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Highlights From NAMM 2016


If attending CES is all about staying healthy and avoiding the dreaded handshake bug, then NAMM (National Association of Musician’s Merchants) is all about the people watching. While I’m sure that every type of musician and merchant roam the endless rows of booths at the Anaheim convention center in late January, a few die hard fans of music dress up in their alternatives to “Sunday Best” and showcase some of the craziest hair and clothing ensembles you have ever seen. The visual art makes for good fun and an entertaining visit to say the least. Lines at the beer stands start early, and random celebrity musicians pop up consistently as you make your way from one appointment to another.

The show belongs entirely to the pro side of audio. Displays run the gamut from lighting, to instruments, to smoke machines. HiFi takeaways usually include a healthy dose of IEMs, powered monitors and the few audio brands that live on either side of the line precariously perched between production and two channel listening.

Halfway though the main entry-point layered in a semi-transparent veil of smoke machine cover I found the guys from Emotiva tucked neatly into a corner. Known in both parts of the audio world, the team had a diverse display of their active monitors up and running as one might expect. The professional powered monitor series is outfitted with some aggressive pricing that starts at $199 a pair and moves up to the Stealth 8 at $749 for one. Emotiva has recently expanded their loudspeaker range to include some two channel and home theater solutions while still utilizing the mid size woofers and folded ribbon tweeters the brand has become known for. The new line includes a three way Airmotiv T1 tower ($350/pair), two way B1 bookshelf ($300/pair), 3 way C1 center ($250) and two way E1 surround ($250/pair). If this all seems to be getting a bit familiar to you (if you followed our CES coverage) then you won’t be disappointed to find out that Emotiva will also be producing a sound bar equipped with six 4″ woofers and three folded ribbon tweeters called (wait for it) the SB-1 ($500).

Flying under a new flag, Emotiva’s new Emersa line of products shoots for even more budget-y value eloquently paired with upfront and simplified operation. The Emersa pre amps and processors come in a variety of configurations, but mostly feature only input, power and volume utility on the front panel. Everything in the line should round up to less than a grand per piece. A supplemental range of amplifiers complement the processors (including an integrated option) with class D ICEpower channels in 2, 5 and seven arrangements (lower half of the image above).

The popular XMC-1 Pre/Pro ($1499) is also entering its “Gen 2” lifecycle as is the XPA amplifier line to its “Gen 3”. The new XPA line of upscale amps can be configured into any channel arrangement from two to seven (~$1k-$2k).

I got another chance to catch up with the new copper clad AK 380 from Astell and Kern. AK partnered with Jerry Harvey audio’s booth to present the new “Full Metal Jacket” lineup of universal-fit Siren series IEMs that they distribute [more info here]. Jerry’s company also supplies musicians and engineers with custom pieces for on-stage performing and monitoring.

The real highlight for me on the short trip down to Anaheim was a chance to hear the new electrostatic IEM from Shure. Up until this point electrostatic technology in audio has been restricted to rather large loudspeaker panels and headphones from two brands, Stax and [Kingsound]. Most recently, HiFiMAN [is prepping a new full-size headphone at CES] but Shure is the first company I have heard of taking it down into the ear canal.

The new product is called the KSE-1500 Electrostatic Earphone System ($3k) and for right now the earpiece has to be paired with the corresponding amplifier and is not compatible with other electrostatic amps due to differences in bias voltage. The connection between the two is made via a 6 pin LEMO plug and the product is still so new that no other aftermarket custom cables have been developed yet (as of this writing).

I had a chance to chat with one of the engineers that worked on the project who was manning the booth on the designated wing of a fairly large chunk of real estate that Shure had secured for the show. The agreeable gent was quick to point out that the KSE-1500 went through 9 years of development before it got to this point and was actually inspired by reverse engineering from a condenser microphone. A single electrostatic transducer creates all the sound you hear and is slightly smaller in size than the black circle encompassed by a silver ring you see in the above image. From the NAMM handout: “The first application of electrostatic technology for sound isolating earphones featuring a single MicroDriver design. Each earphone features a virtually weightless, massless diaphragm, surrounded by an electrostatic field generated by back plates that manage charge oscillation.” The universal fit stem of the earpiece can be sleeved with either silicone or foam tips.

The playback device is appropriately portable and packs quite a feature set under the hood. The KSA-1500 amplifier includes preset EQ settings as well as a 4 band parametric custom options. Playback filetypes include up to 24/96, but no DSD. Inputs allow for USB connectivity along with a standard 3.5mm analog option. As an added bonus, the little unit is compatible with iDevices straight to lighting (no CCK needed) and OTG cables. It even includes a bypass for the digital processing for a “pure analog” mode. Battery life is projected at 7 hours for digital (10 analog), but is capable of charging from a computer through the USB while in use.

The KSE-1500 [on Amazon] and [B&H].

Shure made sure not to leave rest of their popular IEMs out in the cold either. Maximizing all the R & D effort put into the KSA-1500 amp, the SHA-900 Portable Listening Amplifier ($1k) is also available and offers a similar feature set as the KSA, but for regular old 3.5mm SE headphones. The 900 includes “multiple output gain structures” so it plays nice with full size cans and your fav pair of IEMs (the spec’d output impedance is .35 ohms). A very respectable and well thought out offering from the team at Shure. The no DSD was a bit of a surprise considering all the other tech bases that were covered, but given its scarcity and the stream-friendlyness of the device it seems that Shure has its own (and perhaps more appropriate) vision of where things are heading for high resolution playback.

On my way out of the Shure booth I was pleasantly surprised to cross paths with the legendary Chris Robinson of the Black Crows (and now the Chris Robinson Brotherhood) who was signing autographs for attendees. With the swirling lights set up above the entire scene was quite a sight to behold for an old fan who’s mind’s eye forever held the man in place as a 20-something rockstar in bellbottoms (although he could have easily still been rocking some ‘bells hidden underneath the table for all I knew).

Like I said, people watching at its finest.

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