This post contains the second round of my headphone impressions from the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, consisting of Audio-Technica, STAX, Beyerdynamic, and Polk Audio. For part 1 of my impressions, featuring Klipsch, Phiaton, Westone, and others, see here.
Audio-Technica, as always, had dozens of models on display but the release they seemed to be pushing the most was the new Sonic Fuel in-ear earphones, one of which I tried and even got a pair to take home. I sampled a few of their reasonably-priced portable headphones as well, though none stood out as particularly noteworthy.
Audio-Technica also had their high-end wooden models on display, including the ATH-ESW9A (which Ive already reviewed here), the ATH-W5000, and the beyond-gorgeous ATH-W1000X. Unfortunately these were hooked into an unknown source and could not be disconnected for a proper demo with my own equipment, but they sure did look good.
Audio-Technica Sonic Fuel CKX5iS
Audio-Technicas new Sonic Fuel line was announced last year and consists of the ATH-CKX5, ATH-CKX7, and ATH-CKX9 models, as well as their iS (e.g. CKX5iS) headset counterparts. The iS headsets utilize 1-button inline remotes and analog volume controls. I personally rather like this setup digital volume controls may be better for fidelity but almost always work only with Apple devices. For a dynamic-driver headset, an analog volume control makes sense and allows the earphones to work with a wider range of devices.
The Sonic Fuel IEMs are marketed as sports earphones, available in a myriad colors, and range in price from $45 to $100. The big selling point of these earphones is the pivoting nozzle. Weve seen this before with VSonic earphones, for example the GR07 model I had with me at the show , but in the Audio-Technica implementation the nozzles have greater freedom and pivot more easily, leading to a very compliant fit. I got to try (and take home) the entry-level CKX5iS headset and can confirm that with the ear fins (which come in three different sizes) and adjustable nozzles the fit is very much locked-in. They also sound pretty good for $50 enhanced but pretty clean bass, slightly warm tone, some treble sparkle, and good clarity and detail. These are definitely going to get a full review.
MSRP: $49.95 | Manufacturers page
Im almost ashamed to say that Ive never heard a STAX headphone before, but I will now listen to them every chance I get. At CES this Japanese Hi-Fi powerhouse had set up a very nice listening booth staffed with some of the most knowledgeable people I met at the show. I probably spent an hour in the STAX booth, and the staff were only too happy to hook up the sources I brought with me, discuss the merits of different test tracks, and suggest the best value STAX headphone/amp combinations for me to try.
STAX SR-307 and SR-407 Lambda
These were the first two STAX sets I tried. I think I was attracted by their rather unique aesthetic these are really not the type of headphone your friends will be impressed with. No matter, however, as they perform very well. The sound is open and airy, and the soundstage seems limitless and entirely out-of-the-head. I did not get into the differences between these two as they sounded pretty similar to each other. The entry-level combination suggested by STAX was the STAX SRM-006tS amp + the SR-307 headphone, which runs around $1700 in total, just a bit more than a Sennheiser HD800. Keep in mind, however, that the HD800 will still need an amp to power it. Looks aside, I definitely feel this STAX combo gives any of the dynamic-driver headphones Ive heard (which, admittedly, is far from all of them) a run for their money in sound quality and especially value. I would be quite content if this combo were to replace my current HD580-based home listening setup.
STAX SR-009 and STAX SR-007MK2
The next STAX sets I tried were the SR-009 and SR007MK2. For me the SR-009 is now the Holy Grail – I have never heard anything that sounds as good, and that includes the HD800 that Sennheiser was demoing a few booths over (and which Ive heard in the past as well). The transparency, soundstaging, imaging, and sheer resolution of the STAX were incredible, and they somehow did all this without butchering low bitrate tracks. The soundstage, as with the Lambda, was completely without confine, as if the headphone were somehow able to fill the entire listening room.
I tried the SR007MKII next. Much like the SR-009, these provided a great listening experience but seemed a touch warmer, darker, and less quick and detailed. I ended up gravitating towards the brighter SR-009. Overall, it seemed like both of these headphones extracted the very best my sources and audio files had to give, and then just asked for more. I sincerely hope that I will get a chance to hear these wonderful headphones again sooner rather than later.
The SR-003MK2 is the latest generation of portable STAX. It is an in-ear model which utilizes extremely shallow and soft rubber eartips. The earpieces have some ability to pivot on the metal headband but I can still foresee many listeners having problems fitting these. Only medium eartips were available (although small and large sizes are said to exist) and Im not sure I got the best possible seal, which might explain the diminished bass depth compared to the other STAX sets. It could also be explained by the smaller size of the SR-003s transducers. The mids were still extremely clear and transparent, and the sound was open and airy in a way that surpasses conventional IEMs. I dare say I havent heard anything that sounds quite like this in an IEM form factor since the oddball Yuin OK1. The treble, like the bass, seemed a little lacking compared to the full-size SR-407.
The SR-003MK2 units are sold in the US together with a STAX portable amplifier. There is a new portable amp coming out for these thats said to provide superior audio quality compared to the current one. There will also be a higher-end version that features a built-in DAC for PC, Mac, and even Apple iPhone. This new unit is designed to magnetically attach itself to the iPhone and grab the digital stream through the Apple Lightning connector. The demonstration was certainly very impressive.
All in all, the SR-003MKII provides a very clear and spacious sound as far as IEMs go but with a necessity to carry the large amp/DAC unit and zero isolation, their appeal is surely limited.
MSRP: $350.00 | Manufacturers Page
Individual product impressions aside, what I truly love about STAX is the no-frills approach to audio. There seems to be nothing thats too ridiculous in pursuit of audio quality. A headphone that looks like a heat radiator from the 1970s? Sure, lets make it brown! A flagship that makes the Sennheiser HD800 seem downright cheap in comparison? No problem. A portable set that looks like an old Sony Walkman headphone and requires a 1.5lb DAC/Amp at all times? Done.
Beyerdynamic had a number of their headphones refreshed last year, for example the DT51P, but I was more interested in trying some of the sets I had missed altogether, namely the Custom One Pro. A couple of new IEMs were on display as well, though no one could tell me much about them.
Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro
I had been meaning to try the Custom One Pro for a while. At the Beyerdynamic booth these were available in a number of different color combinations, in order to really drive home the custom aspect. I was immediately impressed with the build quality like most things Beyer, these are built to last.
The sound was a little lacking in control/tightness even on the least bassy setting and had the ability to get rather bassy when tuned via the adjustable vents. They were very comfortable and extremely well-made, though. For those who will listen to these on the more balanced settings there are likely better options but for fans of big bass theres value here with the <$200 street price.
MSRP: $239 | Manufacturers page
Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE
Beyerdynamics in-ears have undergone some updates, with the DTX 101 iE becoming the DTX 102 iE and two new higher-end models introduced the DX 120 iE and DX 160 iE. I tried the DTX102, which sounded pretty much the same as the DTX101 I reviewed a while back, and the DX 160, which sounded clearer and less congested but overall not too different from the 102. The housings of the DX 160 are larger and to me look more generic compared to the compact shells of the DTX 102. Not much additional info is available on them but assuming these will be priced well above the $100 DTX 102, I would give them a pass.
I stopped by the FiiO booth for a little while. No one at the booth spoke much English but they were happy for me to try the X5 and their amps. Unfortunately the Made for Android FiiO E18 Kunlun DAC did not want to work with my Nexus 5 and no one at the booth could figure out why. No matter, it sounded quite good as a standalone amp and felt great in the hand. Its got a pretty large footprint for a portable amp but with high-end smartphones getting larger and larger thats certainly not without merit.
I found it interesting that FiiO was supplying Dunu DN-1000 Hybrid IEMs for audition with their players these earphones are not ideal for the purpose, I think, as they are far from neutral. Im familiar enough with the DN-1000 to say that it sounded quite good out of the FiiO gear on display, but Im still glad Id brought a few reference earphones of my own.
The X5 is certainly a very impressive piece of kit from a quick audition with my Unique Melody Miracle it seemed to be a competitor for the HM-901. FiiO had it loaded with some super hi-res 24/192 files and it sounded excellent with the ever-popular Hotel California from Hell Freezes Over. Unfortunately listening conditions werent ideal at the FiiO booth it was in a rather loud section of the show floor and even with the UM Miracle some outside noise was leaking in. The interface looked pretty good for an audiophile DAP the X5 wont be confused with an iPod any time soon but it seemed more polished and a touch more responsive compared to the HM-901.
The Polk Audio booth was serving fresh coffee and Comply eartips. I took a listen to their new fashion-forward Heritage Collection consisting of one on-ear, one over-ear, and two in-ear headphones.
Polk Audio Hinge
The Hinge is the on-ear model in Polks new Heritage Collection. Though the styling doesnt necessarily appeal to me personally, it is a good-looking set with a rather more mature aesthetic than the average $180 on-ear can. A 3-button Apple remote comes standard and the headphone folds up for storage. It fit me rather well and sounded rich and full, but was a little too muddy next to the slightly pricier Buckle model.
MSRP: $179.95 | Manufacturers page
Polk Audio Buckle
The Buckle is a compact over-ear headphone featuring a similar design and construction to the on-ear Hinge. Again, Im not a huge fan of the aesthetics but I do like the fit and finish. Interestingly, the controls and microphone on this model are built into the headphone itself, in the form of a toggle on the headband. Unlike the Hinge, the Buckle does not fold up but it does boast better audio quality. Indeed, the Buckle sounded rather decent overall mid-recessed and a little veiled, but punchy and not lacking in treble presence. I would still rather listen to the slightly more expensive Sennheiser Momentum over-ear, but thats hardly a reason to discount the Buckle altogether.
MSRP: $249.95 | Manufacturers page
Polk Audio Nue Era
The entry-level Heritage in-ear boasts 5.5mm dynamic microdrivers and a unique form factor. The sound is colored compared to the higher-end Nue Voe model, with enhanced bass and a warmer tonal character, but didnt seem bad for the price at least on-par with the ever-popular Klipsch Image S4. A 3-button inline remote and microphone come standard.
MSRP: $99.95 | Manufacturers page
Polk Audio Nue Voe
These balanced armature earphones sounded the best of the bunch and were small, lightweight, and comfortable. As with the Nue Era, a 3-button remote comes standard but the Nue Voe is lighter and more unique-looking. I thought the tortoise shell finish was unique and cool (which probably means it isnt). Sound-wise these were pretty neutral and certainly more accurate than I anticipated. Im not going to claim that I know how the Nue Era measures up to other mid-level balanced armature earphones based on my short audition, but the BA drivers certainly put it among the more accurate sets I heard at the show and make it worth a second listen.
MSRP: $199.95 | Manufacturers page
Thats it for round two of our CES 2014 headphone coverage. Round three includes AudioFly, Sennheiser, Marshall Headphones, and others, and can be found here.