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Auditioning: the BIG difference between head-fi & hi-fi shows

  • Reality alights. Eyeing a new pair of headphones or loudspeakers but can’t find a local dealer within driving distance? We might be tempted to make a trade show our next port of call. An event where hi-fi and head-fi systems are set up and demonstrated to anyone willing to take the time to listen — a smorgasbord of possibilities. Who needs that dealer anyway? And yet for the consumer with money ready to drop, the differences between hi-fi and head-fi trade shows could not be starker.

    A hi-fi show – like Bristol, like Munich – is a terrific place for enthusiasts to connect with manufacturers and their distributors, to meet fellow audiophiles and to catch sight of the latest and greatest in hi-fi hardware and software. But for the would-be product auditioner, the majority of exhibitors (unwittingly?) lay down stumbling blocks: the would-be auditioner must listen to loudspeakers through an unfamiliar room (arguably the most crucial component in any hi-fi system); s/he must listen to any electronics through the room and through the loudspeakers; gear is rarely swapped out to facilitate A/B comparisons between two products, the cornerstone of consumer decisions, as it might be at a high street dealer; s/he has next to no control over the music being played, especially if it deviates from show norms; s/he might never get to sit in the sweet spot — just as microphone position matters hugely when recording an orchestra, the listening position matters hugely when sat in front of a pair of loudspeakers. Going room to room, the most s/he can hope to discern from the majority of exhibitors is the sound of this system in this room.

    Which of these German hi-fi show attendees is sitting in the sweet spot?

    In short, a hi-fi show is a wonderful celebration of audio technology but it is, with rare exception, no place to reliably audition gear. That R-word is crucial when hundreds – often thousands – of dollars/Euros/Pounds are on the line. This is where we reflect to find value once again in high street emporia and/or internet sales that come with 15/30-day return policies.

    In the head-fi world, the forum that arguably birthed the name – Head-Fi.org – has spun off a series of trade shows that run every third month in various cities around the world: Shanghai, London, Newport Beach (SoCal), Singapore and, last weekend, New York City.

    Some of the biggest names in personal audio converged on the Marriott Times Square to show off the latest in headphones, IEMs, headphone amplifiers, network players and DAPs to several thousand budding enthusiasts: existing and future customers whose demographic skews younger and more female than the two-channel folk.

    Just as she did in 2019, Jana Dagdagan turned up to CanJam NYC 2020 with her video camera and a brief (supplied by yours truly) to capture the spirit of the show and to zoom in on five specific exhibitors: Final, Chord Electronics, Empire Ears, Abyss and Cayin:

    We’ve been here before. A CanJam is a terrific place to connect with manufacturers and their distributors, to meet fellow headphiles and to catch sight of the latest and greatest in headphone hardware and software. For the would-be product auditioner, the obstacles are few: s/he has no room to listen through; gear is often swapped out to facilitate A/B comparisons; s/he has total control over the music being played — s/he can connect a DAP or smartphone to the test rig if s/he doesn’t dig the tunes sitting on the exhibitor’s laptop or iPad; with IEMs and headphones, s/he is always sitting in the sweet spot. Only with open-back headphones might the ballroom’s wall of conversational sound overpower his/her ability to discern smaller differences between units.

    In short, a CanJam event is a wonderful celebration of headphone technology and is a far more reliable place to audition gear.

    Further information: CanJam Global

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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