Canjam London will always hold a special place in my heart – this is the first portable audio festival I ever attended, and provided my first taste of true high quality portable audio, and what it could sound like.
I was lucky enough to make the Sunday of this year’s Canjam London, and while making my way through the various temptations on display, I managed to jot down a few brief impressions. Unfortunately, my camera work didn’t fare quite so well, so the solitary photo I managed to take without a huge smudge on the lens turning it into a passable impression of the famous pea souper fogs of London in the 1800s was of something I didn’t even get to listen to. Photos here are of the gear in question, but pretty much only the stuff I ended up purchasing up on the day.
The first booth I stopped at was the Flare Audio concession. Flare were my “gateway drug” into this hobby via their Kickstarter a few years ago for the R2A in-ear monitor, and hold a special place in my heart. Ever since I heard about their latest single-DD offering, I have been waiting with baited breath to see if they could improve on the original without losing too much of the “special sauce” that made the R2s unique. Enter the Flares Pro.
Compared to the original packaging from their first series of IEMs, the Pro are a serious step up in quality, the cube-shaped box modelled on an anechoic chamber, and looking really cool sat on their stand. This was the only model they were talking about at Canjam, with the demo models mainly running off their small Bluetooth module that is included with each package. It is about the size of a small matchbox, but is a fully balanced Hi-Res DAC/AMP, sporting AptX Bluetooth and a decent 10+ hours of battery life.
They have also upgraded the cabling, keeping the titanium shells small but definitely improving the robustness of the rest of the design with some aramid fibre cables. @Glassmonkey will be reviewing these on here soon enough (as will I), but suffice to say the sound quality of the Pros from both the Bluetooth and wired connections is pretty stellar for the £350 RRP, and competes pretty well with IEMs in a higher price bracket. They use one single Beryllium micro-driver and a unique “dual jet” design and tapered sound bore to lower distortion and reduce pressure in the ear canal. The sound quality is beautifully clean and smooth as a result, with very good weight in the bass and excellent clarity throughout. These were one of my favourites of the whole day, and I ended up going home with one of their last boxes.
For those who may be put off by the unique cabling design (the IEM cables detach at the y-split and are terminated in MMCX connectors to link to the Bluetooth module or the unbalanced cable), the guys at the Flare stand did mention they are looking into producing further connector sets, with a 2.5mm TRRS connector likely to be the first additional option.
I was the recent winner of a competition on Head-Fi that was run by Empire Ears and Effect Audio, and as a result was the lucky recipient of a custom Zeus-XR and Effect Audio Leonidas. After exchanging a few PMs with Jack Vang at Empire to arrange the custom build, he was the one person I wanted to make sure I got to meet in person at Canjam, to say thanks face-to-face for the outstanding competition prize and to check out the rest of his firm’s lineup.
As it turned out, I spent a few hours over the course of the day at the Empire booth – Jack and the head designer Dean were both extremely gracious and entertaining hosts, happy to shake hands with every person who took an interest in their gear and talk at length on various topics.
Dean (the engineering “brains” behind their lineup) very kindly spent some time talking me through his approach to tuning his flagship models, as I was curious as to how Empire manage to retain the level of coherency the Zeus is capable of with a 14-driver/8-crossover setup. Sadly, I wasn’t able to learn any earth-shattering secrets from Vang Sr., but it was refreshing to hear that their philosophy on sound is simple – they tune IEMs to sound as close to what a singer or guitarist wants to hear as possible, and use however many crossovers as the design merits to keep the sound as clean and clear as possible. Dean also talking through why they “nano-coat” the drivers in each IEM – this is a trickle-down (or across) from the parent hearing-aid company that the Vangs also run, and is designed to ensure that the drivers are sealed against water and moisture damage, to prolong the working life of the IEM if it is worn for long periods or in very humid or sweaty environments. It has the added bonus of reducing magnetic interference between drivers within the shell, which can only be a good thing.
While I worked my way through their existing range to get a benchmark for where the Zeus sits in direct comparison, I was also presented with the opportunity to hear both their “non-advertised” Savage line (for musicians) and two of their new prototypes that may eventually replace some models in the existing range.
Starting with the existing lineup, I worked my way through from the Hermes to the Apollo (some ADEL variants as well) – the Hermes is an impressively clean sounding monitor, but a little analytical for my personal preference. Moving up to the Athena, I had an immediate connection with the signature, reminiscent of a slightly watered-down Zeus in terms of clarity and tone, but with a little more lower end presence and warmth. It had a signature that didn’t immediately blow me away, but it was the model I came back to the most when I was playing around with the different variants (in fact, I came back to it so much I ended up purchasing one from Jack at the end of the show).
The Apollo struck me as a closer sibling of the Zeus, but having heard the summit of the mountain already, there wasn’t enough to leave me with a clear impression of the differences between the two, just that the Zeus was slightly superior (when you are dealing with IEMs in this categories, most differences are of the slight rather than gaping variety).
A random conversation with Jack regarding my very poor drumming skills led to a few IEMs being produced from behind the curtain (as it were), which are currently not advertised on their site and aimed mainly at stage musicians – the Savage line. These are tuned for serious bass response and smoothness, and use a different crossover configuration and design to the Olympus line as far as I can gather (I may be wrong, though). I tried both the Savage 5 and 9 (the numbers denoting the driver count), and as advertised, found the bass to be a far meatier and more muscular affair than on the main range. Out of the two, I preferred the 9, but found the treble tuning a little too smooth and sweet to consider making it an addition to my collection – they reminded me in a lot of ways of the old Aurisonics ASG series, weighted in the bass and vocals/mid range and rolled off towards the treble to avoid listening fatigue after extended listening at stage-levels of playback. If dark, smooth and solidly proportioned is how you like your sound, it may be worth tapping up the EE team for more details on their secret range.
Finishing my various trips to the Empire stall, I was privileged to hear their two new prototype models, one aimed at the middle of their current range, and one sitting around the top end as a potential new flagship. Jack was very vague on the inner workings of either unit, and the shells were deliberately opaque to ensure no prying eyes (or cameras, even if I had managed to take any pictures that worked). Despite being none the wiser about the configurations on show, one thing I can say is that the two models are definitely an evolution of the sound signature currently on offer, and for me, a very exciting one. The higher end model had all the signature clarity and cohesion of the current flagship Zeus-XR, but carries a weightier lower end and a more organic feel – I can’t give too much more away as I only spent a few minutes listening to the new gear, but I will be watching the Empire news feeds with great interest to find out more as soon as these beauties are ready for general release.
I called in on the iBasso stall to say hello to my Head-Fi friend @Layman1, and check out the various goodies on display. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try out the highly regarded DX200, but I did spend some time with their new over-ear headphone prototypes, and the upcoming IT04 IEM.
The over-ears were pretty well built but not tuned to my particular tastes, with a good sense of clarity and detail but too little warmth for my preferences. These are early pre-production prototypes, so I will be interested to see what iBasso do with the final tuning, as aesthetically and from a build quality standpoint these look excellent, rocking a “steampunk meets German engineering” look and a very sturdy looking design.
The IT04 were certainly more down my street, taking the sound of the very well-reviewed IT03 and adding a little extra body and smoothness throughout the frequency range. I didn’t take any specific notes on the sound, but it seems like a step up in quality and overall tone from the IT03, with a very balanced quality and that great dynamic driver bass the IT03 was capable of. The abiding memory I’m left with in direction comparison to the IT03 is of “more”. Definitely one to watch.
I was lucky enough to win one of their flagship cables in a recent Head-Fi giveaway, so I was keen to pop along and say hello to their main man Eric and shake his hand. As it turns out, I did more than shake his hand, as after a very frank and interesting conversation about upgrade cables (I’m not a cable believer yet, but I’m definintely starting to consider the possibilities) and what his recommendations were to bring out the best of my Zeus-XR, I ended up trying a few of his wares and purchasing one of their Ares II+ pure copper cables. This isn’t one of their more expensive models, coming in at roughly a third of the price of the Leonidas at c. £185 (show price), but I have been impressed with the effect it has had on the overall sound from my Zeus-XR,
I am neither a fanatical cable believer or disbeliever, but both the Leonidas and Ares II+ seem to have a beneficial effect over the included Whiplash SPC cable the Zeus ships with, and both are beautifully made and finished, with a soft and pliable coating and killer looks.
I ended up spending a lot of time at the Shanling booth at the 2016 Canjam, and coming away with their M5 flagship. This year I was more interested in the lower end models, the M1 and M2S. I spent a fair bit of time auditioning both with the various gear I had on hand, and ended up plumping for the M2S.
I liked the tiny form factor and highly stacked functionality of the M1, but the M2S just sounds a little better across the board, with their variant of the AK4490 DAC chip producing a punchy and musical sound that plays well with most of my gear. It does tend towards the bassier side of the street with my Andromeda, as the output impedance on the M2S is around 4 Ohms, so that may be a factor if you own a lot of gear that has particularly sensitive impedance curves, but for the price, the feature set (Bluetooth, passthrough DAC, OTG) is very impressive, and the sound is top notch for a mid-fi unit. It also shares almost the exact same footprint as the Chord Mojo, so can be used as a Bluetooth enabled USB transport for the Chord device if you don’t want to spring for the Poly.
I stopped off at the Harman/AKG booth with the sole aim of trying out the AKG N90Q, which has garnered some recent hype on Head-Fi, with a slot on Head-Fi TV. For once, the hype seems justified, with the N90Q kicking out a detailed and musical sound, impeccable build and comfort and some unusual tricks under the bonnet.
Firstly, this is probably the most expensive noise cancelling headphone on the market at the moment, retailing at c. £1200 in the UK. This doesn’t equate to being the best NC currently available (it is a little shy of the level of ambient noise reduction manage by the QC35s, for instance), but it manages to kill the ambient noise in the room without the usual feeling of putting your head inside a vacuum cleaner drum or decompression chamber that NC usual triggers.
Secondly, the headphones themselves have an onboard DAC and DSP system, allowing you to change things like the soundstage and tuning on the fly. All very well, and nothing too revolutionary (if a little unexpected in a £1200 “reference quality” over-ear). The really unusual bit comes with how the DSP is applied: a short press of one of the buttons on the earcup will send a sine wave pinging around the inside of your ear like a drunken pinball, and a few seconds later, the onboard tech will have analysed the response and tweaked the frequency output to optimise the sound going into your ears. It sounds a little far fetched, but after trying it a few times (and resetting afterwards), the sound definitely changes, and in my case, it is a small but noticeable improvement once “tuned”. If the pricetag was a little lower on these, I would most likely have considered buying a pair, but even at the full RRP, the mix of SQ and cutting edge technology left this sitting very high up on the list of most enjoyable sounding items I heard.
Bonkers in-ear pencils with sound that you think is coming from across the room it’s so out of your head. The SB7 is by far the strangest thing I have stuck in my ear (even during my “wilderness years” as captain of the rugby team at university), but a damn fine sounding oddity nonetheless. Not sure if I could get used to the constant brain tickling as my one and only “at home” IEM or headphone, but it is certainly a very different take on how an IEM can present music. I didn’t try the other models in the series unfortunately. Worth a shot if you like your gear unusual, and don’t mind clipping the rope-like cable to your shirt collar and inserting a medaeval torture device directly into your brain through your earhole to get your audio fix.
In terms of how they actually sound: sublime soundstage, nice bass weight and good resolution and clarity. Who knew stacking BA drivers on top of each other like a horizontal Jenga tower could sound so good?!
Sometimes it is the places you least expect to enjoy that end up being the most memorable. I have heard of Atomic Floyd from their days being sold in various fruit-based manufacturer stores across the globe, and have always dismissed them as slightly gimmicky. After spending some time with their main man James Strong and discussing various things audio, I came away quietly impressed with their ethos, and the quality of their range. When a manufacturer tells you they unexpectedly had to spend a few months retuning one of their new models due to switching the type of paper used in the speaker diaphragm not giving exactly the same sound they had so meticulously tuned into the previous iteration, that tells you pretty much all you need to know about how much quality matters to them.
James also offered some interesting opinions on how difficult it can be to tune a “mass market” IEM to appeal to both common or garden phone listeners and card carrying audiophiles at the same time. Some of the early Atomic Floyd models have been dismissed in the audiophile blogs as being a little bit on the hot side in the treble – as James points out, due to the high output impedance of the average FruitDevice, they actually sound pretty good when tethered to one of these phones or audio players, but when strapped to a 0.1 Ohm audiophile rig, the treble roll off disappears somewhat, leading to the increased sharpness.
This is something that is fortunately not an issue with the later models, and I tried both the Superdarts Titanium (very light and tiny IEMs with one microdriver DD and a single BA) and their upcoming revision of the HiDefDrum outer-ear monitor (single DD). I call it an outer ear as it sits pretty shallow, with the bowl of the driver filling the bowl of your ear. This actually seals surprisingly well on my large ears, and the sound from the all new paper diaphragm being used is a nicely warm but detailed sound, straddling the line between consumer friendly and a more “musical audiophile” style sound. This is definitely an IEM I’d like to hear again, and if you ever get the chance to meet James, please ask him what it’s like when your firm decides to end its contract with the large fruity phone seller – the answer will probably be quite amusing and a little surprising at the same time!
Despite having a name only a true audio geek could love, the Correlated Magnetics stand was a very enjoyable port of call on my Sunday wander. Their amiable spokesman Micah enjoyed showing off their unusual tech using some small polymagnetic discs that repel or attract depending on how you they are rotated in relation to each other. Now, I was never the most attentive student in my physics lessons at school, but seeing something that fundamentally messes with the way you understand how the world works is pretty damn cool.
They are in the process of building an over-ear headphone using a polymagnetic driver, which they claim will allow for greater precision in driving a standard speaker diaphragm due to the higher level of control they are able to exert over the magnetic field at the extremes of the diaphragm extrusion, where traditional magnets start to lose their repulsive or attractive power. This should allow a more pistonic motion, delivering less distortion among other things. I spent a few tracks with their current prototype, and was pretty impressed with the smooth but meaty sound they have managed to create on their debut outing. It is still in the early stages of tuning, and currently has a more musical and dark sounding “consumer” tilt rather than aiming for the out and out audiophile sound, but the detail retrieval was decent if not pronounced, with a nice warmth and euphony to vocals and pretty much no audible distortion or bleeding of the frequencies. The overall build and comfort were also top notch. I believe they are aiming for around $400 for this initial entry into the market, which would seem to be a very good price point for the sound being delivered – definitely one to watch with interest.
One of the last stalls I visited on my travels was the very well frequented 64 Audio concession, to see if I could bag a few minutes with either of their new TIA driver models, the A18 or the Fourte. I was surprised to find out that the stall on the day was actually being run by the team from the Custom IEM Company, a CIEM dealership in Hertfordshire who are the UK distributors for the brand.
After a brief chat with their sales manager, I was offered the Fourte to listen to. As expected, it was a beautiful sounding piece of kit, but I have to be honest and say that after spending time with the Zeus at home and the Empire Ear prototypes earlier in the afternoon, it didn’t quite capture my attention as much as I’d hoped. Bear in mind these are “meet conditions”, but for me, it left me a little cold in terms of emotional impact, even if was impressed with its technical prowess. I would love to hear the other flagship model at some point, but after sampling a few others from the range, I think the default tuning isn’t quite ideal for my preferences (which was surprising, as I usually love a dark and rich sound sig). There is certainly enough there to make me interested in taking another shot at hearing their high end models, but maybe not enough to make me consider parting with the sort of cash they require if my first impression was anything to go by.
Considering I was only there for the Sunday session, this year’s Canjam definitely left an impression on me. It’s always great to see the enthusiasm an knowledge of the vendors, and their willingness to engage with the audiophile crowd over all sorts of unusual topics (some even related to audio!). Getting to listen to such a wide spread of high end gear in somewhere like the UK where it is a little more difficult to audition some of the more boutique brands is a real blessing, and definitely not ideal for the wallet.
My personal top 3 in terms of “Wow” factor on the day:
- Empire Ears new prototypes – definitely some big things coming at some point soon from the EE factory in Georgia.
- Flare Audio Flares – unusual implementation, wired AND wireless in the box, great design and a sound signature that punches way above its chosen price bracket (plus a box that looks like modern art).
- Correlated Magnetics – the sound was enjoyable, the school science fair demo toys were impressive and the concept was very intriguing. If these guys get the tuning right on their first model at the sort of price point they are considering, they should start making some serious waves in the industry.
Honourable mentions go to the AKG N90Q (who doesn’t love a headphone that scans your inner ear to self-adjust its own EQ – very James Bond), the Kennerton Audio and Stereo Pravda team (very friendly and some bonkers pieces of gear on their tables) and the Atomic Floyd display, proving that not all people or products that get sold in a FruitStore are intrinsically bad.
Bring on Canjam London ’18!