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Athens Headphone Festival, Part 2

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I left Italy a few years back but my audiophile heart stayed there, with brands like Pathos who blend the Italian style with excellent build quality and sensual sound. On display the Aurium headphone amplifier with 3.6 watts/32 Ohm in class A driving the Final Audio Design Pandora Hope IV headphones, a hybrid design that incorporates a 50mm dynamic driver with a balanced armature one. Souce was also from Pathos, the Digit hybrid CD player capable of 24/192. While listening to Gwyneth Herbert’s “My Narrow Man” I realized that this could be the perfect system for someone who seeks mild-warm sound for long sessions but not so for the younger ones who go after dynamism and ultimate resolution. My impression is that this character has more to do with the Final headphones rather than the Pathos electronics.

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Final Audio Design had many, many products on display and I realized how vast their proposition is. This Japanese brand offers everything from entry-level balanced armature earphones to ultra high-end dynamic ones costing more than $3.000 and this makes them the most expensive earphones of the show and probably on the market today. Actually the Piano Forte X gold are not typical earphones. They sport a 16mm dynamic driver housed in an all metal, gold-plated copper housing that has the geometry of a horn with vented back. I am not familiar with any other brand producing horn loaded earphones. The cables are wrapped in cloth, the carrying case is made out of metal (brass?) and the price is astronomical. Have I mentioned the price? Yes, it is unbelievable; just consider that they cost more than the best Audeze, Sennheiser, AKG, Beyer headphones on the market. Such an expensive earphone makes sense if driven by just as expensive portable audio players and I had the Astell&Kern AK240 standing next to it, so a listen was obligatory. The sound was clear, with huge extension in the upper highs but not so in the very first octave. I think this has something to do with the Piano Forte X’s tip which is metallic and has no silicone or foam to perfectly adhere to the ear. Mids were tremendous, with a natural sense of flow and transparency. The AK240 was driving these with ease; there should be no problem with lower power output devices too. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar recreated by this combo had the typical “reverb” sound in the classic “Tin Pan Alley” and I could hear his breath while singing as if he was a few steps away. Drums sticks were also crisp and decisive in their presentation. Impressive? Yes. Law of diminishing return? Probably yes. Do I want them? You bet!

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Moving to a more traditional device, Shure introduced the SE846 isolating earphones. At $999 these do not come cheap but the again that is pretty much the market price of earphones with quadruple armatures. Yep, you got it right, 4 armatures that accordingly to Shure blend together seamlessly. The “woofer” armature has a unique patent pending technology that aims in recreating a “sub-woofer” experience through the use of a low pass filter. By creating a metal pathway 4 inches long these earphones manage to push the low frequency roll off naturally under 75Hz. And similarly to the RHA T10i covered in the first part of this show report, the SE846 also have customizable frequency response by taking advantage of changeable nozzles. Similarly to the T10i, the flavors are also 3, Shure names them “balanced”,” warm”, and “bright”. The package is completed with two pairs of detachable cables (46″ and 64″ long) and a nice selection of tips. Sound isolation is specified at -37dB but I could not testify it because I used expendable single use tips for my listening session of “Hotel California” by the Eagles. What I can testify is the widely extended frequency response paired to the sensation of a single driver experience. All four armatures sung in unison, easily the most coherent presentation of all the earphones present during the show.

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Norma of Italy recently introduced an all new design, the HS DA1 modular DAC. This Dac can be purchased with 2 analog inputs and a volume control option thus turning it into a pre-amp. It features 5 digital inputs (sample rates up to 24/192) and can drive up to two headphones at the same time. Both cans connected were Grados, the SR60 and the RS2, I used the later for a quick glance at this rather pricey set up (The HS DA1 combined with the Norma Revo CD player go north of $9.000). In Tony Joe White’s “I Believe I’ve Lost My Way” the good old Grados amazed me with their faithful timbre in the electro-acoustic guitar and they did just the same in the famous flamenco by Armik “Gypsy Flame”. Grado still offers some of the most naturally sounding headphones and Norma seems to have hit a homerun with this DAC-head amp.

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Close to the Norma set up there was the only local presence, Lab12 with their headphone amplifier, the “hpa”. This is an OTL tube headphone amplifier (based on the 6N1P Russian double triodes) with incorporated DAC and preamplifier output. Power is 1Watt/32 Ohms, enough to drive all but the most insensible headphones (call me HE-6). The HPA has already been presented in the Munich High End show but during that I did not have the time to get a listen. Here in Athens it drove Sennheiser’s HD 700 while instead of the internal converter Lab12’s dedicated DAC1 was used. The HD700 is notorious for its treble irregularities but during my quick session (Bill Withers singing “Ain’t No Sunshine and JM Jarre’s “Oxygen 2”) this characteristic did not emerge, confirming the expected warm sound of the tubes. Punch was all there and no signs of roll off made their presence. This is a classic advantage of OTL designs lacking the output transformers. The HPA sells in Europe for 990 euros.

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Staying in tube territory, Quad reserved us with a surprise, their first ever headphone amplifier. The PA One (currently no info on Quad’s internet page) is more than just a head-amp. In typical 2014 fashion it also has a DAC capable of 24/192 (with USB, optical and coaxial) and will double as a pre-amp with an analog potentiometer and two inputs (line + balanced). Tubes are 2 x 6SL7, 2 x 6SN7 while rectification is made by a single EZ81 valve. The looks are those of the classic Quad style, with a grill above the tubes for heat dissipation and transformers packed under a metal casing. The user can choose among high and low impedance headphones through a switch in the front plate (with “low” ranging from 32-100 and “high” from 100-300 Ohms). Overall construction is robust and despite this being the first piece to make it out of the factory I could not find any blemishes, it seems as if it is ready for full-scale production. I gave it a listen with Sennheiser’s HD 600 and with the HiFiman HE-6. The second was more of a test as the PA one seemed to have more than enough juice for the 600s (power output was indicated at 500Watts, which is impossible, so let’s call it “unknown” for the moment). A test that the PA one did not pass, the HE-6 as expected required more watts in order to be properly driven. The sensation was that it would have been enough for other planar magnetic headphones (Fostex, Audeze etc). With the Senns the new Quad made a terrific match, soundstage was very wide and deep, sound was “fleshy” while being detailed at the same time (that was on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s personal favorite “The Phantom of the Opera”). Speaking with other visitors I received the same positive feed-back, everyone thought marvels for the PA one. Price in Europe should be in the neighborhood of 1.800 euros, approx. $2.250.

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