For those of you not able to make it to Denver, CO for the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I’d like to let you in on a little secret. These days, by teaming with HeadFi.org, RMAF now offers attendees a show within a show thanks to an event called Can-Jam. What’s a Can-Jam? In simple terms, it’s an exposition and celebration of all things pertaining to high-end headphones, earphones, and the specialized electronics required to drive them. In short, Can Jam represents a parallel high-end audio universe of sorts where very high-performance systems can either fit on your desktop or be carried on your person, and where music is beamed directly into your ears. But veteran audiophiles may be tempted to ask, "Is it 'real' high-end audio?" Here’s my answer.
The sonic presentation of headphone systems certainly differs from that of speaker-based systems—most notably in the areas of imaging, soundstaging, and rendering of spatial cues (headphones image very differently than speakers do). But at the same time, today’s better headphones excel at musical information retrieval, realistic rendering of large and small-scale dynamics, and reproduction of small, delicate inner details in the music. In fact, in these specific areas today’s best headphones set a performance bar so high that it typically can be matched only by extremely expensive speaker-based systems. Given this, I think top-tier headphone and earphone-based systems certainly quality as serious high-end audio. But the best news of all may be that they also represent a form of high-end audio that large numbers of discerning music lovers can actually afford to embrace.
Below, I describe some of the coolest new products seen and heard at RMAF/Can-Jam 2012. As always, my apologies in advance to any manufacturers whose worthy products I fail to mention.
1964 EARS is a relatively new company based in the Pacific Northwest whose mission is to build multi-driver, custom-fit in-ear monitors that, in the company’s own words, “bridge the gap between price and quality.” Feature for feature, then, 1964 EAR’s custom IEMs are priced anywhere from about $100 to many hundreds of dollars lower than competing models from better known firms such as Ultimate Ears or Westone. Yet in terms of fit, finish, available colors, availability of custom artwork and comfort options, 1964 EARs appears to be fully competitive with the bigger players in the segment. At present, there are four main 1964 EARS custom-fit in-ear monitors:
Abbingdon Music Research (often abbreviated to “AMR”) is an extremely well regarded manufacturer of top-tier high-end audio electronics from Great Britain. For RMAF, however, AMR showed a line of astonishingly affordable products from its new iFi Micro sub-brand. But don’t be misled by the affordable pricing, though; the beautifully finished iFi Micro components are very serious both in intent and in the sonic results they achieve, and to prove this point AMR was demonstrating its iFi Micro iPhono phonostage ($399) in a system where, I believe, the iPhono was by far the least expensive component on display. The little iPhono sounded terrific—so terrific that if you had told show attendees the unit sold for, say, $1000+, they might well have believed you. Watch for an upcoming review of the iFi Micro iCAN headphone amp in a future issue of Hi-Fi+. As shown at RMAF, the iFi Micro range comprised four models: