This is a continuation of a report on the 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.
In Part 1 of my report (click here to read) I offered some thoughts on Can Jam itself and on headphone based music systems, and then began describing some of the products seen and heard. Here, I’ll take up where I left off and offer more coverage of cool gear seen at the event.
As always, let me offer an apology in advance to any manufacturers I inadvertently may have overlooked. Manufacturers/vendors are discussed in alphabetical order.
Hailing from Austin, TX (as does Playback, by the way), Cavalli Audio offers a fascinating range of products, some targeted toward DIY enthusiasts looking to build their own headphone amps, and others offered as fully finished components. At Can Jam, Cavalli showed two prototype electrostatic headphone amplifiers (i.e., amps geared specifically for driving electrostatic headphones): the tube-powered eXStatA and a hybrid MOSFET-powered amp that, as I recall, didn’t have a formal name but could perhaps be called the “eXStatA Hybrid.” Both could potentially be offered later this year as circuit boards that the DIY crowd could use as platforms for future products. Completing the picture was the gorgeous Cavalli Liquid Fire tube-powered headphone amp, which was being used to power the AudeZ’E planar magnetic headphone demo nearby (covered in Part 1 of this report). It’s been said (by my friend and colleague Jonathan Valin at The Absolute Sound) that there can be a dichotomy between audio components that emphasize truth vs. those that emphasize beauty. Well, Cavalli’s Liquid Fire is plenty truthful, but at heart it’s all about beauty—sonic beauty of the kind that makes you want to forget everything but the music and to sit and listen for hours on end with a satisfied grin on your face.
If you looked up a Wikipedia entry for “truly clever, convenient, and well-executed headphone gear,” you might find a picture of some of Centrance’s products there. Centrance’s display focused on two products—one a current model called the DAC Port, and the other a future model called the DAC Mini (which rhymes, quite deliberately, with MAC Mini). Here’s the deal: the DAC Port ($399.95) is an in-line, USB-powered, 96kHZ/24-bit USB DAC and Class A headphone amplifier—all in a package about the size and shape of a large-ish, milled-from-billet, aluminum cigar. Cool. About now, though, you might be thinking, “surely a USB jack can’t provide enough power to drive a serious headphone amp.” That’s what I thought, too, until the Centrance folks (who turn out to have expertise at crafting small but potent power supplies that can do what seems impossible) demonstrated the DAC Port pushing a pair of notoriously hard-to-drive Beyerdynamic DT880 headphones (and set of T1 Teslas, too!). Now I’m a believer.
The DAC Mini, in turn, is a 96/24 DAC with USB, coax, Toslink inputs, plus headphone amp with DAC and line-level RCA inputs and fixed-level RCA outputs. The DAC Mini’s physical form factor exactly mirrors the size/shape of Apples popular MAC Mini, which many enthusiasts are using as their music server of choice. Pricing isn’t finalized yet, but should be “around $850.”
Cypher Labs is both a manufacturer and a digital audio “think tank” of sorts, so it should come as no surprise that the firm not only offers a Cypher-badged product, but also lends its technical know-how to projects for other firms. At Can Jam, Cypher was previewing its AlgoRhythm Solo ($579), a product that combines the functions of a digital—not analog—iPod interface and an asynchronous USB DAC in one neat package. As shown at Can Jam, the AlgoRhythm Solo was paired with an ALO Audio Rx Prescription portable headphone amp (covered in Part 1 of this report), and producing great sound.