CanJam NYC 2023 has come and gone but if you missed it, don’t worry. Chrono and Fc-Construct have a few stories to tell. So strap in as they walk you through a show-and-tell of their impressions with some of the most interesting pieces of gear at the show.
A quick disclaimer before we start: Take these impressions with a grain of salt. Impressions are a fun starting point but first looks can be misleading. The chaos of the show floor wasn’t always the most conducive to an ideal listening experience.
CanJam is well known to be a place to try some of the most exotic products. At the Audio Technica booth this year, one of the rarest headphones made an appearance: the ATH-W2022. Created to commemorate Audio Technica’s 60th anniversary, the ATH-W2022 costs a cool $9,000 and was limited to only 100 units worldwide. Words simply can’t describe how beautiful the golden bronze wood cups decorated with asymmetrical designs of a phoenix on one cup and sakura blossoms on another were in person. What words can describe is its sound.
Fun fact: the reason we were graced with the ATH-W2022’s presence at CanJam was because this was the personal unit of my friend Dan, the Canadian Audio Technica rep manning the booth. This was one of the few units floating around in North America and he brought it to show off its beauty to all of us enthusiasts. A round of applause to his contribution to the hobby, please.
Fc-Construct: Pleasant. Colored. Tasteful. Those were the first words that came to mind. I’m sometimes apprehensive to try closed-back headphones given how poorly they can sound. I’m very happy to report that the ATH-W2022 eschews the typical curse and sounds thoroughly enjoyable in a way that matches its gorgeous wooden aesthetics. It has a significant bass hump that reaches deep with a thump and rumble. While it doesn’t growl with dynamics like a Focal does, the ATH-W2022’s bass perfectly complements the sounding resonances of an acoustic drum. Its midrange is classically lush with a lovely texture. Male and female vocals are colored like a watercolor painting - soft and relaxed with just enough vibrance to accentuate but not distract. Likewise, instruments possess a warm undertone that tastefully binds notes together in a coherent manner. To complete the package, the ATH-W2022’s treble gently slopes off at the upper octaves without a hint of sibilance or fatigue while retaining enough upper treble extension to avoid sounding stuffy and balance out the significant low-end coloration. On a technical level, it’s sufficient but not gripping. Soundstage is decently open, imaging is reasonably nuanced, instrument separation is easygoing, and resolution reaches past that threshold where I no longer crave for more.
Now, is it worth $9,000? Of course not. Truthfully, it’s more of a piece of art rather than a headphone. But it is both the best Audio Technica headphone I’ve heard and one of the best closed backs I’ve listened to. It’s a headphone created to immerse yourself into music with. It blends musical liveliness with a tasteful relaxed coloration. It likely won’t be the best with modern genres but for the traditional audiophile fare, you’ll never want to take it off your ears. Realistically, I’d put it at about $1,500 and if Audio Technica ever creates a mass-produced version at that price, I strongly suggest you line up to at least try one.
Chrono: Like Fc-Construct mentioned above, it’s hard to really say that the ATH-W2022 is worth its $9,000 on technical performance above, however I agree that listening to it was an absolute joy.
While its performance I thought was in the ballpark of something like ATH-ADX5000, Audio Technica’s open-back flagship, the tuning was remarkably different. The best way I could describe it is as though I was listening to a truly high-end version of Beyerdynamic’s DT 770 Pro. For me the ATH-W2022 had a somewhat V-shaped tuning that accentuated the mid bass and lower treble frequencies in a tasteful and pleasant manner. The beautiful build, superb comfort, and exciting frequency response certainly make the ATH-W2022 a very unique headphone with acoustic aspects that I hope we’ll get to experience in some of Audio Techinca’s less-prohibitively-expensive offerings further down the line.
Axel Grell’s HD650 Successor
It’s the most famous name in the headphone world. But in case you’ve never heard of him, he’s the designer of legendary headphones like the Sennheiser HD6X0 family, the HD800(S), and the Orpheus electrostatic system. And an all-around downright awesome person to talk audio with. Since leaving Sennheiser, he’s started his own consulting company and engineering products for Heavys. This year, he came along with Drop.com to speak at a workshop and show off his latest creation: the successor to the HD650. No photos unfortunately, given that it was a 3D printed prototype. In general however, it was shaped like a Beyerdynamic headphone, with similarly round earcups.
Fc-Construct: The first thing I noticed with these headphones was how extremely angled the drivers were. They were about 40 mm, a similar size to the HD6X0, and looked almost out of place within the ear cups as it sat right at the edge. According to Axel, it was meant to emulate the feeling of speaker monitors that sat in front of you rather than traditional headphones with its drivers pointed directly at your ears. The idea is that the entire ear cup would act as a baffle for tuning and create a sensation of soundstage and openness. If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s based on the exact principles found in the HD800. In fact, Axel mentioned that he had always wanted to go further with the HD800’s design in this manner but wasn’t afforded the luxury.
There were actually three prototypes, each with a different level of dampening directly on the drivers. I only had a chance to listen to one - I believe the moderately dampened version. Sound-wise, it was tuned more along the lines of a HD580 rather than a HD600 or HD650. It did have a bit of an N-shaped response, with light roll-off on both ends. Bass felt light and punchy while the midrange had a fairly standard pinna structure and plenty of upper mids energy. The treble seems to extend further than the HD6X0 before it starts to slope downwards. Not quite sparkly but it does add a hint of air. Unfortunately for diehard HD6X0 fans, I doubt you’ll be overly enthused with these. Its sound presentation is a definite departure. While it certainly sounds much more open than the HD6X0, it lacks a richness in the lower mids that gave the HD6X0 family its characteristic timbre.
No word on price. But, given that Drop.com and Axel want to make these a true successor to the HD650 and have worked to keep the production costs manageable, I expect them to be priced around the $300-$400 range. To be honest, I can’t tell if I really like them just yet or not. I’ll need to properly review this to iron out my thoughts.
Chrono: If there was one thing that truly blew my mind at CanJam, it was Stax’s electrostatic headphones. While they were all excellent, the L700 Mk. 2 delivered a particularly outstanding listening experience that allowed me to appreciate the musical performances in some of my favorite songs in a new way.
Listening to Stax, the qualities that stood out most were the sheer resolution and clarity that the headphones provided, as well as the sense of layering and separation that they could achieve. These two qualities worked in tandem to create the most life-like reproduction I’ve heard of some of my favorite tracks, making performances feel as if they were played in the exact same room!
Chrono: Few rooms at CanJam felt as special as the one that ZMF had set up for this show. They had several tables with listening stations that featured all kinds of solid-state and tube amplifiers, as well as their full array of headphones.
Having the entire ZMF collection available in one room for listening and testing really allowed me to appreciate just how different all their headphones are. This really drives home the fact that their series of headphones is unlike most collections, in which products are usually very similar to one another, with a consistent house sound, but marginally improving technical performance in a good/better/best fashion.
To that end, then, the headphones that stood out to me the most at the show were not the highly-anticipated Atrium Closed, but instead the Aeolus and Auteur Classic. These two open-backs in particular had some of the most natural timbres and tunings I’ve heard, making for extraordinarily rich and pleasant listening experiences that kept me hooked.
Fc-Construct: ZMF was another brand that I’ve long known as a cult classic but have never had a chance to hear. Naturally, I took the time to visit. Primarily, there were two points of interest as I came into the booth: the ZMF house sound, and how the choice of wood for ear cups affected the tone of these headphones.
I can report that ZMF absolutely has a house sound. They all sport a similar lush, rich timbre that prioritizes smoothness and pleasantness before technical performance. In a way, it’s spiritually similar to the ATH-W2022, though I prefer Audio Technica’s take on the theme. Prior to CanJam, I had seen some measurements of ZMF headphones before. But listening to them makes me forget the graphs I’ve seen.
I did want to make note of the Caldera - ZMF’s flagship planar headphone. Despite its planar nature, the ZMF house sound shone through. There was little hint of the typical planar incisiveness. In general, the Caldera was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Nothing to complain about but didn’t ultimately make a very strong impression on me one way or the other.
The second point I can confirm is how much the choice of wood affected the tonality of these headphones. My friend and I ran a little experiment out of his Mojo 2 where we heard the same song at the same time using two different versions of the Atticus. It was almost uncanny how we were both able to pinpoint the exact same things we liked about each type of wood and how they colored the music we were listening to after swapping between them. If you’re looking into getting a pair of ZMFs, do pay attention to the wood.
The RAAL-Requisite booth showcased both of their headphones, the original SR-1A with its 40 mm ribbon drivers, and the newer CA-1A with 30 mm drivers. They were powered off a Schitt Jotunheim-R with an RME ADI-2 FS as their DAC. Danny, the owner of Requisite, was working the booth and was one of friendliest people at CanJam. He explained the technology behind these ribbon drivers and how they inherently produce bass down to 20 Hz without needing to rely on the seal of a pad to create low-end volume.
Chrono: While it’s certainly not a new product, it was the first time I actually managed to try out the curious SR-1A from Raal. Similar to the Stax, the SR-1A was one of those headphones that really felt unlike anything else I’ve heard previously.
While the technical performance for clarity and separation was far from being the best I’ve heard, the ear-field driver setup made for a truly out-of-head listening experience that reminded me of the sound I get from a stereo speaker system. They’re still quite pricey for the performance they offer, but if you’re looking for a very unique listening experience, they’re still worth trying out.
Fc-Construct: In contrast to Chrono, I spent more time with the CA-1A than the SR-1A. Unlike the earfield SR-1A, the CA-1A sounded much more like a traditional headphone. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit my head well at all and I literally had to hold the cups up while I was listening to it.
There were two types of stiff porous foam pads that the CA-1A came with: nicknamed the “coffee bean” and “donut,” as one had a small segment removed at the top and bottom of the pad (coffee bean) while the other was completely enclosed (donut). In general, the CA-1A had a rather bright sound. With the coffee bean pads, it crossed into being strident and overly bright. The donut pads were a significant improvement. It toned down the stridency, brought control and coherency to the instruments, and relaxed the treble. On a technical level, the CA-1A sounded very open with superb stage depth, imaging, and spaciousness on the right tracks. They were also clinical, capable of clarifying every note on the messiest tracks. Unfortunately, these headphones are absolutely a genre specialist. Orchestral works are its forte. This is a headphone that I’m hoping to get a chance to do a proper review on.
On a side note, I did try some prototype Dekoni leather pads they dropped off at the RAAL-Requisite booth for fun. It added significantly more bass but completely destroyed the sense of imaging and depth that the CA-1A had. Perhaps evidence that the porous nature of the foam pads are critical to its sonic characteristics.
Fc-Construct: In many ways, CanJam is one of the best places for a company to conduct market research for upcoming products and Vision Ears were alone in grabbing that initiative. At their booth were two IEMs, in red and blue. They were clearly prototypes as evidenced by the 3D printed shell and scuffed tape covering it. Listeners were asked to fill out a small survey on a piece of paper on what we liked, didn’t like, and which we preferred for a chance to win a EVE20. Of course, I played along.
The red version I found to have a very vibrant treble, sibilant and verging on the edge of being too much for my ears. The bass was large, tactile and highly resolving. Its midrange was reasonably clean with a hint of warmth from the bass. All-in-all, a well done V-shaped IEM. I think it would be a bit too much for some people however, with its rather in-your-face presentation and somewhat constrained imaging.
I much preferred the blue version. It dialed back the extremes of the red by having a more balanced, clean tonal profile. The treble was nicely extended without being exaggerated or sharp. Bass was similarly awesome and dynamic but without being as dominant as it was on the blue. I honestly didn’t have much to complain about.
After the demo, I actually had a chance to speak with their designer, Oliver. Accordingly, the red is meant to be more of a “live” sound while the blue followed a “studio” tuning which seemed right in line with my impressions. Interestingly, everyone else I spoke with had a very clear preference for which they preferred, yet it was practically a 50/50 split. After I conveyed to Oliver that Vision Ears should definitely go with the blue, he told me that this experiment was to help decide if it should be the red or blue that will be Vision Ear’s newest flagship. It was then I second guessed myself - the blue did feel a little too “safe” to really differentiate itself from other great flagship products. The red, while on the more extreme end, was more gripping at first listen. Perhaps a Goldilocks between the two could be made. Or that Vision Ears release both. Good luck on making the right choice, Oliver!
The other IEM I got to try was the VE8. Though an older flagship, it’s widely considered one of Vision Ear’s best products and made its name as a tonally darker but extremely smooth sounding IEM. My impressions match that almost to the T. The tuning of the VE8 is essentially downward sloping. There’s a sizable bass shelf, thickened lower mids, and a slowly fading treble. It is an all BA set and it is noticeable in the bass due to its lack of dynamism. But what it does well is in its high resolution and utter coherency. Despite a tuning that would easily have been muddy for many other IEMs, the VE8 effortlessly presents every note with a clarity tinted steeped in warmth.
One of the best parts of being at CanJam is to meet up with friends, have dinner, and then talk about upcoming projects. Or to be more specific, we both finally met up with Crinacle and had a sneak peek at his teased-but-unreleased Project Red. There were two versions, a v1 and v2 that Crinacle has been striving to perfect. No pictures but imagine a TruthEar Zero except with a crimson red faceplate instead of the blue one.
Fc-Construct: I’ve previously heard the TruthEar Zero briefly - Crinacle’s IEM that’s tuned as close to the Harman In-Ear target as reasonably possible. It was well tuned but I wasn’t overly enthused as it sounded rather bland with its (sub)bass separation and shelf. Project Red v2 on the other hand was much more compelling. The bass and lower mids (~300 Hz region) were the absolute stars of the show. There was an excellent sense of physically in that area, almost bombastically so. It was hard to focus on anything else but what was there was truly fun to listen to. The mids and treble played a complementary role and weren’t too much of note. The upper-mids had a Crinacle-like pinna gain around 6 - 7 dB and a tamed, non-fatiguing treble response. Though the price of the Project Red is not public, I approximated the price of the Project Red to be sub-$100, probably closer to the $50 mark given that it’s pretty much an alternate version to the TruthEar Zero and that it still had a hint of that <$100 dynamic driver IEM sheen that I’ve heard way too much of. As usual with Crinacle’s projects, I expect it to be the de facto recommendation for anyone looking for a tastefully bassy IEM that retains both tonal and technical chops. But don’t let the price fool you. It’ll outperform IEMs far above its price range, especially given the dearth of good bassy IEMs. I suspect my previous favorite beater basshead IEMs, the CCA CRA and CRA+, will sound like a toy next to the Project Red.
I also heard v1 of Project Red. Though the tuning difference is subtle, they do sound rather different. While I preferred the v2 by a small margin and think that Crinacle is on the right path as he slowly perfects the IEM before release, v1 still sounded excellent. It felt like a slightly toned down version of v2 and I do think it would appeal to a segment of listeners. But ultimately, if you want to take over the market, you need to make an impact. The Project Red v2 hammered home that point.
One small problem: the nozzles are FAT. The ergonomics aren’t quite as bad as the MoonDrop Blessing 2 but prepare your ears. I think at minimum it’s probably 7 mm.
Fc-Construct: I spent quite a bit of time with this booth and their guided demo session. The MEMS drivers on display have a lot of potential but do have a number of caveats that are important to note. I wrote an in-depth article on my impressions and the technology here if you want to learn more.
Letshouer Cadenza 12
For those unfamiliar with Letshouer, they’re a Chinese IEM company that gained massive popularity with the planar magnetic Letshouer S12. Before the S12, they were best known for the Shouer Tape and EJ07. At CanJam, Letshouer took the chance to show off their flagship $2,300 Cadenza 12.
Fc-Construct: The rep at the Letshouer booth casually handed me the Cadenza 12 as we chatted about new developments in ChiFi. It’s a plain looking IEM - made of a hefty non-descript titanium shell with a nice but non-exotic cable. It’s premium; not extravagant. Its appearance belies the fact that the Cadenza 12 contains a hybrid 12-driver set-up.
Sound wise, it didn’t have too many distinguishing features compared to other products in its class. The tuning was balanced - enjoyable but not quite neutral. No tonality issues whatsoever. It’s reasonably technical with good soundstage, imaging, and resolution. What was really notable was its bass. It is surprisingly meaty. Plenty of grunt and muscle that comes out of nowhere and feels almost out of place on this unassuming IEM. I’m always happy to see IEM makers focus on bass response when it’s one of the most distinguishing factors IEMs have over headphones.
To be honest, I thought the price for the Cadenza 12 was going to be about $800 given their prior products so I was pretty surprised to see the $2,300 price tag once it was revealed after CanJam. It’s undoubtedly a good IEM. I’m just a little concerned about how it’ll stack up against the significant competition in this range.
Saving the best for last, there was actually a secret booth at CanJam: Subtonic. Though they only had one representative there, Chang, they ended up taking over the central lounge with a never-ending line of IEM enthusiasts waiting to hear what they had to offer. And what they had to offer, among other things, was the self-proclaimed Greatest IEM Ever Made: the $5,000 Subtonic Storm.
Fc-Construct: Hearing the Subtonic Storm was the highest priority on my list coming into CanJam. I’ve known the Subtonic team for years now, from their days as hobbyists to their present evolution as IEM engineers, so this was an awesome opportunity to hear the culmination of their work, their personalities and beliefs made manifest. Well, I also heard a number of their other prototypes but I’ll save that for an upcoming article dedicated to Subtonic.
The easiest way to describe the Storm is that it’s a cross between the 64 Audio U12t and the Focal Utopia. Yes, you read that right. Where it reminds me of the U12t is in its tuning - a familiar studio-reference tuning that’s well extended on both ends and doesn’t go for any gimmicks. The Storm’s BA + EST configuration had the best BA bass I’ve ever heard, surpassing the previous champion of the U12t. While the Storm still doesn’t completely shed its BA nature, it easily outperforms the vast majority of DD IEMs at their own game. And this is where the Storm reminds me of the Utopia: it’s sheer dynamism. The Storm is undoubtedly the most dynamic IEM I’ve heard. There’s so much physicality and explosiveness in every note that it dominates the listening experience. Unlike the U12t, which can come off as almost boring at times despite its sheer technical prowess, the Storm is anything but. It takes practically every technical parameter that the U12t excelled in and ups the ante, breathing life into music and compels you to listen and listen and listen.
I could have sat there for hours and powered through my entire test playlist trying every song, simply hearing the way the Storm takes a familiar song and supercharges it. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give the Storm is that I believe it achieves almost everything its creators have set out to do with it, even against a healthy dose of skepticism on my part of the “World’s Greatest IEM”.
Heaps of praise aside, I don’t think the Storm is the perfect IEM for everyone. If you want a smooth, easy-to-listen IEM, the Storm is not it. Though it captured the ears of its listeners at CanJam, I wonder what the reception of the Storm will be over a longer period of time. There may be a certain sense that this level of dynamics isn’t quite right, that it’s almost overexaggerated in some fashion, that notes feel overly hard and defined. After all, similar sentiments were echoed with the Utopia in the months following its release. Or if you want to put a marketing spin on it, “the Subtonic Storm represents a whole new class of IEMs that we just might not be ready for yet.” Hey Subtonic team, that’s a free quote right there. Jokes aside, though I may not subscribe to every quality that the Storm strives for, I cannot name a better IEM.
At events like this, words cannot bring the experience justice. Yet it is our hope that these impressions intrigue and compel you to come to the next CanJam if you can. Above the music and above the gear, CanJam is a place to meet and connect with other audio enthusiasts and share in the joy of an auditory experience. It would be no exaggeration to say that the members of the Headphones.com team spent more time engaging with our community than listening to new and exotic equipment. At the end of the day, this community is the heart of the hobby.