felt the iSine20 and the lower-priced iSine10 were the 'new release' show winners. The large open-back earpieces of the iSine easily allowed ambient sounds in, so it was difficult to hear their full nuance in the tight confines of the bustling Can-Jam tent. But safe to say iPhone 7 and iOS owners may have found the best-sounding in-ear headphone compatible with their new Apple devices.
The iSine presentation sounded crystalline and deep with surprising bass slam and a
spacious soundstage image that's as good as we’ve heard in the in-ear category. The iSine earpieces are quite large and plainly stick out from the ears - they look like big hipster earrings - but the earpieces managed to stay securely in place affixed to the pinna of the ear with soft rubber ear hooks. Audeze also includes outer ear hooks/loops to help with the personalized fit, which were ergonomically preferred by some of our staff. The totally open-back earpiece design permits noise and conversation to come through, which may be a good thing for listeners wanting to remain aware of their surroundings.
The Audeze iSine in-ear headphones come outfitted with the 24-bit Cipher DAC/ headphone amp cable which also contains a built-in mic and controller for smartphones. And just like the Sine on-ear portable headphones Audeze released last year, the iSine also come with a normal cord without the Cipher DAC/Lightning plug for use with other sources. However, we felt the iSine lost a good bit of their glossy musical magic without the Cipher DAC/amp and DSP kicking in.
Oppo had their own room inside the hotel showing off their great 'PM' series of sealed back planar magnetic headphones along with a new stand-alone DAC unit called the Oppo Sonica. The Sonica takes off from the highly regarded D-to-A performance of the Oppo HA-1 and BDP-95/105 players and employs the superb ESS ES9038PRO Sabre DAC via digital coax, optical or USB connection. The Sonica also allows direct network streaming to the DAC and an app for iOS and Android allows you to stream music directly to the Sonica from your smartphone or tablet. It supports high-resolution PCM to 348kHz as well as DSD audio formats and can also function as a high-res audio player to decode files directly from a connected USB drive, network or NAS drive. This well-priced modern DAC stood out from the pack for our team and we'll be bringing it aboard at headphone.com as soon as it is released in November 2016.
We stumbled across a little-known audio company tucked up high on the 11th floor of the Marriott tower well away from the Can-Jam tent hubbub. Periodic Audio is a new upstart headphone concern owned by the engineering & design folks behind some of the most famous headphones in the industry. Periodic had their team decked out in white lab coats behind what looked like an upscale doctor’s office counter with a giant table of the elements holographically projected across the room. Their expert display had a fun vibe and it was a great place to do some quality listening. Periodic Audio only offers three in-ear headphones in their present line-up featuring either titanium, magnesium or beryllium 10mm dynamic drivers in custom-engineered earpiece housings ranging in cost from $99 to $299. Not only is their pricing totally righteous, but the knock-out sound quality is stellar for such highly affordable products. Look for much more information on Periodic Audio on these pages soon.
In-ear products seemed to largely dominate the headphone tables at RMAF 2016 and we discovered another cool in-ear company called Radius Acoustics displaying in the side lobby of the Marriott. Based out of Japan, Radius presented a superlative array of in-ear headphones, once again at surprisingly affordable prices ranging from $99 up to $449. Their top two models are both dual-driver designs with detachable cables. The Wn4 has a beryllium driver for the lows/mids and a piezo-ceramic tweeter. The Wn3 has a similar dual-driver design with slightly lower performance specs. Both sounded completely cohesive, dynamically detailed and richly bass-powered with an engaging smoothness and a quick, fully extended range. We also quite liked their cool little Radius amp/DAC units for Apple Lightning devices priced at around $300-$350 which up-converts standard digital files into true high-res formats with a nifty on-screen display confirming the high-resolution D-to-A processing/file status.
Moving into full-size headphones, ZMF led by Zach Mehrbach showed off their updated line of lovely wood-back circumaural audiophile headphones featuring a semi-closed back design and either biocellulose or TPE diaphragm drivers. Prices start at around $1,000 and go up from there depending on model. We probably most enjoyed the ZMF Eikon priced around $1,300. Not only did they look just smashing but the terrific tonal warmth and spry dynamics of the ZMF cans was a joy to hear. Kudos, Zach and ZMF!
Another wondrous visual and auditory sensation was the HiFiMAN Shangri-La electrostatic headphone system displayed by HiFIMAN CEO Dr.Fang Bian. Reportedly priced north of $50,000, the Shangri-La takes on the new Sennheiser HE-1/Orpheus (which was sadly not at the show) as the most expensive headphone amplifier system commercially available in the industry. The Shangri-La is a pure statement of high-end audio philosophy from Dr. Bian and it sounded wonderfully huge and life-like with an unimaginably vast soundstage image. We thought it was somewhat like a classic Stax headphone presentation but with much better detail resolution and way-improved bass texture and low-end extension. It was some darn good-sounding stuff for us lowly headphone mortals.
MORE GOOD STUFF
Compared to the Shangri-La, the Sonoma Acoustics Model One electrostatic headphone system was slightly more humanely priced at only $5,000 give or take. Designed specifically for use with high-resolution audio formats and sources, the M1’s Class-A energizing amplifier and ESS Sabre DAC with 64-bit DSP drove the headphones with excellent transient response, total transparency and fast dynamics that sounded particularly great with classical and orchestral music. It’s a very tidy, well put-together system featuring a proprietary headphone connector and custom low-capacitance cable engineered by Sonoma. The headphone itself is extremely beautiful, comfortable to wear and plushly outfitted with handmade sheep hair earpad and headband cushions. Acoustically, we thought it perhaps lacked just a bit of controlled low-end oomph and could also probably use more overall output; we had it turned up to maximum and still longed for more volume level with certain recordings.
The E-MU headphone table stuffed into the Can-Jam overflow room in a side lobby space was a lovely sight to behold with their beautiful wood headphones designed and manufactured in Japan. They clearly reminded us of the classic DENON ‘AH-D’ series of headphones from a decade ago with full-size circumaural constructions, choice rosewood, ebony, teak and walnut wood earcups and perfectly executed artisanal lacquer work. Just simply great sounding, great looking audiophile headphones.
Meze headphones had a solid selection of well-built, nice sounding cans and in-ears offered at very good prices. We probably enjoyed the Meze 99 Classics sealed wood-back circumaural headphones the best for mid-level entry audiophile and general high-quality portable and home/office applications. Meze also introduced a pair of entry-level in-ear models at $49 and $69 that sounded very impressive at the price. We truly love seeing such reasonable prices and superb bang-for-the buck value becoming more common at the lower end of the Hi-Fi headphone business; it undoubtedly attracts newer listeners to our sport and provides a youthful shot in the arm for what could otherwise easily devolve into a largely geriatric hobby.
Speaking of affordable and hip, a cool bunch of new street headphones from upstart 1More USA headphone company contained both wired and wireless Bluetooth in-ear headphones and portable on-ear cans. Their Bluetooth models all feature the latest AptX ‘lossless’ wireless transmission technology and a bright modern style. 1More also have a series of wired in-ear headphones including dual and triple-driver constructions with full mic/remote control smartphone capability, as well as wireless Bluetooth sport-oriented earbuds called the iBFree (...get it?). We hope to have more info on these interesting new headphones soon.
Westone debuted their long-awaited 8-driver W80 audiophile in-ear headphones with detachable cables for $1,500. We will definitely be carrying these flagship Westone in-ears here at headphone.com when they are officially released later this fall. Westone also debuted their new Bluetooth cable accessory which allows easy wireless pairing with most recent devices for any in-ear headphone employing the widely-available detachable MMCX connectors. We’ll have our in-depth review of both of these cool new Westone headphone products very soon on these pages.
Abyss headphones manned a Can-Jam table inside the pavilion as well as an individual display room up on the 6th floor of the hotel showcasing their $5,500 planar magnetic headphone. The Abyss room partnered their oversize can with nice amps and sources, unlike their Can-Jam table which had the Abyss driven from just a portable player. In both places, we futzed with the Abyss headband frame's tweaky toe-in and lateral width adjustments. Maybe it was just the set-up but we really need to further evaluate this pricey headphone at our own headphone.com facilities to deliver a clear judgement.
Also, the folks (they’ll remain nameless) selling crazy-pricey speaker stands who placed their A/B speaker set-ups towards the outside edge of the room while touting their “wider soundstage imaging” compared to centrally-placed speakers should be hung up by their manicured fingernails.
Perhaps the biggest bummer was the lack of a new exciting flagship release from Sennheiser and their regrettably M-I-A Orpheus system. Audeze also didn’t bring their ballyhooed new top-of-the-line $4,000 in-ears as they’re still in pre-production. Stax and Grado had basically no real presence anywhere at the event. Heck, we couldn’t even find the vintage used vinyl sellers that used to dominate an entire rear lobby room. And unfortunately there is still too much glib smoke and mirrors going down in too many of the displays for our comfort. How many $250,000 speakers or $15,000 a pair interconnect cables can one hear before the eyes and ears start to glaze over?
NO CONCLUSIONS. YET.
So does that mean the end might be near for RMAF and super high-end audio after 13 years in Denver? It’s certainly a controversial notion that's been hotly debated among the cognoscenti for a while now. Not to toll the mission bells too early, but we noted less traffic in many of the Marriott hotel tower hallways than in years past. In fact, the busiest space was likely the cramped Can-Jam headphone tent which enjoyed a steady stream of visitors throughout the entire weekend. Or maybe it just seemed that way due to the friendly close quarters.
In any case, it’s obvious that a great many dealers and manufacturers - ourselves included - still regard the RMAF show as among the premier events to develop and grow business relationships while also reaching out to the general Hi-Fi public at large.
Perhaps the old-timey audio insider network has indeed hit critical mass and it is now time to turn it over to the next generation of innovators. But as the lively panel on the future of headphone audio seemed to indicate, the industry is mixed about the next growth evolution of the business and conflicted about the best direction to take.
For us here at headphone.com, it’s actually pretty easy - we just want to bring you the very best headphone products we can find from all parts of the industry and do it without dumb hype, overt bias or extraneous bs. And we hope you’ll hold our feet to the fire when we don’t! So please keep your eye on our updated 'News & Blog' section right here and sign-up for our newsletter below to stay abreast of all the latest and greatest throughout our high, wide and handsome headphone land.