CAS 2013: HeadMasters, Round 2

In your head

CAS4Our label mate, Mike Mercer, tugged on our coats a bit on Friday to let us know that we were getting off easy. He was going to cover the Headmasters show-within-a-show, and hang out with his redonkulous ALO Audio Studio Six in the Head-Fi meet. We didn’t have to worry about it.

Still… cans. It’s hard to skip listening to good cans. We weren’t going to miss out on this.

More to the point, I wasn’t going to miss out on this. I’m a devout member of the Church of Insomnia. If I want to live long enough to enjoy my old age, I will, by God, use headphones when my wife is trying to sleep. More to the point, if you’re chasing the state of the art, can rigs offer an absolutely insane bang for the buck.

So, despite the dibs, we hit the floor.


Jason Stoddard was manning the Schiit table, and haphazardly throwing his grumpy smile around the room. Schiit showed up just to show off their stable product line. Miraculously, they had absolutely no new product announcements. What they did have was their usual collection of decently priced, great looking gear, a ton of cans to play with, and… well… schiity puns.

We chatted a bit about the past, the present, and Schiit’s top secret plans for the future. The future is some exciting country.


You do not mess around with a man who wears a labcoat on the weekend.

Steve Koto was representing HeadAmp. By “representing,” of course, I mean to say that Steve Koto brought in his modded Technics R2R, Bottlhead Tube Repro preamp, and a collection of Tape Project tapes. This fed a $5500 Blue Hawaii (filled with what looked like Shuguang Treasure 6ca7s) and Stax.

A couple of other HeadAmp amps and an array of super cans were there, but the combination of 15ips tape, tubes, and stats was too much to resist. I walked away insisting that we *need* to get tape at home.

Head-Fi Meet

This mostly-empty room may have held the most exuberant guys at the show. Sure, Mike Mercer would probably throw the curve on his own, but the LAN party vibe was pretty strong here.

When we stopped in, we chatted with the unconscionably cheerful Richard Davis, who’d dragged in a couple of small rigs from home. The gear-fetish treat was the rare-in-the-States Audiolab M-DAC, a Sabre 9018 dac and can-amp. The real treat, though, was listening to the crystal clear sound of an Audio Technica cartridge plaing bluegrass on some of Richard’s digitized vinyl.

I may not wholly buy into the idea that cans will save the hifi universe, but it’s hard to hang out with guys like this and *not* get infected with some of their enthusiasm.

Astell & Kern

There’s an element of the spit take when you first hear about iRiver’s Astell&Kern line. Then you ask the price again. Then you listen to it, shake your head, and wonder if it’s worth it.

I was pretty impressed by the too-expensive AK100 when it came out, but the even-pricier AK120 blew me away when I heard it. It costs more money, but my first impression was that it was more than good enough to stand up to similarly priced, standalone DACs. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that it’s been pretty seriously out-selling its older stablemate.

The A&K folks are getting pretty excited about all of this. They were showing off some new accessories, and were almost *mental* about the fact that Bon Jovi released his new album on SD Card in Korea. I may be from New Jersey, but I’d never imagined that Bon Jovi could excite a grown man that way in the 21st century. Anyway…

I still tend to think of the AK100 as an overpriced toy. It sounds fine, but the value proposition has never been there for me. The AK120, which sounds downright superb, is a different story.

Besides the improved sound quality, the AK120 can also work as a usb dac. Given that ability, and given its wide format compatibility (it will even pretend to do dsd), your $1300 can pull triple duty fronting your home system, fronting your work system, and still letting you listen to your NPR podcasts while you ride the train. You can almost fool yourself into thinking that this *makes sense*.

The coming dock is something that will make that use-case a lot more doable. The coming line of leather cases might make the travel part of the equation a bit more attractive to folks who, like me, tend to worry about stuffing more than a grand of easily-scratched tech into pockets filled with keys and loose change.

Cavalli Audio

Dr. Cavalli was on hand with two of his amps. His Liquid Lightning ($4850) was paired with some Stax SR-009 ($5200). On the other side of the table, a Liquid Gold ($6450) was paired with the Abyss AB-1266 ($5500) planars.

You get what you pay for.

Both amps are in the new style Cavalli Audio casework. Both amps are built like tanks. Both amps are fully balanced. Both amps are an assault on the state of the art. Both amps deliver in spades. Both amps will make a tube lover question his allegiance.

The complete clarity and complete absence of grain was stunning. The absolute authority was boggling. I was literally afraid to listen too long. This unassuming table in the back corner of the ballroom was delivering some of the best sound at the show.

Dr. Cavalli’s amps keep rewiring my expectations.

Between these amps and ALO’s almighty Studio Six, the bar is a whole lot higher than it was eighteen months ago.