This year I once again had an opportunity to stop by the Consumer Electronics Show, held January 6 – 9 in Las Vegas. Short on time, my aim was to see what some of the world’s premier electronics manufacturers have cooking in the headphone space, as well as to try and get a feel for the overall direction of the headphone market – and this hobby. There were some things I had really wanted to try that had to be skipped (see: Bragi Dash), but by and large I got my hands (and ears) on a good number of headphones from about two dozen manufacturers.
Quick listening impressions are by no means the final word on anything, but are usually enough for me to separate the good, the promising, and the hopeless. This time my listening rig consisted of a HiFiMan HM-901 (with Minibox amp card), with a Nexus 5 for backup. I also brought along my trusty VSonic GR07 Classic ($99) for A:B comparison purposes.
I’ll be breaking my impressions up into several posts and publishing them as I write them up, similar to my coverage of CES 2014 last year.
Part 1 Summary – booths visited:
- Altec Lansing
- 808 Audio
Best headphones demoed:
- Philips Fidelio L2 & F1
- Monster DNA PRO 2.0
- 808 Audio Performer BT
Other headphones to keep an eye on:
- Scosche sportCLIP BT
- Altec Lansing Immerse
- Gibson Les Paul Standard
This year the north hall of CES was home to very few headphone manufacturers and I probably would have skipped it if not for a press release from Scosche a week or two before the show introducing the company’s new wireless sports earphones with an enticing form factor and intriguing price point.
The Scosche sportCLIP BT Wireless in-ears ($79.99) did indeed have a great form factor – I ended up trying a good half-dozen wireless in-ears at the show and these were the most compact by a margin. They use an over-the-ear, ergonomic design with memory wire. The footprint in the ear is similar to a larger Shure or Westone unit, though the wireless Scosches are a bit thicker. They felt a little stiff in the ear because the nozzle is quite fat and stepped only at the end where the eartip attaches, but overall I found the form factor quite brilliant for a wireless exercise in-ear. The sportCLIP BT also promises sweat resistance, 8 hours of battery life, and, like all BT headsets, comes with a built-in mic and remote.
The sound of the demo unit was a little on the warm and very much on the muddy side, but the unit is pre-production so that might still change. With the most lightweight and compact form factor among the Bluetooth in-ears I’ve tried and the impressive 8-hour battery life spec they will be worth checking out, assuming something will be done about the sound.
The new sportCLIP 3 wired sports earphones ($34.99) are slightly better-sounding but still far from great – not quite on-par with my trusty old MEElectronics M6. One interesting feature is that the housing rotates against the ear hooks, which makes the fit more adjustable. However, the movement is all in one plane (as opposed to the new Skullandy Strum or Audio-Technica SonicFuel earphones, where the nozzles move in all directions). The earhooks of the sportCLIP 3 have a memory wire component but are a bit too fat and stiff for my liking. I’d say these are unlikely to be a better sports option than the MEE M6, but I like the general trends towards in-ears with more flexible fitment.
JVC had only one new headphone showcase – for the new XX Elation HA-SR100X ($99.95) from the enhanced-bass Xtreme Xplosives series. This on-ear can is nice-looking and well-constructed, but I found the sound overly bassy and muddy. In fact, the bass actually sounded distorted on some of my test tracks. Definitely not something to recommend based on the show samples.
The new XX Elation line will also include a Bluetooth wireless version of the same, the HA-SBT200X ($149.95) with NFC and an additional bass boost circuit (!), as well as an in-ear model, the HA-FR100X ($59.95). These two were not available for demo but based on my recent experience with the XX HA-FR301 model, I have higher expectations for the XX Elation in-ear.
Altec Lansing had several new sports products on display, including the MZX866 Immerse – the first waterproof (not just water-resistant) Bluetooth earphones designed for swimmers and other athletes. The Immerse boasts an IPX7 water resistance rating, multipoint connectivity, and is said to have an incredible 20 hours of battery life. Unfortunately a demo set was not available, but this could shape up to be a very impressive sports product.
As usual, no demos of in-ear earphones were available at the Klipsch booth. Instead, there were about a dozen sets of the new Klipsch Reference On-Ear ($199). These are extremely elegant and well-made portable headphones – beautiful in their design and construction. I thought the fit was quite good and the sound was alright – a little on the warm and colored side in typical Klipsch fashion, but not overly bassy – certainly nothing as offensive as the old Klipsch Image One. I doubt it’s worth $200 on sound alone, but it definitely has promise as a stylish on-ear portable going up against likes of the B&W P3.
808 Audio is a subsidiary of VOXX International, alongside several iconic audio brands including Energy, JAMO, and Klipsch. The 808 brand has been around for a couple of years, but never really got my attention until now. It turns out 808 had access to Klipsch R&D facilities when designing their new headphones. What’s ironic is that I was more impressed with the performance of the new 808 Audio Performer BT ($99.99) than the new Klipsch Reference On-Ear. For under $100, the Performer BT has a lot going for it. First, it is a dual mode wired and wireless headphone. The wired connection is a standard 3.5mm jack – just the way I like it – and the included cable features a mic/remote to make sure that headset functionality is available even when the wireless function is not in use. It’s not quite as feature-rich as the similarly-priced MEElectronics Matrix2, which came out on top in my recent roundup of 11 Bluetooth headphones, but the 15-hour battery life is quite decent and even without aptX it sounds pretty good in wireless mode.
The Performer BT doesn’t fold per se, but the earcups can pivot out of the way, DJ-style. The fit is very good thanks to a feature 808 calls “Flex Fit”, where the earcups are suspended from the steel headband frame on a web-like structure of industrial-grade cord. It’s a very unique method of earcup attachment (similar in theory to the Audioquest Nighthawk’s earcup suspension), and works quite well – the Performer BT doesn’t have the tightest fit on the head, but it is very comfortable. For $99, the headphones sound quite good, too. I can’t say for sure whether the Performer BT is better than the Matrix2, but it delivers a surprisingly clear, balanced, and refined sound. As with the Matrix2, there’s a bit of added bass punch but nothing excessive, and the tonal character is more neutral compared to the $200 Klipsch set and most other headphones I tried at the show. Wouldn’t mind testing these out in full someday.
Monster had a ton of headphones and earphones on display – gold DJ cans, Adidas sports headphones, wireless in-ears, and so forth. None of the in-ears were available for audition so I demoed the new DNA PRO 2.0 ($300). In functionality and design, they are very similar to the original DNA PRO – the design is basically the same, plus a faux-carbon fiber finish, and the fit is similar as well.
However, the PRO 2.0 sounds more balanced than the original DNA PRO – not as cold and clinical. The original PRO was a bit bright, but the new one has more of a bass kick to balance it out, yet remains very clear through the midrange and treble. I felt like it was an improvement over the original one, though the chance to A:B them wouldn’t hurt.
Monster is also offering an iOS music player app alongside the headphone. This app brings with it custom-designed sound profiles with presets down to the band level. Listening to 50 Cent? There’s a custom preset for that. The Killers? Got one for that, too. At this point each of the presets has been set up manually, though in the future Monster intends to push the burden of determining how their music should sound onto the musicians and their engineers. I can see the app being a pretty cool perk for consumers, though it would be better still if there was an option to select the preset automatically based on the track’s tags. Disabling all audio enhancements in the app is always just one touch away, too.
The Philips booth (or rather tent – they were set up outside) was the first I visited where every single unit on demo sounded at least good, if not great. I spent some time with the A-series DJ models as well as the Fidelio M1, L2, and (upcoming) F1. I was not able to try the new M2L and other –L models, which connect exclusively via Apple’s lightning port.
The weakest points for me were the “Armin Van Buren” A3 and A5-PRO DJ models. These were on the bassy side, as expected, but the A3 especially was a little too mid-bassy for its own good. The A5 is better, but as an enhanced-bass DJ headphone I can’t help but feel that the ~$500 price tag is a bit heavy. Coming from the far less expensive (but admittedly open-back) Fidelio L2, the A5 Pro didn’t seem all that clear or resolving.
Speaking of the Fidelio L2, it sounded excellent – very clear with nice deep bass and crisp treble. Not the flattest headphone, but a very lively and energetic sound that seemed to hit the right balance between “audiophile-acceptable” and “consumer-friendly”. Definitely worth checking out for those after this type of can. The on-ear Fidelio M1 didn’t do quite as good a job at keeping the bass out of the way and didn’t appear as crisp and articulate overall, but considering both the closed-back form factor and the fact that it can be had for as low as $80 (amazon.com), it sounded quite good.
The Fidelio F1 is a new model (slated for a spring 2015 release) a small, closed-back on-ear portable with a low-profile form factor more akin to an Audio-Technica ATH-ES700 . The cups of the F1 are metal, with a smooth matte finish, and the whole thing feels extremely solid (perhaps even a touch hefty) in the hand, yet is quite comfortable to wear. The sound of the F1 had a good amount of bass impact (not unlike the M1) and produced a smooth, pleasant sound. It reminded me of the Klipsch Reference On-Ear, which happens to share the $200 price point with the new Philips, but I was more impressed with the sonics of the F1. These could end up being very nice no-frills portable headphones.
Gibson introduced two lines of headphones at CES. The first is the Trainer ($239), a wireless on-ear sports headphone branded with Olympic sprinting champion Usain Bolt. The Trainer is a small and lightweight, low-profile headphone and features a split-headband design with the second rubber headband being used to keep the headphones in place better. The Trainer also features an LED light on the back, meant to be used for safety when wearing the headphones outside in low-light conditions.
Also introduced were two models of a new “Les Paul” series of studio and personal listening headphones. More along the lines of what I’d have expected from Gibson, these headphones are pure eye candy. The Les Paul SG is a larger on-ear headphone with a more toned-down design. The (pre-production) sample sounded good but not better than the Philips Fidelio F1, which is similar in form factor, and I didn’t catch the price but I have a feeling it won’t be much lower than the Philips’ $200.
The Les Paul Standard is an over-ear model that pulls out all the stops when it comes to design, fit, and finish. These cans will be made to order with many designs available for each part, though it seems there will also be pre-packaged versions available. The Les Paul Standard units on display at the show were an orgy of metal, wood grain, and leather, with gold accents sprinkled generously throughout. Though not available for demo, the Les Paul Standard still made me salivate more profusely than even the new Audeze cans on design alone. If they perform half as well as they look, I’m sure Gibson will find a market with more than just guitar enthusiasts. Pricing was not available.
The Skullcandy tent was showcasing the usual colorful medley of fashion, sports, and women’s headphones. In stark contrast to the adjacent Philips booth, everything under Skullcandy’s roof sounded average, but among the usual Crushers, Heshes, and Aviators were two new in-ears, the Method and the Strum.
The Method ($29.99) is a lightweight, sweat-resistant in-ear with angled nozzle and built-in remote. The housings are quite small, and I found them remarkably comfortable. Coming from the VSonic GR07, sound quality was unimpressive despite surprisingly level bass, but for $30 with comfort and sweat resistance in mind, they are quite passable as a sports set.
The as of yet unavailable Strum model is even more unique, utilizing something Skullcandy calls “Brinx” technology. Essentially, the front of the earpieces where the nozzle attaches is made of rubber and allows the nozzle to tilt and pivot to align with the ear canal. There’s good freedom of movement and the practical result is the same as with Audio-Technica’s CKX5 SonicFuel earphones, where the nozzle has a ball bearing-type attachment to the housing and pivots in all directions. With all the extra flex it was more difficult to get eartips onto the Strum and I felt like the imprecise flexing nozzle sacrificed the acoustic seal somewhat, but I’m quite liking the innovative fit/comfort solution. As with the Method, sound quality seems average, but I think it would be quite interesting if Skullcandy ends up with two of the most comfortable sports in-ears on the market.
That’s all for the first set. Part 2 can be found here: