Audio Performance AF140 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
The headphone biz sure has changed in the last few years. Obviously, lots of companies have been getting into it, but that was 2011’s trend. Today’s trend involves what’s been happening to those companies that have been at it since then. Some of them are getting better.
It’s no secret that many, perhaps most, companies that have recently entered the headphone market began by slapping their logos on models made by some faceless original design manufacturer (ODM) no consumer in the Western Hemisphere has ever heard of. What’s happening now is that some of those companies have decided that, in order to compete, they have to get serious. Mass-marketers such as Beats, House of Marley, Skullcandy, and others have brought in heavy-duty engineering talent and spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on test equipment. As a result, their ’phones are getting better, with a more consistent “house sound.”
I don’t know if or how Audiofly has added to its engineering resources over the last few years, but it’s obvious that this Australian company has learned a lot since it entered the market in 2011. Its first earphones had an appealing industrial design and pretty good sound overall, but I found that their sonic signature varied from model to model.
Focal Spirit Classic measurements can be found by clicking this link.
The French company Focal may be best known to audiophiles on this side of the pond for their flagship Utopia line of loudspeakers, formerly sold under the JMlab brand -- but this large hi-fi company has, for decades, been manufacturing a full range of loudspeakers, from the very affordable to the ultra expensive.
While continuing to serve its core market of speakers for two-channel and home-theater systems, Focal has more recently embraced small desktop speaker systems and headphones. Their first headphone model, the Spirit One ($279.99 USD), is a compact, sound-isolating design with a warmish sound, and some extra bass to compete with ambient noise. In late 2013, Focal introduced two new headphones: The Spirit Professional ($349) is built to take the abuse of the pro-audio world and render a flat, detailed sound, while the subject of this review, the Spirit Classic ($399), was designed both ergonomically and sonically for audiophile listening at home.
LCD-X measurements can be found by clicking this link.
At CanJam 2009, in Los Angeles, Alexander Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram showed off a new headphone prototype. Two things made these headphones stand out from the variety of do-it-yourself contrivances usually found at CanJam: though Rosson and Thiagasamudram used a commercially available enclosure, the driver was entirely their own -- a rather rare planar-magnetic design. By the end of that year, the two had organized themselves into a company they named Audeze (pronounced Odyssey) and come out with their first salable product -- the LCD-1 headphones.
In 2010 the LCD-2 ($1145 USD) was introduced, and that’s when the headphone community and professional reviewers really began to take notice. Not only was the sound surprisingly good for a product from a brand-new company, it was something very different from what other headphones offered: denser, more robust, and comfortably warm. The next few years saw incremental changes to the LCD-2 and the launch of the higher-end LCD-3 ($1945), which has a thinner, lighter diaphragm and is claimed to sound more transparent. The latest creation from Audeze, debuted at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, is the LCD-X ($1699).
The planar-magnetic driver might need a bit of explanation. The drivers in typical dynamic headphones are similar to those of conventional loudspeakers: a dome-shaped diaphragm with a voice coil affixed to it. Current flowing through the wire induces a magnetic field, which interacts with the field of a permanent magnet placed behind the coil -- the electromagnetic force causes the diaphragm to move back and forth, and the resulting compression and rarefaction of air produces soundwaves.
Established in 1994 in Vicenza, Italy, Pathos Acoustics has become widely known as an innovative manufacturer of fine audio electronics with stunning industrial designs that are as eye-catching as their sound is wondrous. Guided by a design philosophy that declares that each new product must have a technical advantage over similar gear in its category, as well as an arresting look that announces it as something unique, every Pathos model exudes postmodern Italian sophistication.
When I visited Pathos for SoundStage! Hi-Fi in September 2007, I saw this rigorous standard applied to each product made, and came away impressed with the company and the leadership of its founders: research-and-development director Giovanni Borinato; Gaetano Zanini, who fine-tunes the products and is responsible for production; and industrial designer Paolo Andriolo. It was a treat to witness Pathos’s meticulous manufacturing processes: the exposed inner complexity of the Endorphin CD player (like a pod of Abu-Dhabi condos), heatsinks being cut and polished, a case being machined for the gorgeous InPol2 amplifier.
So when SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider asked, soon after the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, if I’d be interested in reviewing the new Aurium headphone amplifier ($1495 USD), I jumped at the chance, not only already confident in the quality of the product but also intrigued that, after 20 years in mainstream audio, Pathos was now expanding into head-fi. I expected to be delightfully surprised.
Furutech, a Japanese maker of audio accessories, has been on a tear lately through its Alpha Design Labs (ADL) brand. When I reviewed their Esprit USB DAC, in April 2013, I found it a great-sounding, versatile addition to a small home system. To supplement its home-audio USB DACs, ADL has also introduced a series of portable DACs and a pair of headphones. The subject of this review, the X1, is the smallest and newest DAC-headphone amp of the three in ADL’s line. At $479 USD, the X1 packs some high-end technology into its diminutive case.
The ADL X1 is designed primarily for use with Apple devices -- not coincidentally, at 4.6”L x 2.7”W, it’s close to the size of an iPhone or iPod Touch. You could easily place it under an iPhone and bind them together with a couple of rubber bands. The X1 has a clean, classy appearance: brushed-aluminum face, rounded corners, and inset switches. The X1’s sides are finished in a rubbery material -- it won’t easily slip out of your hands. The only odd feature is the rotary volume control at the right of the faceplate -- the other switches can’t be inadvertently bumped, but the volume control, which doubles as an on/off switch, is vulnerable.
Viso HP20 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
To say that Paul Barton set the audio world on its ear when he introduced the PSB M4U 2, his first headphone design, wouldn’t be exaggerating. Before Barton created the M4U 2, he read all the research he could find about voicing headphones. This led him to design the M4U 2 with a response that, while somewhat idiosyncratic, made many other headphones suddenly sound a lot less good. Barton was attempting to better re-create the sound of real speakers in a real room, and according to most listeners, he succeeded. He called his new voicing RoomFeel.
Since then, Barton has incorporated RoomFeel into more headphones, including the PSB M4U 1 and the NAD Viso HP50, both of which have gotten rave reviews. Now he’s incorporated RoomFeel into a pair of earphones: NAD’s Viso HP20 ($169 USD).
The HP20 is obviously a serious effort, incorporating Barton’s voicing, elegant and rather macho-looking (for earphones, anyway) industrial design, and a machined-aluminum shell that encloses each 8mm dynamic driver. It’s available in black or silver finish.
LCD-3 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
In Chicago last spring, at the 2013 Audio Expo North America (AXPONA), I browsed the demo tables of head-fi and desktop gear. I was especially interested in reference-level headphones, as I was looking to upgrade from my tried-and-true Sennheiser HD 650 ’phones. The genial Sankar Thiagasamudram, president and co-founder of Audeze, invited me to try both the Audeze LCD-2 ($1145 USD) and LCD-3 ($1945) headphones. Both models impressed me, but especially the LCD-3’s seemingly full-range sound with symphonic music. I’ve found that symphonic music is extremely difficult for any system to reproduce, let alone headphones. Sending to my ears a high-resolution recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.6, the LCD-3s got the strings right -- not only the top notes of the violins, but also the midrange lushness of the cellos and the gravitas of the double basses in their lowest register. Not long afterward, I asked to review them.
In contrast to conventional headphones, which use cones similar to the dynamic drivers found in most loudspeakers, the Audeze LCD-3s have planar-magnetic drivers. In this technology, instead of a voice coil, a circuit is directly printed on a thin diaphragm, with an array of magnets on either side. These diaphragms are far lighter than the cones in conventional headphones (e.g., my Sennheiser HD 650s). When the circuit is energized with an audio signal, the diaphragm’s interaction with the magnets produces an electromagnetic field that pulls and pushes the diaphragm back and forth, which rarefies and compresses the air to produce soundwaves. In theory, a planar driver can produce faster, more coherent sound than a cone because the diaphragm moves “as one” rather than, like a cone, beginning from the center outward, which makes cones more susceptible to breakup at higher frequencies. In addition, since the Audeze driver is so large, the excursion it needs to move a given amount of air is far less than a conventional cone would need -- which also, in theory, should result in less distortion.
XBA-H1 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Hybrid earphones -- with one dynamic and one or more balanced-armature drivers -- seem like a great idea. You get the punch and power of a dynamic driver for the low frequencies, and the detail and delicacy of a balanced-armature driver (or two or three) for the midrange and treble. The best of both worlds! Great plan, huh?
Not so far, at least. Before I got Sony’s new XBA-H1 ($149 USD) into my ears, I’d tried three hybrids: the Audiofly AF78 ($209), the AKG K3003 ($1299), and the Scosche IEM856md ($249). Only the Audioflys struck me as a good buy, and I can’t say they were necessarily any better than the best conventional earphones in their price range.
Making a hybrid is tough. You’ve got to cram two differently shaped drivers and maybe a crossover circuit into a tiny enclosure that can slip into your ear canal, all without introducing acoustical obstacles that add ugly-sounding dips and peaks. But Sony’s one of the very few headphone manufacturers to make its own balanced-armature drivers (most others buy them from Knowles Acoustics), so it may know some things the competition doesn’t.
Last March, I gave the Logitech Harmony Touch universal remote control a positive review, but noted some things that might be improved. Now comes the Harmony Ultimate, in which almost everything left unfinished in the Touch is resolved.
Included with the Harmony Ultimate ($349.99 USD) are a Harmony Hub, two IR Mini Blasters, a charging station, a USB cable, two AC adapter cords, a start-up manual, and warranty information.
The Harmony Ultimate itself looks almost identical to the Touch; it’s the same size (7.25”L x 2.25”W x not quite 1” thick), though at 4.8 ounces it weighs slightly less than the Touch’s 5.7 ounces. The Ultimate looks just as sleek and gleaming, has the same buttons, and the icons for each Activity and device can still be customized. The battery is still not serviceable by the consumer; when it dies, the device dies.
There is, however, one big difference from the Touch: a bulge on the Harmony’s bottom, about 2” from the front end, that guides the hand forward so that the thumbs can more easily reach the hard buttons -- play, pause, skip, and record -- above the screen. I still need two hands.
NuForce, based in Fremont, California, is an interesting company for the audio enthusiast. They first staked their reputation on a patented class-D amplifier design with a switching power supply. Although pricey -- their cheapest monoblocks cost $2500 USD per pair -- they sounded as good as anything I’d heard. NuForce has since made inroads in almost all ranges of sound and price, as I found out when I reviewed their Icon uDAC-2 combo of headphone amp and DAC ($129). The company now has a bunch of models that are extremely affordable, including the DDA-100 Direct Digital amp ($549), which Roger Kanno favorably reviewed for SoundStage! Hi-Fi.
Somewhat in the middle of the road, pricewise, is the subject of this review -- the AVP-18 surround-sound processor ($1095). NuForce has stripped down the feature set of the typically bloated audio/video receiver to provide a minimalist home-theater pre-pro that an audiophile can love.