From time to time I Skype Phil Wannell of Custom Cable regarding recent happenings in the audio world, then one day he seemed more excited than most (he is quite easily excited) and he told me that Custom Cable, Unilet and Home Media had decided to organize their very own, headphone dedicated show. Yes I love the likes of Bristol HiFi show as much as the next audiophile but your talking headphone only. Boom I am in; date was straight in the diary. The line up looked good, there was to be some stuff that were launched in the UK at the show (quite a few actually) and to top it off, it was at the famous Metropolis Studios, where the likes of The White Stripes, Iron Maiden and The Verve.
Josh and me both attended, why not, and we turned up at this grand studio facility; where so many of my favourite artists had recorded the music I listen to with great excitement. The studios were EPIC, it seemed much more natural and correct than a hotel and it was crazy that we was demoing products in the same rooms that had giant Genelec speakers (we saw some Yamaha NS10’s under one mixing desk) and crazy control switches that’s left me dazzled.
I hope you enjoy what I have to say and I am real sorry about the shabby picture quality. My OnePlus One needs real time taken to take a half decent picture and we was really trying to hustle to fit everything in. As i was snapping Josh got to model most headphones… was it ever going to end well.
Back in my days of being a crazed universal IEM demon I never managed to get my hands on an Atomic Floyd IEM. They got on the hybrid bus way before it was the latest hype with their single BA and single dynamic SuperDarts. Their representative grabbed me and Josh over for a listen, giving both the original version and their new Titanium version a quick listen of our respective portable rigs (me PWAK120-B -> Vorzuge Pure and Josh AK240) and found them to have relatively V shaped signatures, with both having a little more bass than anything and being a little to recessed in the mids. I also gave the single BA MiniDarts a go, which was meant to be brighter and more neutral but was still warm and rolled off on top, with a little more mid presence. I did like their little bullet design and they sealed well. They didn’t leave too lasting impressions though unfortunately.
We moved round to try the brand new EL-8s, which were available to audition with AK240’s and AK120II’s, but not balanced. I know at CES they were not in their final tuning and still prototypes and I really hope that is still the case. The open backs were certainly better but the bass jut seemed a little soft and treble was just a bit erratic. Detail wasn’t shabby though, and the same goes for treble extension. I could hear a little of the LCD-X’s signature in them although I would like a much closer technichal level. The closed back versions were less to my liking, with a very narrow soundstage, something I feel is needed to be addressed in this sort of priced closed backs. They were even sharper in the treble on top of that. I am not writing these off until heard them off a proper amp though, even if they are meant to be fairly easy to drive. They also had rather tight clamping but were aesthetically great. The closed version are very much portable as well, isolating nicely and having a much smaller profile than the LCD-XCs.
Obviously I love the entire LCD line, which were also on show all over the place, I couldn’t even tell you what is my favourite, the X or 3 Fazor, I do know I need one in my life though.
Open Backed EL-8
Closed Back EL-8
Astell & Kern:
We are pretty up too date with AK, although it was the first time we had hands on with the AK120II. Josh who made his problems with the AK240’s volume control known in his recent review was happy to note its improvement with the 120II.
We also had a play with the new AK500N network player. Obviously it was limited to what features we could play with. I tried the SE headphone out with my Hidition Viento-Rs and found it a little weak, Josh also wasn’t that impressed with the 2.5mm balanced out, it didn’t seem on the level of the AK240, which just shows what a feat the AK240 is. That being said the build was amazing so was the options and UI was sublime. I don’t think the headphone output was it’s main set task so I would love to use it into an amp, or even a DAC, which seems like it’s more obvious uses. I think it could turn out very nice.
JH Audio w/ Astell & Kern – Angie Was Best of Headroom Runner Up:
Some of the most anticipated products for use were indeed the new JH Layla and Angie. Utilizing 12 and 8 driver respectively, which on top of that are brand new, the Layla is far from a re-tuning of the Roxanne. We started with the Angie and boy were they big; normally some universal’s looks silly in Josh’s little ears but when something does looks abnormal even in mine, there is a little bit of concern. Oh and the Angie was actually smaller than the Layla! That being said I put the Angie’s into my rig and my jaw dropped. WOAH, the last monitor to wow me this much on first listen was their 13 FreqPhase, it was both up my street and something very new for JH in terms of sound signature. It was more balanced than normal (most in line with JH13 from memory but still very different) and also much faster with less thickness to the Roxanne for example. However it still kept my favourite attribute from the Roxanne, that huge soundstage, it is SO wide, like open backed headphone wide, no other top tier CIEM I have ever tried (there are a few) get near it. It was like a Roxanne tuned much nearer my preference, less mid-bass and also brighter. Josh agreed, he was grinning ear to ear and said he couldn’t wait for JH to launch the custom version, his little ears really didn’t appreciate them huge universals.
Layla was up next and maybe it was the fact that out of the tips we bought along our self, we didn’t use the most ideals one (there is just no time for tip rolling at a show and put a much thinner pair on the Layla than the Angie) or maybe the Angie was just more up Inearspace’s street, but they didn’t grab us as much Angie. I first tried Layla off the new Lotoo Paw Gold I also had with me and while I still found it incredibly wide and actually with a greater sense of clarity and detail than any other JH model, I found it a bit shouty in the upper mids and found the treble to being something that could start to grate on you and become fatiguing. I then tried of my usual rig and found it smoother and more controlled in the treble and while upper mids seemed more behaved, the entire midrange seemed a little hollow and well soft. This is annoyance and confusion of quick auditions and with something as finicky as a large universal IEM, you just cant conclude to much from this.
While Angie seduced me with ease I definitely need a second date with Layla.
All of the above was in one studio and we finally ventured out and came across Pioneer, who had a brand new flagship headphone, which was designed with AIR studios and was yet to be named, it is that new and this is probably the first pictures and info online. It will be roughly £1300 to £1600 and has a cool replaceable tension bad, they call it the Wembley band as it looks like the arch across the stadium. Using the dual 3 pin XLR output off their U-05 (£650), it sounded on the warmer side of things. I grabbed my HD800s with Double Helix Complement3’s out my case and done a quick comparison. In the less than optimal condition they seemed to be a little leaner, especially in the bass and also brighter and more spacious. The U-05 seemed to do a great job with my HD800s and at £650 it does so much. It is a DSD and Hi-Res DAC using an ESS Sabre 9016 chip and also a balanced headphone amp with 2x3pin XLR, 4 pin XLR and ¼ inch SE outputs. COOL. The headphones needed a better environment to get to know much better but I realized why I love my HD800 so much.
We quickly skipped past Kef, Parrot, B&O, all of whose headphones we have tried in the past, in this time frame. Muscial Fidelity were also there with a new headphone, a small balanced amp with 2×3 pin XLRs and some HUGE power amp also on their stand that had the best remote I had ever seen. We also didn’t have time for ADL, Fostex and Melco. Melco I do want to try a bit more seriously but at the show they were busy and I wouldn’t have got to know their products in any way due to unfamiliar variables through the rest of the component chain.
I only glanced over Sennheiser’s booth, their new wireless products don’t interest me enough and they were so busy. We love the Orpheus but sadly it was also in use and we have heard it enough (and even with our own music) to not warrant it again, I know we must be mad. However there was a curious DAP (digital audio player) on their stand, designed by Acoustic Research (and Sennheiser?) that was running full android, was bulky but light and was plugged into their HDVA600 as a source so I didn’t actually get a listen, very interesting though.
Light Harmonic Geek:
We tried the new Geek Pulse (hooked up to the Geek PSU) along with its 4 pin XLR balanced output and my ZMF Blackwood w/ Double Helix Cable Molecule SE. I will say i have heard them sound better at a similar price but this is a compact little unit. Had a very sabre-ish treble and little uncontrolled in bass. Was a bit let down after how long this thing has taken, especially compared to how impressed i was with teh Geek Out back at the Bristol show.
We tried the new unlimited Ultrasone Edition 5 as well as a rare limited version, of which there are 5 left for sale in the UK at 3 grand. They were only half way through their 700 needed burn in ours (for their titanium drivers) so were a little sharp in the treble but had good space for a closed can. Didn’t isolate we all though and didn’t wow me in any way.
They had a small table and their rep’s (Lee?) ears picked up when he heard me say SE846. We went and had a try and me Josh agreed that we were surprised by the sound after having owned a SE420, SE530 and SE535. They still had them almost shouty Shure midrange but also had a deep, but slightly loose bass. They also extended much better in the treble than any previous Shure models. They didn’t seem that coherent though, like the bass didn’t sit well with the mids and didn’t leave as good as an impression as I was hoping. Maybe it was the foam tips, or the filter of which they had only bought one, the balanced one. They look, feel and isolate great though.
We tried the new Hugo TT (proto I think as optical didn’t work) along with an LCD-3 Fazor and like our impressions of the original Hugo, we just didn’t get the buzz, the Audeze’s didn’t sound as good as I have heard them. It has come to a point now though that I need to properly review a Hugo to get to the bottom of it’s magic as I just haven’t found it. I think using its DAC with one of my amps might do just that and with the TT having XLR outputs, I think it is time.
HiFiMAN/Schiit – Schiit Ragnarok Won Best of Headroom:
Mark of Electromod was there with Schiit and HiFiMAN (and Stax), who he brings into the UK. I am grateful for this has it is necessary that someone does. You know I have always loved HiFiMAN and read what I think about Schiit. I tried the new HE-560 and they seemed very planar like, cliché I know but they did. Thick, a little warm, spongey bass and good details, I liked them. However this was of the Schiit Ragnarok, a beast of an amp that puts 10w into 50ohms and 15w into 32ohms and even has speaker taps. I wanted to see what it was about so I compared it to the EF-6 with the notoriously inefficient HE-6, which CAN sound great. Of the EF-6 they are always real good but off the Schiit I straight up fell in love. Then I grabbed my HD800’s out and fell in love again. Then I fell in love for a third time when I plugged my ZMF’s in, I walked out that room heartbroken I was leaving it’s presence. We used the balanced out at all times and even Mark, who said he has never been a fan of the HD800s, albeit mainly for fit, had a giggle to himself listening to the pairing, ahah. What is crazy about the Ragnarok was that with its gain settings, it gave accurate volume control and low noise with the HiFiMAN RE-400, not the most sensitive IEMs but still IEMs. They did fizz a fair bit with Inearspace’s most sensitive CIEMs, the Vision Ears VE-6 though, don’t forget this things powers speakers! This was by far our favourite room, good banter, great display (there was also the SR-009 on demo, which obviously special), and most importantly the Ragnarok, which is getting or BEST OF SHOW AWARD. This thing needs a trip to my house.
We were getting tired now having got up at 4AM for swim training and I just forgot to take any pictures at all from now on.
We had a little play with the Bryston BHA-1 balanced amp up stairs, playing some HE-560 and they seemed less warm than off the Ragnarok but were a nice combo, even if a little less dynamic and spacious.
You know I said Phil gets exited. Well why we were demoing the AK stuff, he bursts in telling us how we need to try the Vertere HD800 cable and that it was better than any I have. I showed him my DHC Comp3 that was with me, it’s a beast and miles better than any of my others, and he wouldn’t budge on that opinion even though he hasn’t tried. Isn’t he just the worst type of person 😉
Of course I had to pay them a visit now and they had some interesting philosophies, about different signals needing different materials and the fact that because they make other components, they know much more than any other cable company about what differences signals have and how they should be cabled. So with their £500 D-Fi headphone cable, some signals have different bundle tightness’s, some are tin plated copper (tin, seriously?), some silver plated copper, and there are even different gauge wires used. I don’t see why one material isn’t simply the best and that should be used wherever possible in its relevant price point. Obviously they could priorities the more important signal paths at a cheaper price point so they are making a difference with the bits that matter, I can see. They are also shielding different signals differently as materials have different properties; I am well and truly behind this.
Also while they know components and speakers, they don’t know headphones, having done the HD800 cable the night before the show having never tried the model, headphones work very differently to speakers so that is something to think about and if different signals need different attention surely just changing terminations of another D-Fi cable doesn’t necessarily work for a headphone cable. I am seriously enthused that they are taking headphones more seriously and they have been playing around with a few models and even re-cabling from the drivers inside, similar to what ZMF do with their ZPex mod.
This is just my processing of what was said and they also said some stuff that really made sense to me and Josh, such as the fact a cable doesn’t make better sound, it just has less degradation and like the ethos behind Double Helix Cable’s Ultrashorts, they said it would be great to direct solder everything, obviously that’s just not possible. I tried the cable with a HD800 and Hugo but not being used to the Hugo I cant comment on what the cable was doing.
There is only one way to see what is going on though and that is to try it in my system with my HD800s and see who comes out on top and don’t doubt the fact that I am open to something being better than my Comp3s, I just need to hear it and at a similar price range, this is a needed comparison.
We are going to wrap it up with these guys, debuting their new Nighthawk headphone in the UK. It is funny because they had to systems.
System 1: Laptop > Audioquest Dragonfly > Bryston BHA-1 > Nighthawk
System 2 Laptop > USB Cable > Oppo HA-1
Also not one Nighthawk was balanced, one was SE, both the Oppo and the Bryston have balanced and SE ouputs. I started with the Bryston and balanced Nighthawk. Josh the single ended Oppo. We both started listening and he gave me the look that says, these are Schiit, I am confused, we hear pretty damn similarly and I was enjoying them, natural, non-fatiguing and warm. Not bad at all. What was going on? We discussed thoughts and obviously decided that it was the system. We swapped cans and oh my, what was this Oppo doing to them, the Dragonfly/Bryston was so much better. Obviously we didn’t stop there, maybe balanced vs SE was playing a part and yes, the Oppo sounded better balanced and vice versa, but I would still take the Bryston system SE easily over the Opper balanced. They are quiet different system’s price wise with the BHA-1 being more expensive than the HA-1, the Dragonfly being very cheap (£120) but Oppo probably using a fairly pricy Audioquest USB cable, you would expect so right. Just amp/dac though the Bryston rig was about £400 more.
Was a good bit of fun to wrap up the day though I must say and I look forward to hearing the Nighhawk again, when its hit production in a few months anyway. I also heard we will be seeing a closed back version and even an IEM from Audioquest, yup, you heard it here first.
Cheers Phil, Custom Cable, Unilet and the rest of the guys that made this happen and in 6 month time, be it at the Metropolis again or somewhere brand new, we will be there, even more excited.