I spent about 4 hours perusing the stands at San Francisco's HeadFi Meet on Saturday, and I did a lot of listening; I came home with about 18 pages of notes from my time there.
I'd like to immediately preface this post with the following: all of the impressions and thoughts here are based on anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes of listening. Although I did my best to take down somewhat stream-of-conscious style notes, I will admit that with that much exposure to that much variety in a short 4 hours, my ears did get a little bit fatigued.
I'll try to go in order of what I listened to from first to last, so it will be out of alphabetical order.
Modular Ears was a complete mystery to me before I sat down at their desk. What they have put together is very interesting, though, once it was explained to me. They have two models, an ME-2 and an ME-4. The former uses two BA drivers, while the latter uses three.
However, that's not the interesting part. There's plenty of companies around that put headphones together exactly like Modular Ears'. What caught my eye was that they have snap-on modules (hence their name) to the faceplate of the IEM that can change the sound signature of the headphone. While I was unable to suss out from the people at the stand if this was some ASP implementation or what exactly the nature of the internal circuit was, I'll be sure to be in contact with Modular Ears in the future to figure out exactly what they're doing in that faceplate.
Any faceplate from the lower driver count model can be used with the higher driver count model, but not the other way around, if that makes sense. What the faceplates actually do is manipulate the emphasis in the frequency response, which is something that I have only otherwise seen in things like the FLC-8 IEM, with its swappable filters and adjustable venting.
The headphones sounded just fine, but I did not have enough time with them for me to confidently say much more than that. I've contacted Modular Ears to try to get a pair or two for a more full review period, as I'd love to figure out whether or not these can do what they claim.
I've long wanted to have the chance to hear Sonoma Acoustics' electrostatic earspeaker, the Model One. I got the chance to sit down with them for about 15-20 minutes at the beginning of the meet, so I took that time and got some impressions down on paper.
The first thing that I noted was the detail - in acoustic recordings, there isn't a single sound amiss. The next thing that I noticed was the music that the user next to me was playing - these truly offer zero isolation and almost full leakage from about 5 feet away.
Generally speaking, these had an almost warm character to them, which was surprising, as my long-term exposure to electrostatics (the King Sound KS-H3) was very clean and polite in its presentation. These, however, were punchy, dynamic, and lively, in every way. Great soundstage and imaging were the other main points that I noticed, with an ability (very reminiscent of the Noble KE) to pan sounds around the listener incredibly realistically and satisfyingly.
Overall, a great headphone, even in a short audition, that I'd love to hear more of and which I hopefully will in the future.
I got the chance to hear two things from Final in my time on Saturday: the D8000 (their new over-ear, open-back, planar magnetic headphone) and their old LAB II.
I'll start with the D8000: it was very musical, with a bass emphasis and great treble extension. I only got through one song ("Hotel California", which is a relatively standard test track), but the realism of each individual instrument particularly struck out, although it almost seemed as though the drums (particularly toms) were over-mixed, though that could be the result of whichever master Final had on hand. Although realistic, the mids were recessed to the point that instruments and vocals felt distant, which I didn't enjoy.
I noted that they had a relatively wide soundstage, even for open-backs, and had particularly good imaging with relatively average separation.
Now, the LAB II: as I was told by the PR representative at the booth, the LAB II is the result of Final telling their engineers, "Do whatever you like, and we'll make it a limited-production product." Although I can't comment on other instances in which this approach has been the case, this particular instance didn't go too well.. The note that I have is that it sounds although I was listening to music underwater - and not in a pleasant way. Foggy mids, restrained treble, and sluggish bass do not a good headphone make.
At Dan's booth, I tried both the new ÆON and his yet-to-be-released electrostatic earspeaker, which I don't believe even has a name yet.
The ÆON was a very good closed-back, over-ear headphone. Extremely comfortable, it has a very musical, natural overall presentation, acoustically speaking. Great recreation of instruments, punchy bass, and effortlessly extensive treble were all notes on my page and elements of my experience. The layering of instruments in tracks seemed intricate to me, but felt in no way delicate or tenuous. The stereo image that they formed was very pleasurable, as it felt like just the right blend of cohesion and separation to remain both casually satisfying and analytically acceptable.
The electrostats really threw me for a loop. I came in expecting what I learned about electrostats from King Sound's KS-H3, as referenced earlier in this post. This was absolutely not the case. In talking with Dan before listening, he mentioned that his goal with this headphone was not the traditional goal of electrostatic headphones. He wanted to create something that, yes, had some of the traditional characteristics of this brand of headphones, but that was more dynamic, organic, and musical than what usually is found in this market section. And wow, did he succeed. I put them on, turned up "I Asked" from Snarky Puppy's second edition of "Family Dinner" and the headphones just sang. They are, even only after 10 or so minutes, undoubtedly in leagues with the most musical headphones that I've heard. I know how vague, ambiguous, and subjective that moniker is, but the intensely accurate presentation that these offered was just tantalizing. Every transient was perfectly recreated, with just the right intensity at every given instant.
There was much more bass than I had come to expect from electrostats, which was an interesting experience. It was certainly the fastest, most textured bass that I've yet heard. Vocals were exactly as though the artist was just sitting in the room with you.
Something that Dan mentioned in conversation was that he sought not the fastest transient response possible, as that oftentimes introduces ringing that isn't desirable, but instead, for something that was fast enough to follow any transient, without introducing any ringing. He said that this was part of what made these headphones different from many other, more standard electrostatic earspeakers: natural, as opposed to just fast, transients.
Cardas was another mystery to me, just like Modular Ears. They brought with them their A8 earspeaker (which is just their term for IEM; this isn't an electrostatic headphone). The headphones were heavy, but fit fairly well, even though they're worn with the cable straight down.
What struck me most about this headphone was their imaging and separation. It felt as though everything was just as distinct as it was meant to be in the original recording. The soundstage was larger than I expected it to be, as well. These three elements worked together, creating a very pleasing aural image.
More definitively speaking, I noted that the bass was emphasized and very impactful, but was well-controlled, and didn't come across as sloppy or soupy. Although the bass was certainly slightly emphasized compared to the other ranges, I feel that, in this cursory listen, these lie pretty close to neutral on the whole. The three terms that stuck out to me most after I took these out of my ears were "cohesive," "musical," and "engaging".
The only thing at the Audeze stand that I had not heard before was the LCDi-4. My review of the iSine 10 just posted a couple weeks ago, so I felt I had a pretty good framework for these.
Interestingly, my main note after my session with i-4 was that they don't really strike me as flagship headphones. Yes, they fixed the trumpety upper mids of the iSines and pushed the mids slightly more forward, making these a much more pleasant listen, but I felt that these lacked some general clarity which left me wanting more.
This could be entirely a result of the long day I had, or of a lack of mental burn-in, so I won't say anything even close to conclusive about these headphones, but the above is pretty accurate to my experience of them in that short 10 minutes.
I knew I'd have a lot of listening to do at this stand, so I prepared myself with a bit of reading before I came. I wanted to at least try out their new planar magnetic over-ears, as I don't believe AS has ever made any over-ears. I wanted to try their active noise-cancelling IEM as well, since I'd only otherwise seen that technology in one of Bose's IEMs.
So I'll start with their Alpha. This is an open-back, 96mm planar magnetic driver-based, over-ear headphone that AS has slotted for something around $500. I was surprised with the impact and punchiness of the bass, given the form-factor, and although it isn't the fastest or best-controlled, it wasn't soupy, by any means. The mids leaned towards lush, but retained good detail and realism, even if they were slightly stepped back in the presentation. Treble extension was good, with a natural touch for harmonics, space, and sparkle. I didn't notice much peakiness, but I didn't spend that much time with them on or put that many tracks through them, so I can't say anything assuredly there.
Next, their G-TR. This is a semi-closed back, 65mm planar magnetic driver-based, over-ear that AS is planning to sell for around $300. I noticed that, in many ways, the presentation by these headphones lacked detail. Bass was satisfying and full, but was a little slow for my tastes. The vocal presentation was good, but instruments receded a bit too far. The treble was a little bit peaky, even in the short time I had them on. I think that these could make a very enjoyable casual listen, but that they do flake a little bit when faced with analytical listening.
Something that I didn't expect to hear was their S2000. This is an IEM specifically designed for stage use. It utilizes a single dynamic driver, and is absolutely tiny. I've got particularly weird ear canals, and almost every single IEM that I've ever worn has stuck out from my concha, and these were one of maybe three that did not. They stay in pretty well too, as I'd hope they would for their prescribed use-case. The sound was pretty inoffensive, with an almost neutral character to them, although there is a little bit of mid-bass bleedover into the mids. They weren't particularly detailed, but had a nice sense of general cohesion to their sound signature. I noticed that the mids noticeably lean towards lush over dry, which did mask some detail. The treble, in my short listen, was almost entirely inoffensive, but I'd have to spend more time with them to safely say that with confidence.
The last product that I took purposeful notes on was the 747, their ANC IEM. The IEM has a little brick that hangs from the termination end of the cable, with a micro-USB charging port and a switch to toggle on and off the ANC. This headphone uses what AS calls their "Pitch Black Technology". I was very impressed with the ANC, as (even though the hall we were in was filled with irregularly irregular voices) when the switch was flipped, background noise dropped noticeably. Sure, voices were still audible, but no headphone out there (at least not right now) can compensate for those (again) irregular irregularities. The headphones, aside from the ANC, sounded pretty good. The bass was too slow for my tastes, and could edge on muddy, but it certainly wasn't terrible. The mids were relatively natural, without leaning towards lush nor towards dry, and allowed for a good vocal presentation and a faithful recreation of instrumentals. Just like with the S2000, I didn't notice any peakiness or oddities with the treble. It added some air and space to the sound signature, and I didn't find it grating or unpleasant in my short time with them.
I did a little bit of reading into Taction Technology after seeing them on the exhibitor list, but not recognizing the name. They make a closed-back, over-ear headphone called the Kannon. Their claim is that they have made a headphone with a very engaging and realistic bass presentation, much like the Sub-Pac and other "shaker"-type devices.
I fully admit that, after reading that (and some of their marketing), I was ready to pass them off. There are a plethora of "bass-boost" headphones out there, and the only commonality between them (aside from their muddy, blurred, and bleeding bass) is that they are pretty much universally terrible. Sub-Pac is (arguably) an exception to this rule, but their approach is fundamentally different than essentially just equalizing the low frequencies up.
So, I got to the stand, and put on the headphones. And they don't suck, by any means. John Steinberg, the CEO, explained (after I listened to Herbie Hancock's Chameleon through the Kannon) that he didn't just pick an acoustic material that tended to emphasis the low frequencies.
The driver they use, aside from vibrating in the normal direction to produce sound, also essentially shakes side-to-side as the music plays, which conveys a very noticeable vibration to the area where the headphones' earcups contact the user's head.
I talked more with John after posting this, and I had made an error in explaining the technology, as he pointed out to me. There are actually two drivers in each earcup, one which handles the normal frequency ranges, except for deep bass. The deep bass is handled by a separate, tactile driver that utilizes the side-to-side motion referenced in the struck-through portion directly above.
End Correction (24/08/17)
The reasoning for doing this is that much of the experience that a listener recognizes as bass isn't just low frequencies traveling into the ear canal. The ear is actually relatively insensitive to low frequencies, which is why the vibration and air motion that is felt on the skin is a much larger part of the experience. This is part of why it is so hard to recreate the experience of a live concert in the comfort of your home; there simply isn't as much air moving.
To give a little wider window into how these headphones work in practice, aside from just the technology, there is a brick on the cable that essentially scans the incoming signal for low frequency sound, then translates that into vibrational movement by the driver. This is adjustable, as well, which is a very nice touch. John explained to me that when first using it, he'd kick up the bass very high, but found himself slowly reducing it over time, until it wasn't the main element of the headphone, but an accompaniment that simply made the experience more enjoyable and more tactile.
This is, I feel, the best part of this headphone. Because the vibration feature is completely adjustable, it can be dropped as low as the user wants. The headphones themselves are actually very competent, in terms of sound. Good mid-range detail, with good poignancy and musicality, the vibration simply adds to the experience, instead of interfering with it (as many "bass-boost" headphones do, alternatively).
I won't say that these are the grail of headphone experiences or anything outrageous, but I very much enjoyed my time with them in a way that I didn't expect to, and will be certain to reach out to Taction in the future to try to get a pair for a full review, so that I can be much more conclusive and informed in my experience.