CanJam NYC 2017 Headphones & Personal Audio Expo: Show Report (VIDEO)

HiFiMan Shangri-La electrostatic headphones system

Check out this video report I made from my visit to CanJam NYC 2017:

Show report from CanJam NYC 2017. Narration, video, and music by Mark Henninger

CanJam New York City 2017 was heaven for headphone and personal audio enthusiasts. During my visit, I saw and heard products such as HiFiMan’s Shangri-La, Sennheiser’s Orpheus electrostatic headphone system, ultra-quiet amps by THX, Periodic Audio’s interesting earbuds made from three different elements, Schiit Audio’s DAC/amps including the Fulla 2 and the capable yet affordable Jotenheim, over-ear as well as in-ear multi-driver headphones from 1more, planar-magnetic earbuds from Audeze, and Sony’s best headphones.

I finally got to spend some quality time with Sennheiser’s $50,000 Orpheus electrostatic headphone system. It epitomizes luxury listening in multiple ways. Aesthetically, the block of marble and the mechanized start up sequence speak to the level of luxury you are buying into. Sonically, it was as impeccable as anything I’ve heard. Sennheiser says it has the lowest distortion of any audio reproduction device out there.

Sennheiser Orpheus Electrostatic headphones system
The preamp and amplification for Sennheiser’s Orpheus is built into a block of marble.

Auditions were by appointment in a quiet room away from the main show floor. As I listened to “In The Ghetto” by Elvis Presley, I recognized the degree of transparency I experienced with the Orpheus has only been rivaled by a few of the best demos of full-size stereo systems that I’ve ever heard. No question, it’s a true point of reference for two-channel audio.

Sennheiser Orpheus Electrostatic Headphone System
Here I am listening to Sennheiser’s Orpheus in a quiet, private room.

Not to be outdone, HiFiMan also showed up at CanJam with a $50,000 electrostatic headphone rig, the Shangri-La. This system, featuring a design esthetic inspired by cutting-edge military hardware, is a combination of a vacuum tube amp—in this case a transformer-free design using model 300b vacuum tubes—and a custom headset.

According to HiFiMan, the tubes are able to drive the high-impedance electrostatic transducers directly. This is a bold, reference-quality statement piece.

HiFiMan Shangri-La electrostatic headphones system
The tube amplifier for the Shangri-La gets its looks from cutting-edge military hardware.

I wish I could’ve spent some time with the Shangri-La in a quiet room, as was the case with the Sennheiser Orpheus. However, this demo occurred on the busy show floor, which was rather noisy. These are open back headphones, so external sound came through and negated the advantage of what I imagine is a very low noise floor on this system. As far as comfort, clarity, and dynamics are concerned, the Shangri-La shows what can be achieved when cost is effectively no object.

Another impressive HiFiMan demo involved the pairing of the company’s EF1000 amplifier and $6000 Edition 6 flagship planar magnetic headphones, a combination some were saying sounded better than the Shangri-La. I don’t know how you can make a judgment call like that on the show floor, but they are both exemplary headphones.

Periodic Audio has an interesting take on in-ear monitors. The company used CanJam to introduce three models that share the same fundamental design and use a single 10mm dynamic transducer. Dan Wiggins from Periodic Audio says using a full-range transducer has benefits in terms of reducing distortion and resonances.

The difference between the three models offered by the company boils down to the material used for the transducer—otherwise they are identical. Magnesium drivers cost $99, titanium will run you $199, and beryllium drivers sell for $299. Wiggins says each metallic element has its own unique sound signature with its own frequency response curve, with beryllium coming closest to the audiophile ideal.

THX has a new amplifier design—the AAA—that it says offers the world’s lowest measured distortion. One model it brought to the show touted a signal-to-noise ratio of 150 dB. Another model that emphasizes efficiency over ultimate performance has a 135 dB signal-to-noise ratio—this is an amp that can end up in a portable device. During the demo, you could watch the current draw in real time

I listened to the 150 dB, record-breaking performance amplifier—which was fed audio by a Benchmark DAC3 L. I couldn’t find fault with it, but given the amount of ambient noise at the show, there’s no possible way to make a judgment that accounts for the noise floor of a device like this. For now, I’ll take THX’s word for it that the amps meet their impressive specifications.

Schiit Audio is known for its no-BS portable audio DAC and amp designs that offer high performance at affordable prices. It’s products are made in the USA.

At CanJam, the company showed the new, $99 Fulla 2 USB DAC/amp/preamp, that’s made of metal, delivers 550 mW into a 16 ohm load, and sports a nice big volume knob.

Another new product from Schiit Audio is the Jotunheim. It’s a $399 upgradable balanced headphone preamp and amp that features 5 watts of power for 32-ohm loads and 500 mW of power into 600-ohm loads. It offers both a DAC upgrade option and a moving-magnet phono stage upgrade. Plus, company promises additional upgrade modules in the future.

1More seeks to bring great-sounding headphones to the masses at low prices. The company made its name with its $99 triple-driver in-ear model. At CanJam, the company showed off its new $299 triple-driver over-ear headphones, featuring beryllium drivers, as well as a new $199 quadruple-driver in-ear model.

The quadruple driver in-ear features a dynamic driver for deep bass, as well as three balanced-armature drivers for midrange and treble clarity—it’s a combination that typically costs much more.

Some of the most interesting portable headphones at the show were the iSine series from Audeze. These are miniaturized planar-magnetic headphones that can be worn as in-ear monitors. They look a bit outlandish and they are not inexpensive, but they are extremely light and the sound they produce is powerful with lots of body, deep tight bass, and great transient response.

There is not really anything else out there quite like them.

The iSine 10 and iSine VR are the more affordable models at $399 a pair, while the premium iSine 20 will cost you $599. Both models sport a frequency response of 10 Hz to 50,000 Hz.

Audeze iSine 20 in-ear planar-magnetic headphones
In-ear planar magnetic headphones? Meet the Audeze iSine 20.

Wrapping things up is Sony’s tour de force in personal audio, the $2000 per pair MDR-Z1R headphones, which are super-comfy and sound profound when powered by a $2200 TA-ZH1ES headphone amp.

The amp is fed audio by a $3200 NW-WM1Z Walkman. Yes, that’s a $7400 personal audio system from Sony we’re talking about here. But, it’s sublime.

The overear MDR-Z1R features a massive 2.76″ diameter dynamic driver that uses a magnesium dome and can reach frequencies up to 120 kHz. Sony also says that they can reproduce bass as low as 4 Hz. These headphones are made in Japan out of titanium and leather.

Kudos to CanJam for bringing together such great sounding systems including this one from Sony.

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