It perhaps goes without saying that the purpose of the high-end audio movement is to create home audio systems that sound so beautiful and true to the music that they bring literal tears of joy to listeners’ eyes. And for many enthusiasts, the most fundamental assumption of all is that these systems will as a matter of course entail playback of music through loudspeakers. But does that presumption really make sense? What if music lovers decided to take a substantially different approach—one where they based their prized music systems on extremely high-performance headphones instead of speakers?
As most Playback readers already know, this isn’t a hypothetical question, since a large and growing number of audiophiles (of all ages and both genders, by the way) have shifted their interest and attention to headphone-based systems, and are having a ton of fun doing so. For evidence of this, you need look no further than to the recent Can Jam International Head-Fi Meet held on June 5-6, 2010 in Chicago, IL. I attended Can Jam as a representative of Playback and of The Absolute Sound and at the event was able to see and hear some of the most ambitious and musically satisfying headphone/desktop audio gear on the planet.
What follows is Part 1 of my Can Jam report
For those of you who are arriving late to the headphone party, some background information is probably in order.
First, let me explain that many Can Jammers are, as you might expect, familiar with and appreciative of the traditional high-end audio world. Even so, many have made the conscious choice to focus on headphone-based systems, and it is reasonable to ask why. I posed the question to some Can Jam attendees and got answers that I think may be of interest to traditional, speaker-centric audiophiles.
Many Can Jam attendees said that while they felt speaker-based systems might have an edge in terms of reproducing spatial aspects of music, headphones enjoy a significant edge in many other areas of music reproduction. Specifically, many argued that ‘phones could more easily deliver extended full-range frequency response, realistic dynamics, sonic purity, and overall levels of resolution, detail and musical “intimacy”— that would be difficult for most reasonably priced loudspeaker-based systems to equal (let alone to surpass).
There is also the matter of convenience. High-end headphone rigs needn’t take up a lot of space, typically do not require dedicated listening rooms, and can be enjoyed at satisfying volume levels at most any time of day and without disturbing other family members. There is also the possibility of assembling very high performance portable systems small enough to fit in backpacks or duffel bags. There’s a certain freedom that comes with being able to take your top-tier audio rig with you, with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Another key factor involves cost. You can get a more or less state-of-the-art set of headphones for $2000 (or potentially for much less), whereas true state-of-the-art loudspeakers can run well up into the five- or even six-figure range. Similarly, state-of-the-art headphone electronics, while by no means cheap, are much less costly than the top-tier gear needed to drive exotic high-end speaker systems. The bottom line is that high-performance headphone systems are not just a little but a lot more accessibly priced than their loudspeaker-based counterparts.
Put all of these factors together and it becomes clear that headphone-based music systems allow a broad range of music lovers (young, old, and in between) to tap into very high levels of sonic performance, yet without experiencing bank account meltdown. What’s not to like about that?
The name “Can Jam” is indirectly derived from the informal recording studio term “can,” which is slang for “a pair of headphones.” Organized by the Head-Fi group (www.head-fi.org), Can Jam is in essence both a festival and a conference that showcases all things pertaining to high-performance headphones and personal/desktop audio systems.
Accordingly, manufacturers reserve tables (or even entire rooms) where they show and in most cases demonstrate their products, while several groups of rooms are reserved for display tables where individual members set up and demonstrate their personal headphone systems (some of which are astonishingly exotic and musically delightful).