CanJam NYC was a return to roots in many ways for the personal audio community. Home to the first-ever international Head-Fi meet way back in 2006, the organizers at CanJam Global had been eyeing a return to the Big Apple with the growing success of their events in Southern California, Denver, London and Singapore. The event also must have felt like a much-needed return to sanity for much of the Head-Fi community, as it seems rising prices have triggered a string of torch and pitchfork rages in the threads of nearly every flagship headphone these days. And while we shouldn't expect megabuck flagships to disappear anytime soon, it appears the market's demands have been heard loud and clear by manufacturers.
At some point, innovation in high-end audio must trickle down to more affordable products for the industry to sustain itself. If there was one clear takeaway from CanJam NYC, it was that this process has begun. It appears we are on the precipice of a surge of excellent new mid-priced products in the personal audio industry.
Full-Sized Desktop Audio
Perhaps no single product better captured the spirit of the weekend than the MrSpeakers AEON ($799). A full-sized headphone utilizing the same technology as the excellent ETHER Flow and ETHER-C Flow ($1,799), the AEON captures most of the sound of its bigger brothers at a fraction of the price. With a gorgeous form factor and class-leading comfort, I'm hard-pressed to think of another headphone that is this good at this price. The sound is neutral and natural with an extra nudge of very satisfying and clean bass that I think will hit the sweet spot for fans of both of the bigger ETHER models.
Another home-run in the value category is the new Questyle CMA400i (estimated $799-$849). This desktop DAC/amp combo drove everything from IEMs to the beefy HiFiMAN HE1000 V2 planar magnetic headphone ($2,999) with aplomb. With a wide variety of outputs (including preamp outputs), the CMA400i will play just about any file up to DSD256 with excellent decoding from the fantastic AKM4490 chip. It uses Questyle's signature current mode amplification – showcasing the clean sound, fine control and deep black backgrounds their equipment is known for.
Also dipping their toes into the world of current-mode amplification was the venerable THX. Widely known for their audio quality certification standards for theaters, I found the jump to personal audio to be quite interesting. They were showcasing their new AAA-888 Dual Mono Headphone Amplifier (at the show strictly for evaluation purposes), which I was shocked to hear offers over 2W of power with -133dB SNR and -150dB distortion. Impressive specs indeed, but how did it fare when it comes to sound? I'd say it was equally impressive. This little amp was clean and articulate, with nice senses of both space and impact that reminded me a bit of Questyle's house sound.
Another well-known name in the audio industry, AudioQuest, was in attendance with a small, but impressive selection of products. After making a splash with their first foray into the headphone category with the popular Nighthawk, AudioQuest might be sitting on an even bigger hit with their all-new NightOwl ($699). The new model offers a more refined build with punchy bass, smooth treble and a slightly more balanced signature that I found to be much more appealing than the original Nighthawk.
AudioQuest was also showcasing their excellent compact DAC/amps, the DragonFly Red ($199) and the DragonFly Black ($99). Both units are fantastic for the price, and will be supporting the MQA format in the near future. After spending some time with the DragonFly Red, I have to say, I think this will be my new go-to pick for DAC/amp recommendations under $200. It performed quite admirably when I compared it to the full-sized Vioelectric amp at the booth. Considering it sells for less than one-tenth of the cost, that is quite an achievement.
Making waves with their own impressive duo of products, ZMF was on hand with their new flagship Eikon ($1,399) and Atticus ($999) headphones (read our world premiere review). The Atticus and Eikon are the first products to be fully designed from the ground-up by ZMF after years of building a reputation as a Fostex T50-RP modder, and they sound absolutely fantastic. As with all ZMF products, these new flagships are designed to be heirloom pieces, with your choice of cherry wood or padauk cups and genuine leather pads and headbands.
Hearing the final production models, I was struck that the Eikon sounded even better than I remembered. ZMF owner Zach Mehrbach said he tightened the production tolerances on the final production Eikon, which seemed to give the final version a little bit more punch in the midbass and a little bit smoother performance in the midrange around 800Hz to 900Hz, compared to the model I reviewed. A small change, but a very noticeable improvement, to my ears.
Just across the aisle, HiFiMAN set up shop with their wide and ever-growing catalog of products. Among them was the brand new flagship Edition 6 prototype (est. $5,999). This headphone has been a bit of a flashpoint in the conversation about flagship pricing over on Head-Fi.org, and moderators were eventually forced to lock the thread, in spite of their best efforts to keep things civil. It's probably a bit too early to judge based on this early prototype, but I didn't find the sound to be particularly special, given the gaudy asking price. While it was exceptionally neutral and clear, it didn't possess the visceral dynamism of the Abyss AB-1266, the musicality of the Audeze LCD-4, the superb refinement of the Focal Utopia or the detail of Stax SR-009. If the Edition 6 is going to succeed, it's going to need to find a real identity in future iterations.
One high-end product that really did live up to the hype was the new Sonoma Model One electrostatic system. Sonoma Acoustics is a reunion of former Sony "skunk works" engineers who were ultimately responsible for the creation of the SACD and, in turn, DSD formats. Working in concert with Warwick Audio, they developed a complete system that includes the headphone, electrostatic energizer and DAC for the price of $4,999. I found the system to be brilliantly revealing without being harsh or fatiguing. It was equally impressive at loud and soft volumes, allowing me to hear deep into the music and uncover microscopic details of the recording space. The midrange was very musical and the bass was quite good, especially for an electrostatic headphone. I think these guys have a winner on their hands.
high-end standout was the Cavalli Liquid Tungsten prototype (price TBD), which
continues to be tweaked, refined and molded into perfection. Even though
Cavalli was splitting space with Mr. Speakers, the Tungsten had ample room to
show its stuff with Dan Clark's wonderfully scalable ETHER Flow. The
Tungsten brought tremendous impact, clarity and three-dimensional staging to the
already fantastic ETHER, offering a tantalizing preview of the final product