The CanJam NYC 2023 headphones show at New York’s Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square was a much-anticipated event. Well attended, although somewhat smaller in the number of exhibitors and seminars than in the past, it was nevertheless a great opportunity to audition and compare some of the latest offerings in audiophile and other headphones.
The Marriott Marquis offered plenty of room for exhibitors and attendees.
Subjectively, there were certain trends and impressions that one could take away from CanJam NYC 2023, which seem to hold across international boundaries in the overall headphones market:
- QR codes have replaced printed product literature to the point of product reps needing to refer to their smartphones or iPads for information on specs. On the other hand, this enhances companies’ access to the e-mail addresses of interested parties, which is a handy tool for small product manufacturers and designers.
- The sonic warmth of vacuum tube amps is clearly attracting a larger demographic. More companies specializing in audiophile-quality headphone amplification were showcasing their latest models, with some new entrants focusing solely on tube amp designs.
- Portable DACs (digital-to-analog converters) and DAC/headphone amp combinations for streaming audio continue to add more capacity and better specs as their dimensions continue to shrink.
- IEMs (in-ear monitors) have become a must-have offering from virtually every headphone manufacturer now, and have essentially eradicated other types of earbuds among discriminating listeners. 3.5mm-to-USB (Android) or Lightning (iPhone) adapters were ubiquitous among the display booths for anyone seeking to compare the sound of IEMs or headphones on streaming content from smartphones.
- Mirroring other breakthroughs in the tech industry, Pacific Rim-based companies from China, Korea, and Southeast Asia are gradually shedding their reputations for offering knockoff and cheap versions of established products. Most of them are developing their own unique brand identities, with proprietary technical and design innovation offerings at comparable prices to established brands.
- Perhaps to acknowledge a greater level of technical sophistication among headphone enthusiasts in the audiophile spectrum, CanJam NYC 2023’s seminars were practically all targeted towards the areas of engineering, psychoacoustic, technical design history, and acoustic science.
Some of the seminar subjects included:
- The use of silicon for headphone drivers.
- The range and types of DAC architectures.
- The influence of geometry and acoustical impedance on sound perception.
- The design of digital interpolation filters.
- Frequency response targets for headphones.
While one didn’t necessarily need a physics degree to follow these seminars, there was a definite science geek emphasis to the topic selections, with surprisingly little reference to the industry from a marketing or sales perspective, or showcases for companies to highlight the breakthroughs of their latest products.
The perennial gulf between gear preferences of audiophile vs. pro audio users appears to now be blurred, at least in the headphones/personal listening sector. Perhaps this is a result of the explosion in DIY laptop DAW (digital audio workstation) recording, exemplified by artists like Billie Eilish and Lorde – but increasingly, more producers and engineers in their mixing work are leaning towards gear also favored by audiophiles.
Although CanJam NYC 2023 featured a wide range of excellent audiophile companies exhibiting their latest products, there were a few that in particular impressed me as being exceptional. Given that all of these products were of ultra-high audiophile quality, the aural differences were subtle and subjective. Other factors, such as ergonomics or versatility, were more objective.
Upscale Audio showcased a selection of high-end headphone amps and electronics.
Focal – based in Saint-Etienne, France, Focal has been designing hi-fi equipment for nearly a half-century with their equipment installed in residences, recording studios, theater venues and automobiles throughout Europe and other countries. Although I had heard of and read about Focal speakers in the past, I had never auditioned any of their headphones before.
The Focal Stellia offered superb sound quality and detail, with a very comfortable headband and ear pad design. Its frequency response is stated as 5 Hz – 40 kHz, and the drivers are made from beryllium. At only 35-ohms impedance, the Stellia is easy to use with a smartphone without significant performance falloff, while delivering even more sterling sound when driven with an amp. Listening to a mix of Yo-Yo Ma, Neil Young, Julian Lage, and Genesis, I thought the Stellia was better-suited for jazz or classical music but sounded a little too articulate and pristine for rock or pop music.
Focal Stellia headphones.
At $2,999, the Stellia are double the price of Focal’s MG Professional, which is marketed to the pro audio industry. The MG Professional’s frequency range is 5Hz – 28kHz. Ironically, the MG Professional sounded better for rock, but not as good for classical or jazz.
Elysian Acoustic Labs - the headphone sector, not unlike the electric guitar effects pedal market, offers the DIY entrepreneur a relatively low entrance point from which a new company can quickly gain a following if its products gain traction in the marketplace. Such a company is Elysian Acoustic Labs, founded by Lee Quan Min.
Elysian began as a DIY refurbishment experiment for Lee’s personal Ultimate Ears headphones, but quickly grew into a custom re-shelling service business. In 2019, Lee started turning heads in Japan with his proprietary designs, despite Elysian being a one-man band.
Elysian’s Annihilator IEMs bear the slogan, “The Only One That Matters.” Featuring a unique “Tribrid” design that incorporates one dynamic driver, two electrostatic tweeters and four balanced armatures with a 4-way crossover for each earpiece, the Annihilators have slightly more sonic heft to them than the average IEM. Unfortunately, the DAC music selection was limited to K-Pop and Cantopop, so I could not compare the Annihilator between music genres. Be that as it may, I had never heard Blackpink sound that good before! The Annihilators revealed minor nuances in the K-Pop mix that had gone unnoticed previously.
Elysian Annihilator in-ear headphones.
At $3,000, the Annihilator clearly is meant to rival the heavyweight audiophile headphone offerings of more established companies. However, the reviews and word-of-mouth have been through the roof, and, perhaps due to the headphones’ electrostatic tweeters, the Annihilator is garnering a reputation for exceptional treble response. These IEMs definitely make a case to keep an eye on Elysian for the future!
Astell&Kern – despite its German-sounding name, Astell&Kern is a Korean company and a subsidiary of entertainment conglomerate Dreamus. With a pedigreed history of collaborative products with Jerry Harvey Audio, Wolfson, and Beyerdynamic, Astell&Kern has made headphones and home cinema products but are best-known for their portable high-resolution digital audio players and DACs.
The SP3000 is the latest flagship product from Astell&Kern’s A&ultima series. Promoted as the first-ever digital audio player utilizing separate digital and analog signal processing, and featuring a stainless-steel casing, these are just some of the attributes justifying the SP3000’s “luxury” tag and $3,699 street price. Other features include its capability to handle DSD, 32-bit, 24-bit and 16-bit audio, as well as multiple headphone outputs including 3.5 mm unbalanced, 4.4 mm balanced, and 2.5 mm balanced, to drive virtually any type of headphones.
The SP3000 delivered very true, uncolored sound reproduction during my listening session, which included John Coltrane, Rihanna, and classical music from Deutsche Grammophon. To be honest, I could not discern any sonic advantages when comparing the SP3000 to some of the other Astell&Kern portable players, although the superior user interface and build quality was certainly evident. It was not unlike comparing a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch to an Omega Speedmaster.
64 Audio – unlike the other brands at CanJam NYC 2023 mentioned in this article, 64 Audio came to the audiophile market as an afterthought. Founded by audio engineer Vitaliy Belonozhko in 2010, 64 Audio has built its reputation into one of the primary “go-to” custom-mold IEM suppliers to major touring acts around the globe, including Earth Wind, & Fire, Beyonce, Bon Jovi, Juanes, Black Eyed Peas, Joe Walsh, Dream Theater, Jennifer Hudson, and many others.
By focusing on replacing traditional floor monitor wedges with their custom IEM designs, 64 Audio has pioneered a number of unique technologies along the way (according to their product information), such as:
- APEX (Air Pressure Exchange) – a patented vent that allows for reduced listening fatigue and a more realistic soundstage by releasing air pressure that would otherwise get sealed into the air canal, without compromising isolation.
- LID (Linear Impedance Design) – a patented circuit that corrects the non-linear impedances encountered when using multiple driver units, resulting in better sonic consistency across the drivers. This is especially important in 64 Audio IEMs that may contain anywhere from 9 to 18 miniature drivers per earpiece.
- TIA (Tubeless In-Ear Audio) – this is a custom-designed open balanced armature combined with a single bore (opening) that is unique to 64 Audio IEMs. It eliminates the need for the conventional sound-transmitting tubes and the dampers required for standard closed balanced armature designs.
Although 64 Audio has developed a strong customer base among musicians with its custom IEM designs, the company has also made inroads into the recording studio and audiophile arenas. Their 9-driver N8 model was designed in conjunction with bassist extraordinaire Nathan East, who uses the N8 on stage when touring with Eric Clapton, as well as while recording in the studio and even for reference mixing.
I was previously familiar with lower-end (under $1,000) 64 Audio IEMs for stage use but had never before had the opportunity to hear any of their audiophile-grade units, so I ventured to try out their flagship audiophile IEM, the Fourté.
The Fourté is a 4-driver hybrid (one dynamic and three balance-armature drivers) design with APEX and TIA and lists for $3,599. It delivered very impressive imaging on live recordings (Todd Rundgren and Utopia) with strong articulation and detail. The bass, in particular, seemed to be somewhat emphasized, although not boomy or over-hyped, such as what one might find when listening to some Beats models, for example. Although the Fourté is marketed to the audiophile demographic, I was personally surprised by its relatively flat response when listening to other music genres (opera, jazz, indie rock). They seemed closer to headphones that are often used for mixing, like the AKG K52, rather than offering the lusher sounds that can make listening more pleasurable that one would expect to hear with high-end electrostatic or planar magnetic units.
HIFIMAN – having first been introduced to HIFIMAN at a previous CanJam NYC, I was amazed by the range of headphones and DAC units created by Dr. Fang Bian, whom I subsequently interviewed in Copper Issue 137.
Over the past few years, HIFIMAN’s planar magnetic headphones have wowed many in the audiophile community with their bang-for-the-buck sound quality at a considerably more affordable retail price than many of the company’s rivals.
Priced at $1,999 and using similar “stealth magnet” technology as in the pricier HE1000 ($3,499), the AUDIVINA was designed by Dr. Fang Bian utilizing a resonance chamber inspired by the acoustics in the Bayreuth Festival Theater in Germany. Listening to cuts from Roxy Music’s Avalon, Whitney Houston, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, Jennifer Lopez, and acoustic Nils Lofgren, the AUDIVINA delivered the highly detailed, familiar HIFIMAN sound with an added spaciousness, thanks to the resonance chamber.
Also priced at $1,999, the SVANAR IEM may conceivably become HIFIMAN’s first entry into the pro audio arena. Utilizing Dr. Fang Bian’s patented Topology Diaphragm nano particle coating technology along with an unusual combination of brass and aluminum alloy (brass for the front chamber and aluminum for the rear chamber) and a 9.2 mm dynamic neodymium-magnet driver, the SVARNAR punched way above its weight class. Its design elements would seem to make it ideal for the rigors and abuse of stage use while still delivering crystalline, audiophile-grade sound quality.
Audeze – the company launched in 2008 thanks to a serendipitous meeting between a NASA scientist with a new material that would make for amazing planar headphone diaphragms, and Audeze’s audio-obsessed founders. Audeze headphones have developed a fan base among both pro audio producers, engineers and artists, as well as with audiophiles.
While Audeze sports an impressive menu of headphones targeted for audiophiles, their Reference series Pro Audio headphones were of particular interest to me. I decided to audition the closed-back LCD-XC model, ($1,299) which is planar magnetic but sealed, so it can be used for recording situations without leakage concerns.
I was floored by the surround sound-like soundstaging, and the clarity and full sound quality that managed to avoid being artificially hyped. The sound reproduction was startlingly realistic and accurate.
In order to check whether these characteristics were consistent across all music genres, I listened to music from Paco de Lucia, Bruno Mars, Alison Krauss, Banks, Brian Eno, Rosalie, Curtis Mayfield, Jackson Browne, Prince, Rihanna, Rimsky-Korsakov (Fritz Reiner), and Post Malone. For every cut, the quality never wavered.
Audeze LCD-XC headphones.
I then decided to compare the LCD-XC with Audeze’s latest model, the MM-500 ($1,699). Designed as a collaboration with multiple Grammy award-winning producer and engineer Manny Marroquin (Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Lizzo and many more), the MM-500 came about due to Maroquin’s introduction to the LCD-X (open-back) model while mixing an Imagine Dragons album. He was so impressed with the sound of the LCD-X that he wound up mixing an entire album track solely with the headphones. He later spoke with Audeze about just how impressed he was with the LCD-X and offered suggestions for improvements, which, to his surprise, Audeze accepted and used as the basis for the MM-500.
Marroquin’s goal for the MM-500 was to create “a great set of studio monitors that you can put in your bag and travel with.”
The MM-500 is considerably lighter in weight than the LCD-X or LCD-XC and has a sleeker profile. It also has a redesigned headband and earpads for improved comfort when worn for extended periods. With a frequency range of 5 Hz to 50 kHz, the MM-500 has an incrementally-extended low end compared to the 10 Hz – 50 kHz range of the LCD-XC. As they are an open-back design, they are really designed for mixing or recording direct only, since leakage would make them unusable for recording with microphones.
They sounded nearly identical to the LCD-XC, in my opinion, although perhaps the surround effect was slightly attenuated. According to some reviewers, there is a consensus that the MM-500 seem to be tweaked towards rock and pop music, and there are expectations that the MM-500 may crossover from the pro audio into the high-end consumer audio market as a result.
CanJam NYC 2023 was certainly worthwhile, and a good way to tangibly experience the newest headphone products while seeing first-hand the directions in which the industry is headed.
ABYSS offered a selection of high-end headphones made in the USA.
Los Angeles dealer High End by Oz brought a sampling of headphone-related audio components.
CanJam always features a wealth of specialty headphone products, including cables.
Attendees could take their time to audition the products on display.
All images courtesy of John Seetoo.