With all the ground I had to cover at the show on Saturday, by Sunday morning my feet were absolutely killing me. But that didn’t stop me from checking out my favorite part of any audio show and that is the headphone demos. AXPONA calls it the Ear Gear Expo, and it shares the Expo Hall with the merchant tables.
My first stop was at the HiFiMAN table to check out the Sundara planar magnetic headphones. They are their current entry-level over-ear planar offering selling for $499. I really like the streamlined minimalist design, and they are very light and comfortable on the head. The sound was also very balanced at first listen, but I would need some time in a quiet room to pass true judgment.
The AR-H1 from Acoustic Research’s new Hi-Fi division was very impressive. Even though they were very large headphones, the designers did a great job of distributing the weight across the head. The large earpads were also very plush. I also really liked the sweet sounding midrange, Amber Rubarth vocals sounded amazing on these. I would really like to get some time with these in a quieter room as well.
Dekoni Audio, a maker of aftermarket earpads and tips for various headphones, had one of the best values of the show with their Dekoni Blue headphones. The Blue is a custom version of the Fostex T50RP MKIII headphone, which is a great planar magnetic headphone in its own right. The Dekoni version adds their excellent sheepskin earpads, along with an extra set of velour earpads, and custom tuning with a slight V-shaped sound sig that sounded really good. They list at $299 but routinely sell for less than that.
Cleer, a company that is no stranger to making a splash at shows, demoed two hi-res certified models at the show, one being the Next, which was an open-back audiophile model with beautiful aluminum and leather construction, and the Flow which was an over-ear Noise-Cancelling Bluetooth headphone. Both models felt really solid, and sounded good.
The Noise Cancelling on the Flow worked great in the noisy expo hall and they also had an “ambient” button you could press to let in outside sounds. On the other hand, the Next, which was plugged into a top of the line Sony ES headphone amp, had a very clean balanced sound from what I could hear in that noisy room, and I would really like to get some more time with those. Both models are coming out sometime in May.
Another flagship headphone I was hoping to get my hands on was the new Meze Audio Empyrean. There has been so much buzz around this headphone since they announced it a few months back, and upon picking them up I knew why. First of all, the design is stunning. It put me in the mind of the Focal Utopia by Tournaire even though not quite as opulent. I mean those do cost the equivalent 120,000 US Dollars, and the Meze product will go for about $3500.
However, the fact that they even came anywhere even close to the beauty embodied in those pieces of art, is a testament to the design prowess of the Meze team. By the way, the sound is also great. It has the same easy-going yet detailed sound of their Neo and Classic headphones but takes it to the next level with the isodynamic drivers. I think they will be a hit when they are released later this year.
Campfire Audio also wowed me with their COMET IEM which retails at $199. It has a custom single Balanced Armature driver packed into a svelte mirror finished stainless steel body, and they were very comfortable with the foam tips I tried. The sound was very balanced and full and sounded good with a bunch of genres. They also come with a nice pocket size hard case, plus a cable with mic and remote.
On the Headphone amp side, I really liked what I heard from the Mytek Clef. It’s basically a portable Bluetooth receiver and headphone amp that allows you to stream music from your phone. But what separates it from similar products on the market is the sound quality and ability to drive even the most demanding headphones despite being able to fit in the palm of your hand. At the show they had it connected to the Audeze LCD-XC, a $1300 headphone that is notoriously hard to drive, and it drove them with no problem, at the same time giving them a nice warm sound from a Bluetooth connection. It was probably the best Bluetooth connection I have ever heard. BTW, its DAC will play DSD and MQA via its USB input. All for $299. The version at the show is the second release of the Clef and it will be available in June.