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Athens Headphone Festival, Part 3

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Sony had a big humongous presence during the fest with many new models of the Hi Res series which made their debut only a few weeks back at IFA Berlin 2014 and the one that caught my attention was the MDR-1ADAC closed back headphone with incorporated quad DSD-DXD capable DAC. Yep, you got it right, this pair of cans features a DSD converter, all you have to add is a source for your files. Besides the obvious Sony range of products (phones, Walkman etc.) it can be driven by PC, Mac or iPhones. In other words: everything. Driven is not the right term though, it also packs a digital amplifier (though it can be used in passive mode). Charging is easy through the USB port and the battery should be good for some 7.5 hours according to Sony. Interesting specs do not end here, the driver is 40mm diameter while frequency response is 4–40,000Hz for the analog domain and 4–100,000Hz for the digital. When I finished reading the data sheet I expected the MDR-1DAC to weight half a ton, it tips the scale at only 300gr! Built quality is excellent; the sensation was of a headphone of at least double the price. Yes, the price, in EU the MSRP is 300 euros; expect it to cost something like that in the US as well.

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A powered headphone, that’s interesting. Wait, there was another one. Only this time it came from the States and historic microphone manufacturer Blue. Goes by the name “Mo-Fi” (no connection whatsoever with the record label) and looks like a headphone that came out of the film “Transformers”. The ingenious multi-joined design of the headband skeleton allows the headphone to occupy as little space as possible when parked and be very comfy when used, even after many hours. The tension created by this skeleton can be trimmed to everyone’s preferences through a knob in the top and other aspects like height can be adjusted too. As for the 240mW amp section, it can work in standard or extra bass mode, or it can be turned completely off. The MoFi is also intelligent; it will shut itself down saving precious battery once you take it off. So what about the sound of this electro-mechanical marvel? I gave it more than just a quick listen in all possible combinations. What I wanted to test was the inner amp because the overall weight of the thing is under 470gr and I wanted to see if it is any good or one would end up using an external amp every time possible. Enter Grace Design m920 High Resolution Monitoring System. Besides using the latest 32Bit Sabre DAC technology thus delivering up to 384kHz PCM and 2x-4x DSD playback, it also packs a sophisticated amp design based on the Ohman circuit. Tracks included “There Is No Greater Love” by Miles Davis, Anna Netrebko singing “Qaundo Avran Fine Ormai” from Idomeneo and a piece by Jane Monheit which I failed to take note.. First of all the MoFi in its passive function is a good headphone. I would call it “flat”, not the way an HD-800 is but definitely not colored. Frequency extension is good and bass is well-balanced, not too much, not to shy. The 50mm fiber reinforced driver seems more than adequate. Switching the amplifier “On” the sensation was that while not being on par with Grace’s amazing circuitry the gap was relative and I could live without a dedicated amp solution. The “On+” position with extra bass topping was not of my taste but it might intrigue many others, depending mostly on the music genre. This headphone will surely find its place in the market, with pros working out in the field or with headfiers who want to pack everything for portability without sacrificing deep bass and musical pleasure. I left the price for last; it went on sale for $350. Color me impressed!

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Now the time has come to speak of the big toys. For those who are not familiar with KingSound let me do a quick introduction. Made in Honk Kong, electrostatic headphones with solid state or tube energizers and relatively affordable prices (when compared to Stax or the mythical Sennheiser Orpheus). Having both in hand I opted for the cheaper one, kidding, I opted straight up for the latest and more expensive KS-H03 with matching tube amplifier M-20. Yes because judging by my not so distant experience with the Orpheus system and the Stax range one must take advantage of tube amplification for the electrostats. In theory this is where the line ends. In practice? One could easily end this report here. The big KS combo fed by Auralic’s Vega DAC was breathtaking. Airy, transparent, you name it, it was all there. Listening fatigue is an unknown phrase for this system. Priced at a very reasonable $2,500 this could have been best sound of the show if it wasn’t for what is coming next, though I spoke with friends who declared it personal best and in all honesty I cannot blame them.

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The single most impressive headphone of the show was the AKG K812. Introduced earlier this year, I never had the chance to listen to it. Some rave reviews were speaking about the best dynamic headphone in production. Local importer paired it with an older version of Apogee’s Ensemble, a pro audio interface for Mac only. Not my ideal way of starting a listening session, I would have preferred a well-established dedicated headphone amplifier. Anyway, I took in hands the open back K812 and noticed the huge depth they have, the distance between the outer part of the leather pads and the drivers themselves is quite something, I would say almost a couple of inches. This allows for the auricle to actively participate in the propagation of the sounds towards the auditory canal and finally the tympanic membrane. Next thing one easily notices is the wide membrane, 53mm is no joke. Then the good AKG people told me that the magnets in the K812 have a field of 1.5 Tesla. This is a lot. More than a lot, this is enough to remove your dental amalgam sealings.. As for the million dollar question, how do they sound, I found them exquisite. Wide soundstage like few others, micro and microdynamics were excellent and timbre was faithful to the original instruments. I have read that these might end up being harsh on certain recordings and I tend to believe it, but then again all “reference” pieces of gear will show off the limits in the reproduction chain, whether those are in the recording or the other links of the chain. After the show I had this repeating thought in mind, I have to listen to these again, only this time with a proper amplifier and DAC.

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And this brings us to the best sound of the show. The Viva Audio Egoista single ended 845 triode amplifier paired with matching Viva Numerico CD player/DAC and Audeze’s LCD-3 planar magnetic headphones, spiced with cables by Jorma Design. Audeze had a huge presence during the show with all models on display, from the popular LCD-2 up to the X, XC and 3, each of these attached to a different set up. The closed back XC was playing with iFi Audio’s new micro iDSD DAC while the X was connected to the terrific M2Tech Young-Marley set. But nothing in the room could match the Egoista. I was among the fortunate to listen to the preproduction model that was presented in Munich High End in May and I still remember by jaw dropping to ground like an anvil. Despite having the same Porsche yellow color the unit that made it here in Athens is not the same, it is one of the very first production models. Very few things have changes and the sound is sublime. This amp outputs 15Watts which is more than enough to drive everything including a pair of HiFiman’s HE-6 that a friend brought with him. Drive them or should I say dominate them. Never seen an amp clearly take control like this of these legendary insensitive headphones. Sound was fleshy, lots of impact and drama in the presentation. With the LCD-3s it was even better. In the classic audiophile CD “Stockfisch vol.1” bass extension was endless, transparency and delicacy combined with the fastest transient response, effortless and explosive at the same time. Voices had the fluidity only single ended triodes manage to create. And there was no sign of noise. Nothing. Zero. This might be easy for solid state designs but single ended direct heated triodes are truly hard to nail. Chapeau to Mr. Amedeo Schembri for his creation.

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The last pic from the show is a request that arrived directly from Audio Traveler’s editor Scot Hull, that is me with the legendary Jecklin Float electrostatic headphones also known as Magneto’s Helmet. Enjoy! [Editors note: I did — check it out, way above! Hee hee!]

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1 Comment on Athens Headphone Festival, Part 3

  1. Stavros Trypis // October 10, 2014 at 7:57 AM //

    Very good combo (Egoista + Hifiman HE6)!
    Sound is 2die4 with mid lushness and three-dimensionality that are beyond criticism.
    Dynamic behavior is also top-notch whilst transparency one must hear it to believe!
    Only caveat is that, besides the fact of how strong was the amp, I’m not very sure whether Egoista can dig the most out of the sixes.
    Must re-listen them having my most demanding tracks that time…

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