In which I listen to two of my favourite headphones of the show, the AKG K812 and the Focal Clear, do a power demo and listen to some more speakers.
The AKG room was the quietest, and one of the best set-up rooms in the place, but in my idiocy I got enraptured in their two flagship headphones and forgot to take any darn pictures! They had a line of Schitt Jotunheims hooked up to all their headphones with single ended connections. They had a glass top case, with shelves for the Jotunheims. Everything looked excellent.
Before I get into impressions, some news:
- The famous AKG Q701 is being discontinued. Get it while you can.
- They have a new flagship in ear coming out: the AKG N5005 (I did get some pictures of this one)
- It is a Quad BA, single DD setup
- Comes with three cables: standard 3.5mm, balanced 2.5mm, and a Bluetooth cable. All cables use an MMCX connector.
- Price £1000
I’m hoping to get ahold of one for review in the future. It looks like it will an excellent package. Given how much I like AKG flagship sound, I think it will be excellent sounding too.
For my listening to their closed flagship (K872) and their open flagship (K812) I used the Questyle QP2R as the source.
AKG Reference K872
The sound was really nice. Very neutral. I perceived a touch of slowness in the bass, but this could be because these need a ton of power to drive properly. Don’t be convinced by the low impedance and 109 sensitivity that these are going to be relatively easy. The big 53mm drivers are hard to drive. When throwing on Wager-Astrand’s Fasten Seat Belts, these things effortlessly communicate the hyper-speeded treble and mids percussion. These drivers can certainly move fast and maintain excellent clarity.
On Kraftwerk – Kometenmelodie2, these pass the treble test with flying colours. Where treble is supposed to be harsh, it is. On Leonard Cohen – Leavin’ the Table, the bass texture is great.
AKG Reference 812
These are some of the best headphones at the show, at any price. They have better bass response and texture with greater sub-bass response than the 872 (show settings, could be volume matching issue). The timbre of the violins is just perfect. These 812s are just blowing me away. At under £700 these are an absolute steal. They are light, comfortable, and sound amaze-balls. If I have to hate on anything on them, the headband adjustment is not made for sharing. It’s a pain in the butt clicky system with a rough action. These headphones are designed for the studio, and I think they are a better option than the Sennheiser HD800 for that purpose. These are stupid good.
Creek Evolution 50A (amplifier, £899), Creek Evolution 50CD (CD, source, £899), EPOS K2 speaker (£999)
These guys were playing Joni Mitchell. Joni has a beautiful voice and the tracks were nicely recorded, but the particular tracks that played were not good for evaluating beyond mids and treble. Fantastic songs, not fantastic test material.
The Rega RX3 (£1298) were playing off a Rega P6 (£998) turntable and probably the Rega integrated amp they’ve been touting. The song playing is Talk Talk. It has very good spatial presentation. The electric piano is very firm, but it could just be the track. They had some of the best snacks. Mmm brownies. I’ll stay in a room longer if they give me snacks, for sure.
The star of the show here was the sound quality coming off the vinyl.
The whole system price is £3500, including everything you need to press play and listen (wires, etc.).
ELAC AS61 (£2600), Discovery Digital Source (£850), Miracord 90 turntable (£2150)
These speakers are excellent sounding. Saxaphone sounded flawless. Nice female jazz vocal going in the room. The bass on these was the best in the show [bar one setup a little bit later].
I also had a listen to their Discovery Z3 speaker (£625). For a boombox type speaker (all-in-one setup), this thing pumps out some serious power. Very impressive clear sound. The midbass and mids were especially good.
This British brand had a redlight room, but I’m not yet sure how well they scored with me. I’m a headphone guy, and the Exposure XM HP (headphone amp/pre-amp/phono stage) just didn’t make any sense for a headphone aficionado. The headphone amp was long rather than wide (won’t fit on any normal person’s desk), it has a vinyl pre and a normal pre-amplifier built in. The form-factor probably comes down to one thing, it’s the same as their HiFi separates form factor. Basically, it looks like they assumed that only people who have their HiFi separates would buy their headphone amplifier. I think this is probably a bad assumption, that should have been field tested better than it probably was. I was interested in the Exposure XM HP (£1299) until I saw how long it was. I can’t use it. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to use the Exposure series in my living room as HiFi separates. They are simply too long. The shape is bizarre and will greatly limit their market.
The sound set-up in the room was also a mixed bag when listening. Here is the setup:
Exposure XM CD (source,), Exposure 5010 (pre-amp), Exposure 5010 (monoblocks), Audiovector SR3 (speakers)
The bass was a touch soft on the first track. It lacked sufficient impact. The treble was well done with excellent extension and air. You can really hear the ribbon tweeter clarity. I needs to get some ribbon tweeter in my life.
The second track was Daft Punk – Give Life Back to Music. There’s the bass! The first track just sucked. This is why conclusions are caveated to Hades when talking about show impressions. The bass has good extension, but is a bit smooth. I like more texture. Sub-bass has good body. Man, this is better. Instrument separation and detail are great.
I wasn’t planning on having a cable listening session, especially not a power demonstration, but I was having a nice conversation with the Audioquest rep and decided to have a seat. I’m prepared for the ridicule. The demonstration has all kinds of design flaws:
- Unblinded: we saw every switch and every component
- Switches take a long time. They didn’t use parallel set-ups to reduce switch time.
- Unfamiliar track, I don’t know how many would recognise the track
- No memory on Linn Volume Control, so had to be reset every time (slowing switches even further)
Needless to say, caveats apply to any observations out of such a poorly controlled experiment. I should also disclose that I’ve done a power cable comparison before. I bought a cheapo shielded cable from MCRU (Mains Cables R Us) for a tenner and it improved the treble extension and definition on my Cambridge Audio amplifier over the bog standard cable. I did the wife test, i.e. I did a single blind test with no framing (didn’t tell her what I heard), just told her I’d switch a cable but didn’t tell her what exactly was being switched and didn’t letter her see, and she described the same effect. Cables make a difference, it’s just too bad that manufacturers don’t try to set up objective tests to show this.
So here’s the setup that is common to the whole demonstration:
- Linn Akurate DS Streamer (£5150)
- Linn Akurate Exaktbox (£3500)
- Linn Akurate 4200 Power Amplifier (£5270)
- Kudos Audio Titan 606 with active (digital) crossover (£9000)
Here are the moving parts:
- Bog standard power leads
- Belkin 8-Way mains block (£40)
- Audioquest NRG2 power leads (£115)
- Audioquest Niagara 1000 power conditioner (£995)
- An unidentified network switch (?)
- Audioquest Thunder (£629)
Step 1: Bog standard to Belkin
Holy crap these Titan 606 have explosive bass and amazing dynamics. Room shaker.
Step 2: Enter the NRG2
I can’t remember which component the NRG2 was hooked to. Introducing the NRG2 gave a significantly taller stage with better defined treble (possible expectation bias due to previous cable comparison). I observed depth improvement too.
Step 3: NRG2 to Niagara
In this step the setup was plugged into the Niagara instead of the Belkin. This gave more rumble and texture to the bass and increased the stage width.
Step 4: NRG2 + Niagara + Network Switch
Putting in the network switch thing added some peaks in the treble. These increased depth, but I didn’t like the effect on the frequency response.
Step 5: NRG2 + Niagara + Network Switch + Thunder (for power amp)
First thing, the Thunder looks like it should be mooring a ship, not in an audio set-up.
These Thunder things are huge, like the chains to pull a dragon out of a frozen lake.
The change here was subtle, well into diminishing returns land. It’s probable that the change would be inaudible on many folks’ systems. I observed a subtle increase in spatial resolution in the mids. Just a little more instrument definition and separation. Nothing else.
Step 6: All Thunder all the time
Putting Thunder cables in for all the components gave a little improvement to stage size. As we didn’t get to hear all NRG2 all the time, what the level of diminishing returns is for 5x the cost is unknown. Biggest differences were had in the first two switches. I’d imagine that the difference between an all NRG2 setup and all Thunder set-up would be tiny.
Step 7: Confirmation bias all the time
The last step in the demo was taking everything back to normal. Of course, since I’d already written down all my observations of the stepwise changes, my expectation was pretty firmly established. This last switch is compounded biases observed. Of course I heard a reversal of everything I’d already heard. Duh. Audioquest needs to do this demo blinded.
Here’s the way it could be done:
- Have parallel set-ups for each switch and only switch the speaker hook-ups. One switch reduces switching time. Having to unplug all the cables and re-plug back in with power and volume boot-up is just no good. If there is a protection circuit it may even be possible to switch the speaker hook-ups without powering down.
- Have everything but the speakers behind a curtain so the switch is blinded.
- Don’t tell people what order things are going in, and switch back and forth.
I understand this would require bringing at least 3 Linn set-ups, but I’d really love to see a more scientific process in place.
The room that the set-up was in was at the end of a hall and didn’t have interference from other rooms.
Those Kudos Titan 606 speakers were the best I heard at the show. They had superb bass depth and extension, power and detail, transparent mids, and extended and well-defined highs. Amazing.
Right now I’ve got the Focal Utopia on loan from SCV Distribution (review soon), and my blog mate has reviewed the Focal Elear. Focal makes some serious headphones. I came to the Focal stand only to have a listen to the Clear, as it was the only Focal top-tier headphone that I hadn’t heard (Elex is Massdrop exclusive, so it is excluded). The Focal Clear does what all the Focal headphones should be doing: it has a reasonable length cable (not the heavy 3 metre behemoth), and it comes with a carry case. The Elear and Utopia need to follow this lead now.
The amplifier that the Clear was hooked up to was the Feliks Elise tube amplifier, which has upgraded tubes as standard from when I reviewed it. The Feliks Elise is interesting. When I got it the cost was like £500. As demand went up the cost has ballooned to about £1100. It used to come with NOS tubes, and now it comes with new stock PS Vane tubes. I think the CG3 tubes that I used in my review were better tubes than what it comes with now. The sound out of the Elise was thick and smooth. The mids on Violent Femmes – Country Death Song were a bit recessed.
I switched over to the Questyle QP2R and the sound instantly was improved. It had tighter control and more accurate sonic representation. On Pixies – Where is My Mind the female backing vocal has excellent soar. The stage has good depth, but, as I’ve observed with other Focal headphones the stage width is less than in-class peers from other manufacturers. I think this is due to the small size of the driver and of the ear-cup, 40mm is small, and the earcup is on the roomy depth-wise but has a narrow and linear width.
Listening to Macy Gray – Annabelle, I’m impressed with the clarity and representation of the stand-up bass. It’s clear that this headphone is aptly named.
The speakers being played were the Resolution (£35,500). They have interesting cabinets with exposed rear firing drivers. I imagine that this is to balance out some distortion from the drivers. The room these are in is one of the biggest and it has better damping than most. The music playing is exotic percussive stuff that basically nobody would be able to analyse without listening multiple times.
The sound quality isn’t as good as the Kudos Titan 606 (£9000) I heard earlier. The sound has excellent precision and good full frequency response but just isn’t as kick-ass as the Titan. The percussive definition is off the charts precise and these are very natural through the mids.
Best in Show
- Favourite Speakers (cost-no-object): Kudos Titan 606 (£9000): these absolutely blew me away with their powerful, dynamic presentation and exceptional resolution. Kick-ass!
- Favourite Speakers (value considered): Tie between Quad S1 (£500) and Ophidian Audio Minimo (£600). The Quad S1 and the Ophidian Audio Minimo had similar presentations, with the S1 having a bit better treble due to the ribbon tweeter. However, the Minimo can be wall mounted, which probably fits my living room better than the Quad S1. It should be noted that the Quad S2 has better bass extension (on paper) and only costs £100 more than the S1, but it wasn’t at the show for listening.
- Favourite Source: Questyle QP2R (£1299): The Questyle QP2R had more driving power and more natural presentation than all of the portable headphone sources I hooked up.
- Favourite Accessory: iFi iEMatch2.5 (£69): finally, the hiss is gone on low impedance high-sensitivity IEMs with the QP2R (review here)
- Favourite Headphone (cost-no-object): Audeze LCD i4 (£2399)
- Favourite Headphone (value considered): AKG K812 (£692)
- Favourite Display, Headphones: AKG/Harmon. The room was dead quiet, had a beautiful display and great lighting, and it had Schitt Jotunheim’s as the source throughout. There were a ton of great headphones in the room to try.
- Favourite Display, Speakers: Acoustic Energy. While the AE300 didn’t blow my mind, I loved the brightness of the room—many rooms were caves, the Union Jack rug on the floor and the British coloured bean bag chairs.