This was the first show I went to as a member of the press, so I should press on, however slow. Audio Sanctuary and all the other sponsors put on a helluva show and I enjoyed myself, in spite of never feeling like I had enough time to explore everything while having the conversations I wanted to have. These events aren’t just a great place for listening to music, they are a great place for meeting creators and finding out what drives them.
At the heart of all great things
is a seed,
an idea, developed with care,
nurtured, blossoming, petals
outstretched to the morning sun
to catch the light,
to drink the dewy night.
Forgiving my attempt at poetry, we shall move on together—if you’re still here. Music, those who make it, and those who translate it with wondrous machines are inspiring to me. I’m inspired by the creative drive of all scientists and artists, and the desire to know and imagine the world in vivid details to be shared with plebians like me who will never fully understand. In my modest way, I share the desire to know of those who are creating and breaking ground, and this causes me to linger and ask questions rather than moving room to room like a Pokemon Go trainer of a year in the past. I also wanted to experience the non-audio parts of the show. My scientific curiosity dominated Part 1 of this three part series (an examination of cables). My epicurean curiosity dominated part 2 (pure pleasure). My musical curiousity dominates this installment, the part my readers will have been waiting for: listening impressions. I’ll be rolling through impressions in a stream of consciousness manner populated chronologically, thematically, haphazardly, but ever progressing towards the inevitable end. Inevitable because time is finite, and conversations are fine uses of time. I’ll start with some headphones that were hiding on the Mezzanine level, set in focus like jewels hidden away from the hoard upstairs in the Head Room section of the Indulgence Show.
Audioquest Nightowl vs. Audioquest Nighthawk
My blogmate Jackpot77 has spent a bit of time with both of these headphones, and I previously listened to the Nighthawk right before it was released. I found the Nighthawk warm and inviting at that point, but I’m not sure the signature was completely finalised. It was an organic sound, natural like recycled trees. It wasn’t quite my thing, I was more into my modded HD600 (removing the foam by your ears lifts the veil). Jackpot77 thought I might like the Nightowl more. So I had a test.
The signal chain was as follows: Jitterbug → Dragonfly Red → Jitterbug → Schitt Audio Jotunheim
My listening track was Tool – Stinkfist. Lets get elbow deep inside the borderline. I had the Nightowl up first. The Nightowl had an aggressive sound with forward mids and treble. The bass was thick and weighty. There was lots of space in the soundstage but the arrangement was artificial. Drums were extremely forward, such that they were getting in front of Maynard’s voice.
When I switched to the Nighthawk the treble immediately sounded better. I didn’t have cymbals splashing right in my face. Drums were on an even keel. The presentation was natural and organic. The sound was still full and meaty but it didn’t have the over-aggression of the Nightowl.
Jackpot77 was wrong. The Nighthawk was the clear winner to me. It was more accurate, and closer to neutral. My preference tends towards a neutral, neutral with a little bass lift, or u-shaped; the Audioquest Nighthawk is in the middle, but with a little more richness and warmth than I normally go for.
Also on the mezzanine level was a photo exhibition. The lighting looked kind of murdery, so I took this photo.
Kostas Metaxas & Sins of the CNC Machine
After looking down the scary hall, I walked the other direction and stumbled with relief into the Metaxas room. The best darn room in the house.
Walking into the room is like being in a Dali painting. Disembodied female torsos laying on black and silver roadie boxes. Two Sirens shaped like Jessica Rabbit if she gave up her humanity to shout music from her torso whilst losing her head. If there had been a turntable drooping over the side of a shelf, the image would have been complete. Ironically, the music formed a juxtoposition offsetting the sensual but aggressive lines of Kostas Metaxas’s audio sculptures. The sculptures are provocative, but are astounding in the beauty they convey.
I talked with Kostas for a while. He’s a wonderfully philosophical and evocative conversationalist. A delight. He revealed a bit of the thinking that goes into his designs. He uses organic shapes because they dissipate energy in a more natural way. The shape is part of the crossover. The sculpture is both functional and aesthetic. Kostas believes that provocation is essential. Pushing the boundaries is essential to exploration and experience.
To make one Siren, an 800Kg billet of aluminum is slowly machined down to the 80Kg final shape of the speaker housing. The process takes almost 8 weeks to complete. It must be slow, and it must be CNC to prevent any airbubbles being introduced into the body of the speakers. Casting cannot create the structure that Kostas needs for his speakers. There is a video showing some of the process available online.
The setup: Metaxas & Sins Ikarus (£25k) with the Metaxas & Sins Sirens (£80k for a pair) connected by a beefy Metaxas made cable (see Part 1).
Listening in the Metaxas room was like being there. The recordings playing were made by the man himself in a perfectly calibrated room. Kostas spent years recording live music to study how to best capture the essence of the music. His recordings are pretty good.
If you couldn’t see the speakers, you’d wonder why you couldn’t see the band in the room. It was like 160Kg of aluminum just disappearing like a David Copperfield illusion. The sound was omnipresent and completely convincing. Just astounding.
The room was also my daughter’s favourite room. Man tested, toddler approved.
My 2nd favourite room: FM Acoustics and Vertere Acoustics doing vinyl like I’ve never heard it before
Also on the mezzanine floor, tucked in the back, to the left after you got past the scary picture hall and past the further gallery of rock images to your right (really cool feature), was where Touraj Moghaddam and his wires and turntables were chilling with some fantastic Swiss gear from FM Acoustics. I’ve covered Touraj’s wires elsewhere. The system was as follows:
- Vertere Acoustics RG1 with Reference tonearm
- FM-223 Phono Master (audio enhancement intended to mad science back to the master, smart hardware EQ)
- FM-268 Pre-amp
- FM-108 Monoblocks
- FM Acoustics XS3-B loudspeakers on Vertere Acoustics Stand-1 Reference stands
- Vertere Acoustics Pulse HB wires throughout
I walked in to unchained melody playing on the turntable and it was simply the most stunning, organic sound I’ve ever heard from vinyl. Vinyl has never sounded this good. The FM-223 Phono Master was demoed with the intent being to show what the master tape would sound like by perfectly equalising the vinyl playback. Differences were pretty subtle. The system sounded incredible, either way. While the FM Acoustics cast a big stage with a ton of height, the speakers didn’t disappear in the same way that the Metaxas & Sins Sirens disappeared in my favourite room.
Whilst up in this area I also had a listen to the Audeze LCD3 with a Vertere Acoustics Pulse HB headphone cable playing out of the Benchmark DAC2 DX. The system projected a warm sound and tall image whilst listening to Roger Waters – Ballad of Bill Hubbard. The stage had great depth. Vocal clarity was as good as I’ve ever heard it on this track with the veteran sounding like he was sitting across from you whilst you interviewed him. The jaguar growl was savage with beautiful rumble. It was a darn good setup.
The Metaxas & Sins Marquis “Memento Mori”
Metaxas wasn’t just represented by his speakers, he was represented by his pre-amp and headphone amplifier, the Metaxas & Sins Marquis (£6000 at Audio Sanctuary). The Metaxas & Sins Marquis is a skull sculpture with VU meters in the eyes, inputs and outputs in the neck like a cybernetic spine and a macabre stitched up mouth that feeds you audio goodness. Don’t worry, it’s all dreams from here. Lets move on to the scary sonic goodness. The headphone amp is also a brilliant headphone stand. Form and function perfectly mixed. Metaxas is good at this design thing.
I listened to the Marquis with two headphones, the Focal Utopia and the HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2. My test track was the SACD cut of Michael Jackson – Billie Jean. This particular cut isn’t as good as the vinyl rip I normally listen to (18 dynamic range), but it is still a good track and still one I know well. On the Utopia the sound is effortless, spacious and powerful. The stage takes on spectacular height and good width, but not exceptional width. Depth is excellent. Impact on percussion is solid. The layering is superb. This is just a superbly transparent and powerful setup.
Switching to the HE-1000 v2, the stage isn’t as big in any dimension, but the differences are very small. The bass has a bit more bombast and vocals are more forward. I own the HE-1000 v2, and I don’t think I’d spend the extra £1,000 for the Focal Utopia. If starting fresh, it would be a much more considered meditation.
I also decided to do something crazy. I went and grabbed the £8,999 IEM, the oBravo Ra C-Cu and hooked it into the Metaxas & Sins Marquis “Memento Mori.” The last time I listened to the Ra was at Headroom in February. I wasn’t impressed. However, there were two reasons to be more hopeful on this listen: I was playing out of a much more powerful amplifier than that in my Aune M1s, and Phil Wannell of Audio Sanctuary has told me that the Ra sound had been refined since I last heard it to it’s final iteration. So, I got permission to hook it up, and took the opportunity to snap a photo. That’s £16,000 of gear there, and the DAC isn’t included in the cost. I don’t think anyone would really use this setup, but I won’t put anything past someone willing to pay £8,999 for an IEM. You can only buy the Ra C-Cu at Audio Sanctuary. Last time I listened to the Ra C-Cu I found it to be a woolly little fuzz cannon. I wasn’t enthused. This time the sound was significantly improved. The sound was still warm tinged. The tuning is very musical with good stage dimensions. However, I find that the sound of these is still not on par with offerings at substantially lower prices. I’d much rather listen to the It’s like if the ‘vinyl sound’ was a headphone. It’s warm and musical, with good but not exceptional detail. For £8,999 I want exceptional everything. This doesn’t give me that. I think my favourite oBravo so far is still the oBravo ERIB-3a. The Ra sound is spacious like a rich man’s Ferrari garage and enviting like a warm hearth in a copper fireplace, but it isn’t worth it to me at the sticker price. Petrochemical billionaires, this one’s for you.
Shure KSE-1500 electrostatic in-ear monitor
I have been meaning to listen to these since they came out, but somehow kept running out of time or forgetting to go have a listen. It looked like I might have trouble this time too. When I showed up at the stand there was nobody there. The KSE-1500 was sitting on the table, and there was no source. Luckily, I had the appropriate OTG cable to use with the KSE-1500 (I came loaded with a case full of adaptors). My fooling around surely aroused the suspicions of the folks at the Onkyo/Pioneer stand who were watching over the Shure stand while the Shure fellow took his lunch. Me reaching down and pulling out my case full of adaptors must surely have looked like I planned to steal the setup. I’m glad they didn’t cuff me. All I wanted to do was listen!
I threw on Amber Rubarth – Tundra. The stage was incredibly well defined with crisp percussion. The volume steps on the amp were stupidly few, only 25 steps (I counted). On Charles Mingus – Fables of Faubus I’m again struck by the amazing realism of the percussion. I think these will generally slay jazz music. Horns were also well defined. Sound was generally precise and natural feeling. The only detractor on these was that the bass was a bit light. I find them to lack in the sub-bass region. There just wasn’t much growl in these dogs. The mids were excellent with superb separation and layering. Attack and decay on strings were fast and precise without being unnaturally staccato. The space around individual vocalists is brilliant. It was dead easy to pick out relative positions of in the instrumental arrangements within the clearly represented soundstage whilst listening to John McEuen – Excitable Boy. If they turned up the sub-bass a bit, these would be just about perfect as a reference style IEM.
Onkyo and Pioneer
Since Onkyo and Pioneer reps didn’t treat me like a thief and since I’ve been wanting to hear their new pocket DAPs the Onkyo DP-S1 (Rubato) and the Pioneer XDP-30R ever since they were announced on Phileweb (Japanese audio site), I decided to head there next. I really enjoyed the Onkyo DP-S1 with my Noble Kaiser Encore. I hooked it up through the balanced out with the Double Helix Cables Symbiote Elite SP.
I found the touch screen on the small side, but easy enough to use with good responsiveness. I thought it was cool that the system used a custom linux operating system complete with apps for Tidal (with MQA masters), Deezer, Spotify, and TuneIn radio built in. That’s pretty cool streaming capabilities, and the ability to play MQA on a DAP is something you don’t see too often. The silver front and overall shape were attractive, but do look too much like the Astell & Kern AK70. The white back on the DAP was just straight up weird. I don’t know why you would do that. It looks tacky.
On sound, the player was airy with a touch of sharpness in the treble. The image cast had excellent separation. I didn’t listen too long, but could see the appeal of the player. I’ve been hoping to review one of these, as I think that pocket sized DAPs are awesome, and that there need to be more of them. Pocket sized daps with a balanced out are fairly rare. I’d love to listen to this DAP more.
ZMF Auteur via Feliks Audio Elise
One of the first reviews I ever wrote was for the Feliks Audio Elise (HeadFi’s update ate my pics). The amp was wonderful with huge power that easily drove the beastly HiFiMAN HE-6. However, I never could get the tube tuning exactly how I wanted it, and didn’t want to venture down the rabbit hole of tube rolling. I left that to my friend Aornic. Aornic was doing some work for ZMF headphones at the Indulgence Show as he’s reviewed quite a bit of their stuff. He had the new ZMF Auteur (teak) on hand, which is ZMFs first fully open headphone. It is a really lovely headphone with great detail, and a neutral sound with good body. It was driven extraordinarily well from the Feliks Audio Elise (fed by a Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC).
Kumitate Labs: sculptures in acrylic
Kumitate Labs is a small company out of Tokyo that has been around for roughly 5 years. One peek at their raden designs (KumitateK)—designs that use artistic arrangements of crushed seashells (raden) to create effects varying from mosaic to mixed media sculptures in acrylic. The material usage is absolutely exquisite and I found myself hoping that the headphones I’d eventually listen to with the new Sony ZX300 to the Kumitate Labs Ref hybrid reference IEM. The Ref comes equipped with two 9mm Fostex sourced dynamic drivers and 3 balanced armature drivers. The sound was neutral with spectacular bass response when I took a listen to Macy Gray – I Try (off Stripped). That stand up bass was about as real as I’ve heard it. The stage was holographic with exceptional dimensions in every direction. The clarity of these was excellent with precise imaging. This was the headphone I told my friends at the show that they needed to have a listen to. I was as smitten with the sound as I was with their exquisite KumitateK raden designs. Now for the earporn. Try not to drool all over your various input devices.
In my exhaustion, and probably enthusiasm for their neighbour (they were next to Kumitate Labs), I forgot to take a picture of their unusual and unique looking headphone. The picture below is from KuraDa’s website.
The KuraDa KD-P1 has an evocative look. The design reminds of the AKG-K1000 ear speaker design. Basically this is just drivers in open air angled to make the soundstage bigger. However, where the AKG K1000 is light and pretty comfortable, the KD-P1 felt heavy and awkward. I think the frame is stainless steel. It certainly felt like it. From a sound perspective it was hard to draw conclusions as a wonky player was being used and the menu of songs was very limited, Mozart and amazing obscurity. I was able to find Arnesen – Magnificat Et Misericordia (2L free tracks to the rescue!) and have a listen critically, as well as you can have a listen to a headphone with absolutely zero isolation in a busy event hall. I jacked up the volume to exciting football game levels and had my go. The stage was very wide, with a sweet trebly signature. Female vocals sounded absolutely lovely. At show volumes I was getting a bit of bass distortion, but this could be due to the old OPPO that was driving the KuraDa KD-P1. It took everything that OPPO HA-1 had to drive the KD-P1 so I doubt it was doing a good job. The OPPO HA-1 didn’t impress me two years ago, and it still doesn’t. I can’t feel like I got to hear what the KuraDa KD-P1 could do, but I wasn’t hugely impressed, especially not at approximately £3200 before any tariffs. I’d rather listen to the HiFiMAN HE-1000 v2.
Sony’s Sato Tomoaki, the lead designer of the W1MZ and W1MA Sony Walkmans, had his new baby, the Sony Walkman ZX300 present. I think that the ZX300 has the potential to make 4.4mm balanced adoption skyrocket among other manufacturers. It’s proof of concept that the jack can fit into a reasonably sized player. I’m excited for the future of the 4.4mm standard. Sato-san tells me that the ZX300 is selling very well. The Astell & Kern 2.5mm balanced standard is currently the most common portable option, but the connector is weak. I’ve now broke a couple. One was my fault—don’t sit down with a DAP in your pocket, the other one was a frailty issue. When you see inside, it is almost like a cheap steel spring. I just don’t trust 2.5mm anymore and plan to use it super carefully until the standard is replaced by what I think is likely to be a more robust standard in the 4.4mm balanced jack plug. I only had a brief listen on the device, but it was smooth and capable. The size was portable, but on the larger side of candy bar style audio players, just a little smaller than my Aune M1s, which is a bit chunky and long. I’m hoping to get more time with it in the future. As usual, Sony brought an amazing display. I love Sony’s displays.
At this point my time was starting to run short. A marketing specialist had noted I was a blogger and wanted to introduce me to PMC Loudspeakers, one of his clients. So away we went to have a chat and a listen. I had a conversation with Keith Tonge, a designer at PMC Loudspeakers. Essentially, PMC got into studio monitors due to their passion for music and have since become a force in this area with their speakers used by the BBC, Metropolis Studios (a regular venue for Headroom, GO!), and a number of big Hollywood movies. They’ve won an Emmy for their contribution to music production. So were the speakers I heard from them good?
Yes. Yes they were. I had a listen to the PMC Twenty5.23 loudspeakers (£3,095) being fed by a Bryston BDA-3 DAC (£3,200) and PMC Cor integrated amplifier (£4,995). They were outputting some absolutely dynamic room filling sound from their 5 1/2″ drivers. These floorstanders look too small to be outputting the kind of fidelity throughout the spectrum they are representing. The Twenty5.23s have a little warmth to the upper bass/mids that gives that musicality they are known for, but still maintain a neutral, detailed overall signature. Kickdrum gets huge on these with convincing impact. The music in the room was some funky electrop. The plane on the speakers was just overhead (whilst sitting), so like sound eminating from real instrument heights with a direct linear path to the listener. The sound was nicely balanced. These didn’t make come close to the Metaxas Sirens, but for £3,200 a pair these are pretty special. I spoke with the marketing rep about reviewing, but I’m not sure it will happen. I don’t have a listening room for speakers, and a toddler running around the living room is not ideal for reviews.
I also had a listen to the behemoth PMC BB6 XBD-A loudspeakers. I didn’t make any judgements as the space was too small for them and it was obvious that they had to be tweeked to not make the room explode. I can imagine when these are in the right environment they slay like an apex predator. They had faster bass and higher resolution than the Twenty5.23, but they didn’t impress me more than the Metaxas & Sins Sirens or the FM Acoustics XS3-B loudspeakers in the show setting.
Only two rooms left!
I walk into the room and Stevie Ray Vaughan is playing via a Rega turntable hooked up to the Blue Aura v40 LE amp hooked up to ps40 LE speakers. They sound excellent. Stevie is always a nice lead in to a room this track has excellent drums to complement Stevie’s stellar guitar. My parents saw him at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska just a few weeks before his untimely death. It would have been nice to see him work those strings.
I came to this room because they were running a contest that was handed to every person who came into the event. I didn’t want to miss out on winning something. I stayed for longer than I intended because the room was chill and the people there were genuinely pleasant. When I walked in and started asking a bunch of questions and wearing a Chord Mojo polo I’d been given the day before, they thought I was a competitor snooping around. It was kind of funny. I spent a good deal of time talking to the folks in the room and got Nick’s business card. The reality is that Blue Aura is a bit of a fish out of water in the audiophile environment. They make products that are centred around wireless technology.
Blue Aura got started in Cambridge about 7 years ago with wireless RF speakers streaming WAV files. Now they do most of their business in Bluetooth via the aptX codec straight outta Qualcomm. The link below is evidence is of my wild little brain. Bluetooth will never be so gangsta (clean version below).
Blue Aura is the best kind of HiFi evangelist, they are trying to get people off of terrible sound with approachable prices and set-ups that fit non-audiophile use cases. For most consumers, convenience is the main determinant of the quality of sound they listen to. Why do you think there are so many leaky mediocre earpods roaming the streets? Wireless is more convenient. Blue Aura adds another element by looking freakin’ cool with their tube amps. The level tube in the middle is cute too. Tube amps just automatically look cool, especially when you are watching a movie in the dark. They are instant cool factor in your living room. When I had the Feliks Audio Elise, I loved turning off the lights and watching it glow.
Blue Aura is getting people off garbage audio and tapping into the vinyl craze. There are lots of young people getting into vinyl and then listening to garbage speakers. Tubes allude to the golden age of vinyl (unless you think that is now), and get people willing to upgrade their sound.
The system they were giving away was some absolutely tiny speakers, think dorm room shared with too many darn people small. The items that were being given away were the Blue Aura v32 amplifier and the ps30 speakers. They also had a Blue Aura xSub handy ready to run in a 2.1 setup. They had a Rega turntable hooked up too. With the extras, including speaker stands, the setup was under £1000. A kid going off to college with his shiny new credit card and newfound irresponsibility could do a lot worse.
The amplifier has aptX Bluetooth and a Burr Brown DAC chip in it. It output pretty good sound and gives people the convenience of shipping audio from their phone or Bluetooth enable DAP wirelessly, which will appeal to a substantial proportion of the population. The system also looks super stylish.
That said, Bluetooth doesn’t sound as good as wired, and you can definitely hear it on the speakers. With the xSub engaged, Bluetooth bass just isn’t quite right playing Morcheeba – The Sea. The treble and mids are fine, but wired operation will give more, and that is an option. Via Bluetooth cutting the sub out produced similar bass results. The Bluetooth was the limitation, but was still decent and would be better than most consumers would be listening to.
Ultimate Stream / Kii THREE Speakers
The Ultimate Stream room had a number of speakers demoing in the room. I walked in for Kii Audio’s THREE standmount speakers (£10,495 per pair). The THREE are active Class D loudspeakers with DSP and a filter built into the crossover that is designed to prevent unwanted reflections. Each speaker has six drivers, with all drives driven by thier own 250W amp. It’s a bit of a crazy design. The design didn’t sound better than the PMC Twenty5.23 floorstanders which retail for less than 1/3rd the price. They sound nice, but they aren’t special. I preferred the 3 Square Audio Translator floorstander speaker (£2,800) in the last room I visited too.
Outside the Ultimate Stream Room, there was a gaggle of streaming servers. It was nice to finally get a look at the Auralic Aries and the Innuous Zen Mini. These might be purchases in my future. I’m tired of my music organisation in my house. The volunteer was very nice who chatted with me about all the streaming gear hanging out in the picture below.
3 Square Audio and Wire on Wire
Originally when I walked into the conference centre, I was only planning on going to this room because they were having a giveaway (I ended up winning a Wire on Wire Experience680 RCA interconnect), but after I decided I’d be going in depth on wires, I planned for spending time and having conversations. The room was tiny that these two companies were in. Both companies are small British companies. 3 Square Audio is based out of Derbyshire and Wire on Wire is out of Epsom. I believe both also make their gear in Britain. This is cool and I hope people support them for this.
The Translator floorstanding loudspeaker (£2,800 per pair, 3 Square Audio), is gorgeous. It is constructed with baltic birch plywood that gives a lovely finish. They also make component racks using the same material. The Translator is based on First-order Crossover technology. Here’s what they have to say about the tech:
Reviews, forums and interviews with manufacturers proved very informative for our understanding the advantages of 1st order and why it is rarely implemented.
Here are its unique properties :
Passes through all signals with the same time delay.
Produces a phase difference that is constant at all frequencies.
Maintains amplitude and phase,unchanged, thus being transient perfect.
Has the slowest electrical roll-off, -6dB per octave.
Has the fewest reactive components, 1 inductor and 1 capacitor.
The apparent disadvantage is the -6dB electrical roll off not easily translating into an actual acoustic -6dB per octave roll off, but if achieved, each driver would then operate/overlap too close at the crossover point creating many issues for the listener. Power handling would also be reduced due to the drivers trying to reproduce frequencies beyond their range.
3 Square argue that the disadvantage is only a disadvantage if your goal is best measurement rather than best acoustic sound.
Sitting down and listening to the speakers I could tell that they were as acoustically capable as other speakers I had heard during the Indulgence Show, but they weren’t being given an opportunity to breath in the cramped environment of the room. I really hope that these passion projects succeed. They were really excellent speakers.
Phil Wannell, Audio Sanctuary and all the exhibitors and sponsors continue to do a fantastic job. I can’t wait till Headroom next year. It’s going to be a blast. The Indulgence Show was indulging, but was also overwhelming. I find more focused shows easier to attend and cover.
- Headphone: Focal Utopia (£4000)
- IEM: Shure KSE1500, and Kumitate Lab Ref
- Headphone Amplifier: Metaxas & Sins Marquis “Memento Mori”
- Amplifier: Metaxas & Sins Ikarus (£25,000)
- Speaker: Metaxas & Sins Sirens (£85,000), PMC Twenty5.23 (£3,095)
- DAP: Sony Walkman ZX-300
I hope you’ve enjoyed the coverage. I also hope I get more time to play with all these lovely toys. See you at HeadRoom 2018!