Ever since the Sony Walkman became a private music listening platform sensation in the late 1970s, headphone design and specs have continued to improve, with the consumer, professional and audiophile markets all progressing and slowly but inexorably blurring into each other.
The mainstream consumer has moved from the initial novelty of portable headphones to earbud ubiquity. The average pedestrian on the street in most metropolitan cities will, more often than not, be sporting earbuds and will either be listening to music or conducting a phone conversation. Ironically, the lower fidelity that resulted from the data compression of convenient mp3 files has caused a resurgence of interest in better sound-quality equipment to fill that void. Headphones, digital audio (digital to analog) converters or DACs, headphone amplifiers, in-ear monitors (IEMs), earbud tips, high-quality cables and connectors and other related gear have made great technological strides, both in terms of utilizing new materials and engineering in designs, as well as improved ergonomics to maximize the enjoyment of the listening experience.
CanJam NYC 2020, held on February 15 – 16 in Manhattan’s New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square, demonstrated this trend in full. In stark contrast to Bluetooth iPod earbuds or garish, bass-heavy Beats (no offense to Dr. Dre), a competitively-priced range of consumer headphones and earbuds with phenomenally superior sound quality were showcased alongside new designs for professional studio recording, mixing and ultra-high-end audiophile-grade music listening environments. Additionally, numerous new companies, as well as long established ones, debuted their latest products, some of them successfully combining space-age engineering and hybrid materials with exotic woods to complement a retro aesthetic embrace of old school tech.
CanJam was surprisingly well attended, which demonstrated that the hunger for premium audio listening quality has resurfaced in this new era of private audio. A significant percentage of attendees to the New York show were millennials or even Gen Z kids still in middle school or high school.
Composer and producer David Chesky, who attended CanJam NYC 2020, commented back in Copper #30 that “The younger generation is into taking their music with them. So I’ve seen this explosion in the headphone market.” This observation was undoubtedly corroborated by the overwhelming majority of millennial reps and entrepreneurs who had booths at CanJam.
This headphone explosion has been heard around the globe. CanJam, which was founded by Jude Mansilla and Ethan Opolion of Head-Fi.org, started in 2006 and has grown internationally, with shows in Singapore, Shenzhen, London, and Shanghai, as well as in Chicago, Southern California and NYC.
In addition to the vendor and manufacturer showcase booths, CanJam 2020 NYC also sponsored a number of seminars, featuring:
- The history of DAC design, from Rob Watts of Chord Electronics in the UK;
- Dan Foley of Audio Precision on total harmonic distortion (THD), the differences between actual listening vs. measured specs, and the testing of headphones vs. loudspeakers;
- Chinese CamJam sponsor Dunu held a seminar on its radical design innovations for its LUNA series;
- An open panel Q&A featuring Watts, Foley, representatives from Audeze, Dan Clark Audio, HEDD Audio, and others;
And lastly, a seminar to address the elephant in the room – probably be more akin to a dragon –the seemingly overnight influx of world-class-level in-ear and headphone designs and products that now come from China.
With nearly 100 different exhibitors covering the gamut from manufacturers to distributors and reps, CanJam NYC 2020 was comprehensive without becoming overwhelming. The dedication to quality was pervasive across the spectrum, with an impressive camaraderie not often seen among rival competitors in a niche market. The following (to be continued in Part Two of this report) are some impressive products and moments that left the biggest impressions on me:
The aforementioned new players in the field were making impressive presentations with some superb products. In-ear monitors (IEM) have become a standard in professional audio among musicians and singers as a way to deliver clearer monitor mixes, and preserve hearing and prevent tinnitus due to excessive SPL (sound pressure levels) that can occur at stage volumes especially when using traditional on-stage monitor speakers. While a great number of US and Chinese companies no carry IEM models in their catalogs, one company from Korea may have created the inside track in their effort to corner the working pro and semi pro musician’s market.
Launched in 2012, South Korea-based AME Custom’s lineup of customized IEMs garnered a sizable amount of traffic to their table. With miniaturized (what AME calls “micro engineered) multiple drivers and a choice of jewellike abalone, mother of pearl, and custom-painted housings, AME’s IEMs had incredible instrument separation and offered excellent isolation from outside noise.
The AME triple-hybrid electrostatic Radioso ($1,450) and 4-driver Gravitas ($715) were especially outstanding. The Radioso features a low-frequency dynamic driver, mid-frequency balanced armature driver and four high-frequency electrostatic tweeters, hence the triple-hybrid designation. AME’s top-level 12-driver J12U-12BA ($2,100) is one of AME’s best sellers in Japan. However, their most amazing offering, which AME rep Earl Chon told me was being especially aimed at the US market, was a single-driver IEM at a $99.00 price that wasn’t even on their website yet: the J1U. In terms of bang for the buck, the J1U easily outperformed some of the costlier competitors’ IEM models and could conceivably displace the popular Shure SE535, a standard among working musicians – it’s that good.
With probably a good 90% or so of the exhibitors using high-resolution audio files or streaming sound sources like Spotify, Andover Audio’s Model One Record Player was an excellent reminder for audio enthusiasts of the joys of pristine vinyl records and how their analog sound can differ markedly from digital. Founded in 2012 as a design company for hire in the consumer audio, telecom and auto industries, Andover’s flagship product under its own brand name is the Model One, a $2,500 self-contained record player system with a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Espirit SB turntable, carbon fiber tonearm, and Ortofon OM2 cartridge.
The Model One features four 3.5-inch aluminum woofers, dual air motion tweeters, and a 200-watts of bi-amplified Class D power, as well as a dedicated headphone amp. The latter was wonderfully full-sounding while listening to the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s, Revelation LP. Andover’s open-backed PM-50 Planar Magnetic Headphones ($500) were an excellent complement to the Model One for private listening. The Model One also is available with a subwoofer ($800) and LP storage cabinet options.
Hailing from Berwyn, IL outside of Chicago, ZMF Headphones has been making high-end audio boutique products since 2011. A former student of acoustic guitar lutherie, founder Zach Mehrback has applied some of this training towards the design of ZMF’s headphone baffles, which are similar to acoustic guitar soundboards. ZMF’s product offerings are somewhat unique in their approach, which specifically caters to various listening tastes. Some of ZMF’s models include the warm sounding Atticus ($1,099.99) with its mid-bass hump, the massive sounding sub-bass-pronounced Eikon ($1,399.99), and the open airiness of the Aeolus ($1,199.99).
Their top of the line Verite ($2,499.99), available in both closed- and open-back configurations, sports vapor-deposited-beryllium drivers, and displayed a depth and breadth of sound that unmistakably added deeper colors to the music sources – a sonic enhancement that could be described as “larger than life.” Far from having a flat response, the ZMFs color sound, in my opinion, in many desirable ways that Apple’s Beats fail to or accomplish poorly. Listening to the pristine solo piano recordings of Ryuichi Sakamoto, recordings from Radiohead and orchestral film soundtracks, the Verite’s enhanced sound was like an aural version of Blu-Ray. The Verite’s specs cite sensitivity at 99 dB SPL/mw and a measured impedance of 300 ohms, thus making a smartphone output jack too weak to fully hear what the Verite can do.
ZMF Headphones come in a variety of hardwoods, chosen for sonic qualities as well as visual aesthetics. Choices include silkwood, sapele, cocobolo, pheasantwood, purple heart, ziricote, monkeypod, ironwood, leopardwood, maple, camphor, zebrawood, cherry, African blackwood, and Manchurian ash! They also come in a variety of ear pad shapes and densities, which can further tailor the sound from the neutral to the warm end of the spectrum.
Old Dogs with New Tricks
With close to 60 years in the audio industry, Audio-Technica has gone from becoming a turntable cartridge and stylus specialty company to a full-fledged pro and consumer audio titan, and one of the few Japanese companies other than Sony to successfully maintain its presence in both camps. A-T microphones have become a favorite of many recording artists in the studio, and their shotgun mics are a reliable standby on many film shoot locations. [Editor’s Note: I handle consumer PR for Audio-Technica. That said, I didn’t think it appropriate to exclude John’s comments from this report.]
However, the focus of the show was headphones, and A-T’s latest offerings, slated to hit the market in March 2020, were their exotic-wood-finished ATH-AWKT ($1,899) and ATH-AWAS ($1,399) audiophile over-ear headphones. Designed for comfort and performance, the ATH-AWKT and ATH-AWAS both utilize exotic hardwoods (striped ebony Kokutan for the AWKT and Asada Zakura ironwood for the AWAS) to suppress unwanted resonances, a proven technique in making hardwood loudspeaker cabinets.
The AWKT sports 53mm drivers configured in a Permendur magnetic circuit on a titanium flange with 6N-OFC voice coils to deliver a frequency response of 5Hz-45kHz. The AWAS has DLC (Diamond Like Coated) 53mm drivers in a pure iron yoke to provide 5Hz-42kHz response. Both models have A-T’s D.A.D.S. (Double Air Damping System), claimed to provide enhanced bass accuracy, as well as detachable cables with a choice of standard or 4-pin XLRM balanced connectors.
The new ATH-WP900 headphones were also on display ($650), featuring flamed maple housings and the same DLC drivers as the above models. The WP900 delivers 5Hz-50kHz response.
A-T headphones like the ATH-M50x are used in many recording studios along with Austrian and German stalwarts AKG, Sennheiser, and Beyerdynamic, for their accurate reproduction. The AWKT and AWAS both exhibited aspects of the ATH-M50x but with a more luxurious feel and a “bigger” sound. A characteristic of some Japanese audio gear is a greater articulation in the highs and upper mids, bordering on icy crispness and lacking warmth and depth. The AWKT and AWAS do not share those traits.
For almost a century, Germany’s Beyerdynamic has been designing and manufacturing top notch microphones and headphones. Their DT Series headphones are a favorite among video game enthusiasts, especially for their sense of surround-sound three dimensionality when playing virtual reality combat games. Of course, Beyer’s long history of supplying the audiophile market is well documented, but the company has stepped up its latest wireless offerings with their Amiron ($599) and Lagoon ANC ($299) Bluetooth headphones. Their Bluetooth Aventho model ($299) is still popular and, the noise cancellation capabilities of the Lagoon and Aventho make them ideal for shutting out distractions on long plane or train trips. In addition to adjustable noise cancellation, the Lagoon folds up compactly, provides alerts for battery, high sound pressure levels, Bluetooth and other functions, and has a 10-meter Bluetooth distance range.
The Amiron were bulkier, but noticeably superior in terms of both the quality of the Bluetooth connection as well as their richer sound quality. While also wireless, the Amiron lacks the lightweight travel ease of the Lagoon, but the tradeoff in better fidelity makes it a worthwhile choice for the listener who wants to be able to roam around the room without an umbilical cord to their headphone amplifier or other signal source.
In designing headphones, the experimenting with new materials in the quest for improved performance can result in an exorbitant amount of R&D (research and development) expense. That hasn’t deterred Fostex, long known for its DIY analog and digital recording equipment. The company premiered its TH-900mk2 ($1,599), which comes with proprietary “Biodyna”-equipped 50mm drivers in a 1.5 tesla flux density Neodymium magnetic circuit, housed in a Urushi-lacquered Japanese cherry birch housing. Made from biocellulose fiber, Biodyna diaphragm specs are claimed to measure double the propagation velocity and offer 500% greater rigidity compared to conventional plastic-film-based drivers – all contributing to improved sound.
The Fostex TR50RPmk3 ($159.99) is a perennial favorite for small private recording studios and was available for comparison at the booth. The TH-900mk2 exhibited surprisingly few fundamental audio differences compared to the TR50RPmk3, although it delivered a greater spaciousness in its sound. Whether Fostex fans would love it enough to replace their TR50 standbys will be up to the individual, but Fostex is still pushing the envelope in its R&D, so where Biodyna engineering goes in the future is anybody’s guess. John Meyer of Meyer Sound has experimented with a slew of different driver materials and still uses treated paper, which is essentially a cellulose product. Can Biodyna be next?
In Part Two I’ll cover tube amp retro chic, the Dragon in the Room and more.