CanJam London 2017: Empire Ears, Stereo Pravda, Sony, Dinner with Axel (Part 1)

Wow! That was hectic but fun. I got to meet some folks I’ve wanted to meet for a long time in Jack and Dean Vang of Empire Ears, and Eric Chong of Effect Audio. I’ve been chatting with these guys on HeadFi and Facebook for a while. It’s great to finally meet these lovely people and purveyors of excellent audio. I also got to meet the brains behind Sony’s flagship MDR-Z1R and the WM1Z and WM1A, Naotaka Tsunoda and Tomoaki Sato. They were extremely attentive hosts, and generous with their time and explanation of their tech. Another fantastic meeting was the one I had with Misha Kucherenko of Stereo Pravda. Both the SB7 and Misha were revelations. I talked with Misha for a long while.

I’ll break down impressions by vendor and break it into one or two parts to make it more digestable.

Empire Ears

At Empire Ears, I spent my time on my knees—nothing untoward implied 😉 —with various Empire Ears gear and the Noble Kaiser Encore being switched around on one of the red chairs at their station. The Audio Opus Opus #3 was my source for all the listening. I listened to both versions of an Empire Ears prototype (we’ll say driver count X), but only took notes on the first that Jack offered, which was the one I liked more anyway. The prototype I listened to was lush, warm, and natural with a slight v-shape. It was a very inviting sound, but not my preferred signature. My preference was definitely towards their higher end stuff. Gimme some Zeus variants and flagship prototype goodness and I’m happy.

About those top tier fabulous beasts, I loved all of them. I started with the Zeus XR without the ADEL module. In comparison with the the Noble Kaiser Encore, the Zeus XR has a similar tonality with a touch more mid presence. The stage is wider on the Zeus XR, and Macy Gray’s vocal off “I Tried” is silkier. The sound on the Zeus is a bit more lively than the Encore, and more forward overall. Longer listening would give more precise observations, and would remove the matched by ear caveat on the impressions. I’m fairly good to about half a decibel (recently tested on audiocheck.net), but a meet/show environment is not ideal.

I listened to their bigger prototype next. The prototype still needs some development and is not close to release, but I can tell where they are going with this. Compared to the Zeus, the vocal is a little drier. The Zeus has fantastic height and width and the prototype maintains this, but improves depth. The bass is really solid and natural with a fully rounded development of the bass note. Spacing in the soundstage is absolutely exceptional.

Next up was the Zeus ADEL. The ADEL version of the Zeus is, in one word, airy. The mids are airy with a bit of extra breathiness to Macy Gray’s vocal that doesn’t sound quite right to me. The sound is less firm in it’s expression. Depth on the Zeus ADEL is greater than that of the non-ADEL Zeus.

I’m inclined to believe that the new prototype is trying to get the best of both the Zeus and the Zeus ADEL into the same IEM. It will give the solidity of the Zeus and the cavernous stage of the ADEL without making the mids too airy.

Stereo Pravda

Ear rape to commence.

I first heard about the Stereo Pravda Spear SB7 from my Russian Facebook friend, Hans Barbarossa, who has reviewed the SB7 in Russian. I joked before the show when commenting on the show preview video: “Does sticking Russian fingers in my ears count as innovation?” I think it does.

Stereo Pravda translates to Stereo Truth, which fans of Cold War intrigue probably already know, as Pravda was the ironic name of the official Soviet propoganda. In that case, truth was taken very much in the Orwellian sense, but here the meaning is honest. I had a long and enlightening talk with Misha “Big Misha” Kucherenko, the founder of Stereo Pravda. He is honest and straightforward, with potentially controversial views on what a balanced armature can do. He is absolutely passionate about sound.

The background of Stereo Pravda is in high end speaker sound and high end speaker wire (the cable for the SB7 was developed by Stereo Lab). The goal of the SB7 is to produce a high end loudspeaker experience miniaturised into your ear. They succeed.

Fitting the SB7 requires clipping the cable to your shirt to anchor it, looping the cable over your ear, tugging on the top of your ear and then riggling the SB7 as deep into your ear as you can. Anyone familiar with Etymotic may have flashbacks to traumatic Etymotic experiences. Maybe not. The fit is secure when you get it to where it needs to be but isolation is not great due to the flat-bladed design of the tip. If you move your head wrong, though, people may wonder if you took your seizure meds today. Graaagh. *Shivers*

I thought that the feel could be improved by rounding the tip a little bit. The tip is shaped like a silicone fan blade. The flatness at the edge means that it feels scrapey in the ear. I don’t think it has to be like this. Mind you, the fact that there are some large balanced armature drivers a short distance up still means that there will be some discomfort if you try to move your head vigourously.

On sound, the SB7 is divine. The mids are sweet and layered. The stage is holographic. The sound is extraordinarily natural. That is a good finger in my earhole. That is really f***ing excellent, more please.

For me the best measure of the quality of an audio device is how much the headphone sounds like live music. This sounds so much like live music it’s amazing. The soundstage was tall and deep with excellent realism. I rocked out to Macy Gray – I Tried, Tori Amos – Hey Jupiter, Why – Strawberries, and Daft Punk – Aerodynamic. Then I sat down to chat with Misha about the comfort level and the tech.

Misha’s response to the comfort was very Russian: “No pain, no gain. At first, it will be uncomfortable, but your brain will adjust after a couple days.” He likened it to having dental work done. At first it feels like an alien is living on your tooth (my words), and then it feels like a part of you again. I get this analogy. When I first tried the UERR it felt a bit uncomfortable, awkward, but I did get used to it. Where the analogy falls over though, is that dental work never leaves your mouth, so getting used to it is more natural, whereas the SB7 has to be inserted, removed, inserted…. You can get a little more acclimated to something that you use frequently, but it will never be as natural feeling as that filling on your second molar.

Misha says that the design is optimised for sound. In his view, Stereo Pravda is never going to be a high volume producer, so making something that everybody can use isn’t the most important thing. He would rather make the best sounding headphone he can and then find people that can wear it. He doesn’t need 100% of people to be okay with the fit.

The IEM is basically a stack of balanced armatures connected to a bulky cable. That cable in itself is very interesting. The cable was designed by a fellow that has worked with Stereo Lab and Kimber Cable. The design has many remarkably thin enameled copper wires arranged in a flat braid around a fiber core in two layers. The fiber core has a fluid injected into it. Before coming to the final design, a single layer braid was tried, but it didn’t sound good enough. Most of the cable consists of the fiber core, with the wires being only a hair’s thickness in diameter.

The driver contingent includes some special drivers called ferrofluid drivers (FED). The FED drivers are mechanically damped with a delicate magnetic balance by the ferrofluid. The drivers are vulnerable to impact, especially in cold temperatures (but it will stand up to normal Russian winter use). It would be best to avoid dropping these, if at all possible.

I also had a go with the SB5. Comparatively, the SB5 was deeply lacking in bass. The upper mids and treble were incredibly defined and detailed, even more so than the SB7. The bass was slow and muted sounding. If you are crazy into Spanish guitar or string quartets these may do well for you, and they are a little more comfortable due to losing the two big balanced armature drivers. I did not try the SB3.

I talked and listened with Misha for about 40 minutes. It was a very interesting and enlightening experience that I would recommend to anyone.

This is what Misha had to say about the sound of the SB7:

“Like bottling of the best home audio systems and carrying it with you.”

I agree with that.

Sony

It was such a pleasure to meet and speak with the brains behind the Sony MDR-Z1R (Naotaka Tsunoda) and WM1A and WM1Z (Tomoaki Sato). They were incredibly gracious hosts who explained everything as clearly as they could with an obvious love for their work. I wish I was as happy in my job as they are in theirs.

I tried out several things at Sony, first up, the Sony MDR-Z1R flagship headphone out of the TA-ZH1ES DAC/Amp—they should give it a code name, that name is a mouthful. The signal chain was Sony NW-WM1Z to TA-ZH1ES to MDR-Z1R. I put on Dire Straits – Money for Nothing, Michael Jackson – Beat It, Norah Jones – Feelin the Same Way (music selection wasn’t bad on their players). These were my observations:

  • Upper guitars are sharp
  • Mark Knopfler has some vocal texture smoothed away, vocals a bit soft
  • Mids are forward
  • Strong centre focus to the stage with edges not as evenly populated with sound
  • Michael Jackson’s voice on Beat It was slightly veiled (this might be the recording as it was from SACD, original vinyl is miles better)
  • Dynamics on Beat It felt a bit crushed (again, might be recording)
  • On Norah Jones – Feelin the Same Way vocals are better but there is some added breathiness that I’ve never really heard and I’m not sure should be there. I’ve listened to the track on a lot of headphones and it is a breathy track due to Norah’s vocal style, but not this breathy.
  • Overall, the mids have less solidity than I’m used to on this combo.
  • The MDR-Z1R is one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve tried, I still give the edge to the Susvara, but this is pretty great.
  • The Kimber Cable that comes with it is very flexible and looks fabulous.

I also tried the WM1Z and the W1MA with the MDR-Z1R, both sounded more solid than the TA-ZH1ES, so I have to conclude that the TA-ZH1ES may be a weak point here. I didn’t have opportunity to test the Walkmans with any headphone other than the Z1R, as I only had my Noble Encore with a Double Helix Cables Symbiote SP v3 Elite 2.5mm balanced cable on hand and no 3.5mm adaptor—D’oh!

With the WM1Z vocals were more detailed and incisive than with the TA-ZH1ES.

So before I get into W1MA vs. W1MZ, let me go over some of the differences that were told to me and shown by Tomoaki San—they had all the internals visible at the table, it was really cool. For more stats, you can check the Head-Fi W1MZ/W1MA thread.

  • The W1MZ has a solid copper body whilst the W1MA has a solid aluminum body. Tomoaki San indicated that the copper body is used for the ground and reduces noise. The copper body is also about double the weight and very dense.
  • Resistors inside the WM1Z are higher quality.
  • Whilst both the WM1A and WM1Z use a balanced configuration for internal wiring, the WM1Z uses quad braided Kimber cable for internal wiring. The purpose of the configuration is to further cancel out any potential noise and interference.

Upon listening, I found the W1MZ to have more depth and width with a more full sound. The two players definitely share a similar sound signature, but the W1MZ just does it better. If I were to choose one for usability, the W1MA is lighter (267g vs. 455g) and less expensive ($1200 vs. $3200). I only compared with the Z1R, so it may be that the differences would be more apparent on a more reference quality headphone. I hope to have more listening opportunities in the future.

Because the Z1R is so comfortable, I decided to come back with my family the next day to let my just turned 2-year old daughter try it out. In a first, I was able to put it on her head without relieving any of the pressure from the cups. It’s a comfy and stylish headphone.

Naotaka Tsunoda san took some fun pictures of the whole family enjoying some Sony. Thank you for the lovely pictures. I’ve posted them below. 🙂

Dinner with Axel Grell of Sennheiser

At the end of the first day, I lucked into taking the place of my buddy, Layman1, at dinner with Axel Grell. Layman1 couldn’t make it because a sitter pulled out, and his loss was my gain. He worked the iBasso stand instead and got some good rewards for doing so. Four Head-Fiers had dinner at Ev Restaurant with Axel and some other Sennheiser reps, a large and open Turkish restaurant with some of the best mezzes I’ve had. My main was good, but not exceptional. The company was exceptional. Axel Grell fielded questions about the differences between the HD600 and the HD650. The drivers are the same, the housing is different, with the HD650 having a more closed presentation. Axel Grell prefers the HD650. I prefer the HD600 (I’ve modded it to be a little brighter). Axel also talked about how Sennheiser comes to their measurements and why they don’t publish them. The former subject was very interesting, but I won’t discuss here. The latter is well-illustrated by the HD600/HD650 comparison. They measure almost exactly the same, but any listener can immediately tell the difference. Measurement doesn’t always tell the whole story—that is from the man himself.

Axel Grell told us some of the history of Sennheiser and it’s a good story but one I wasn’t taking notes during, they started in a barn because industry was pretty much shut down in Hanover after WW2. They’ve been at it a long time, originally making OEM microphones before they decided to break out on their own. Axel Grell has been involved in a lot of their headphones over time, including all my favourites from them in over-ears: the HD600, HD800, and HE-1. The HE-1 is still the best headphone in existence in my book.

I asked if there was anything cool coming up from Sennheiser. There is. That is all. Keep your eyes peeled.

I will have another post (maybe two) going through the rest of my CanJam fun later.

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