CAS 2013: Caught By The Headmaster

By Michael Mercer

Constantine 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 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 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 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.