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
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.
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
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
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.