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Head-Fi National Meet 2007
Head-Fi National Meet 2007
Head-Fest Report By Jim "Stoney" Stoneburner 
Page 1


  I hadn't surfed Head-Fi.org for many weeks. So, it came as a delightful surprise as I logged in to find that this, the number one audio website in the world, was producing a Head-Fest show, billed as "international," and right here in Silicon Valley where I work and live. Would I have traveled farther to attend? Most definitely, at least if I were considering a multi-thousand dollar purchase (and I am!). Where else can one hear popular and new amps and phones, particularly all in one place?

This report covers Saturday, focusing on amps and headphones more than the personalities at the show. I meant to make Sunday be my meet-and-greet day, but my back was spasming from having hunched over equipment all of Saturday. Aside from Headroom's Tyll Hertsens, most exhibitors and attendees were new faces to me, including Head-Fi's first member and administrator, Jude.

I attended the talk given by Steve Hoffman, award-winning recording, mastering and restoration engineer, who has turned knobs for many legendary musicians, and is the hands and ears behind many of our favorite reissues. Later, I rested my spine while enjoying dinner and a panel of amplifier manufacturers discussing perspectives on product development and the role of Head-Fi in their businesses. More on this later.

I was sorry to miss the seminar on headphone measurements (being an experimental acoustician myself, in my JPL/NASA days; I'm now a medical device developer). But, the topic of measurements is well covered on the forums and elsewhere on the web. The way a headphone interacts (or doesn't, more to the point) with the pinna, and resonates with the ear canal, create special design challenges in tailoring a headphone's geometry and frequency response. As a small example, I find that changing the type or length of tips on my in-ear monitors, including the Shure E500PTH, makes a big difference, not just in frequency response but in treble distortion. A fascinating seminar for the technophile, no doubt.

The main floor of the show consisted of three meeting rooms merged into one long ballroom, filled with rows of tables. My first stop was a new name to me, Woo Audio of New York. One of the men in charge, Jack Wu, made reference to his father's decades of design experience, so it seems to be a family business. My impression was of marvelous build quality, beautiful cosmetics, and great sonics. Most memorable was the large, two-chassis tube unit called WA5. Each chassis was topped by two transformers (and two handles, thank you), as well as an impressive tube complement. The "make it loud" chassis sports two 300B power tubes and two 6SN7 drivers, while the "make it run" chassis has two 5U4G rectifiers. The WA5 comes equipped with a multi-position impedance knob, set "high" for my 300-ohm Sennheiser HD650. The amp can even drive loudspeakers, although only high-efficiency ones need apply, at 1.5 watts.

I gave a brief listen to Woo's WA-GES amp for electrostatic headphones, paired with Stax cans (perhaps "boxes" is a better word). This combination sounded far less analytical and more balanced than I am familiar with from Stax headphones. Other products on display included the WA3 and WA3+, slim units which look and sound like great values at under $500; the WA6 in a similar narrow chassis; and the wider WA2 OTL unit with preamp outputs.

Comparing the sound of the flagship WA5 to the budget WA3+, I found both quite enjoyable, but the big unit excelled in extension, bass solidity, soundstage size, image specificity, treble purity, lack of grain, and relaxed, open midrange. This was the best I've heard my HD650 sound, at least with an unbalanced design. If I had the floor space and the spinal integrity to lug these beauts, I'd be ordering them right now. I wish I had tried the WA6 while I was there. (Tracks used included "You and Your Friend," an old familiar Dire Straits song, and the Chabrier disk from Mercury.)

This booth also afforded a chance to compare theclosed-back Sony MDR-CD3000 to my Sennheiser HD650 equipped with an older-generation Cardas cable. The Sony cans provided a wealth of detail and neutral if slightly analytical character. No doubt, very revealing of equipment differences, and definitely a great studio monitor headphone, yet I would happily live with them at home. My HD650 sounded a bit warm, vague, and reticent in comparison, although unflaggingly pleasant.

Later in the day, I compared my HD650, which I paired with an older pale-blue Cardas unbalanced cable, with an apparently identical HD650 and a similar length of newer, gray Cardas, Each was driven by the huge WA5. The newer Cardas cable was quite an improvement. Treble was far less emphasized, and much more believable, controlled, and well defined. I'll be ordering a replacement soon.

Next I surveyed the many Emmeline products from Ray Samuels Audio. Ray's units are all named "Emmeline," as Wes Phillips pointed out, after the Samuels' daughter. Each model is then given the name of a different aircraft. The Emmeline II The Raptor is a 2 chassis tube unit of modest size, with a red-illuminated volume knob. Next, I spotted the Emmeline II B-52, a large, stacked, two-chassis, combination of full-functioned preamplifier and balanced headphone amp, sporting eight tubes poking out the top. Two large, golden anodized knobs and substantial black chassis give it a distinctive appearance. Future production may be in Silver instead of black. The combination of balanced topology and tubes had me eager for a listen. Well, I was in luck, because one of the headphones available was the discontinued Sony MDR-R10. This combination was very revealing of detail, yet graceful, with solid bass and extended treble. Unfortunately, there was rather more treble than I am used to. The amp was driven by a Meridian 508 disc player.

 

 

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