It was a couple of years back, at this point, but that distance is making me feel all prophetic. Back then, I made the point (among others) that the personal audio segment was about to undergo something of a transformation. The idea is pretty simple, but not terribly kind. I saw a pivot, brought on by Beats, and I wasn’t the only one in hi-fi to see it. Personal audio was about to get assaulted by quality.
Now, this isn’t to say that the personal audio, or more properly, the headphone market (including the amps and other bits that feed them) was in some way deficient, but it was … ripe. A decade or more of big companies getting increasingly shoved aside in favor of upstarts that brought quality, innovation, and passion meant that the enthusiasts were pushing the envelopes. Perhaps unfortunately, that envelope was underdeveloped. Sound quality, as good as it was, was pretty mediocre. At best. At least, mediocre when compared to its much older and much more developed (even if it was, at the time of the Beats acquisition by Apple, much smaller) cousin, hi-fi. So, when I speculated that the hi-fi entrepreneur had a lot of room to
pillage explore in matters head-fi, it was only to say that there was opportunity. For finesse. For subtlety. For the true artist working in glass and steel and wood.
Fast forward a few years. We have amplifiers marching toward $10k. Portable audio players that are tipping toward $4k. And headphones that are sliding past $5k. Regrettable, those prices. But that’s where personal audio is heading (and way past those markers, for sure). Why? Because there’s still a lot to do. That can be done. Personal audio is still way behind “traditional” two-channel hi-fi.
But now Audeze is making a move.
About 18 months or so ago, I got a clue that Audeze was going down-market. That their next offering, what was to become the EL8, would be their first serious foray into the sub-$1k market. And now, this year, with their new flagship, the LCD-4 ($3,995), Audeze is going in the other direction. Up. Waaaay up.
Audeze is killing it.
Now, a $4k headphone is crazy-expensive, but it slots in right comfortably between offerings from HiFiMAN and Abyss. The fit-and-finish is the best-ever from Audeze, and the new tech — a super-fine/nano-scale membrane and massive 1.5 tesla magnets — read like missive from a tech-sheet dream world. 100Ω means a tube-friendly load. Those magnets mean speed. That membrane means detail. That finish means PUT-IT-ON-MY-HEAD.
So, at CanJam, I did.
I was treated to a big (as in deep + wide) soundstage, with linear and textured bass (as opposed to thick, one-note offerings) that was in the running for the very best-in-class. Driving the cans was the announced and soon-to-be-available fancy-face The King (prices starting at $2,795, crowd-sourced over at Indiegogo) headphone amplifier, designed by prodigy Bascom King:
The King’s circuitry is very different from the typical complementary output topology; it uses the same polarity N-channel MOSFET outputs as these are more alike and complementary than N- and P-channel MOSFETs. Just before the output stage is a two-stage differential amplifier using a dual-triode tube for the input stage followed by a P-channel MOSFET differential driver stage. The driver stage supplies complementary drive to the N-channel output devices. Overall negative feedback is taken back to the input stage to include the input triode in the feedback loop. The circuit is DC-coupled from input to output and a servo control circuit keeps the output DC offset to within millivolts of zero. The overall symmetry of the circuitry eliminates most even-order harmonic distortion. The result is a low impedance, low distortion, wide frequency response output with immense musical transparency, a real emotional experience.
The amplifier is rated to 6 watts, which should be more than enough to drive everything currently on the market. A package deal is also available that will land you an LCD-4 with The King for $7k, which should save you about $1,000 on retail pricing.