CanJam London is the biggest headphone and portable audio show put on in the UK every year. It is the highlight of the HeadFi enthusiasts calendar and something that I have attended since the inaugural CanJam London in 2015. This year was the 5th annual edition and it lived up to its billing. I’ll be dividing my coverage of the event in parts, with this third part covering the over ear cans I had a listen to at the show. If you want to read all about e-stat in-ear hybrids, go have a read of Part One of the CanJam London 2019 coverage. If in-ears from InEar and other IEM makers are your thing, look at Part Two of the CanJam London 2019 coverage.
HEDD (Heinz Electrodynamic Designs)
The HEDDphone is the the brainchild of a long-time German speaker manufacturer that—who would have guessed?—makes high end loudspeakers that specialize in Air Motion Transformer (AMT) tweeters. Here’s how these peculiar little tweeters work (full steal credit to Pro Tools Expert and HEDD Audio for the information, video from John Darko:
HEDD Explain: The Air Motion Transformer is an electromagnetic driver, as it is based on the Lorentz force that moves the air in the single folds. The diaphragm itself has an aluminium circuit printed on it (violet arrows) and is surrounded by a strong magnetic field. The graphics in and around the small circles show the motion of the individual foils producing a sinusoidal waveform: from where it starts (black circle) through the positive (green circle) and negative (red circle) half-waves. The resulting air flow (blue arrows) is four times faster than speed in which the individual folds move, which is a big advantage when it comes to reproducing musical signals with fast transients (cymbals, plucked guitar strings, etc.).
I’ve listened to a few AMT-equipped oBravo in-ears and the little folded tweeter has done wonders for soundstage and treble resolution. oBravo has never made a full range AMT only headphone as far as I know, so I’m pretty sure what HEDD is doing here is the first time this has been done. I’m pretty excited to hear what a full range AMT driver can do.
The headphone displayed above is not the final production unit. HEDD had three prototypes on hand with different weights. The one I listened to was the heavy one. The final version will look more like the image below. I’ve provided HEDD with some suggestions on elements of the design to make the headphone as comfortable as possible, I’m hoping that I’ll see some of my suggestions when I review these after they hit the market. The render looks sexier than the rough and ready 3d printed prototypes.
What we can see form the information that is out there now makes it look like there will be a wrapped cushion on the headphone much like the Oppo PM3 and pads like the AKG K812, which are fantastic studio monitor style headphones that I really like. The earphone assembly reminds a lot of the OPPO PM-1 with it’s rectangular driver enclosure. I would suggest that if the weight of the final version is closer to the demo prototypes they had on site at CanJam London 2019, they’ll need to incorporate a suspension system, which doesn’t fit with the earcup aesthetic well.
The picture above shows the AMT in both folded and unfolded configurations. I always like seeing the guts of headphones, but when they are golden and like magical audio origami, I’m especially excited.
I started off listening to the HEDDphone playing out of my QP2R. The QP2R doesn’t provide enough juice for it to sound at it’s best on the single-ended output. I was playing with basically maxed out volume on High Gain in High Bias, that just doesn’t happen often. Because of this inadequate power from the QP2R I got some bass clipping on Wandering. When I turn the volume down I can hear the potential in these to be something special.
I wanted to see what a source with more power would do, so I switched to the Chord Hugo 2 that they had on the table. I didn’t like how the Hugo 2 made vocals sound a bit shouty on Rebecca Pidgeon – Raven and Daft Punk – Game of Love. I didn’t get bass clipping, but I didn’t feel like the Hugo 2 was the right amp for these. Luckily they had an RME ADI-2 Pro DAC/Amp.
That’s where it’s at. The bass has a neutral tuning (meaning no extra emphasis) with excellent sub-bass extension. These are a remarkably natural sounding headphone with really impressive balance to the tuning. The sound out of the ADI-2 Pro is a warm reference kind of sound. It’s a sound with clarity and romance. People are going to dig this a lot. I can’t wait to try these on my home amping setup.
The Raal Requisite SR1a is an interesting ‘headphone.’ Let’s be serious, it isn’t a headphone, it’s ear-speakers, much in the same way that the AKG K1000 and MySphere 3 are ear-speakers. Just like the K1000, you need a speaker amp to power these. The Raal Requisite even needs a special adaptor box to properly power it. Just like the K1000 these can be opened up to present a wide soundstage—I found 45º perfect for this—or can be closed down to have an intimate but prominent soundstage. These can also be set super wide with them perpendicular to your ears, but this wasn’t my preferred setting with the K1000 and it isn’t my preferred setting with the Raal. When you set it to maximum width the centre image is weakened some. When you set it to parallel to the ears the soundstage collapses. This is why I went right for 45º. There is a second factor to using these, again, just like the K1000, though the K1000 is a more comfortable due to it’s lighter weight; you need to place them correctly on your head, a little bit off and I think the pressure will build up and cause headaches. For me the right point was directly above my ears for the horizontal cushion and directly in front of my ears for the vertical cushion.
These are reference tuned. If you didn’t know that, listening to a track like Yosi Horikawa – Wandering or Daft Punk – Get Lucky reminds you. These have bass with excellent extension, but in a 45º angle or wider orientation they just don’t have a ton of amplitude. The stage is wide and airy with great depth and precise instrument placement.
On Fleetwood Mac – Dreams treble definition is excellent. Cymbals have excellent decay characteristics and excellent timbral precision. Taps on the cymbals sound like taps, they don’t instantly disappear, nor do they linger more than they should. Crashes on cymbals linger for the precisely right amount of time and sound tonally perfect. Listening to Stevie Nicks’s vocal gives a chillingly accurate depiction. She’s sultry and silky with good depth. The Raal Requisite SR1a is just nailing it.
Where it doesn’t get me as much is the bass. On Get Lucky and Wandering I just want more intense grooves and more amplitude, but I don’t want to give away the soundscape to get it. To me, these are like a less comfortable Susvara that is more finicky on amplification, which is actually a high compliment. These have a realistic feel that few headphones approach, but that is because they aren’t headphones, they are ear-speakers. Would I consider having something like this in my arsenal if I had the money? You betcha, but I have some caveats about these. These are another item at this show like the dCS Bartók, that is clearly marketed towards 2-channel audiophiles and maybe electrostatic headphone enthusiasts. It’s a ‘headphone’ that you need to have a whole lot dedicated to it. It will play best with a traditional HiFi rack with a multi-output pre-amplifier—just add an extra power amplifier or a pair of Schiit Vidar monoblocks (excellent value at $699 each). This isn’t the kind of thing that most dedicated headphone audiophiles are working with. This is a product that will thrive best alongside a 2-channel setup.
The Raal Requisite SR1a is an excellent product, and worth it’s asking price of $3499, even when you consider the power amplifier you’ll want to have to properly get it singing. At the show the Raal Requisite SR1a was fed by a Schiit Jotunheim ($499 with a balanced DAC) and two Schiit Vidars ($1498), that worked well. For a $5,500 system, these sound insanely good.
I also have to give a thumbs up to the man behind the counter, whom I’ve forgotten the name of—he didn’t have a business card, but he now has mine. He was incredibly helpful and an absolute joy to talk with. I loved his California enthusiasm and miss his part of the world.
Mark Dolbear at Electromod is one of the most straight-shooting guys I’ve ran across, so when he asked me about having a listen to the Aeon Flow Open with and without a Synergistic Research (makers of audiophile fuses and stickers), I was surprised. I’m not one to say that little things can’t make differences, I’ve heard plenty of differences with switching wires, most notably when listening to the Susvara and Focal Utopia.
To start off, I tried the Aeon Flow Open with the stock DUMMER (distinctly unmagical[-er?]) cable from the Questyle QP2R, my source of choice. The QP2R struggled to drive the Aeon Flow Open to high volume. I got clipping in bass notes, which tells me that Mr. Speakers probably shouldn’t be sending this with a 3.5mm connector on the cable by default—at least it comes with a 6.3mm screw-on adaptor. If bought from Mr Speakers directly, you can choose to get an 4-pin XLR terminated cable. Personally, what I’d like to see happen is 4-pin XLR plus three 6 inch pigtail adapters: one adapter that is XLR to 4.4mm, another that is XLR to 2.5mm, and a final adapter that is XLR to 3.5mm with a screw on 6.3mm. That would cover everything and make it so they could produce just one cable setup. That being said, if I had to choose, I’d choose the XLR, because I can use it with some of my existing adapters to cover basically everything.
Soundwise, these are excellent. They’ve got good bass depth on Wandering. It’s a very even-keeled sound with some extra sub-bass. The soundstage is good too.
On Regina Spektor – Field Below There is a touch of extra warmth in the upper mids which gives a nice sweetness to Regina’s vocal tone and nice feel to the piano notes.
At this point, Mark walks up to me with a Synergistic Research cable and asks me to have a listen. It does sound different. I don’t know that it sounds better. The vocal gets a touch softer and the bass has a bit more body to it. Different, probably better for some, but I’m not sure. I’d need a longer listen.
Something else to note about Electromod, they are also the distributors for Schitt Audio and Dekoni Audio in the UK. Schitt isn’t my thing so much for DACs, but I do like their amps a lot. The Ragnarok is still an awesome frickin’ amp. Dekoni, on the other hand makes the best foam ear-tips that I’ve tried. They don’t get sticky, they don’t get slippy, they don’t warm up a ton, and they don’t affect the frequency response. If you don’t like that your Comply foam warms up the midbass and attenuates the treble, you should switch to Dekoni. I used them for my impressions of the new oBravo Cupid in Part two.
The dCS Bartók is dCS’s first foray into the HeadFi world, and what they’ve done is take something that is becoming common in the two-channel world and transport it into HeadFi, the all-in-one streamer/DAC/Pre-amp/Amp. In this case they’ve forgone having the ability to drive speakers right out of the box, with a headphone amp instead. Given the amount of stuff inside the Bartók the sheer size isn’t a huge surprise. The size is, however, a sign that they are not reaching for many in the headphone market (if the $13500 price didn’t already say that)—they are reaching for the 2-channel audiophiles who dabble in expensive headphones with a 3m cable in tow in their designated listening space. A HeadFi enthusiast in the primary wants something more friendly for a desktop, rather than a high end audio rack that would be more comfortable at Bristol HiFi than CanJam London.
At CanJam London 2019, I had the pleasure of seeing my friend Dillan from Subjective Reviews. Dillan is a tinkerer in DIY amplifier building who has built amps for the HE-6, for the Sennheiser HD800, and a special amp for special listening. He also modded the original HE-6 to make it one of the best headphones on earth. In my opinion, the Susvara is now the best headphone on the planet, and I found that the HiFiMAN Susvara bested the Focal Utopia without much difficulty, to my listening preferences. I think Dillan has come to the same conclusion here. I didn’t try the Utopia out of the dCS Bartók, but I imagine it would actually be a quite good pairing. The Utopia can be overly edgy, and the smooth musical presentation of the Bartók could mitigate some of the rougher characteristics of the Focal Utopia.
I did have a listen with the Susvara (which had stock cable sadness, it really benefits from an upgrade). It was good. On Wandering the space in the soundstage is wide open. Bass drops deep, but has some roll-off in the deep sub-bass. This probably doesn’t have enough power to fully realise the capabilities of the Susvara. The bass has good emotive texture, but it won’t stun you with amplitude. Leonard Cohen – Leaving the Table has great texture in Leonard’s voice, but it also has a slight sweetening due to an overall warm tuning on the DAC. On Fleetwood Mac – Dreams I’m getting hiss from the Tidal service streaming MQS. There is also a definite sweetening of the vocal. The forwardness of the upper mids reduces separation during the three-part vocal in the refrain.
Since I was sitting at a station that was equipped with the HiFiMAN Susvara and the Audeze LCD-4Z, two of my top recommendations in headphones, I just had to do a quick compare on the $13.5k all-in-one dCS Bartók. On Dreams the Susvara sounds better. It has deeper bass with more texture. It has a touch more forward vocal. The Bartók imparts some sweetness on both, so I can confirm that the Bartók has a coloured signature tending toward warmth and upper mids sweetness. Separation on the vocal refrain is better on the Susvara than on the LCD-4Z, but I’m still aware that this can sound better. On Yosi Horikawa – Wandering the LCD-4Z doesn’t have as much texture as the Susvara.
Unfortunately for dCS, the Susvara sounds better on my home setup with the Xi Audio Formula S amp fed by a Questyle CMA600i. I imagine the LCD-4Z will also. You can buy my entire setup, plus some upgrades and extras for under the price of the dCS Bartók alone (UK setups, $USD prices):
- HiFiMAN Susvara ($6000)
- Atlas Zeno 1:2 Balanced 4-pin XLR Headphone Cable ($300)
- Xi Audio Formula S ($3499)
- Questyle Audio CMA12 ($1349)
- Wire-on-Wire Experience 880 1m XLR ($785)
- iFi Nano iUSB3.0 ($219)
- Vertere Acoustics Double DFi USB Cable ($250)
- iFi Gemini Double Headed USB Cable ($450)
- iFi Powerstation ($499)
- MCRU no. 11 2m power cable ($90)
- Total Price = $13441
If you wanted to not spend so much on cables (because you don’t believe in that [tongue-in-cheek] snake oil nonsense)—I put these in because I have some cable equipment that is similar already—you could swap out all the cables for less spendy but still good quality stuff:
- Stock power leads all around (plus $10 for a power lead for the Formula S)
- Tacima Mains Conditioner ($50)
- Blue Jeans Cable USB 2.0, 6ft ($2)
- Blue Jeans Cable Canare Starquad XLR. 3ft x2 ($64), balanced microphone cable can also be had from just about any local musician supply shop
That drops the price down to about $11773, which leaves you about $1600 to spend on a lifetime Roon subscription ($499) a near silent laptop (Microsoft Surface Pro 6 with keyboard cover, $899) and 9 months of Tidal streaming. In other words, the price is too damn high to not completely blow my mind when listening. If I’m going to spend $13500 on something, it better be the best sounding with the best headphones on the planet (Susvara).
Mark, a HeadFi buddy and organiser of local meets extraordinaire. Also didn’t think that the dCS maxed out the Susvara. He did think the Susvara was the best sounding headphone in the room.
Warwick Acoustics had the biggest show-stopper booth. They brought in a sound-proof booth and paced both their electrostatic headphones and accompanying amplifiers on a table in the middle. It was a fantastic listening environment.
It took me a little bit to find some music that I wanted to listen to, but I settled on David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust, Herbie Hancock – Chameleon, and Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks.
On the Sonoma ($4995), Warwick’s original creation, I get some nice vocal warmth on Ziggy Stardust but the treble comes off a bit thin and dry. Chameleon is delivering some nice funky bass.
In comparison, the Aperio sounds dry as a parched Northern hemisphere desert in July. Bass on Chameleon is dry and lacking in warmth. The sound is edgy and sharp, like cactus prickles in Death Valley on a sunny day—don’t drink the cactus water! On When the Levee Breaks the bass guitar is recessed and dry. The cymbals are hard. This isn’t what I’m looking for at all. The Sonoma is still not my flavour, but it is a lot better than the Aperio. At $19,999, the Aperio is the worst value at the show, it’s not even close. The dCS Bartók plus a Susvara is a better buy. I don’t think I like most electrostatic over-ears (I am finding the HiFiMAN Jade II a bit better). I still need to try the Mr Speakers Voce, but I’ll wager it is better than both of the Warwick Acoustics creations.
If someone is having a money bonfire, I’d buy the Chord Dave, a beastly amplifier (or two Schiit Vidar and a speaker tap), a HiFiMAN Susvara and some good quality cabling. They’d never need another desktop setup. The Aperio is not end-game unless you are really into sharp and dry.
Best in show!
Best bass: Jomo Audio Trinity Brass
Best value: oBravo Cupid
Favourite new (to me) company: InEar
Best overall electrostatic hybrid: Vision Ears Elysium
Best headphone: Raal Requisite SR1a (HEDDphone was close here)
Best new in-ear monitor: toss-up between Jomo Trinity Brass and the Vision Ears Elysium (two equally delicious flavours). Are you a chocolate or vanilla person?