It's been an interesting year in the world of personal audio, and we're seeing the market trends continuing to play out here with the hot products at the 2016 AXPONA Ear Gear Expo. The push for "end-game level" audio in the portable category is at an all-time high. As such, this was a huge year for portable digital audio players, portable amplifiers and in-ear monitors. Plus, we're seeing the rising emergence of a new trending category, transportable amplifiers. Let's take a look at those first.
Woo Audio has also entered into the transportable amplification category with their all-tube WA-8 Eclipse amp/DAC combo ($1799). Boasting a glorious low end, the WA-8 had me at "hello", as soon as the sweet sound of the upright bass came in. What's more it offers an onboard battery and includes a protective carrying case for additional transportable convenience.
Campfire Audio/ALO impressed with a diverse array of stellar in-ears. Campfire's new flagship IEM, the Andromeda ($1,099), captured my attention with its full-bodied bass, ultra-extended treble, fine detail and transparency. Featuring five balanced armature drivers, the Andromeda comes with a specially designed tubeless resonator box, which increases treble extension significantly, unveiling loads of ambient detail. Paired with their excellent ALO Continental V5 portable tube amplifier ($695), this is a serious contender for an end-game portable setup.
Noble Audio made an appearance at AXPONA 2016, showcasing a wide range of IEMs including their venerable Kaiser 10 Universal IEM ($1650). Paired with Cavalli Audio's upcoming Liquid Spark portable amplifier, the K10U gave me unparalleled detail with an undeniable fun factor that had me dancing in my seat. I truly believe the Kaiser 10 is the IEM to beat on the market today, and the bar by which many of these new flagships will be judged.
And speaking of flagships, Empire Ears was showcasing the world's first 14-driver IEM, the Zeus ($2099) at the Ear Gear Expo as seen above. This technical marvel features two bass drivers, six midrange drivers and six treble drivers. These balanced armatures are controlled by a passive seven-point crossover network. The new flagship Zeus also features a quadruple bore design. I must say, I've never seen anything quite like it. The sound itself was quite lovely, musical and controlled, as you might imagine. I look forward to hearing more of this ambitious flagship product.
Portable Digital Audio
Astell & Kern was at the Ear Gear Expo, showcasing their striking line-up of digital players. Their new AK320 ($1799) offers the fabulous sound and interface of the flagship AK380 ($3999 in copper), only sacrificing a few features such as native DSD decoding. If you've always wanted an AK player, and you are not a DSD user, I'd highly recommend giving it a test drive.
Questyle Audio Engineering is also making waves in the portable DAP market, with their popular QP1R ($899). This DAP was clearly one of the stars of the show at AXPONA 2016, as you could hardly go ten feet without seeing a QP1R. Equipped with Questyle's excellent current mode amplification technology, this player offers precise driver control and uncompromising sound for just about any headphone on the market.