Big Lights, Big City
-By Andrew Park (@Resolve)
CanJam NYC 2020 was quite the experience. I'm currently waiting to catch a flight back to western Canada, giving me a chance to reflect on an amazing weekend of headphones, IEMs, DACs, amps, and the myriad of other products on display at the event. This was the first CanJam for me, and it was also my first opportunity to meet some of the many contributors to the HEADPHONE Community Forum, as well as other reviewers, vendors, manufacturers, and industry veterans. It was meeting all of these people that made this a great event. But of course I was also there to check out the gear, and so without further ado, the following is my takeaway from CanJam NYC 2020. The well-known caveat of show impressions still applies, meaning it wasn't possible to evaluate in an ideal environment, nor with the most critical lens.
There were many impressive headphones at the show, and while I wasn't able to try them all, there were a few standout experiences that I'd like to highlight.
I was able to sit down with Dr. Fang Bian of HiFiMAN for an in-depth interview, but this also gave me the opportunity to listen to their flagship electrostatic headphone system in a private room (I believe this is the amplifier that comes with the Jr.). This is the most open sounding and detailed headphone experience I've yet had. While not exactly a 'speaker-like' presentation, this could be as good as it gets for headphones. Not only is it technically impressive, it's tonality is exceptionally well-balanced throughout the whole frequency range. To give a sense of that, I'd consider it slightly brighter than a Harman tuning, without the bass shelf, but still smooth and non-fatiguing. It had a certain ease to it that I wasn't expecting, especially when you consider the immediate sense of detail and textural nuance provided.
HiFiMAN is also making waves in the wireless market with a new entry level wireless planar magnetic headphone called the 'Deva'. I did get a chance to listen to it, and while I'm personally not as geared towards wireless, it's certainly interesting to see HiFiMAN continuing to iterate in this area. In the upcoming interview, Dr. Fang Bian talks about his inspiration for entering into the wireless arena, and why he thinks wireless is the future.
I normally wouldn't expect solid bass performance from an electrostatic headphone, but the Stax SR-007 shows that it's possible. Not only is it well extended, it also has decent impact and punch to it. The rest of its frequency range performs as one would expect for a high end electrostatic headphone, meaning detail and speed are up there with some of the best. The overall tonality also sounded well-balanced, without any immediately discernible dips or peaks in the treble. The SR-007 is also surprisingly light and comfortable.
Abyss Diana Phi (DMS Mod)
When I reviewed the Diana Phi last year, I found it excelled at some aspects such as speed and detail - especially for its form factor - but I couldn't quite get over the comfort issues. I'm happy to report that the Diana Phi's current revision has improved the comfort by using much softer pads, making it easier to wear for longer periods of time. Importantly, the new pads can be fitted to existing units as well, so if you have a Diana Phi and want the new pads, they are compatible. But perhaps more interesting was the DMS modded version. For those unaware, DMS is a popular headphone reviewer on YouTube who now works with Abyss. He was walking around the show with his own custom (white and black) version of the Diana Phi, which has an improved pad angle that takes pressure off the temples, and a more cushioned headband.
I found the DMS mod to sound even better as well, with a better sense of stage depth, and detail retrieval. Apparently he made a few tweaks to the cover in front of the driver to achieve this. The tonality was also improved, and while it had a bit much bass for my preference, the rest of the frequency response had excellent tonal balance without any noticeable issues. I was told by the folks over at the booth that they might consider doing something with this mod in the future, but as of this moment, the custom pad mod is already an option. So for anyone already considering a Diana Phi, I strongly recommend getting it with the DMS pad mod.
Moondrop Blessing 2
I'm told that the Blessing 2's production might unfortunately be delayed due to the current health concerns in China, however there was a unit at the show that I was able to try. This is an impressive entry to mid-level IEM that performs far better than its price-point indicates. The Blessing 2 is a 5 driver (4 BA and 1 Dynamic Driver), hybrid IEM that has a 'Harman-like' sound signature, however for my brief experience with it, I was most impressed by its stage and separation qualities. I'm looking forward to when this becomes available, because I have a feeling it will be a new benchmark at its $300-$400 price (if they stick with that).
Unique New Products
In many ways, CanJam NYC was a way for listeners to discover new products, or try headphones and source equipment they've been excited about. Whether it's groundbreaking new technology or unique ways of implementing traditional designs, new ideas were at every corner. The show floor was packed with new products that have either just been released or are set to release this year. While I was aware of some of them, there were many more that I hadn't even heard of.
HEDD Audio HEDDphone
HEDD Audio was at the show with their new HEDDphone, and while I've already had a chance to review it (it's excellent), it was interesting to speak to co-founder and CEO Freddy Knop about the new Air Motion Transformer (AMT) driver technology. HEDD Audio have been implementing this technology in tweeters for their speaker line, and have now found a way to develop AMT as a full-range driver in headphones. You can check out my full written review of the HEDDphone or watch the video here:
I'll be posting my full video interview with Freddy in the days to come, but the exciting takeaway from the HEDDphone is that it uses a groundbreaking new driver technology that's markedly different from the primary transducer types we've become used to in the headphone world, namely dynamic, planar, and electrostatic drivers. These traditional driver types use a pistonic motion where air velocity is proportional to that of the diaphragm, however AMT uses a 'breathing' type of motion that squeezes the air - kind of like bellows for a stoking a fire. This substantially increases the air velocity to be much faster than the motion of the diaphragm.
The massively pre-ordered Hip DAC from iFi was launched at CanJam, and while I didn't listen to it at the show (because I have one at home right now), the Hip DAC is a great companion DAC/Amp combo for most headphones. The DAC uses a Burr Brown implementation, and features both single ended and balanced connections (Pentaconn for balanced), as well as bass boost and power match buttons. It was interesting to learn that on all of iFi's devices that feature the bass boost option, this is all done on the analog side of things, and not merely a DSP function. You can check out my first impressions of the iFi Hip DAC here:
There was a new brand at the show I hadn't heard of before called 'EarMen'. Apart from being what is in my opinion one of the best brand names for an audio company, EarMen had a number of source products to show off, that also have amazing names. My favorites were the TR-Amp ($249), which is a DAC/Amp combo based around an ESS chip, and the Donald DAC - a standalone DAC.
Both come in at entry to mid level pricing. EarMen is a brand by the creator of Auris Audio, a well-known source manufacturer from Serbia that specializes in absolutely gorgeous tube amplifiers. They had their balanced tube amplifier 'Nirvana' on display, as well as their Euterpe DAC and tube amplifier combo - that also functions as a headphone stand. I got a chance to try the Euterpe with a HiFiMAN HE1000se, and it sounded very promising. I'm hopeful that in the near future I'll be able to give these amplifiers a full review.
I've been a fan of ZMF headphones for a long time, and while I had never met Zach and Bevin, when I showed up at the ZMF room, they greeted me as if I were an old friend. Their hospitality and enthusiasm for this hobby can't be stated loudly enough; these are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. The ZMF room was filled with headphones made of custom woods like the one pictured below, as well as many high profile tube amplifiers like the Pendant or the Glenn OTL. Having spent some time with the Vérité open and the Pendant, I can state with confidence that this is an incredible experience, and I highly recommend trying it out if you ever get the chance.
Zach was also kind enough to chat with me about some of his design goals, the ZMF sound, how he tunes his headphones and some of his plans for the future. This conversation will be released in an upcoming video, so stay tuned.
Lastly, a major highlight for me was of course getting to hang out with some of the other reviewers like Metal571, DMS, Max_Settings, and Flux to name a few. I've known these guys through online interactions only, and it was a lot of fun to be able to try out gear with them in person to see what everyone's reaction was. While we may all have different preferences, and we may disagree about certain products, meeting up with them in person reinforces the understanding that we all care deeply about this hobby. Meeting up in person goes a long way towards motivating and supporting one another, as well as finding common ground on the equipment we've evaluated.
CanJam NYC was a fantastic experience, and I'm excited to go to the next one.
- Andrew Park (@Resolve)