Former CEntrance and HRT employee Michael Mercer curated The Headphonium (*cough* – named by yours truly). It’s a smaller, more intimiate take on RMAF’s CanJam. This is possibly the only place at the show where you can listen to your own music with impunity – no wonder the headphone bubble keeps expanding.
Just inside the The Headphonium’s entrance is the Astell&Kern stand. iRiver’s smartly-named luxury personal audio player brand sees busy traffic all weekend. Jimmy Moon talks me through the all-new AK120 player: 3 ohm output impedance, gapless playback (which also now available on the AK100), twin Wolfson DACs (yes, it’s a dual mono design), taller casework, better-protected volume pot. This is my first exposure to an Astell&Kern player and the interface is wonderfully intuitive. The sound quality runs rings around that of my iPhone 4.
The newer model has a connectivity leg up on its little brother: a USB port (in addition the toslink output). When attaching a USB cable, the menu system asks if your attached device will input (charge, transfer files) or output (to USB DAC). The kicker? It’s US$1300. If you think that’s expensive, spare a thought for the Brits: in the UK, the AK120 is selling for 1140GBP. That’s ~US$1700. Ouch.
Is it ready yet? IS IT READY YET? I jest with Michael Goodman of CEntrance that these four words might have aged him. The Hifi-M8 has been in gestation for 9 months and Goodman is finally (!) going into labour with his iPhone DAC/headphone amp. The cases are done and the internals are baked. Only an XMOS software glitch to iron out and it’ll be chocks away!
I learn that the HiFi-M8 can be paired with more devices than just the iPhone – it also functions as a USB DAC (which can be switched on the fly) and some Android phones will play nicely. That’s great news as my Samsung Galaxy S3 sounds terrible. The M8 is battery powered and can run 5 hours before recharging. Headphone impedance and gain switches have been added. So too have two subtle tone controls. Different output connector configurations will be available and there’ll also be an LX version with trades the USB input for optical – hello Astell&Kern AK100. All iterations will sell for $699. It too trounced the stock iPhone sound. I’ll be buying one upon release.
Scot Markwell of Elite AV Distribution is a lively and rumbunctious fellow. The John Goodman of audio! Big guy, big enthusiasm, big voice. The static HRT display is thorough – their Audioquest-Dragonfly-rivalling Microstreamer (US$190) is tiny. Then I spy the HRT iStreamer (US$195) and think about running a “virtual Squeezebox” on an iPad. Markwell concurs. This fellow embodies everything I dig about Americans: big with enthusiasm and conversation.
Back on the room by room trail, Vinnie Rossi is all smiles and patience as he fields a long list of questions from a Korean show attendee. No amount of advice sought is too much for Rossi. He holds fast with wide eyed enthusiasm and patience. Red Wine Audio get a mention here because – as per the Headphonium exhibitors – listeners are invited to play their own music from the Macbook that sits front and centre. I’d brought along a few songs from my T.H.E. Show playlist. With a a Bricasti DAC and Harbeth SHL 5 loudspeakers bookending Rossi’s amplification, we sat and winced our way through Donald Fagen (one of those horrorshow 1980s masters – all tipped up) and thankfully grinned our way through Tom Waits, Neil Young, David Byrne and St Vincent. Here was a system strong on rhythmic snap.
The Renaissance Edition upgrades are very much a go. Even the Lilliana monoblocks (US$6000/pair) have been hit with the revamp stick. On static display is what I’ve come to see: the Signature 57. It’s BIG. Much bigger than the familiar RWA shoebox designs. With two Lilliana boards inside the Signature 57 can drive over 100 wpc into 4 ohms. Hello Magnepan MMG! Apparently there’s also room inside for this ride to get pimped with Bellina Pro digital board AND Analogica phono stage. A luxury all-in-one possibility that negates luxury power-cable appendages.