Recently in Atlanta, headphone enthusiasts from all over the Southeast gathered at the local Marriott Century City to hear the latest from some of the best manufacturers of portable audio gear. The was the culmination of months of planning led by John Morrison of the local Audio-Video Club of Atlanta, and Joe Saxon, owner or headphoneaudiophile.com, a national retailer of portable audio brands.
I attended some of the organizing meetings; it was quite a bit of work to put on a show like this.
There was an interesting bit of history that led up to this show. There were a few prior Canlanta events but on a much smaller scale. Still, it was attended by a handful of well-regarded vendors and had a good deal of energy. More recently, the local audio club saw its once a year headphone-based monthly meeting draw overflow crowds. This annual meeting also attracted a nice selection of vendors and local retailers. So why not have a CanJam-style show in Atlanta?
Joe, John and several others from the local headphone enthusiast community began planning to do a “relaunch” of the older Canlanta events on a much larger scale in the ballroom of the Marriott that also happens to host the popular Atlanta Record Show.
But a question remained on turnout…how would attendance be? What manufacturers and retailers would participate? The last Atlanta audio event, AXPONA, was severely challenged by a weekend that unwittingly competed with four major Atlanta events occurring at the same time. It was a good show but attendance was pitiful. Fortunately, AXPONA found a better environment in Chicago and developed it into one of the better shows in North America. Another challenge was planning for an event that was only three months out, well after marketing budgets were set for manufacturers … and to be quite blunt, not really enough time.
Yet John and Joe did heroic work and began working the phones and holding meetings. Things developed slowly at first. A few early manufacturers signed up. A number of vendors agreed to lend gear … but we all knew we needed people to come and set up a proper “table”. Then things got rolling with a commitment from well-regarded and popular enthusiast Tyll Hertsens who writes for InnerFidelity. I respect Tyll’s efforts to actually test headphones, as well as his tremendous enthusiasm, but most of all I like the “business view” he brings to the hobby. In many ways, Tyll is the futurist of the portable-audio world. He has provocative views of what the future holds and what will work and not work. But best of all he makes strong arguments for his views, often backed up by research and real evidence such as his numbers on the retail store potential for headphone selling. I’ve heard Tyll speak several times and he always has something interesting to say. The Canlanta 2016 keynote was no different.
Anyway, back to the show prep … as the May 21st date got closer, manufacturers started agreeing on sponsorships and buying tables. Things looked up. A real cream-of-the-crop of manufacturers and retailers, some 20 in total, were ready to go the morning of the show. Part of the ballroom had serious gear from prominent headphone names such as Purk and Mexican Dragon (aka Brent Lawson). There was energy in the room. I showed up early with my camera and started working the tables.
Let’s take a look at some of the latest products from the exhibitors…
E-Mu was a new name to me but got famous early as Chan Ming Tat, a representative of the company and a real gentleman, flew in all the way from their Singapore office!
And boy did they bring some good stuff. E-mu was founded in 1971 and started building modular analog synthesizers for such artists as Frank Zappa and Tangerine Dream.
Now, the firm has moved into portable audio as well with a focus on beautiful wood cups on dynamic driver made of bio-cellulose. The sound was very good, but I was most fascinated by the high level of craftsmanship on the cups.They seemed to have everything from walnut to teak to ebony to rosewood.
This Charlottesville-based Headamp makes some of the better headphone amps on the market including the sublime $5.5K “Blue Hawaii” amp, with EL34 tubes, and which is often paired with the reference-class Stax 009 headphones. New at the show, however, was the gorgeous new $4K Aristaeus amp which was originally built for the Sennheiser Orpheus headphones. The Aristaeus amp uses ECL86 tubes and adds some gorgeous wood panels that have epoxy in them for extra sturdiness. Rounding out the table was the GSX amp which sells for $3K with the stepped attenuator.
Empire Ears is a new IEM firm on the scene but has been serving the pro musician market for years. Their flagship is the $2K Zeus, which has an astounding 14 balanced armature drivers: 2-low, 6-mid, and 6-high with an eight-way crossover point network. I spent all my time listening to the Zeus. I was just mesmerized by the sound quality. The team offered to take ear impressions for a model and I obliged. Jack Vang is from the audiology world and made the fitting process entirely painless and easy. The goop that got injected into my ears was slightly cold but comfortable and fortunately formed quite quickly as you do have to bite down on a spacer to keep the ear canal set properly. I have requested a review sample so look for more information and detailed sound impressions in the near future. Empire Ears has a full line of IEMs starting at $429. The sound quality of the Zeus was very impressive. I asked why they sounded so good. The answer I received talked to there being no filters or dampening parts to manipulate the frequencies for a very open sound and a silver-plated copper cable to further provide transparency. Empire Ears is based in Georgia and does a lot of the local soul and hip-hop stars in Atlanta. I’m excited to try my first pair of custom inner ear monitors.
Rounding the corner, I met up with Doug Savitsky of ECP Audio who offers some of the most gorgeous headphone amps you will see. The wood features artisan-level inlays and the sound is commensurate with the appearance. These are semi-bespoke amps ranging from $4-5K. Doug’s Copenhagen S amp features solid state parts and his Copenhagen V is the vacuum tube counterpart. Doug uses high quality parts like Lundall transformers and also offers a non-wood option for less money. Customers place their order with Doug, he builds to order and can deliver a product in 4-5 weeks.
Beezar is run by Tom Blanchard, a really nice guy who was part of the show’s organizing committee. Tom showed up with his excellent sounding Torpedo amps, which sell for $1,150, or $750 in kit form, and feature superb parts quality. The design is a bit unusual. A true output-transformless circuit uses tubes upfront, then splits the signal, which is then sent to Cinemag nickel-core transformers, which “amplify” the signal. This has the advantage of cutting common-mode distortion. The entire circuit sits on a PCB board. “Look ma, no wires!” There are settings for 32 ohm or 300 ohm headphones. There are options for a standard ALPS pot or a Blue Velvet ALPS for a bit more.
CEO Warren Chi was on hand for the Cavalli Audio table. What a great guy with tremendous headphone knowledge! Cavalli is revamping their line and the big news here was the first product of that effort, the Spark portable amp which sound amazing, like most of the well-regarded Cavalli line. The Spark will be $499, is single-ended only, and can deliver music for a whopping 18 hours. Shipping of the Spark should start in late June/early July. They had a prototype amp out at the Axpona Chicago which I heard and was very impressed with. A new flagship, the Liquid Tungsten, is expected roughly around the time of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The Tungsten will be a pure-tube effort. I cannot wait to hear it.
OPPO is a true value-for-the-dollar brand if there ever was one. Even the T-shirts at the table were free! A beautiful new PM-3 in white and blue was on demo along with the HA-1 headphone amp. The HA-1 had a clear acrylic top to show off the inner parts but this was not news. I asked what new products were around the corner and all I got was some detail on the widely reported 4K OPPO unit due out soon, probably around the end of the year. Then, just two days later, they announced the Sonica product which is essentially a Bluetooth stand-alone speaker. Haha, sneaky bastards…no scoop for me. Still, I like these guys. Solid products at reasonable prices.
The Ethers were well represented at the show, not only at the actual MrSpeakers table. That sort of says something to me. The new Ether ES electrostatics were the highlight and sounded magnificent powered by the Headamp Blue Hawaii that Ether was prominently displaying. The Ether Cs were all over the place, including the pair I loved listening to at the Questyle table.
Speaking of Questyle, Bruce Ball and the Michael Mercer took several tables and had some of the best sound I heard. Bruce does both Questyle and Meze headphone brands. Meze was a new-to-me Romanian headphone, but had excellent sound for $299, and features gorgeous wood cups. And of course, the reference level Questyle “stack” in gold was on demo and sounded spectacular.
But what impressed me most though was Questyle’s new CMA600i, which is priced at a level of something I can afford, $1,299. This unit sounded great with the Ether Cs and two other cans I tried on it. A full DAC/amp, the 600I can do PCM and DSD and offers a regular quarter-inch jack and a balanced jack. It uses the AKM 3392 chip which is the same chip used in the top-of-the-line Astell & Kern 380 DAP. When properly registered, the 600i has a warranty of three years. This is a really interest product as it uses a new form of amplification called “current mode” and this has the advantage of TIMD.
The circuit uses a truly balanced design, with Left and Right amps. A cool piece of trivia was that the 600i is manufactured at Foxconn and uses the same “space grey” metal that is deployed on the iPhones. The fit and finish are impressive. Questyle also had the popular QP1R, a digital audio player with full PCM and DSD playback capability and up to 432gb of total storage when the two SD slots are loaded with 200gb each of storage.
One of my favorite IEM brands, the affable Brannan Mason of Noble Audio brought samples of their entire line. The line was refreshed at the SoCal CanJam with a goal of the new versions being more extended in frequency range and more refined overall in sound quality. The line starts with the three-driver Trident at $399 and moves up by driver additions to the six-driver Django at $999, which is what I focused my listening on. Very dynamic and open sound. The Savant remains the “sweet spot” of the line; the sound has stayed the same but has an updated look. On the Kaiser 10, the nozzle was a bit slimmer but longer, which refined the sound. Cables are excellent with silver-plated copper with part Kevlar shielding.
I was frankly a bit surprised when John mentioned Sennheiser would be there and I got my hopes up that I could hear the new 800S. I have been widely known as not being a fan of the original 800s, finding a bit of midrange suck-out in the sound.
Well, Wally Kilgore of Sennheiser explained that they have now weighted the diaphragm differently on the “S” version. It’s also got a nice new matte black frame which looks really cool. They had the HDVD 800 amp paired with the 800S and sounded magical. Sennheiser returns to my list of favorites.
For what it’s worth, the Momentum is quite good for the money. The big news is that a black headphone amp is due out in 2017 with DSD capability. I am looking forward to listening to that.
One of my favorite people in audio is Ray Kimber of Kimber Kable and we were grateful he could make the show. Kimber has jumped into portable audio with both feet. They are a preferred vendor for the excellent new Sony headphones and I would say their cables were very well represented across the show. Ray told me a story that demonstrates how they keep quality so high. They had a Chinese manufacturer do some work, but Ray wanted the specs to be adhered to precisely. Kimber got the first batch of cable back from them but they also purchased an expensive testing machine and the batch was defective for 50% of the lot. Ray called the contractor up and they immediately redid the lot and it passed with flying colors. Ray says they have not had a defective cable since. I asked Ray about headphone cables and he said they spend a lot of time working on addressing cross-talk issues. A headphone cable is neither an interconnect nor a speaker cable-the left and right are combined, so this requires special considerations. Kimber headphone cable upgrades range up to $700-800 for the copper version (full silver version coming at RMAF), but note that “the price varies with the length, the connectors chosen, if the cable is split on the amplifier end — and some wood choices are a bit more.” The cables are jewelry-like in appearance and the wood connectors look like the same beautiful connectors used on Ray’s upscale Kimber Select models.
Joe Saxon had a wonderful buffet of fine products from his website Headphoneaudiophile.com on display, including Audeze Sines, my favorite portable cans, and I bought my own pair straight from the man himself. Joe carries such brands as Questyle, Audeze, Audioquest, Kimber and Cavalli. Joe has signed an important deal recently with Cavalli which makes him the premiere internet source for this sought-after gear. Joe is also a Sennheiser dealer and was instrumental in getting Sennheiser to exhibit at the show.
Charles Barry from local retailer Sight & Sound was there with a full display of portable audio gear. Charles is the gentleman who sold me my beloved Chord mojo portable DAC/amp. Charles also does some of the better two channel audio brands, but is doing good business in portable audio. He had a nice display of IEMs from JH Audio and some gear from Auralic. Charles also carries Aedle, Audeze, Aurender, HifiMan, HRT, and Astell & Kern. Charles is the local Nordost cable dealer in Atlanta, and he supplied the data-cable I use to connect my Mojo DAC/amp to my iPhone.
Ian White was on hand with some absolutely gorgeous and gorgeous sounding amps from Ampsandsound. The main attraction was the Kenzie amp using 1626 vacuum tubes, often referred to as the poor man’s 300B. The 1626 stand on top of the chassis to highlight these single ended tubes. The circuit design is based on the Darling circuit and uses custom wound output transformers. The sound was terrific and there is a 32 ohm ¼” jack and a 600 ohm ¼” jack. The Kenzie is made in Southern California of U.S. sourced parts and is priced at $1,650 with NOS tubes.
So Canlanta offered a robust display of the latest in fine portable products…but what about the turnout?
Approximately 120 people attended the show, a very respectable number for a new event and what I hope will grow into the premiere headphone event of the Southeast. While the show already has plenty of Southern hospitality, the Canlanta staff is already sending out a survey to the exhibitors to find any areas that need improving. Also, planning has begun early for Canlanta 2017 so exhibitors can add in the show as part of their annual show plans. Several more exhibitors have expressed interest already for joining the event.
In my opinion, Canlanta is off to a great start!