Part One of this report appeared in Issue 106. CanJam NYC 2020 took place on February 15 – 16 at New York’s Marriott Marquis and was well-attended by a diverse range of people young and old. The global CanJam shows are focused on headphones and associated gear – portable players, headphone amps, DACs, cables and accessories.
The following are descriptions of some of the products that left the biggest impressions on me, along with a selection of product shots:
Tube Amp Retro Chic
While microprocessors and miniaturization of components has led to smaller DACs and headphone amplifiers, with some about the size of a pack of cigarettes, CanJam NYC 2020 had a surprisingly large number of exhibitors promoting dedicated tube amps for headphone listening.
Hearkening back to the 1950s and 1960s, vacuum tubes were largely replaced by transistors, semiconductors, and op-amps by the 1970s. Among the few industries still using vacuum tubes are high-voltage RF, select military technology equipment, guitar and other musical instrument amplifier manufacturers, some pro audio gear, and some high-end audio companies like McIntosh, Audio Research, VAC, VTL and a number of others. Eastern Europe and China are the only two regions remaining with any large-scale tube manufacturing factories, as Communist countries kept much of their tube-powered equipment in circulation long after tubes were mostly phased out in the West.
I’ll admit that the presence of tube-powered headphone amps at CanJam NYC 2020 was a surprise to me, as this was my first CanJam. But given the more focused listening demanded by wearing headphones, the desire for the warmer sound of tube amplification to counter the brittle sterility of some digital music sources makes logical sense.
In addition to its headphones, ZMF’s Pendant Amp ($1,999.99), sporting EL-84 and 12AX7 power and preamp tubes similar to a Vox guitar amp, was a somewhat appropriate, rather than anachronistic complement to the furniture-quality hardwood ZMF headphones on exhibit. The Pendant seemed to have a relatively transparent sound with a nice dose of tube warmth. The Pendant served as a high quality neutral sound source reference, with its volume knob being the only variable control on the unit.
Well known for their audiophile tube amps, Serbia’s Auris Audio showcased its latest product, the Euterpe ($1,699). A multi-functional unit that can serve as a pure tube headphone amp, a DAC, or a preamp, the nearly 1-watt Euterpe comes housed in an attractive wooden base that can also double as a headphone stand. With USB, RCA, and 6.3mm stereo input and output jacks, the Euterpe can connect to computers, other DACs or other sound sources.
The warmth of the tube-powered Euterpe was evident from the get go. The only criticism I had was that the sound source was a notebook computer with a jazz Muzak playlist, so listening to other genres of music for the basis of comparison was not possible.
Auris also was promoting a new spinoff brand subsidiary: EarMen. Located in Chicago, EarMen is a marketing arm for Auris’ portable DACs and headphone amps in a more affordable price range. The EarMen $249 Tr-Amp (a headphone amp/DAC) and humorously named Donald DAC ($99) standalone DAC gathered a small crowd waiting to try them out.
Based in Maryland, Corsonus is the brainchild of young entrepreneur Justin Chow. A former youth orchestra violinist, Chow became interested in headphones while in high school and got his start in electronics and DIY audio customization while in college. He only started learning the craft of machining in 2018!
The Kodachi ($3,600) is a fully DC-coupled, tube/solid state hybrid amplifier. In the driver stage, it uses two 6SN7GTB tubes (and variants such as the Psvane CV181-Z). The power supplies including the tube heater supply are all fully-regulated, low-noise designs. The amp is available with a number of power tube, gain and other options.
The chassis for both the amp and the seperate power supply are designed and milled by Chow out of a large block of billet aluminum. The power supply starts out at 15lb. and the amp is about 12lb. The separate chassis allow better thermal stability and heat dissipation.
The Kodachi is designed with special consideration to being able to drive electrostatic headphones. Comparing the different tube configurations available for the amp yielded very discernable differences in the same music references, which included excerpts from orchestral recordings, jazz from Snarky Puppy, and Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand.” Transparency in the highs, midrange depth, and bass response and impact were all refined but altered for different tastes, not unlike using a Pultec Tube EQ-1 graphic equalizer to shape the sound in a recording studio.
Overall, a praiseworthy debut from a talented designer who clearly loves what he does.
The Dragon in the Room
One indication that a noticeable trend in an industry sector that has become too big to ignore is when it gets covered by conventional news outlets. In The Wall Street Journal’s February 22, 2020 “Gear & Gadgets” section, the entire article by Matthew Kronsberg was devoted to “Chi-Fi” – the constellation of Chinese-branded gearthat focuses on headphones, IEMs, DACs, headphone amps, and associated accessories. Although “Made in China” high quality levels are usually only associated with Western brand name electronics, CamJam featured many Chinese brands whose design, features, and performance easily rivalled those of their more expensive, better known competitors.
CanJam NYC 2020 had several rooms that were managed by Chinese dealer reps who were fluent in Chinese and English. They literally had so many tables festooned with the latest gear from so many different Chinese manufacturers that even the reps got momentarily confused as to which information went with which of their brands, due to their similarities of some of the products in appearance and use.
At least a dozen different smartphone-sized or smaller rechargeable DAC/headphone amps were on one table and they all looked like their chassis all came from the same factory, despite having different specs and subtly different sounds.
No stranger to the audiophile arena, Head-Fi.org sponsor HIFIMAN was launched in New York 13 years ago by Dr. Fang Bian. HIFIMAN’s Reference line of audiophile products, including electrostatic and planar magnetic headphones, tube amps, and streaming audio devices, have been favorably reviewed in Stereophile, Forbes, HiFi+, WIRED, and TIME. The HIFIMAN product line also includes portable players, dynamic-driver closed- and open-back headphones, IEMs (in-ear monitors), digital-amplifier motherboard cards, and digital amps and DAC units in their Reference, Premium and Hi-Fi product lines. Prices range from $49 for the RE300i, RE300a and RE300h earbuds to $6,000 for the SUSVARA over-ear planar magnetic headphones. (The flagship SHANGRI-LA electrostatic headphone system, which includes headphones and a tube amplifier, doesn’t have a published price.)
Obtaining a private listening appointment, I was able to meet with Dr. Bian to listen to his SHANGRI-LA Jr. electrostatic headphones and tube amp package unit ($8,000). With a range of classical and jazz SACD files from which to choose, the smoothness, detail and sense of presence from the SHANGRI-LA Jr. system was stunning. Every note was articulated and the three dimensionality of the space was natural and free of DSP artifacts.
Perhaps even more remarkable was HIFIMAN’s latest product, the DEVA planar-magnetic over-ear Bluetooth headphones at $299. Designed as HIFIMAN’s entry-level audiophile headphones, its bang for the buck quality impressed me in the same way as the AME Custom J1-U IEM (see Part One of the CanJam NYC 2020 show report). Punching way above their weight class, the open-backed DEVA comes with a 6.5mm cable connection and a dedicated Bluetooth dongle for wireless use.
The DEVA easily rivaled comparable Bluetooth headphones from the more established European and American brands in sound quality, even those at higher prices. Listening to a mix of ambient rock from David Sylvian, solo jazz piano from Keith Jarrett and hard rock from the Foo Fighters, the DEVA complemented the music across all three genres with none of the sterility that some Bluetooth models sometimes exhibit due to signal compression or other factors. The dongle itself is a remarkable design. It supports hi-res LDAC and aptX HD and up to 24bit/192 kHz (via USB) and 24bit/96 kHz (from Bluetooth). Its built-in 2-channel DAC/filter and 1-watt per channel amp are probably a big part of its sonic excellence. Dr. Fang will have a likely winner on his hands with DEVA, given the popularity of Bluetooth and what I and others are seeing as a new trend back towards improved fidelity.
For high-end headphones in general one of the newer driver materials being touted for its sterling audio reproduction qualities is the rare earth metal beryllium. At roughly $50.00 per gram, it is a difficult and costly metal to shape, due to scarcity and associated toxicity in processing. Nevertheless, beryllium is yielding the results that many headphone designers are seeking: significantly reduced distortion due to the metal’s stiffness to thickness ratio, while having the potential to deliver superior sound reproduction over conventional driver materials.
China’s global supremacy in the rare earth metals mining industry is unchallenged. Through its domestic deposits and exclusive international mining contracts in other countries, China controls close to 90% of the world’s rare earth metals deposits. This is a strategically enormous advantage for Chinese headphone manufacturers utilizing beryllium in their designs.
While ZMF’s $2,500 Vérité headphones use vapor-deposited beryllium drivers and AME uses beryllium coated drivers on some of their IMEs, Head-Fi.org sponsor Dunu created a big buzz at CanJam with the release of their LUNA ($1,699) IEM. The LUNA contains a single sheet diaphragm made entirely of pure “acoustic grade” beryllium. Dunu’s past 17 years as an audiophile headphones manufacturer have established its reputation for excellent products. But it soon became clear to me that the LUNA was an engineering and design achievement comparable to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
Dunu’s Executive Director of Global Strategy and Management Tom Tsai spoke in detail about the R&D work that contributed to the making of the LUNA. In addition to the beryllium diaphragm, the earpiece shell is constructed of titanium alloy. Tsai explained that the inspiration for the aesthetic design of LUNA came from the Apollo 11 moon landing. The asymmetric lip shape, circular faceplate, concentric topographic map-like swirls and coloring were all related to the “moon” theme, with even the colors selected to match NASA photos of phases of the moon.
The LUNA sounded, not surprisingly, like an IEM version of the ZMF Vérité: lush, enhanced and richer sounds from familiar musical source content. If this is a common characteristic of beryllium (and not merely the result of design similarities between the two models), it is no wonder why the metal is so highly regarded for audiophile earphones design. The fact that Dunu can sell a pure beryllium driver-equipped LUNA IEM at $1,699 reflects, at least in part, the reduced access cost Chinese companies have to rare earth metals over their international rivals.
The aggressive dedication to R&D from Chinese companies like Dunu and HIFIMAN may likely result in new industry standards, much like the way Samsung’s Galaxy phones set the Android standard. These advances should continue to prosper, even in the wake of international emergency setbacks like Covid-19 that can halt trade.
CanJam NYC 2020 was an experience that certainly exceeded my expectations. It gave me a new and greater appreciation for how old and new tech can be combined for better listening experiences than what either old school tubes or cutting-edge digital might achieve individually.