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Maybe yes, maybe not.
It all looked so easy on paper - a month of roadwork interspersed with some tourist activity. Sydney to Tokyo to Munich to Paris to New York to Los Angeles and back to Sydney all squeezed into a singular calendar month. Life is once, right? That's not to say that trying to cover three separate hifi trade shows across three continents in such a relatively short space of time was easy. It wasn't. Not by a long shot. Bouncing from one time zone to another every five days or so isn't always conducive to clear thinking. And clear thinking is fundamental to good writing, hence this overview being penned with the benefit of hindsight.


Show coverage written whilst on the road—and already published on Digital Audio Review—has seen a shift away from room-to-room summaries and towards grouping exhibitor coverage together in small clumps as a way of illustrating probable trends. Exhibitors don't exist shrink-wrapped in isolation. They rub shoulders with others often competing in the same space. Observing two or three tackling the market in a similar manner will see them threaded together. Throughout May, emerging themes for these eyes and ears were the rise and rise again of portable audio (more on which later); a notable increase in smaller less expensive systems (at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach); and the importance of listener engagement whilst trying to pitch products and ideas (which is as important in store as it is in show).


In going global with show attendance, you really get to see which manufacturers put in the air miles to promote their products. CEntrance's Michael Goodman popped up unexpectedly at the Spring Fujiya Avic headphone festival in Tokyo to launch the first in his Glove Audio DAP peripheral range (as well as a slimmer Mini-M8 portable DAC/amplifier) before appearing again at Munich Hi-End and then again at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach with the same. Goodman is a man on a mission. His omnipresence echoes Woody Allen's philosophy that 90% percent of success can be attributed to simply turning up.


The same could be said of Astell&Kern. Their team were present and correct at all three shows albeit in various configurations. Being able to spread the workload across a squad of international distributors and offices no doubt helps with setup and tear-down duties but VPs James Lee and Owen Kwon must be feeling the burn of some serious sky time by now. He teased the announcement of the second generation AK100 and AK120 in Tokyo, formally debuted them in Munich but didn't lock in official pricing until T.H.E. Newport Beach.


The scale of the Fujiya-Avic headphone festival points us to reasons why iRiver's Astell&Kern have enjoyed such a meteoric rise. There were five floors of the Nakano Sun Plaza hotel dedicated to showcasing what's new in DACs, headphone amplifiers and of course headphones. The smaller manufacturers enjoyed equal footing with the bigger boys to remind us that you don't have to be an electronics giant to penetrate the personal audio market. It looked to me like many of the Japanese behemoths spent the last little while playing catch up to the swifter product development taking place in smaller workshops. Sony have come on leaps and bounds in the past eighteen months, particularly with their recent push into the hi-res space. The advantage of attending a show on their home turf meant visitors got to chat to Sony engineers in person.


The over-arching trend this spring seemed to be a desire to push audiophile-grade hifi onto public transport or into hotel rooms. Many Japanese audiophiles go ga-ga for headphones and think nothing of building portable rigs the size of house bricks. During a rare day of lucid thinking in New York, I managed to pen a piece on VPI's new Nomad turntable which bundles a built-in phono stage precisely tuned to the Ortofon 2M Red cart as well as a headphone amplifier. Later in my trip I heard one British loudspeaker manufacturer dismiss headphone listening as a trend that's about to head south. But I'm not so sure.


Just as I was wrapping things up in Tokyo, GeekLabs 'rebooted' their GeekWave, taking it from smartphone appendage to dedicated portable audio player. At the same time rumours began to circle on how Apple was about to acquire Beats for stupid money. With their Lightning connector subsequently mooted as a possible new de facto standard (for Cupertino at least) in getting audio from player to headphone, it appears that the road ahead could be rocky for DAPs coming to market in 2014. GeekLabs probably aren't sweating their GeekWave Indiegogo-funded campaign for a portable capable of manhandling up to 2TB of PCM/DXD/DSD. For less than $200 that is not to be sniffed at. However, if Apple choose to take their iTunes store to lossless (streaming?) whilst placing greater emphasis on the broader sound quality of its iDevices, the likes of the Calyx M ($999) and the utterly superb Sony NWZ-ZX1 (AU$699 in Australia!) could be in for tougher times. I wanted to like the Calyx M more than I did. Giving it two runs—one in Tokyo and then again in Munich—didn't assuage my concerns about a slightly mechanical sound. And that volume slider jagging it on the seam of your trouser pocket could result in some serious hearing damage.


Besides, every man and his dog seem to be making a portable headphone amplifier that you can strap to your existing phone or player. Models from Sony, TEAC, JVC Kenwood, Vorzuge, Tralucent, CEntrance were all present in Tokyo. In Germany I bore witness to yet more on-the-go handhelds from Lehmann Audio, Cypher Labs and the Granddad of them all, the Chord Hugo. Some come with an onboard DAC, some don't. Either way, outsourcing your smartphone's headphone amplification to an external device brings a significant leap in sound quality. This trend looks set to continue with increasing gusto until the likes of Samsung and Apple decide to furnish the audiophile niche with better sound. So far the only smartphone manufacturer to do so is HTC with their One (M8) Harman Kardon edition, currently exclusive to Sprint in the USA. David Chesky could be found wandering the floor of the M.O.C. with one and eager for folk to hear a smartphone decode the HDTracks 24bit/192kHz edition of Bob Marley's Legend.


In extracting ones and zeroes for off-board D/A conversion, iPhone users are generally well looked after but Android compatibility is still patchy. The ALO International+ extracts audio digitally from a Cyanogen-modded Google Nexus 5 irrespective of the app in charge of playback, meaning the International+ will handle both D/A conversion and headphone amplification. That translates to souped-up sound quality on everything from Spotify to Pandora to onboard files played back via Poweramp.


In taking a 6-hour train ride from Munich to Paris I discovered first hand that the Cypher Labs Theorem 720 DAC offers a more magisterial and refined sound than the ALO but that its Android USB communication wasn't as comprehensive. In getting digital audio to the Theorem over USB, the Nexus 5 is (currently) restricted to self-hosted files played back via the USB Recorder Pro app which loads in its own USB audio driver. This will ultimately become a non-issue once Google embeds USB audio drivers in their smartphone O/S as standard. For now at least Android compatibility is down to the discretion of the hardware manufacturer.


It's easy to see why headphone listening is getting its hooks deeper into hitherto strictly two-channel shows. A quick glance around the Headphonium at T.H.E. Newport Beach saw the majority of tables pitching products well below the $2'000 marker: the aforementioned portables from CEntrance/Glove, Astell&Kern DAPs, a whole pile of new shit from Schiit (including a $129 phono stage) and a shoebox-sized 40wpc integrated amplifier from Sony that packs 500GB HDD for self-contained DSD and PCM playback (no DAC/server required). The Sony HAP-S1 also sports a headphone output that was demo'd in Newport and is fully controllable via Android and iOS apps. I did a double-take when I first saw the RRP: $999. Told ya Sony have upped their game!


Dan Clark has to be the nicest most humble guy in audio right now. His Headphonium table featured a full complement of the MrSpeakers headphone range, each of them a modded Fostex T50RP. The Mad Dog Pro ($449) was the new runt of the litter and a mongrel which takes some of the design features (baffle and ear pad mounting system) of the 3D-printed Alpha Dogs ($599) to pitch it above the $299 entry-leveling Mad'uns. If you can't afford a pair Audezes, MrSpeakers is where you drop your cash. Clark will get you most of the way there with Audeze lucidity and speed but for a fraction of the LCD price. The biggest challenge is knowing which diggity dawg to choose. The Alpha is noticeably tighter and better defined in the bass plus it exposes more textural information.


Clark's dogs clearly bite the bum of high-end headphone listening and almost took out my number one pick for Best in Show. Almost. However, gold goes to the best sound in the most absolute sense and at T.H.E. Show in 2014 that was a room hosted by Empirical Audio's Steve Nugent. It came as no surprise to this reviewer that this system's core essence started life with a (Blue Moon awarded) Antipodes Audio music server ($3'995) about which Nugent said this: "You'd need to kit out a MacMini with everything (and then some) to approximate the DV server's performance."


At the business end of Nugent's demo room was Vapor Sound's Joule White loudspeakers ($12'995) powered by Clayton Audio M300 monoblocks ($16'500/pr). In between Nugent's own Overdrive DAC ($6'399) acted as D/A converter and volume control, a demonstration of which showed just how well the Overdrive can keep tonal mass and colour alive at lower SPLs. Rather than going with traditional analogue attenuation or digital decimation, the Overdrive's rotary adjusts the reference voltage of the D/A converter within. The output stair steps are created by the simple math of VRef x digital word. Here was a DAC/pre that could play whisper quiet and still sound utterly captivating. Music hung ghost-like but was far from faint or wispy. Instead, the illusion was solidly palpable.



In disclosing the best sound I heard all month we must journey back to Munich where Serbia's Trafomatic Audio had teamed up with the Anglo-Swiss operation of soundkaos for a port-a-room in one of the downstairs halls. At the front of the playback chain sat the Lumin S1 ($10'000), a server/streamer that comes loaded with its own D/A conversion. This silver machine fed into Trafomatic's Reference One preamplifier (€4'500) based on E182CC/5687 tubes with IIC core output transformers after which the signal was handed to a pair of Trafomatic's single-ended parallel 18wpc Reference 300B monoblocks (€12'700/pr) before seeing the light of day via soundkaos' Wave 40 loudspeakers (€15'550). Those are a 21cm full range driver and Raal ribbon tweeter set into an ovoid hollow body of tone wood. Low-frequency action was augmented by the soundkaos Subwave D12 (€6'000). The initial pair of D12 proved too much for the room on the first day and was thereafter dropped back to a single unit.


Maybe it's the way Martin Gateley and Sasa Cokic had decked out their room (the wall veneer blending with the wood tones of their hardware) or maybe it's that Gateley had obviously been paying attention to music mentioned on DAR (he had fashioned a 12-song playlist on the Lumin specifically for yours truly). Whatever sorcery was at work in this space, it had me enraptured from the first bars of Robbie Robertson's "Somewhere Down The Crazy River". Top to bottom, the illusion of transparency was writ wide and tall. This system's key strength was letting the upper midrange flow abundantly with information without it dominating the scene as was the case with the Voxativ Pi ($1'4000/pr) in Irvine. The latter sound instantly more thrilling but could become tiring over prolonged exposure.


When I'm hit hard by a 'holy shit' moment, I like to again visit the scene of the crime if only to discount a singularity in my mood or caffeine/haemoglobin chemistry Even on day three Trafomatic/soundkaos' majestic elegance played neat counterbalance to its macrodynamic import.


Yes this system will run you big dollars but it was a far cry from the oil tycoon money needed for the Kondo/Living Voice system that enjoyed even busier foot traffic upstairs. I can't be the only to think that the ├╝ber high-end is doing very nicely, thank you very much.

 
If your blood isn't rich enough for such opulence, let's wrap up by heading back to Tokyo where this reviewer's first 'holy shit' exclamation of the trip came from left field. DITA Audio are newcomers from Singapore whose 'The Answer' IEM sells for $649. It's a must hear for anyone considering a cash drop on top-flight equivalents from Sennheiser or AKG. The Answer offers soundstaging and detail retrieval that I liken to finding a wardrobe inside your own head, the rear of which opens out in a Narnia of sound. The Answer's treble serves detail without resorting to the needle-pin approach of the IE800 or K3003. It's altogether smoother. However, if hyper realisation is more your thing, look at the Van Den Hul cabled 'Truth' edition ($999). Hearing said truth via first-generation Astell&Kern AK120 alone proved a smidgen too bright for these ears but strapping Ken Ball's International+ portable amp to the back of the picture returned tonal balance to something altogether more agreeable. And by agreeable I mean stunning. And by stunning I mean go forth and listen.
... if you've enjoyed this feature, read more John Darko on digitalaudioreview.net!