CES this year didn’t bring any major surprises – in terms of headphones, wireless is on the rise, as expected, and wearables seem to be emerging as the next step. Several companies consider hardware and/or software DSP to be an integral part of the headphone experience, but the demos I tried did not blow me away. Higher-end audio is alive and kicking, but there was less excitement about IEMs than I remember from CES 2012 two years ago.
My goal at the show this year was to simply demo as many new headphones as possible in order to get a feel for which ones are worth looking at in depth. Quick listening impressions are by no means the final word on anything, but I can usually get a good feel for how something sounds with a few of my favorite test tracks. I mostly used my old Cowon J3 as the source, with the VSonic GR07 ($179) and the Unique Melody Miracle ($950) In-Ear Monitors brought along for quick comparison purposes.
This post is a short summary of my month-long CES 2014 impressions, meant to serve as a quick reference (in part for myself) of all the headphones I thought were promising at the show.
I chose just a few headphones in each category as my “Best of CES” picks, as follows:
The STAX SR-009 delivered a listening experience as good as anything I’ve heard, extracting every last detail from test tracks. Though blisteringly expensive and far from new on the scene, it deserves a nod for the sheer transparency and resolution of its sound. Worth mentioning also is the similarly-excellent but significantly less expensive SR-007MK2.
German Maestro GMP 435 S White
German Maestro’s latest release injects a little bit of style into the company’s usually all-black headphone line while maintaining a comfortable, lightweight, and extremely durable circumaural form factor. These open-back headphones sound balanced, clean, and airy even from portable sources, making up for the seemingly plasticky build and lack of visual pizazz.
Sennheiser’s consumer-oriented portable headphone provided an excellent combination of style and substance, with a warm and smooth, yet detailed sound. The over-ear fit provided excellent comfort while the high-grade construction works to make up for the high price tag.
Phiaton Fusion MS 430
The MS 430 is one of Phiaton’s more recent releases, a handsome on-ear portable with carbon fiber earcup inserts and ambidextrous inputs for its detachable cable. The sound seemed well-balanced – perhaps a touch lacking in warmth, but still very promising for a sub-$150 supraaural headphone.
In-Ear earphones (IEMs):
Audiofly’s new quad-armature flagship IEM sounded the best out of their 2014 lineup, performing well not only compared to its less expensive brethren, but the revered VSonic GR07 as well. Worthy of mention also is the triple-driver hybrid AF140 model, which also sounded good considering its lower ($350) price tag.
Westone UM Pro 30
A re-design of the Westone UM3X (which I reviewed here), the UM Pro 30 nonetheless stood out among the (admittedly few) higher-end earphones available for audition at CES. The new housings are comfortable and seem durable, and the sound of Westone’s first triple-driver design still has a lot going for it all these years later.
Audio-Technica Sonic Fuel CKX5iS
My pick as the best new entry-level IEM, the $50 CKX5iS combines an enhanced-bass – yet quite capable – sound with a very secure fit thanks to its thick rubber ear fins and variable-angle nozzles. It also offers an inline mic and remote, as well as an analogue volume control, for use as a headset.
Honorable mentions: other sets I would love to spend more time with
The sets above weren’t the only headphones to impress me – there were several others that would clearly be worth a sit-down listening session in a quieter environment (and a full review, if I had unlimited time and resources). The other headphones I enjoyed, ordered (very subjectively) from most to least impressive, are as follows:
- STAX STAX SR-307 and SR-407
- Audiofly AF120 and AF160
- Polk Audio Nue Voe
- MEElectronics Atlas
- Scosche RH656M
- Molami Plica
- Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear
Headphones that weren’t super impressive but still worth a closer look
- Scosche RH1060
- Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro and DTX 160 iE
- Marshall Monitor
- Polk Audio Nue Era, Buckle, and Hinge
- German Maestro GMP 160
- Phiaton Bridge MS 500
- Ecko Unltd. Over-ear headphones
- iLuv ReF in-ear and on-ear, iLuv Neon Colors
- Klipsch Status
Headphones I definitely wouldn’t care to hear again:
- Molami Pleat
- Bell’O Digital, BDH851, BDH821, BDH806, and BDH754
- Jabra Revo
- Wicked Audio Revolt
- WeSC Cymbal
Worst in show
Note: there was only one headphone I though worthy of a “Worst of CES” badge because there’s just no competing with how bad it sounded.
- Nakamichi NK 600
Well that’s all for my round-up of CES 2014 headphone impressions. CES may lack a specific focus on audio, but it’s hard to think of a better place to get a feel for the state of the consumer audio market in general, and the direction of various different audio manufacturers in particular. While I certainly didn’t cover everything, I’m very glad to have attended the show.
Questions or comments? Leave them below.
To read the full CES impressions post, see the links below:
- CES 2014 Headphone Coverage – Part 1: Klipsch, Phiaton, Westone, and more
- CES 2014 Headphone Coverage – Part 2: Audio-Technica, STAX, Beyerdynamic, and Polk Audio
- CES 2014 Headphone Coverage – Part 3: AudioFly, Marshall Headphones, Sennheiser, and more
- CES 2014 Headphone Coverage – Part 4: Scosche, MEElectronics, German Maestro and others