One exciting new development at NAS 2012 was the inclusion of a separate show within the main event called Headzones 2012, which was based in the Indianopolis room.
This mini show was packed with headphones, headphone amplifiers and computer audio related products such as DACs both with and without a headphone socket. Now I am not able to give as full a coverage of this event as I would have liked mainly for two reasons: One I lack the expertise to offer much coverage of what’s hot or not in the world of headphones and sadly I did not have time to cover every stand, however I did manage to listen to some exciting new products from AMR in the form of the new Ifi Audio products and a pair of Audeze headphones and I will present info on other products that interested me from those companies websites.
Ultrasone headphones had the first stall, just opposite the entrance to the show.
The UK distributors of Ultrasone headphones are http://www.synthax.co.uk/ and here is a link to Ultrasone themselves http://www.ultrasone.com/index.php/en/company.html
Just Audio a new name to me had their uHA -120 £220 and AHA – 120 £350 Class A battery powered headphone amplifiers on show and demo.
The uHA – 120 is an interesting design which Just Audio explain in more detail below……
‘The µHA-120 offers possibly the best solution to exceptionally high quality headphone amplification, which will also fit in your pocket. Ideal for the discerning audio enthusiast or professional, requiring bigger box performance in a smaller more convenient high quality product.
Unlike many similar products in the marketplace, we decided to use a discrete output stage, enabling us to fine tune the circuitry to provide the best possible performance from the design choices made. To confirm the best sounding configuration, we involved an independent panel of enthusiasts – with combined exposure to most of the products sold in the UK market – to blind test several pre-production units (each of course with a slightly different configuration).
The amplifier also includes the option to upgrade the standard high quality stereo potentiometer (used to adjust the volume) and rotary power switch, to an in-house graded (< 1dB channel balance) and modified feel (White Velvet Mod), fitted as standard to the AHA-120.’
The specifications are: Maximum Continuous Power output: 60 mWrms/channel into 32 ohm load (120mWrms total); 28 mWrms/channel into 300 ohm load; Click here for THD+N plot versus frequency. Distortion (THD+N): < 0.005% @ 1KHz (-16dBu to 5dBu output level); Dynamic range (dBA): 110dB, Bandwidth (-1dB): 10Hz-40kHz, Output impedance: < 1 ohm, Output current limit: ~= +/-80mA per channel, Maximum Gain (REV A): 12dB;, Maximum Gain (REV B): 12dB || 6dB (based on jumper setting); Battery recharge time (max): 2.5 hour fast charge; 6 hour normal charge; Dimensions (approx): height=23mm;width=52mm; length=85mm,Weight = 125g +/-1g.
The AHA-120 Class A headphone amplifier is also battery powered and Just Audio have this to say about it…..
Intended for the most discerning listener, the AHA-120 incorporates a discrete class A output stage, whilst the front panel features an additional high quality NKK rotary selector, enabling the end user to select the optimum amount of class A bias for a given headphone impedance. This feature extends operating time when using higher impedance headphones; and even when using the most class A bias, the high capacity internal rechargeable battery still enables up to 18 hours of operation.
Like the µHA-120, micro jumpers are fitted to the PCB as standard, so that the AHA-120 can be configured to either 6dB (x2) or 12dB (x4) maximum gain to suit headphones and IEMs. In addition, the same careful attention has been placed on the layout and choice of the electronic components, with particular emphasis on ensuring the very best audio quality and excellent immunity from unwanted noise sources.
As standard the stereo analog volume potentiometer is a specially in-house graded and modified part. This process involves only selecting parts with the best channel balance and then applying our ‘White Velvet’ modification, creating a near perfect passive analogue volume control with a premium smooth and consistently weighted rotary movement.’
Specification: Maximum Continuous Class A Power output: 60 mWrms/channel into 32 ohm load (120mWrms total); 28 mWrms/channel into 300 ohm load; Click here for HAAC operation example. Distortion (THD+N): < 0.002% @ 1KHz (10dBu output level): Dynamic range (dBA): 110dB, Bandwidth (-1dB): 10Hz-40kHz, Output impedance: < 1 ohm , Output current limit: ~= +/-250mA per channel, Maximum Gain: 12dB (REV A); 6dB || 12dB (REV B) Channel balance: < 1.5dB (over entire electrical travel of volume setting); Battery recharge time (max): 9 hour fast charge; 21 hour normal charge; Dimensions(approx): height=26mm; width=80mm; length=126mm Weight = 332g +/-1g
All these designs are pocket size and I would have liked to have listened to them but time was pressing.
As well as distributing Magnepan’s Magneplanar loudspeakers, Decent Audio also distribute Audeze headphones in the UK and while I have looked at them in the past I have never had the opportunity to listen to a pair until this event.
I have been wanting to listen to a set of these headphones for quite awhile and during my visit to Headzones I finally got my opportunity to do so and it was with the top model the LCD3
Audeze say this about the LCD3…
‘The LCD3 combines leading-edge planar technology with ongoing design input from Sound Engineers and Audiophiles. Audeze uses a proprietary thin-film diaphragm that is housed between a unique super-efficient push-pull magnetic structure. Audeze’s manufacturing process, combined with advanced materials and technology, produce extremely accurate and incredible sounding headphones. The LCD3 earcups are made of precision-crafted, hand-selected Zebra Wood (Zebrano). The sloped ear pads are made of premium lambskin leather, with specially moulded foam to offer the right amount of firmness.’
Specifications: – Planar Magnetic Transducers – Custom designed Zebra Wood (Zebrano) ear cups – Premium lambskin leather ear pads – Left and right transducers have matched sensitivity and frequency response within +/- 0.5 dB – Specially designed self-closing, acoustically transparent magnetic structure with highest grade Neodymium magnets – Frequency Response: 5 Hz – 20 KHz, usable high frequency extension 50 KHz – Distortion: less than 1% even at full output – Impedance: 50 Ohms, nominal – Maximum diaphragm excursion: 2.5 mm p-p- Efficiency: 93 dB/1 mW – Maximum output: 133 dB, 15 W- Transducer active diaphragm area: 6.17 square inches- Input cable: custom cable with mini XLR connectors – Weight: 550 g – without cable.
The LCD3 $1945 were being driven by a Sound Performance Lab Phonitor 2731 headphone amplifier £1175.
Sound quality was very good with the LCD3’s being comfortable to wear over the short term. As my exposure to both products was very short I can’t say much more except to say that I very much enjoyed listening to these headphones and amplifier combination I if I can get to listen to them again in the future I certainly will.
There were various other items on display and demo but alas shortage of time mean’t I had to move onto the next stand.
HiFi Racks had a selection of their beautiful wood headphone display holders on show.
Each HiFi Racks headphone holder is individually hand-made in HiFi Racks Rutland workshop, to the very highest standards of craftsmanship. HiFi racks only use the best quality solid hardwoods such as oak, walnut, cherry, mahogany and maple and they are available in satin and gloss black finishes. Prices start at £49 for oak and £65 for all other woods and finishes.
Grado had a very interesting stand featuring its updated range with preexisting model numbers but with an i at the end, but alas I did not have time to try any of the new headphones out -including the replacement for my own SR1000’s the GS1000i’s
AKG/Harmon Consumer Ltd
Nigel Crump of Symmetry had a somewhat packed display and demo area covered in equipment including headphones from Stax, including the new SR3170 Classic System and SR4170 Signature System.
The SR 3170 is …. ‘part of the NEW SR-Λ (Lambda) series, the classic STAX SRS-3170 system consists of SR-307 electrostatic earspeaker and SRM-323S energiser, with an all-stage direct-coupled balance output circuit configuration. The SR-307 employs an earspeaker, which features the same (NEW) diaphragm material known as “super engineering plastics”. This new structure is already used in the more expensive models, bringing about substantial sonic benefits.’
and the SR4170 is …. ‘part of the NEW SR-Λ (Lambda) series, the signature STAX SRS-4170 system consists of the SR-407 electrostatic earspeaker and the SRM-006tS valve energiser with balanced input. The SR-407 features the same electrostatic diaphragm assembly as the SR-507 top model of the NEW Lambda series.’
Sadly time precluded me having a listen to these headphones but they looked very interesting and based on previous experience listening to Stax these are bound to be very good.
HiFi Man/Schiit Audio
On this stand, well in reality sharing Symmetry’s stand as they have before, HiFi Man had a large display of headphones and amplifiers on display and demo.
One of the most exciting launches at the whole show was the new very affordably priced but massively performing spin off brand Ifi Audio, also from the ingenious mind of AMR’s designer Thorsten Loesch.
These small but beautifully formed products include a USB DAC the i DAC £275, USB headphone amplifier the i CAN £225, USB power filter the i USB £175 and a fully adjustable phono-stage (creating quite a buzz among the vinyl cognoscenti at the recent Rock Mountain Audio Fest Show) the i Phono £350.
I chatted with Vincent Luke of AMR for awhile before sitting down to have a listen to the set up running from a laptop – the media engine was J River and frankly the sound was amazing with an out of the head, wide deep soundstage but from headphones, I was staggered.
I can’t recall hearing anything quite like this before from headphones, not even from a pair of Jecklin Float’s which are well known for presenting music in front of ones head not in it. To say I was excited is putting it mildly.
AMR say this about the i Can….
‘Creating a one-box-fits-all-headphones amplifier was a challenge. That’s because headphones are a diverse lot. So when our engineers designed the new iCAN, they didn’t start with the amplifier; they started with the headphones.
Unlike traditional headphone amplifiers, the design of the iCAN is based on the whole gamut of headphones. This atypical approach has bestowed upon the iCAN a unique ability to realise the full potential of each and every headphone.
First and foremost, it was designed for the finest sound quality. With XBass you hear deeper, richer and cleaner bass. The 3D Holographic Sound system creates headphone-based music that is free-flowing rather than restricted.’
The iCan was being fed via the i Dac….
‘The iDAC uses a highly-advanced Asynchronous/Jitterless USB interface (trickle-down technology from AMR’s high-end audio equipment) to give not just good but perfect audio transfer.
With 3 dedicated internal power supplies, they provide a clean environment for the DAC to produce high-resolution audio. Augmented by the ESS Hyperstream Chipset — typically reserved for expensive high-end audio equipment, music reproduction is startling realistic.’
While chatting with Vincent he told me that all the lessons AMR had learnt while developing the DP777 had been incorporated into the i DAC as much as possible cost permitting.
One factor that I had not given much thought to be a veritable newbie when it comes to computer audio is the quality of the audio signal and interference the power being transmitted along side the audio signal in a USB cable has on the sound quality. Truthfully it had never entered my head, mainly down to ignorance that this could be an issue and furthermore that the power transmitted from the laptop to the device powered by a USB might be in itself also compromised by interference. Well AMR have thought about this and they have created the iUSB – creating quiet a stir already, on forums like Computer Audiophile.
On this they say the following….
‘The most important feature of any USB audio device (USB DAC, USB Amplifier and USB Speaker etc.) is the power supply. The USB system as well as audio, carries its own power. Perfectly adequate to power anything from USB memory sticks to tablet computers; it falls far short from being a suitable noise-free power supply for high-quality music reproduction.
To improve all USB audio devices out there, we wanted to develop not just a better power supply, but the best power supply for all audio devices. With the iUSB, quiet passages are whisper quiet. The climaxes are fiercer, and everything in between is richer, more vibrant and no longer grainy.’
The iPhono also looks like it will be turning heads and ears and I look forward to hearing it in the very near future.
I left the Ifi Audio table truly enthused by the potential these products have to invigorate the audio industry, especially among the younger music enthusiast who listen via headphones and a computer only.
I have as a result of this enthusiasm arranged to review some Ifi items in the very near future.
PSB well know for their speakers were showing headphones, something I did not know they made.
PSB currently have two models the M4u1’s a high quality purist design and the M4U2 a noise cancelling design.
The PSB M4u1 look like an interesting adition to the headphone market and this is what PSB have to say about them….
‘PSB Speakers gets up close and personal with your hi-fi. We’ve taken our 40 years of bringing real sound to real people and packed it into our exciting new Music for You (M4U) series of high performance headphones. You’re listening to music more than ever before, but now you can do it in comfort and style with PSB’s true-to-nature sound quality. The latest M4U addition is the M4U 1 Over-Ear Headphone, which offers our Room Feel™ technology and the same musicality of our award-winning M4U 2 Active Noise Cancelling Headphones, but without amplification or noise cancelling. The M4U 1 brings the precise true-to-nature sound of PSB’s in-room loudspeakers to affordable personal listening.
For at-home or on-the-go listening, these passive mode headphones are designed to give you the experience of Room Feel, but without all the fuss. Just put them on and enjoy. No batteries or switches necessary. Just pure simple sound. Like all PSB designs, the M4U 1 model emphasizes true-to-nature sound that doesn’t take anything away from the musical performance.
Listen longer in extra comfort. The ergonomic ear pads are gyro-suspended andself-adjusting to give you a precise fit, and naturally isolate your music from the outside world. The light weight and extremely soft replaceable ear pads allow you to lose yourself in those extended listening sessions. The expandable headband also adjusts easily for a more customized fit.
Two tangle—free cords are included—one standard and the other featuring an in-line remote to play, pause, or skip music, as well as a microphone to take calls from iPhone® or Blackberry®. Other accessories include a protective travel case, extra ear pads, microfibre cleaning cloth, ¼” (6mm) stereo adaptor, and dual input flight adaptor.’
More details – including specifications – can be found on the PSB website, link below.
Headzones 2012 impressions
I have been been told by a number of people that there have been suggestions made re having a headphones centric show within the main National Audio Show for quite awhile now and well done Chester Group for giving this ago this year.
The buzz within this mini show was amazing and on the several times I entered it there were quite a number of visitors looking, listening and chatting with the exhibitors. Interestingly the age range appeared to be much broader here than in other parts of the show, with some younger music enthusiasts spending a long time in this room. I guess this reflects the fact that for them what Headzones embodied represents their music listening interests more than the rest of the show.
I would also be inclined to suggest that for future shows that these types of products and computer audio in general should have a bigger share than it has currently to broaden the appeal of NAS as an event and as a by product of this more people will be exposed to the idea of high fidelity sound be it from traditional high end audio systems or via high quality headphone based systems.
Headzones was a very welcome addition to NAS 2012 and a first small step to make the National Audio Show appeal to a broader and younger music listening visitor and as a first step I think it was a success.
I thoroughly enjoyed this room and I look forward to more of the same next year.
The next part of NAS 2012 will follow very soon, with coverage of the rest of the downstairs rooms.
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