For the first time in several years, I took a trip outside the country to visit none other than Singapore for CanJam! The scale of the show this year was absolutely massive with far more booths than I remember being at CanJam SoCal 2021 (my first industry show). Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise, though, given that Singapore is the predominant stronghold of the (portable) audio world. For someone like myself who hails from NA, it's not every day that I get the opportunity to hear this many IEMs! But IEMs came on Day 1 (you can check out my coverage on most IEMs at the show here) - and today, Day 2, was reserved for headphones. I didn't get around to every headphone I wanted to hear, but I do think I covered a good amount of ground. Read on to check out my thoughts on some of the world's most expensive, boutique headphones.
The usual disclaimers:
- Show ambient conditions are usually not good. It's not as much of a concern with most IEMs; however, it becomes much more relevant with open-back headphones. I am also not someone willing to damage my hearing for the sake of hearing a headphone as clearly as possible - I'd like to keep reviewing in the long-run!
- Most demos are done under a span of 15 minutes unless I really like something. My memory gets hazy after demoing so many headphones and having to write about them later (without referencing graphs a lot of the time).
- I use whatever source is provided to me by the booth. I try and hook-up my iBasso DX300 to the source to play my own files where possible, but sometimes I have less control over what music I'm listening to to test headphones. I also have no control over factors like the wear of the ear pads.
The first Abyss headphone that I heard was the AB1266 off of the Eleven Audio XI Formula S amplifier + Sagra DAC. Fit-wise, the AB1266 was quite uncomfortable with a very odd chassis and equally odd (okay, more like comical if I'm being perfectly honest) aesthetic when placed on the head. In any case, the actual sound of the AB1266 was more commendable at least. I found it to have a stellar bass response - almost perfectly linear - with a very good sense of slam. The upper-midrange of the AB126 actually sounded fine to me despite what I've seen depicted on some frequency response graphs. I'll attribute this to the headphone's excellent resolution. I found the biggest issue for me was actually in the lower-treble at around ~5-6kHz which could run hot, perhaps due to the recession in the upper-midrange. For sheer treble extension, the AB1266 performed admirably. Overall, I think this is a decent headphone - it's certainly at least very technical - but the Franken-bolt aesthetic and tonality aren't quite my cup of tea. I can at least see why this headphone has a cult-following, though!
Next, off of the Violectric DHA V226 + Woo Audio WA11, I heard the Diana TC which is intended to be a "baby brother" to the AB1266. I would disagree with this, though, as they really sounded quite different in practice to me. Bass on the Diana TC was less tight, more "impactful" in the sense that it sounded like more air was being pushed. I found female vocals to sound somewhere between recessed (in the presence regions) and forward (in the pinna compensation) on the Diana TC. Consequently, female vocals sounded somewhat hollow due to this contrast. Treble on the Diana TC was less lower-treble oriented, but from memory, reasonably well extended. I thought this headphone's sound was just OK overall, although the build and the fit were very nice.
I finished my stunt with Abyss headphones by listening to their Diana V2 off of the same setup as the Diana TC. The Diana V2 had an excess of mid-bass, sounding quite bloated and lacking in bass control. It also had less pinna compensation than the Diana TC and AB1266 while maintaining the characteristic lack of upper-midrange, thus lending to a more compressed sound. This trend extended into the treble response. Overall, I wasn't a fan of the Diana V2 and, between the three Abyss headphones I heard, I think the AB1266 was the clear winner of this lineup.
I first heard the LCD-5 at CanJam SoCal 2022, but due to not being able to use my own source material, I didn't want to comment too harshly on it. Well, I heard it again today, and...I didn't like it anymore than I did the first time. Maybe it was the Burson Conductor 3 Reference. I've listened with this amp extensively in the past, and with every headphone I heard off of it, I basically came to the conclusion that it killed micro-dynamics. In any case, I found the LCD-5's timbre to be somewhat dry and too linear in decay. Its tonality was good, don't get me wrong; I just didn't find myself very excited to hear the LCD-5.
Dan Clark Audio
I heard the Aeon 2 Open and Ether 2 off of the Niimbus HPA US 4+. Both headphones sounded similar to me with the Aeon 2 Open sporting more bass. Both were very well-tuned in my opinion - with the type of tuning where you can slap the headphone on and it just sounds "correct". That said, I did feel that the technical performance on these sets was more lackluster. In particular, I realized that the Aeon 2 Open had very little resolution after listening more closely, and the Ether 2 followed suit to a lesser degree.
I think this was the first headphone that I found impressive today. First, the build on the D8000 Pro was very sturdy and had lots of immaculate, complex machining; it just inspired confidence. The sound of the D8000 Pro was equally impressive off of the MSB Premier Headphone Amp and MSB Discrete DAC. Generally, the D8000 Pro had a neutral-bright tonality where there was a plateau from 3-10kHz+, but I couldn't detect the presence of any spiky peaks that might turn off a listener or come off as harsh. Instead, this plateau translated to exceptional clarity and imaging performance. The bass on the D8000 Pro was also solid. I did find it to be a hair dry in the mid-bass, but that might just have been ambient show conditions cancelling out my perception of sub-bass (thus increasing perception of the mid-bass). In any case, the D8000 Pro is a very good headphone, one of the few I heard today that I think warrants its price.
I was instantly impressed listening to the Heddphone. The Heddphone has a more conventional, neutral-analytical type of sound wherein bass is mostly kept to neutral, the midrange is generally thinner, and treble is brighter and very well extended. I did find the midrange and treble to be somewhat anemic, but there's no question that the Heddphone has terrific clarity as a result. Even more surprising was the Heddphone's slam. Bass transients on the Heddphone seemed superbly delineated and with a great sense of immediacy behind successive hits. I do think I would tire of the Heddphone in the long-run (as I ended up moving on pretty quickly anyways), but I can say that this is a very solid headphone that's worth giving a shot.
The Liric is Meze Audio's latest closed-back headphone. I found the Liric to have a reasonably decent tonal balance that maintains the spirit of Meze's house-sound. The issues that I would point out are 1) too much 3-5kHz, 2) peaks in the mid-treble and upper-treble which lent to timbre issues, and 3) a hair of boxiness in the lower-midrange around the pinna compensation. You do have to keep in mind that this is a closed-back headphone; closed-backs are notorious for having less than stellar tonality, so I think the Liric's was acceptable. But I found the technical performance of the Liric to be more questionable. Its bass was lacking in slam and not very impactful either, despite the headphone's sub-bass focus. Detailing also did not seem appropriate for $2000 in my humble opinion. On the bright side, Meze knocked it out of the park (as they always do) with the Liric's design and comfort.
Today, I had the opportunity to hear Stax's latest flagship headphone, the SR-X9000. I will say that if you are looking for the usual Stax sound, I don't think this is it. I found the SR-X9000 to have generous amounts of mid-bass (this is surprising given that their other headphones do not have this) and a roll-off under around ~40Hz (as I couldn't hear the bass hum on Lightsum's "You, Jam" for example). Moving forward, the SR-X9000 has an elevated midrange and treble response, thus delivering the impressive clarity that Stax's headphones are known for. Overall, the SR-X9000 is definitely a strong technical performer - but as I'll cover shortly - I'm not sure if its unique tonality merits the aggressive increase in price relative to its younger sibling.
So speaking of which, I also had the opportunity to hear the original SR-L700. Hot damn. I knew what I was getting into as I've heard the L700 MKII before, but it still didn't stop me from grinning while listening to the L700. The L700's clarity is nothing short of breathtaking; I genuinely think it was one of the most resolving headphones I heard today. The L700 just sounds fast, as silly as it sounds. Its treble is effortlessly extended and, despite measurements depicting otherwise, I find its bass extension to be perfectly serviceable too. I really enjoyed listening to this headphone. Maybe for that same reason, it's hard to believe that the build of the headphone itself is so lackluster. You - or at least I - would never have guessed a headphone looking and feeling like...that (see above) could sound so fantastic!
I’ve heard a lot of praise for ZMF’s headphones, but needless to say I found the Verite Closed off of the Cayin HA-6A didn’t quite measure up. To me, it had an unabashedly colored sound that simply took too many creative liberties. Here, I’m specifically referencing a strong peak at 5kHz. Contrasted to the generally recessed upper-midrange, treble instruments had a very harsh “thock” to the way they connected. Additionally, it seemed to beget a strange disconnect on instrument crashes (such as on Aimer’s "Hakuchumu") where the positioning of the crash didn't align with where I’d usually expect it to be. Outside of the unusual tuning, I found the Verite Closed to be an acceptable technical performer. Clarity was not stellar; however, the Verite Closed had a solid sense of detail (some of this perception likely owing to its strong lower-treble). Dynamics, so gradations in volume, were generally good to my ears.
Next, I listened to the brand-new Atrium off of the Matrix Audio Element X. This one was definitely more my speed. Compared to the Verite Closed, the Atrium had more pinna compensation and maintained a more conventional slope for the upper-midrange at 3-4kHz. I will say that it sounded like it still had a peak in the lower-treble; however, nowhere near to the alarming degree the Verite Closed did. Treble on the Atrium was missing some air over 15kHz, but I find that's mostly in-line with these types of more colored presentations. The Atrium's lower-midrange and bass were slightly thicker, again lending to a more colored presentation. Sheer clarity on the Atrium was not the best (it had some blunting to attack), but for a sense of internal detail it was certainly a decent performer and I found myself glued to its midrange. I also want to say the Atrium's imaging performance was quite impressive. It sounded expansive and holographic, lending to the musical character that I feel like ZMF was trying to capture. Like the Verite Closed, dynamics were good. Overall, while not necessarily a highlight of the show for me, the Atrium was the listen I needed to help understand why ZMF's headphones enjoy a cult-following.