Musings on RMAF & CanJam 2018 …
My RMAF was probably a bit different to most. In addition to being my first trip to either RMAF or CanJam, I was there primarily for the people - both professional contacts and friends and not the gear. I’ve done other audio shows, and lots of local meets, of course, but this was the first time I have attended CanJam.
My expectations were way off. It was a lot of fun, but the CanJam space was a lot smaller than I had imagined; physically at least, as there were plenty of vendors and a ton of product present.
I got to meet @Ishcabible in person, and spend a nice, fun, relaxing lunch with him, @andrew and @taronlissimore, and the poor, suffering, ladies that were also there. All super-nice people!
The majority of my day on Saturday was spent talking with people like Tyll Hertsens (of original HeadRoom and later Innerfidelity fame), Dan Clark (Mr. Speakers), Jack Wu (Woo Audio), Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat (Schiit Audio), Christian (Massdrop), Zach Mehrbach (ZMF Headphones), and various other reps and less well known parties for decidedly well known companies (Focal, iFi Audio, 64Audio, HiFiMan, Meze, Dekoni, Manley, Chord, Shure, Audeze and a host of others).
Chatting with Tyll was especially entertaining. It was nice to be able connect properly and share some appreciation for all he has done for the headphone/personal audio hobby to this point - as well as a war-story or two. And getting a personal tour of his step-van project was also a lot of fun - if not at all headphone related! Though he was lucky that my fiancé didn’t try to abscond with his dog, “Dart” …
Though this did not stop me listening to the most interesting pieces - especially those of personal interest.
I will say that, in general, I find meet/show conditions render any listening impressions near-useless. It’s generally a good sign if something actually manages to impress at these things, but usually the noise level is such that, unless you can find the gear you want in a “quiet room” any “bad” or “poor” impressions are best taken with a large shaker of salt.
That’s not to say that obvious problems are not still audible. But trying to assess micro-dynamic resolution or raw detail in a show environment is really a non-starter. Tonality is another matter and a bit easier to assess, especially if dealign with IEMs or closed-back cans.
Since I already own the entire open-back line-up, I only listened to the new closed-back Elegia. Tonally it was closest to the Clear. That was quite encouraging as tonality-issues seems to be the biggest problems I run into with closed-back cans. While not a reliable take, my initial impression is that in regards to other technicalities they are closer to the Elear (which, significant tonality issues aside, is very capable). Which would, fundamentally, make them a closed-back Elex, I suppose.
A proper audition in my normal setup is needed to say more here, but I am cautiously optimistic about these. And said audition will occur as soon as I can get my hands on a production unit for a proper review.
Since I’m already familiar with most of the line-up, new introductions not-withstanding, my principal interest here was with the new Jade II electrostatic setup. I’ve been chatting about adding an electrostatic rig to my setup with a couple of people here (behind the scenes) and this seemed like an excellent potential option …
I wanted to come away from this with an order placed - as a starting point for more electrostatic stuff.
I was very disappointed.
The mid-range was extremely gritty and coarse. The treble was over-bearing or, at least, over-present. Bass was light and had no impact - even less, in fact, that I’ve come to expect from electrostatic systems. Overall presentation was tinny and insubstantial. And the general sense of raw resolution, detail and ethereal transparency I’ve found in every other electrostatic setup I’ve heard was also entirely lacking.
I don’t know if this is how these headphones really sound (while not the world’s biggest HiFiMan fan, that’s mostly a build-quality-to-cost-ratio issue and I’ve never had issues with how their stuff sounds), if it was down to their R2R2000 DAP being used as a USB-DAC/source (seems unlikely, as that uses PCM-1704 ICs and those are known to be warm and smooth), or if they had issues. But it was NOT an impressive display.
I will be trying to get my hands on another Jade II setup for a non-show type audition/demo to see if it was just an issue with that setup/unit/environment or if these really are that bad.
The Manley Absolute Headphone amplifier was everywhere.
I can’t comment directly on the sound, since I heard it with mostly unfamiliar headphones. But I can comment on other aspects. The first of which is that it is MUCH smaller than I expected from pictures. The feature set is very interesting … switchable push-pull and SET output, variable negative feedback, and impedance matching should make for a very chameleonic device … something you can dial into your mood at the time. Though the effects there are subtle enough that they weren’t very audible at the show.
I like the use of a thumbwheel driving a relay-controller stepped attenuation system for the volume control. I was less keen on how it felt in use. Which combined with oddly cheap-feeling switchgear was not quite what I expected from exposure to other Manley gear. Not bad, at all, but not what I expected.
I do not like the rear-mounted headphone connections. I don’t get the point of this. The cable is going to be coming around the front of the unit one way or another, so why make it harder to use? At least the upcoming SPL Phonitor XE has BOTH front and rear headphone connections … so you can use what you like best.
All that said …
I definitely want to get my ears on one of these at home and see if it’s performance is in line with Manley’s professional legacy.
My first impression of the Ether 2 was just how surprisingly light it felt. I don’t personally have an issue with very heavy headphones (years of LCD-2.2c listening, and more recently the LCD-4 and Abyss AB-1266), but the Ether 2 is “barely there light”. And comfort was extremely good.
These were being driven via a Chord Blu-Mk2 M-Scaler, feeding a Chord DAVE and then straight out of the DAVE’s headphone output.
I’m used to hearing Mr. Speakers Ether line being described as “thin” or “lean”. That was definitely not the case here. There was plenty of body to their delivery. Lower registers had plenty of impact and punch. Bass level is more emphasized than I would personally choose for my own critical listening … but it is possible that background noise was masking out other elements and making it seem more emphatic than it really is.
Something I need (and am keen) to do a proper non-show audition with to properly understand, but still the opposite of what I’ve heard Dan’s cans described as in the past.
My initial pass by the Woo booth was met with Jack Wu recognizing me from my name-tag. Not as a reviewer (neither my username nor my headphone.com affiliation was on the badge) but as a customer. Color me impressed. Initially I didn’t listen to anything there … since I am quite set on Woo amps for my main rig!
I did wander back later in the day to give the WA11 a listen. Mostly in comparison to the WA8. The WA11 is quite a bit larger than I expected, but still significantly smaller than the WA8. There’s plenty of power for full-size cans and the output is sufficiently quiet to work well with sensitive and fussy IEMs. Sound was warmer than a lot of solid-state solutions, but in a good, almost euphonic, way. Not quite as liquid as the WA8, but similarly resolving and dynamic.
I don’t NEED another portable/transportable amp/DAC … but both of these units made me want one.
Probably a good thing they were not for take-away sale at the show … but something I am keen to spend more time with and review fully.
For me, Zach’s new Vérité were, sound-wise (and looks-wise, actually), the highlight of the new headphones at the show. And luckily it was still quiet when I was there. I heard them in a couple of different states of tuning (Zach was playing with different damping options, on the fly, in response to feedback from a couple of well known “trusted ears”). And the best of those, with less front-damping, were tonally lovely, rich, sonorous and still detailed and dynamic.
I already own the Eikon, finished with Padauk cups, and that is one of my favorite closed back headphones, and the most tonally pure closed-back I’ve heard. So having something similar, but open-backed, and significantly more resolving, which is what I felt the Vérité was as I heard it, is very appealing.
Almost certainly something I will buy at launch - and I almost never do this.
More gear impressions in some follow-up posts …