Power, portability and refinement were the prevailing themes from the personal audio segment at this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. In fact, over half of this year's CanJam exhibitors featured a product with portable applications, including IEMs (in-ear monitors), portable amps and DAPs (digital audio players). While this was certainly no surprise to anyone following the business side of the personal audio category, we also saw a few manufacturers starting to buck one prevailing trend: pricing.
After an astronomical rise in prices over the past two years, we saw a few manufacturers coming back down to earth with some high performance, high value products that will likely become big sellers over the next year. Value is relative, of course, so let's begin by looking at some of the best performing products we saw at their relative price point.
Jerry Harvey Audio was also in attendance, displaying their new, affordable three-driver designs: the custom JH 3X PRO ($599) with purple logo and the universal fit Michelle ($499). I found both models benefited from an absolutely spot-on tuning and wonderful timbre. JH Audio has always had a fabulous command of tone, and the balance here is so good, it's not inconceivable someone may subjectively prefer these to one of the higher end models. They sound THAT good. Climbing up the Siren Series line with the Angie ($1375), Roxanne ($1745) and Layla ($2745), and the new JH16V2 PRO ($1499), it is apparent that JH Audio is simply playing at another level, relative to most of the IEM market.
Cavalli Audio, known for a long time within the personal audio community as an aspirational, flagship brand was also in attendance with its most affordable product to date, the Liquid Spark portable amplifier. With a price targeted in the $500 range, the Liquid Spark has been appearing at audio shows in various stages of development for over a year and a half. Now with a finalized battery and circuit, the Spark debuted in its final housing for the first time at CanJam Denver at RMAF 2016.
The Spark's metallic housing is designed to be completely free of 90-degree angles, preventing the sharp edges and pocket snags that can be quite annoying from a portable device. Sporting 350mW of power into 50 Ohms, this highly capable amplifier drives everything from sensitive IEMs to full-sized planars with aplomb. Even paired with the hard-to-drive HiFiMAN HE-1000, the Spark delivers a deeply dynamic and well-controlled presentation that utterly defies expectations for an amplifier with its power spec. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard the HE1000 driven better by an amplifier in this price range, desktops included. This little portable device is simply stunning.
Already well-regarded for their low-cost, high-value products, Schiit Audio was in attendance with their impressive line of products, including the new Jotunheim. This exciting new product is available as a stand-alone amplifier ($399) or with your choice of a built-in AK4490 DAC or phono stage ($499), for unrivaled all-in-one flexibility. Schiit developed an all-new, fully-discrete current feedback topology for the Jotumheim, which provides both balanced and single-ended output without the need for splitters or summers in the audio path. The result is an excellent sounding unit that can drive everything from sensitive IEMs to the outrageously hard-to-drive HE-6. For many personal audio enthusiasts, this is going to be the only amplifier they ever need.