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CAS 2013: Caught By The Headmaster

By Michael Mercer CAS4Constantine Soo and his energetic, spirited team put on a fantastic show for this years California Audio Show, which included a dedicated space for personal audio called Headmasters.  The amount of real estate given to this space was more than other audio shows, but still less than CanJam at RMAF – the States' largest headphone show.  All that aside, I had a terrific time at Headmasters and I salute both Constantine and Frank Iacone, a dedicated Head-Fi.org member and reviewer for Dagogo, for putting on a terrific show for all ages.  It's about time we all started putting our money where our mouths are and try to reach new blood, and we're just not going to do that through multi-thousand dollar power conditioners, expensive signal cables, and room tweaks that cost more than a Smart Car.  There's room for all that, but it's with the already converted.  The users buying that stuff already have systems to build upon, and a teenager with a set of Logitech headphones and an iPod just can't relate to that world.  Therefore, we need to show would-be high fidelity converts something they can understand, take something they interface with everyday, improve it, and eventually show them how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Putting on events within events like Headmasters is part of the gateway.

I’m psyched to see this trend continuing throughout audio shows in the States and elsewhere.  After all, if you look at this from a consumer electronics point of view, most shows dedicate 95% of their space to 5% of the market: high-end two-channel in-room audio is still very much a niche.  On the other hand, most shows dedicate about 5% of their space to 90% of the market today: headphones are everywhere, it just is what it is.  This doesn’t mean sweeping change tomorrow, nor does it leave out those of us who enjoy loudspeakers in a room (I’m among them).  It’s just a simple fact: generations have grown up experiencing their music through headphones.  Whether you deem that a good thing or bad, the numbers are what they are.  Why not spend some time reaching out to them?  All you need to do is be relate-able and enthusiastic; not to mention use something in your demo that involves a piece of hardware or software for which they are already familiar — and you’re golden!  This is what the vendors and attendees were busy doing all weekend at Headmasters, aside from geeking out to the max; engaging in interesting debates and discussions about everything related to personal audio today.  Bottom line: Headmasters is where the action was.

Now this is not a dagger into the heart of the audiophile dream.  I’m just excited about the energy and innovation happening in the personal audio space right now.  That said, I still love great two-channel in-room experiences too!  I had a blast in the Zu Audio room for example, where Sean Casey and his crew were playing everything from the latest Bjork remix album to Rage Against the Machine on a classic Luxman turntable!  But that experience is an anomaly at a Hifi show, unless Zu‘s there of course.  I also enjoyed the sound in the Fritz speakers & WyWires room as well.

However, elsewhere in the hotel I swear I heard the same music I’ve been hearing since my first CES in 1996!  I’m not kidding.  It depressed me more than I want to get into here, so let’s just move on to the fun.  I was honored to take part in the Ask the Editors panel with Jack Roberts from Dagogo, Neil Gader from The Absolute Sound, and Jason Victor Serinius from Stereophile.  The topics covered ranged from the importance of social media (where there were some interesting differing views) to room treatment to our personal favorite sounds of the show at that point.  I had a blast with the guys, and I want to thank them for their professional courtesy and respectful discourse.  We all had a good time I think (hope).

Gettin’ down to bizness: the Headmasters ballroom was consistently the most active of all the exhibits.  Even when there was a lull in the action people were having fun discussing everything from new music releases to known mods of headphones, to prototypes from well-established companies like Audeze (think Audeze closed-back headphones: drool).  I was, as my dear friend John Williams of the Los Angeles & Orange County Audiophile Society always says: a kid in a candy store.  In this case we’re talkin’ ear candy.  Where do I begin?  Listening to the Pono player at the Audeze booth proved to be one of the highlights for me.

I listened to “Monk’s Dream” in the Pono file format and the sound was natural, balanced, coherent and engaging.  Things decayed in such a way that was perhaps more analogous in the digital domain than I’ve heard before, but I would need to live with the player to be certain.  I listened to the Monk piece three or four times before checking out other file types on the player.  It seemed to handle .WAV files without issue as well.  But to be brutally honest: I think the player itself needs to go.  I loved the sound, but who wants to put a triangle in their pocket?  They should just stick to the software and approach Astell & Kern for a DAP (digital audio player) solution.  Just my 2 cents.  But it was quite the sonic adventure, even if the player does resemble a Toblerone candy bar.  And that shade of yellow?  Hello Ronald MacDonald!  Either way, I sincerely hope Neil Young and Co. succeed in opening the minds of more consumers to the possibilities of higher fidelity.  That can’t hurt us right?

Another highlight was listening to the Stax/Woo Audio WES combo at the Woo Audio table.

Dan Clark, the genius behind the Mad Dog (an amazing ortho-dynamic closed-back headphone) was having a blast showing off his new cans called the Alpha Dog, just introduced at CAS.  When I listened to them I was blown away at the fidelity he’s offering for six hundred bucks!  I told him he managed to “pull the outside in.”  Which meant that he’s somehow managed to capture the open, airiness of an open-back and the control and isolation of a closed-back design and merge the two together into a wonderful sonic experience.

The Astell & Kern boys, Jimmy and Owen, were showing off their wonderful high resolution DAPs alongside some of the industries best headphones; including Sennheiser HD800’s and Audeze LCD3’s.  Their widely respected AK100 (previously covered HERE at Part-Time Audiophile) and updated AK120 players proved seductive.  I had to pull myself away from their table a few times.

Jason Stoddard and his fantastic team at Schiit Audio had a lot to hear out on their table.  Of course, their top-of-the-line Schiit was impressive.  I got to listen to it with my own well-broken-in Audeze LCD3’s, and if I didn’t already own an E.A.R HP4 I’d consider this two-piece in a heartbeat.  I’m not sure if it can be beat for the money.  Perhaps their most impressive piece was their $99.00 Modi headphone amp!  Sure, like I need another headphone amp, but at that price I may just buy one to travel with when using my LCD3’s!  It’s small and sexy, modern and sleek, with sonics that challenge headphone amps eight times its price!

One of the most impressive overall sonic experiences at Headmasters, when talkin’ price vs. performance, was the Kingsound electrostatic headphones at the Moon Audio.com booth!  For $500.00 you can own an electrostatic can that has a level of sparkle to it that I’ve never heard in a headphone near its price point.  For another $1,200 you get their tube electrostatic amplifier and you’ve got a high-end personal reference system for under 2k.  That’s pretty insane.

The coolest thing about this event was the headphone meet held on Saturday.  Unfortunately the turn-out wasn’t what CAS expected, but the group that showed up were all fired-up and ready to go.  We had everything from the new ALO Studio Six headphone amp (part of my own rig there, and capable of driving up to four low-impedance cans at once) to a pair of modded Beyerdynamic T5P’s (thanks to Head-Fi.org user Bill-P) with bass response beyond almost every headphone I’ve ever heard!  It was truly something to behold: a bass-head’s paradise!

But in the end what really makes these shows special to me is the time I get to spend with old friends while making new ones.  That’s what I enjoy most of all: the interaction.  However small we were in numbers at the meet (and a lot of this had to do with pre-planning and other factors – which CAS is addressing for next year) we made up for in spirit.  I mean, when my dear friend Alexander Rosson, CEO of Audeze walked through the door wearing their latest closed-back prototype headphone it was like Thom Yorke just entered the building.  More camera blasts went off than I could ever imagine given the group’s small size.  We all huddled around my MacBook Pro SSD/Amarra rig, and hooked it up to Warren Chi’s Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies DAC/headphone amp and we were off.  Unfortunately we couldn’t hear it on more rigs because many of us had packed up by then.  Alex (Rosson) surprised us, giving me the most memorable time of CAS 2013.  What did I think of their sound?  Perhaps the picture of me wearing them says more than ever I can.  Let’s just say it isn’t easy to mellow me out.  Thanks to Head-Fi user Bill-P for the fantastic photos.

In all I think Constantine Soo and his team at the California Audio Show have a great deal to be proud of.  Everybody I spent time with seemed to enjoy themselves.  The only thing I would suggest is to reach out to the local music scene.  Get in touch with record stores and places where the college kids are hangin’ out listening to music.  You’d be surprised.  Many youngsters are getting hip to vinyl and vinyl music culture these days.  Now, high fidelity doesn’t always come into play there.  Many young people have their one-box record player solution and it’s fine with them.  Just think: if CAS could tap into that locally and show them something else, and do it with excitement and enthusiasm, I believe they’d get even more energy flowing at CAS.  But bravo fellas.  You done good.

26 Comments on CAS 2013: Caught By The Headmaster

  1. Thanks for finally talking about >CAS 2013: Caught By
    The Headmaster | Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile <Liked it!

  2. Hi, Michael. Thought I’d check in and ask if there’s been any progress on getting a PONO player for evaluation.

  3. That would be great if PONO would lend you a player. And if you could load non-PONO music files onto it, you could do a direct comparison of its SQ to that of your Mytek, using both headphones and your home stereo.

    I’ve read very good things about the Mytek — the only criticism I can recall is that one reviewer said its volume control wasn’t as good as the rest of the unit, which would compromise the SQ if one used it as a preamp. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    • To be honest, I’ve never had any complaints about the volume control. In my experience it’s fine. When used as a DAC, I always bypass it anyway (a solid feature). When I use it as a headphone amp (also pretty often) I don’t mind it at all. I like the steps, and it’s not noisy on my unit!

  4. Hi Michael, thanks again! Cool stuff. And thanks for offering to make inquiries — though I get the feeling they’re playing things very close to the vest right now. The single question about PONO I’d most like answered is the most practical one: about when will it be released — can we expect to see the product in 2013? The most recent info. from PONO (posted July 17) was: “We are not close to a launch at this time.” I was planning to buy a high-quality DAC for my home stereo (e.g., Benchmark DAC2, exaSound e20, Mytek DSD), but if PONO is coming out this year, I should probably hold off on that purchase, since if it’s really that good maybe it can equal or better the performance of such a DAC for far less money. Similarly, I should probably stop buying high-res music since I don’t want to repurchase the same tracks when PONO comes out. OTOH, if it’s going to be 2014, I’d rather not wait.

    I’d also be curious if it can play back DSD.

    Regarding DAPs, everything else being equal, I like the convenience of a one-box solution. For me, the principal reason to carry around a separate DAC or DAC+amp is to improve the sound quality — but from your provisional report I gather PONO may already meet or exceed whatever SQ can be obtained when using those added devices.

    • Hey Aron!

      Actually, I wrote my friend who’s still on the project and I MIGHT be getting a player to report on soon!! Fingers crossed.

      I own the MYTEK Stereo-192 DSD DAC and I can’t give it a higher recommendation!
      Admittedly, I overlooked it’s outstanding headphone amp section until this week (and I’ve owned it for months now) because I always just used it as a DAC ahead of my E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amp!

      I think making a DAC purchase should be considered apart from Pono. As I don’t think this would serve the same purpose, and if you’re looking for a DAC that’s got a ton of tools, the MYTEK is the way to go. I LOVE it. Enough that I’m selling my dCs and getting another one for my two-channel in-room system!!

  5. Hi Michael, thanks for your reply! I’ve got some follow-up questions about the PONO — hope you don’t mine so many about a player you only handled for a short period of time, but it’s otherwise hard to come by info. about this new product:
    1) You mentioned you’d need to carry around a PONO + your current DAP. Why would that be? I thought you mentioned PONO could play other formats as well (I’m assuming this includes standard 24/192 at full resolution), so why couldn’t one just put one’s entire music collection (up to the storage limits) on the PONO?
    2) I’m curious how much of the exceptional sound quality you heard was the quality of PONO-formatted file vs. the quality of the player itself. So: The WAV file you mentioned — did it also have the exceptional sound that you heard with the PONO-formatted file, and do you know whether it was standard Redbook or high-res? And the PONO-formatted file you heard that had the killer sound — was it labeled “_192” as seen in the pic you posted? I ask because it’s possible that PONO files are just carefully-mastered 24/192 files put into a proprietary container (FLAC, WAV, etc. are examples of containers) that can only be played on a PONO device, thus preventing pirating (this may be the only way that Young could convince the labels to release such files en masse for download). And as you know, the container has no effect on the sound quality. In that case, the exceptional sound quality you heard resulted not from the PONO-formatting (which, again, is merely the container), but the quality of the mastering of a 192/24 file, plus the quality of the player. Regarding the latter, that’s why I’m curious how the standard WAV file sounded — if it also sounded great, then even for people not interested in buying PONO-formatted music, the PONO player (assuming it can play everything [see my first question], and assuming it’s priced more in the non-audiophile under-$350 range, to encourage broad sales) could be a killer way for audiophiles to acquire a DAP whose SQ is better than or equal to an A&K or HiFiMan for far less money. I’m guessing PONO will be priced <$350 because PONO's business model probably depends on having broad appeal — beyond audiophiles — and hence they will likely offer the player for a reasonable price — maybe even at their cost — and then make money from the downloads (i.e., I'm assuming they will follow the Playstation/Xbox business model).
    3) What do the "+", "-" and "O" buttons do? I assume they're vol. up, vol. down, and on/off, respectively. If so, how did you control track selection — does it have a touch screen?

    • hey hey!
      NO worries! I like questions. Especially about this, and I wish I could get more info. I used to be able to because I was closer to the project – and I’ll make some inquiries for you!

      In the meantime – I meant to say that you’d still have other devices (like a DAP) with you, because of Pono’s seeming feature limitations. For example, if I want to hook up my iDevice to another DAC, I can do so w/ my Sony PHA-1 headphone amp/DAC (A KILLER product btw) – but the Pono you’re stuck with the player’s DAC. I like to be able to take the processing outside the DAP if I can.

      As for other file types: Yes, the player handled .WAV files very well. I felt connected to the emotive power of the music, and there was also exceptional dimensionality (space between sounds) not to mention the low noise-floor. I was dead quiet, or maybe not, as there was lots of ambient noise! But it seemed quiet to me and I was immersed in the experience. So, if people don’t mind everything being done by one player (UI, DAC, amp) then this player could serve the audiophile masses well! I just don’t see it crossing over because of the shape and color, but I could be wrong!

      The “-” and “+” were for volume, and the “0” was for enter if I’m remembering correctly. It does in fact have a touch screen to get around the UI. I loved that, like my trust Astell & Kern AK100!!

  6. Actually, I just realized of course it has to have a digital input, since that’s needed in order to load the music onto the device (unless it’s done wirelessly, I suppose). But the question still remains whether it can be used as an outboard DAC, which you probably can’t say. I posted the same question on the PONO FB page, and this is what they replied: “It’s a test device, and it offers only what we need to test during the current testing phase (there will be more testing phases to come). Right now I can’t say exactly what the product will look like at launch!”

  7. Hey Aron! Thanks for reading! Yes, the two outputs on the top of the player are for line-out to your in-room system, the other is a dedicated headphone output. I didn’t notice any digital inputs, and that would be a KILLER feature (like an Astell & Kern DAP)!! I think they should drop the player altogether and approach somebody like Astell & Kern or maybe the people behind the iBasso. These guys know how to build a high quality DAP that also plays well with others, which is KEY. Right now, if you bought a Pono player (lets say it’s released) then you’d have your phone, iPod or any other DAP you’re already using, AND the Pono player! That’s too much. I was very impressed with the sound, NO DOUBT – but the player could handicap their vision.

  8. MIchael, thanks for posting the brief PONO review. PONO has said their device has two analog outputs — one that goes through its volume control, and a line-out for connection to a home stereo. But did you notice if it also features a digital input, which would enable its use as an outboard DAC? Thanks!

  9. Hi Michael, again thanks for the article. About the Audeze closed-back headphones which have been seen for quite sometime, I wonder how would they position them, ie, whether they would be flagship, replacement, upgrade, or a plain alternative, ie, open versus close for different ‘desire’. Care to comment?

    • Thanks!! Sure! I know the Audeze team well, but admittedly I couldn’t tell you their plans for the placement of the closed-back into their current LCD line-up of cans. I can tell you this: The prototype we heard at CAS/Headmasters was beyond ANY I’ve heard elsewhere (including the one I loved at RMAF 2012) in terms of it’s ability to sound like an open can: With airy highs and great dimensionality (the spacial properties between sounds/instruments). Plus bottom-end that just stomps the competition in terms of it’s realism and impact. I’m jonzing for it like a drug!

      I’d imagine they MIGHT start a new line with the closed-back. At least it makes sense as it’s a different beast. Thanks for reading!!

  10. Right on warrenpchi (also his Head-Fi handle people, and mine is: mikemercer). One of the things I love about Head-Fi.org, and personal audio in general is the community-driven aspect of the business via these collectives. I mean, when was the last time a major consumer electronics manufacturer not only showed up to a high end audio show, but chose to hold focus groups on some potential products so they could gauge the market?? NONE that I’ve attended. At your LA Head-Fi Meet (hats off to Ethan too there) Denon did both things: They showed up and engaged the users in focus groups to gauge some decision-making on their upcoming headphones! That means the collective impacts the industry directly, and also has input into small things that can make or BREAK a product!! I’m so excited to be along the ride with you guys, and I’m psyched Scot supports personal audio here at PTA. We’re having FUN and making NEW sonic discoveries. What do I say to the non-believers:

    Jump on in, the waters warm…

  11. Thanks for covering this Mike! These shows and meets are – in many ways – an integral part of our community. Frankly, I’m surprised they don’t happen more often. Frank, hats off you for not letting a perfectly good summer in the Bay Area go to waste. Looking forward to next year!

  12. RTFO Steven. RTFO. You’re absolutely right!

  13. Great report and looked to be a fun event! Plenty of gear for attendees to enjoy. Agree the music needs updating at shows, and this is happening somewhat as people ask to hear *their* music. Don’t worry about the social media debate Michael, I remember when ‘they’ hated the Web…

  14. Seems like a good time! Yes reach out to local students and musicians. You would be surprised how many musicians have no idea that you can hear music played back almost as well as in the control booth at the studio at home. I didn’t until recently. The youthful headphone and vinyl culture are great fun and many of those people would love to see and hear the rigs at shows like this. Even if they can’t afford the price tag now, they will remember!

  15. Christopher Murphy // August 16, 2013 at 10:50 AM //

    Great read! Any news on Pono?

  16. blessingx // August 16, 2013 at 9:50 AM //

    Fest or Show?

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