Headphone Audio Updates From Las Vegas – CES 2016

HiFiMAN-1

Product releases are fairly common at CES. This year updates spun though a few brand mainstays, a few tweaks on current models and even a few new personal audio products from more traditional loudspeaker manufacturers. The big news coming out of the HifiMAN camp was humble rumbling introducing the company’s first electrostatic headphone. Designer and founder Fang Bian was clearly excited to show of the new prototype. “15 years in the making” he said in reference to the new flagship which falls neatly in step with the external design of the HE-1000 planar magnetic line.

AH CES 2016 BANNER-AH

The new headphone is called the Shangri-La and its development traces back to 2008 when Fang began working with new types of membrane coatings. The most recent one he’s found with has proven to be the most even and stable distribution thus far. Even though the new electrostat will eventually follow the HE-1000, it was actually the inspiration for the design of the flagship planar.

HiFiMAN

Fang will, of course be offering a new electrostatic headphone amplifier to go along with the Shangri-La, but the headphone should be compatible with the other Stax-orentied amps currently on the market. No pricing or release date yet for either, but CES is was just the first stop on the prototype tour. Fang should have the next round of prototypes ready for listening by the Los Angeles CanJam meet in March.

MRSPEAKERS-1

No audio show would be complete without personal audio’s hardest working man Dan Clark. A constant presence in the audio show tour across the US (and beyond), Dan has paired up with Creative Labs to produce what is likely to be the greatest (and probably most expensive) gaming headphone ever. Based around his award-winning Ether-C closed back planar magnetic headphone, the Ether gaming headset will be packaged with Creative Lab’s upscale headphone amp/DAC solution called the Soundblaster X7 SE ($499). The new combination will include a boom microphone and customized EQ just the Ether. The X7 incorporates some pretty interesting DSPs made specifically for gaming. Dan says that the Ether EQ and all the gaming DSP can be toggled on or off independently, but the demo I heard as CES was fairly convincing to leave a few switches flipped to the “on” position. The acoustic detail retrieval from the Witcher 3 on PC was simply outstanding though the rig. In addition to defined spacial queues and convincing surround effects from the DSP, Dan and I were able to detect that the sound effect emitted from a small torch placed within the landscape really sounded more like a full campfire effect upon closer inspection (which had been most likely recycled from another part of the game). The headphone mic unit is still in prototype form but should be ready to hit the street later this year.

Pass Labs-1

Pass labs has been making solid state amplifiers for the high end for more than 20 years. They recently introduced a single ended headphone amplifier called the HPA-1 for $3,500 and it is surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprising) still the least expensive item they sell. But that kind cost does come with some benefits. The brand built a solid reputation over the years and isn’t afraid to get into the details of design. From the media kit:

“Like the XP preamplifiers, the HPA-1 is the result of great attention to detail. Unlike the XP preamps, it is the product of Jam Somasundram, long time acquaintance who previously designed for a competitor. Starting at the power cord, the AC line is first filtered for high frequency noise and then isolated by a special toroidal transformer shielded by mu-metal for lower magnetic noise and shielded for electrostatic noise by a separate Faraday shield, grounded to analog ground. This is followed by fast/soft recovery rectifiers, generous CRC passive filtering and sophisticated discrete DC regulators and then more passive RC filters. The input switching system uses relays good enough to switch moving coil levels. Logic is employed to control transition muting and restoration of default settings, and the exclusive use of headphone output and high level preamp output. The volume control is the highest quality Alps dual potentiometer, the connectors are Neutrik and Cardas. The circuitry is a simple Class A two-stage CFA topology using cascoded ultra-low noise Toshiba Jfets driving complementary Fairchild power Mosfets. The measured performance is superb, and the sound even more so.”

All in all the guts looks fairly impressive at first blush, perhaps not quite as gushing the Luxman P-700u ($3,500) I’ve reviewed, but a little extra real-estate and isolation never hurt a chassis.

Manley-1

Manley Labs stuck a subtle chord with a few personal audio enthusiasts with the Stingray ($3,400, now in iTube form). Although it might have just been added as an afterthought to the amplifier’s clear loudspeaker intention, I’ve always liked the way this amplifier sits on a shelf. It looks like it means serious business. At CES it appeared as though Manley had decided to take on the personal audio space head on with a new product aimed squarely at the burgeoning headphone market, no afterthought intended.

Manly-1

The new Manley headphone amplifier was looking pretty slick in champaign and titanium colors, albeit a much different design than most headphone amplifiers I’ve seen before (or will probably see again). The intended use is practical enough, back end of the pinball-machine shape can also double as a headphone stand. Perhaps even a bit more unusual was a comment I overheard that hinted that the design is supposed to mimic a human face, with the stepped-relay thumb-wheel volume control acting as a symbolic tongue of sorts. Regardless of their exterior showmanship, Manley knows their way around a tube amplifier. The new device even sports a very unusual option for single-ended or push-pull topography. Outputs include both a standard headphone jack and 4-pin balanced connections located on the back panel. The amplifier can also be used as a pre amp through a pair of single ended RCA jacks also located in the rear.

The three models located in the Venetian suite were very much still works in progress. Only one was able to produce sound, the other two still just rough outlines included to give attendees an idea for the three finishes. Champaign and titanium will run you $2,950, while a copper build will cost more, but is still TBD. Expect shipping to start in summer of this year.