CanJam SoCal Impressions by Bharat Patel

Kishore Patel kindly shared with me his father’s impressions and audio interviews that he did at CanJam SoCal 2018. Sadly I couldn’t attend this year so I’m very grateful for what he has written and recorded. — Amos


 

Preface

My name is Bharat Patel (age 61), and I am an engineer with over four decades of experience. What intrigues me in audio is the technical innovations behind them, such as material design, unique software technologies (eg DSP, head tracking function etc). It’s an incredibly exciting time to get into this hobby, and I hope this write-up can help others on their audio journey.

CanJam SoCal 2018

The funny thing is, I had no interest going to Can Jam SoCal, as I have no qualms with the system I have. However, my son (studying in Sweden) bought me a two day pass as a birthday gift, and booked me appointments with the HE1 and Smyth Realiser A16.  Little did I know I’d be meeting amazing people, and have the opportunity to interview some incredible folks and learn a lot along the way. On a related note, I think the Can Jam tickets were a crafty ruse to tempt me to purchase more audio gear, and unfortunately, I can’t stop thinking of a certain piece of gear which represented the BEST value system at CanJam (and possibly the headphone market) by far.

The Exhibit
Los Angeles has grown into an amazing place with interesting sites, cultures and food and developing at a rapid clip. Before entering the JW Marriot, I stopped by the popular eatery, the ‘Pantry’ a place that never closes for breakfast. With a solid meal down, I ventured to CanJam, with the excitement of a young child going to a theme park. I arrived first in line, with 20 minutes to spare before the exhibit officially started. Check in was a smooth process, it was well organized with friendly staff. The event space was well appointed with booths easy to find. I first of all wandered around the exhibits and then looked for the seminar room and special Studio rooms that housed specific sponsors such as Studio 2: Smyth Research, Studio Georgia l: Woo Audio- Stax – Kimber Kable, Studio Georgia II: HeadAmp, Mr. Speakers- Seminar room. As expected the first day was crowded and difficult to listen to the popular brands for extended periods as there were people behind me waiting, it can be intimidating.
Chord Hugo 2

The first piece of audio gear I checked out was Chords lineup, with a focus on the Hugo 2. The Chord table had the Audeze LCD2 to listen with the Hugo 2, and I recently had the chance to listen to the LCD 2 at the Mr. Speaker Voce Launch Party at The SourceAV. Although I don’t own a  pair of the LCD2’s, I had a good idea of how they would sound, and hopefully could pick up what Hugo2 would contribute to the sound. My first impressions of the Hugo2 is clinical, analytical, and extremely resolving. It was during this audition, I discovered I am a tube guy. While I do appreciate resolving gear, such as the Focal Utopia, the Hugo2 was pushing a little out of my comfort zone. The best description I can give for this kit is a microscope for your ears. It’s brilliant, if that’s what you want. The Chord Dave takes this characteristic, and pushes it to a whole new level where I was drowning in detail. It was indescribable, but I couldn’t imagine myself using it for extended listening sessions.

Meze Empyrean

A less crowded exhibit was Meze Audio which hailed from Romania. The main attraction was Meze’s flagship, t he Empyrean. This was the best planar I listened to at CanJam. I had a chance to speak with the folks from Meze, and it became clear this was a passion project for them.

I remember watching a documentary about the development of the Lexus LFA supercar, and how Toyota effectively gave the engineers at Lexus a blank check to ‘do something incredible’. Nearly 10 years from the LFA’s introduction, we’re still seeing technologies trickling down from the LFA to consumer Lexus cars. This is essentially what the Emperyan is for Meze.

Meze’s tour de force in cooperation with Rinaro is stunning in both craftsmanship and sound. One could keep listening with these headphones for a long while without becoming tired. The sound signature definitely had the ‘planar sound’, with an emphasis on the mid range and the wonderful planar bass I enjoy. It was comfortable and light, it dealt with bass very well and was smooth the mid-range and high frequencies were very crisp. The treble was not as detailed as the Utopia, but I actually enjoyed the Empyrean more than the Utopia.

The Empyrean was paired with the HeadAmp GSX Mk2, an unassuming yet potent piece of gear. It’s clear Meze’s partnership with Rinaro has resulted in an incredible product from which we’ll see technologies trickle down to the rest of Meze’s lineup. While I’m not sure about the pricing of this headphone (3k USD), I’m excited to see how Meze will apply their research on isodynamic hybrid technologies to future products.

Sennheiser HE1

This is it. The best headphone in the world, that happens to cost as much as a fully spec’d Tesla Model 3. I had high expectations, but also didn’t know what to expect. CanJam allows attendees, who’ve registered in advance, to have a 10 minute listening session with the HE1.

Even the location of the HE1 is an appropriate prelude for the headphone.  The listening room is located in an exclusive room, away from the main convention hall, so mere commoners can’t locate the HE1 by accident. Arriving in the secluded room, I saw the HE1 in the middle of the room, with a Sennheiser rep standing next to it, like a body guard protecting a principle.

The first thing I noticed about the HE1 was how it was designed as an art piece, the imported Italian marble encasing, metal capped tube enclosures, adorned with perfectly finished knobs and a wonderful symmetry. The headphones themselves were surprisingly light, but were very comfortable.

After the demonstration I wanted to quantify why it sounded so perfect. I can only go by the experience and my technical knowledge in acoustics for an explanation. The sound that came out of the headphones it is very natural, the detail is unsurpassed to anything I have heard. One reason for this natural ambience being produced may be because recordings that they played were on Sennheiser high resolution microphones in the very professional studio. I believe the source is extremely important when listening to music. People are paying premium for high sample rate music however if one decodes the music, one can find that the source is not from a studio recording but it is a copied track with only a high sample rate. All the high frequencies above 20 kHz have been clipped. 

There is debate that frequencies above 20 MHz are inaudible so why have equipment such as microphones and headphones cater for such high frequencies.  Some audiophiles think this is another marketing gimmick. I disagree with this notion.  One reason that Sennheiser are so natural because the source is impeccable, and that the headphone translates it without any discoloration, distortion, etc. The transient signals from low to high frequency above the 20 Mhz level is are extremely well controlled, the brain processes these signals from the headphones to the two separate receptors i.e. the ears hence producing a very natural sound, as though the recording  artists are playing in front of you. This is what the Sennheiser has achieved with HE-1. If you have the opportunity to listen to these headphones, please do so because it is the reference or the standard that other headphones or in ear monitors should follow.  

After this demonstration I interviewed Wally Kilgore Area Sales Manager for Sennheiser, where we had a brief discussion about the HE1 and what technologies have trickled down to more accessible products. It’s a short interview please see the links.

Bumping into Jude Mansilla!

After that experience I needed come back to reality, so I headed for the restroom.  As I was washing my hands, I noticed a familiar face, it was Jude. I recognized him from the YouTube preview video I watched prior to the conference. He was gracious and accepted my invitation for an interview.  The interview was conducted just outside the rest room as there wasn’t another quieter spot, so I apologize if you hear strange sounds in the background. It is a fascinating interview, with Jude’s take on the expanding headphone market, HeadFi global community, and his 5 year vision of headphone development.

PSB Audio

I went back to exhibition hall and went to the first stall near the entrance. The booth was PSB. I tried their new headphone. It is an interesting headphone and sounds great. The headphone has switches located on the  side of the headphone, there are three modes as one slides the switch from passive to active and finally to the noise cancelling mode.I found them easy listening with a profound difference between the passive and active mode. In order to understand how these headphones deliver such a great sound, I interviewed the designer of the headphone Paul Barton, discussing principles of speakers and audio reproduction, please see the link at the end of the article.

 

Shangri La JR

Somewhat dazed, I ventured out into the exhibition hall with the impression of the HE1 fresh in my mind. I was convinced there wasn’t a system that could sound remotely as good, at any price. Little did I know, I was to be disproven rather quickly.

My son insisted I listen to HifiMan’s (almost) flagship, the Shangri LA JR, as it represents Dr. Fang Bian’s interpretation of the electrostatic headphone. I should add, I own a HE560, and absolutely love this headphone, and was eager to hear the JR. Coming from the HE1 demo, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the appearance of the Shangri La JR. You won’t find exotic materials, or motorized headphone glass covers here. I inquired the price, and was informed it’s 8k USD. Yep, I thought, definitely a poster headphone for me.

The JR has a utilitarian design, and isn’t an attention grabber like the HE1. I personally prefer a subdued design. The headphone itself is light and comfortable, similar to the HE560, with grills showing off the gold plated diaphragms on each ear cup.

Then music started playing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This system is at least 90% as good as HE1. Let that sink in. An eight thousand dollar system, is in the same league as the sixty thousand dollar legend HE1. That warm tinted holographic sound that just captures you into your own universe is in full spades in the Shangri La JR. Seemingly infinite resolution that makes the Utopia seem muddy. The Shangri La JR is natural at picking up great detail without fatiguing the listener. 

The source of the music was not carefully selected like Sennheiser, but it relied on a Sony NW WM1Z with Tidal. On a side note, I am impressed with the NW WM1Z and can understand why it commands a high price. The JR is the best value headphone on the market because it achieves near perfection at a ridiculously low price. What has Hifiman done? Sennheiser better cut the HE1 price by at least 50% if not more if they expect to sell the HE1 going forward.

As I was listening to my fourth song, I realized the Shangri La JR may not be the best flagship money can buy, but it’s the best flagship an audiophile can actually own. Suddenly, I started thinking of how to convince my family to buy this. I’m a frugal person by nature,  I’d water down the milk in our house if my wife allowed it! But what I heard from the Shangri La JR truly shocked me. This is the power of Chi Fi. Deliver flagship sound at a fraction of the cost as their Western counterparts. Truly a game changer.

Woo Audio 3ES + STAX + Voce

Woo products are known for high quality tube/ valve amplifiers and I believe they produce some of the best in the industry. I am partial to tube amplifiers because I listen to rock, it lends itself to a better tonal quality compared to a solid-state system.  The reason put in simple terms is that solid state microprocessor has either a gate open or closed so when clipping occurs it clearly defined and produces a harsh and abrupt cropping however in a tube amplifier the transients are much smoother because it is less defined producing as the industry calls it a warmer sound quality. 

I tried out the Electrostatic Amplifier 3ES from Woo Audio see 0848, headphone with the Stax 009 and the Mr. Speaker Voce see image 0890.  The 009 delivered excellent response in both the high and mid-range and the bass was warm as expected going through the Woo system. There was not much difference between 009 and Voce they are both great headphones. This set up is worth considering when looking for high end  electrostatic set up.

I then tried the Stax Lamda series it delivered very brilliant in sound, the definition was so precise that it is difficult to listen to for extended periods, I was spoiled by 009 these were in a different class of its own when compared to the Lamda series. In order to get the best out of the 009 they have to be driven by a great tube amp so the warmth of the experience can be captured. 

Harman Research

There is a point where you need a break from the hassle and bustle and be in a place where you can think. You can escape to the seminars, a place where experts discuss thought provoking ideas and research.  I was drawn to seminar given by Sean Olive an acoustic research fellow for Harman International. The discussion was about what makes a good headphone and in ear monitor.  I interviewed him about the new Harman curve, and the future of headphones, and a discussion on correlation between dollars spent and sound quality. The headphone that achieved a perfect frequency response against the Harman curve was an 80 dollar Sony headphone, a surprising factoid.

Smyth Research

As I left the seminar room I heard bursts of very high frequency sound emulating from one of the studios. The sound came from the Smyth Research studio, luckily, I had an appointment with them, so I walked in.

I noticed as I entered the room there were 16 speakers arranged in surround sound configuration. I sat down and was asked to insert a small microphone in each ear. A high frequency sound was sequentially emitted by each speaker three times once from the center position, then left position and then to right.  This calibration process took less then 2 minutes.

I was then asked to pick one of the title on the TV screen, I chose Game of Thrones. The purpose of this demonstration was if one could distinguish between the 16 speaker set up and the headphones set up. A green light above the TV monitor and the headset was positioned so that when headphones are  worn, the the sound source comes out of the headset. However when it is removed, the speakers come back on. The idea is to compare the two different modes of listening. Therefore, if I am hearing the game of thrones in a 16-channel configuration through the headphones as soon as I remove the headset the 16 speakers come on. 

At the end of the demonstration I could not tell the difference between 16 channel speaker system and a 16-channel headphone system. They are identical, it’s an amazing technology, and with enormous potential. I was fascinated by this technology, and had the opportunity to interview Steven Smyth to discuss the technologies of the Realizer A16, and how they can impact the audio industry.

Jerry Harvey Audio

I left the studio excited and enlightened, and made my way to exhibition hall. I wanted to know how far the IEM’s since I last looked at them some time ago.

The first booth for IEM’s I visited was Jerry Harvey Audio, I tried on the Lola, the technician helped me to put the ear piece on properly ensuring there was no leakage. The smallest amount of leakage reduces the bass response tremendously.  A tight fit is absolutely necessary, the service and attention to detail reminded me of my experience with the HE-1.

I asked for rock to be played, this was a déjà vu, the experience was fabulous, I have not heard an IEM reproduce sound so clearly.  The mid and high range was captured very well as I heard every sound as the guitarist changed cords and the went up and down the neck. The bass was clear, with the purity of drums, The Lola has 12 balanced armatures for each ear piece, and when brought together, forms one cohesive piece of rock music. This is the standard for flagship IEM’s to follow.

Shure

Moving from the JH booth, I noticed a crowd forming around the Shure Booth. Ah, I remembered, these were the in ear electrostatics Jude praised during the Can Jam Preview video. I listened to the Shure electrostatics earphone system KSE 1500 seen here. They were quite resolving but not as fun as the Lola’s, and the bass of the Shure’s was lacking. I would think those who like classical music they may prefer the KSE 1500, so each to its own listening pleasure. For a more involving listen, The JH’s were far better as an everyday IEM, but if you want to take a magnifying glass to your music, the Shure’s are your best bet.

Dunu

I meandered about, and stumbled on a Taiwan company Dunu specializing in IEM’s, and were featuring their flagship, the DK 3001. This is a quad driver setup with each ear piece has 3 balanced armatures and a robust dynamic driver. It provided a deep bass and with good clarity in both mid and high frequency range. I found the bass was accurately reproduced by a strong dynamic driver.  They can be found around 420 dollars on Amazon, a good value  for the sound they produced.

 

Brainwavz

Another IEM that should be considered is Brainwavz audio, it’s a Hong Kong company with their flagship B400, it consists of 4 balanced armatures, the quality was good for the price just lacked a little bit of bass, for $150.00 at the show was excellent buy.

DAP’s

With regard to players, I went to the Fiio booth and played around with their new flagship the X7 Mark ll, an excellent player which was paired with the Fiio flagship IEM F9 pro. The cost of the player is around $650, it’s another value product, and the F9 Pro was a great pairing. However, it cannot be compared to the Sony NW WM1Z which is much better unit but costs 5 times the price. It may be worth it for some.

Another expensive player is the Astell &Kern SP 1000. See image  0860. The player is well engineered, as expected from the Germans.  It reminds with same performance as the Sony NW WM1Z in performance and the way it handles. The sound is rich and when I cranked up Bob Marley it did not care, the performance remained the same, it was the same rich and clear sound. 

Cables

A lot of young audiophiles need to stretch their funds and after researching and listening to different pieces of equipment they may go home and end disappointed.  The various systems sounded great in the expo’s and showrooms but when setup at home it may not perform that well. Sometimes it lies with the cables.  There is a lot of controversy about the usefulness of spending too much money on cables, so I thought I would interview Moon Audio one of the expert on cables and seek his advice. I hope you enjoy the interview. 

Conclusion

To those who have stuck around and read this epic, I say thank you. My first CanJam was an experience I’ll never forget, I’ve learned so much in those two days. The opportunity to interview key people in the industry has renewed my passion for audio, and I’m excited for the future of headfi! I think I’ll relax after writing this by turning on my WA7, putting on the H560’s and grabbing a whiskey. Until next time!

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