One day! So much to do. Better get right into it.
Chord + Meze
The Meze Empyrean, Meze’s upcoming $3000 flagship was dotted all over the floor. Meze even had their own room. I never made it upstairs to that room, but I was listening to some Campfire Audio gear with the HiFi Headphones folks (K & S Distribution is the new UK distributor) and saw that a spot at the Chord DAVE had opened up and had to jump over. It had been occupied by one dude for about 20 minutes. But what’s 20 minutes more wait when you’ve been waiting to hear the DAVE ever since it was released. I’ve somehow managed to miss it two years in a row, and multiple shows. Not this time.
It was so worth the wait! My first reaction was s*** that is f******* excellent when I threw on Pixies – Where Is My Mind. The female vocal has sweetness, extension and absolutely soars. Background details were presented in context with a natural tonality. When I switch to Queen – Father To Son the transparency is ridiculous. Every flaw of the recording is on full display (I still love the song).
The Empyrean are very comfortable and very stylish. I personally don’t want to see them go for the grey tones shown in the Head-Fi video. I really like the copper-bronze tone. It’s unique and it’s beautiful. Let the style shine.
It could be that I was listening out of one of the best DACs on the planet, but I think the Meze Empyreans are going to be competing with the HE-1000 v2, and the Utopia. These are deserving of their flagship status. Well done, you Romanian renaissance men.
Campfire Audio is another company I’ve been waiting a long time to have a listen to their gear. I’ve got an ALO Continental V5 and it is an excellent portable amplifier, but until CanJam London 2018, I’d never heard any of their headphones. I corrected that in a big way, listening to some twice. At the HiFi Headphones stand, I listened to the Andromeda and Comet with Spinfits. I listened to them again and the Atlas at the Campfire Audio stand (there was a wait for a long time) with their proprietary foam tips.
Some common traits for all Campfire models:
- Stellar build quality
- Stylish and unique aesthetics
- Excellent foam tips
- A little extra weight in the lower mids
- Well-defined treble
I listened in single ended via the Questyle QP2R with Spinfit tips. I found that there was a little bit of added thickness in the lower mids. Queen – Fat Bottomed Girls was quite bright, but too my surprise I didn’t find these to be the sparkle monsters I was expecting. On Rush – The Trees the presentation was really nice. Queen – Bicycle Race showed great drum impact and a very lively sound, though I found that Freddie Mercury’s vocals were softened a little bit by the Andromeda. The soundstage is really good on the Andromeda.
When I did my second take at the Campfire Audio stand, I had their foamies and these are definitely better with the foamies. The foamies lower the brightness a touch and give the bass a bit more solidity. The bass was nicely textured balanced armature bass. It won’t rumble your skull, but it will certainly move your emotions. These are solid solid IEMs. They weren’t too bright and I didn’t have a hiss problem on the QP2R in single-ended operation. Their reputation as hiss monsters may be exaggerated a bit. I think my Kaiser Encore hisses a little bit more on the QP2R.
When I compared to my reference IEM of the day, the Kumitate Lab KL-Sirius, the Sirius had a more natural vocal presentation but with less bass quantity. They are both excellent values.
I only listened to the Comet with Spinfits out of the QP2R in single-ended mode. I found the bass on the comet a bit thick, with some tubby edges. The mids were fluid with excellent timbre and a little extra thickness (a Campfire signature?). Treble had nice definition and reasonable extension. These are really excellent for their under $200 price.
I only listened to this out of the QP2R and they hissed a little. I tried the iFi iEMatch2.5 and it softened the vocal a little bit on the Atlas. These are probably best used in single ended mode with the QP2R. However, these drink up juice like Snoop Dogg with some gin.
These are excellent. To my surprise I preferred these to the Andromeda. Here’s the run-down:
- Warm big bass
- Clear mids with a warm tinge at the lower end of the mids
- Clear mids and treble
- Bass manages to be big without touching the rest of the frequency. That’s ridiculous when it’s a single driver set-up. It’s pretty magical.
- The bass is pleasurably large, not lorry pushing cars off the freeway large.
Also, Caleb Rosenau, Vice President of Campfire Audio is charming like Paul Rudd, and looks like Paul Rudd. I’m not convinced that he isn’t Paul Rudd. That’s a good thing.
Cayin N8 was on display at the Advanced MP3 stand. First, the build is solid. This thing is almost Sony WM1Z heavy, that thing is a brick. This thing is thick, with gold electroplating on the volume knob, the play-pause toggle on the side and the central button below the screen. I’m not sure I dig it. It’s flashy, but that flash actually draws attention to the screen. The screen isn’t terribly bright or resolving and the skin on the operating system is fairly rudimentary, it’s not as rudimentary as the HiFiMAN R2R2000. The screen also has weak touch capabilities. I found myself opening up settings constantly due to the proximity of the control arrow in the operating system. The touch activation needs to be more precise as this will bother people.
The system has some serious innovation in it:
- 4.4mm balanced with line-out function, 3.5mm single-ended solid state, 3.5mm single ended tube
- 8 Vrms output. Astell & Kern has less than 4 Vrms in their flagship.
- I2S Digital output via a mini HDMI
- Comes with everything you need to connect up to just about anything.
- DLNA, Airplay, stand alone DAC
But how does it perform?
- Touch screen precision could be improved, I was getting the settings menu too often when I wanted to press the back button.
- The volume knob feels great. Cayin is awesome at volume knobs. I should have shot one of these videos.
- The player has reassuring heft, not as heavy as Sony’s WM1Z
- The sound quality is exceptional, on par with my favourite player (QP2R) in the highly uncontrolled show environment. I haven’t compared with the A&Ultima SP1000 in any formal sense. Maybe in the future?
- The sound stage is excellent and the timbre is beautiful
- I’d love to get more time with it
As others will know, I’ve got a long history with HiFiMAN. My first ‘audiophile’ purchase was the HiFiMAN RE0. My favourite headphone is the HiFiMAN Susvara. I’m a fan. I’m also pretty critical of some of their design decisions. This trip to their table wasn’t really different.
This is, as far as I know, the only R2R portable audio player in existance. Many people swear by R2R DACs, claiming a more pure audio transmission. The R2R2000 delivers on that. Here’s the good:
- It is a phenomenal sounding player, as good as the QP2R. The sound has excellent impact and definition.
- It also has good connectors. The player uses 3.5mm for single ended operation, and a 4.4mm TRRRS jack, which is the best balanced connector for portable audio. Everybody should be doing 4.4mm.
- The size in hand is very comfortable and the aesthetics are cool looking.
- It has a cool phone control app with hi-res wireless streaming via an alternative to LDAC.
- External DAC capability via PC or USB OTG from mobiles
It also has some flaws, some easily fixable, some not.
- OS that looks recycled from the HiFiMAN SuperMini, a $399 player. Hard to have good control of up and down with capacitive buttons.
- HiFiMAN SuperMini buttons are better. Capacitative touch buttons are awful. Use physical buttons, or go full-on touch screen. Don’t do the halfway house of capacitative buttons.
- Like the SuperMini and MegaMini it has a 32 point volume control. This isn’t much better than a cell phone. This should also be easily fixable. Fix it HiFiMAN.
- Volume knob is tight and hard to turn due to the knob being smooth. this should have had some texturing applied. Sandblast that knob, or make it textured in some other way (ribbed for my pleasure?).
- Only DSD64 capable.
Fang needs to send these out of the Chinese market for beta testing before finalising production units, because the volume issue has been highlighted before (by me, and others), and the volume knob issue was easily fixable at basically no cost per unit. Fang is a brilliant engineer, but seems to think that customer experience is secondary. If you want to play in the premium end of the Head-Fi pool, you need to have depth of experience. Sound is the main thing, but in the premium sector, it’s definitely not the only thing. HiFiMAN kicks ass at sound. The rest is easily fixable. They just need to listen to their fans.
Shangrila Jr vs. Shangrila
HiFiMAN had both of these on playing out of the Jr. amp, which I have to imagine was a lot easier to transport than the amp that comes with the Shangrila. I had a brief listen to both with the R2R2000 as their source. The music selection was fairly limited, but there were some things that I like.
I put on Iggy Pop – The Passenger with the Shangrila Jr. and Sr. The big daddy Shangrila has a fuller sound. I heard the same thing when listening to the big daddy with Daft Punk – Instant Crush. I was listening in a loud environment and it was difficult to get good impressions because the Shangrila Sr. and Jr. have no isolation whatsoever. On both I think I was getting some distortion from the tubes in the amplifier manifested as a little bit of hiss.
Off initial impressions, I don’t think either the Shangrila or the Shangrila Jr. are better than the Susvara. To confirm, I’d have to have them in a quiet environment. I’d happily review the Jr, but I’m not sure I have room for that big ol’ Shangrila amp. I’m not sure that HiFiMAN would like my findings, either.
This is the first time that ZMF Audio has made it over, and I had to go have a listen. I’ve heard some of their gear before out of a Feliks Audio tube amp last year at The Indulgence Show. This year they’ve picked up a distributor for UK (maybe Europe?) in Acorn Audio, which is the business venture of a friend and fellow reviewer. I had to stop by to show my support and finally get to hear the Eikon and Auteur out of solid state amplification. It doesn’t hurt that ZMF headphones might be the prettiest headphones on earth.
I started out listening out of the Dragon IHA amplifier, which was an amp I didn’t like the first time I listened to it with the Utopia at CanJam London 2016 (before this blog existed). When listening with the Auteur I found the sound to be beautifully open, cowbell on (Don’t Fear) The Reaper was placed just right in the stage, but it felt like a chunk of the upper mids and lower treble wasn’t quite there enough.
Switching to the Questyle QP2R fixed that problem. In single-ended output it had just enough to drive the Auteur, and plenty to drive the Eikon.
Throwing on some badly recorded 2Pac – Troublesome ’96 I get some nice sound. On this track, it could use just a little more upper mids. Treble performance was excellent on Kraftwerk – Kometenmelodie2. It did a bloody excellent job on Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper.
- The Auteur has more bass and than the Eikon
- These are definitely a step up from the Eikon
- Upper mids guitars on (Don’t Fear) The Reaper are absolutely rockin’.
- The mids are just a tiny bit back of neutral
- These have great speed and definition on Slayer – Necrophobic
- These are power hungry. I turned the QP2R to high bias and high gain and even then it needed to be nearly maxed out on volume. I had Aornic test the sound and he was impressed with what the QP2R was doing, so I’m fairly confident they were driven well, just not easily.
- I tested for sibilance using Rush – The Trees. It was there, just as it should be. Geddy Lee should have some sibilance in his voice.
Eric Chong of Effect Audio and I have been chatting audio for a long time. Eric doesn’t throw B.S. at you and he also doesn’t put down other cable manufacturers philosophies. Effect Audio makes cables that are designed to sound tonally different. They do this by messing with wire and connector materials and other properties (variable strand diameter, etc.). Last year at the Indulgence Show, I went to HiFi Headphones’ stand to get a listen to the Horus, but one of the channels was damaged. Shows are hard on display units, as lots of people handle the cables in a not too gentle way. Be nice to display units! I had already had a good listen to the Effect Audio line-up at CanJam London 2017, so I was looking forward to the Horus.
So this year, I came specifically to hear the Horus, and I came with the IEM in my collection that is most sensitive to cable switches, the Kumitate Labs KL-Sirius. I also had a listen to the Janus Basso. I was comparing both cables to the Double Helix Symbiote Elite SP v3 (8-braid), which is my current reference cable.
On Rush – The Trees the Horus has good body, really good guitar crunch and speed. The vocal has a touch of sweetness. The Double Helix Cables Symbiote Elite SP v3 has a lighter touch, with less body. The Horus is a more vibrant cable with a bit more forward sound. It is also more easy to drive. At lower volumes on my QP2R knob, it was consistently louder with the KL-Sirius. Not surprisingly, the Horus is more comfortable than the DHC Symbiote Elite SP v3, but I can’t testify as to whether that is because of more comfy cable housing, or number of braids. The DHC that I have has 8 wires, which means that it’s bigger and naturally more cumbersome on top of the ear. That said, Effect Audio four wire varieties are incredibly comfortable. They have a soft feel and excellent flexibility. The 26 AWG wire size is just right.
On Queen – Fat Bottomed Girls the Horus has stronger drum slam than the DHC, but not quite as much depth. The mids are a touch less vibrant than the DHC on the Horus. Drums are super awesome on the Horus, as is high guitar. The Horus has big-time energy.
I think that if you want a neutral reference cable, the DHC is superior, but if you want a vibrant, vivacious cable than the Horus might be what you are looking for.
The Janus Basso is one of two twin 8-braid cables from Effect Audio. If you look above in the picture you’ll see that the amplifier end housings have changed since last year. I think that the increased carbon fibre area makes them look more premium, and it works better with the new Horus rose gold y-split (I still think they should have had rose gold or copper housing on that). The connectors at the ear (2-pin in this case) still have the same Effect Audio housing. I’d like to see next years model improve on these.
With the Kumitate Labs KL-Sirius I went for recessed connectors. The recessed connectors give better protection from corrosion and a more secure connection that protects from breakage. The stock cable that came with the KL-Sirius has smooth connectors, which made it painful to remove the IEM cable to use a superior cable that really shows what the KL-Sirius can do. I had similar issues using the Horus and Janus. The smooth housing of the Effect Audio 2-pin connector makes grip difficult. I’d like to see the housings be grip-enhanced by using adding a gripping layer (diamond dust effect, maybe?). This would make the cables look more premium and enhance the ability to remove the connectors confidently.
Sound! Sorry it took so long. The Janus Basso is bass emphasized, but not bass heavy. It has really tight bass, and somewhat recessed treble. Queen – Fat Bottomed Girls has excellent groovin bass with great texture, but the rest of the presentation sounds a bit light-touch. The DHC has more accurate treble, and also grooves well on the bass. The DHC is the superior cable in this comparison.
By this time in the show I knew I didn’t have much time left, so I told the folks at DITA that I could listen to two and asked which to do. They suggested The Answer and Dream to give an idea of how they developed. I think they regretted it when I really stuck to just two. I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to listen to Fealty and Fidelity in the future.
I only had time for a short listen, so even more grain of salt should be applied to this show impression than others. Listening to (Don’t Fear) The Reaper I felt that the mids were a bit soft and smooth. I was missing detail. On this track, the cowbell can be faint in normal operation, but it almost disappears when listening with The Answer.
Moving on to Dream, the mids are nice and clear. The signature is well balanced, and the cowbell has reappeared. The sound is smooth and what is often termed “musical”, which means accentuated in such a way where it isn’t quite neutral but has a euphonic sound. I found the sound enjoyable, but a touch dark during the guitar solo in the middle of the track. The Dream was clearly an advancement on The Answer, but I’m not sure it’s not my ideal signature. For those that love a relaxed and musical sound, this will check the boxes.
Last year at CanJam London 2017, the Fourte were basically tied with the SB7 for the most realistic sounding IEM of the show, but they are something that I could wear out and about, so are clearly ergonomically superior. The Tzar that was there last year didn’t sound quite right. The drivers were not presenting an integrated sound, you could hear delineated layers that made it sound unnatural, like there were compartments in the stage. A lot of people I trust told me that isn’t what the Tzar should sound like, so I put it down to the crossovers and drivers not being burned in, or something of that sort. I had to go back for another listen this year. It was well worth it.
64Audio U18 Tzar
- Rush – The Trees has a nice natural sound with great definition. Little details like the birds pop nicely. The sound is very fast.
- Outkast – Sorry Ms. Jackson has great bass presentation and all the layers in the track are coherently presented as one sound field.
- On Metallica – Master of Puppets the speed is outstanding. The guitars have fantastic crunch and resolution
64Audio Tia Fourte & comparison to Tzar
The Tia Fourte sounds fuller on Master of Puppets. It’s got a little more natural organic feel to it. Neither hisses with the QP2R in single-ended operation and both are driven plenty. The Fourte has a silkier sound while maintaining detail. The Tzar has sharper sounding details, but to my ear the Fourte sounded more like live music.
When I turn on Leonard Cohen – Leaving the Table the Fourte is giving me Susvara level bass and vocal texture. Shizzle. This IEM could be my one on the go headphone and I’d be quite happy. On the Tzar the bass doesn’t have as full a feel, but seems to have more extension and rumble. It’s vocal textures are equal to the Fourte. The Tzar sounds like it has a bit more emphasis in the highs.
Both the Fourte and the Tzar are worth of being grouped in the top few in-ears in the world. Truly excellent.
Jerry Harvey Audio
I wasn’t planning on going over to Jerry Harvey this year, but I stopped by anyway because I saw the Lolas sitting right at the front. They asked me what I wanted to listen to, and I said ‘give me something interesting’ knowing full well that was going to be the Lola. The Jerry Harvey ear ice-pick fit on their universals is awkward. I think that custom would need to be the way if I was doing Jerry Harvey.
After my first listen on (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, I thought that the bass sounded over-done, a bit loose, kind of weird and slow sounding. I asked them to turn it down with the built in bass switch, and that helped a lot. The mids on the Lola are warm, and not really my thing. I compared to the Kumitate Labs KL-Sirius and far preferred the Sirius. The Sirius had less bass quantity, but had more quality across the entire frequency spectrum.
After listening, and telling them what I heard, the JH folk told me I probably should have been listening to the JH13, given my preferences. I’ll have to do my best to give them a try sometime soon.
Advanced Audio (ADV)
By the time I got to Advanced Sound Group (ADV), the show was already supposed to be closed and I had RHA still waiting for me to pick up a review unit (MA750 wireless). I forgot to take pictures, but they did have me listen to like 4 IEMs. In general, they were good. I liked the M5-1D quite a bit (pic below), I also liked the GT-3, which I’ve got sitting at home in my review queue right now.
The Advanced M5-1D has a single titanium dynamic driver that the company says is more heavy than normal drivers. I wasn’t sure this would be a positive, as usually you want something light and stiff to ensure speed and accuracy. So I went in with some expectations. On (Don’t Fear) The Reaper the sound is really good. Cowbell is at the right level, faint but audible. The mids are clear and tuneful with great representation of the electric guitars. Slayer – Necrophobic shows that the speed of the driver is okay, but it could be faster. Vocals have a touch of warmth, which most will find pleasing. On Rush – The Trees, the sibilance is just right and the timbre is excellent. I like these.
I also had a brief listen to the GT3, which I’ll be reviewing. The GT3 required a ton of juice out of the Questyle QP2R. I don’t see this going well off most phones. The GT3 does a great job on Rush – The Trees. It’s faster than the M5-1D and on Necrophobic but it has a bit less vocal presence.
First off, at the last show that I went to I stupidly forgot to take a picture of one of my favourite headphones in the show (Sound & Vision 2018), the AKG K812. I think they are awesome and an absolute steal at under $800 now (as little as £654/$800). They are airy and detailed. They are comfortable once you get them set to you, but a bit of a pain to adjust to share with your friends. Make friends with similar head sizes.
At Sound & Vision, Mark of AKG/Harman had the brand new in ear flagship there, but the N5005 was not up for listening, just photos. At CanJam London 2018, I got to listen. First a reminder of what kind of package this is:
- 5 driver hybrid in-ear with 4 balanced armatures and 1 dynamic driver
- Ergonomic bean shaped ceramic housing (basically bomb-proof)
- Filters to tune the sound (bass boost, reference, mid-high boost, high boost)
- Comes with three cables: standard 3.5mm with mic cable, 2.5mm balanced, Bluetooth (8 hour battery life)
- 7 pairs of tips: 3 spinfit sizes (S/M/L), 4 silicone sizes (XS/S/M/L)
- Nice carrying case
This thing does everything. How does it sound?
Pretty damn good (reference tuning on):
- Airy, delicate presentation on Leonard Cohen – Leaving The Table
- Good wholesome bass on Fleetwood Mac – Dreams
- Very clear mids with excellent vocal texture
- These sound excellent
I’m going to be asking about reviewing these, probably in the autumn, as these are too good to not spend some more time with.