This post contains the second and final part of my headphone impressions from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For part 1 of my impressions, featuring Monster, Philips, Skullcandy, and others, see here:
Part 2 Summary – booths visited:
- Marshall Headphones
- Blue Microphones
- Definitive Technology
Best headphones demoed:
- Audeze LCD-3
- Audeze EL-8
- Sennheiser Momentum 2
- MEElectronics Pinnacle
Other headphones to keep an eye on:
- Definitive Technology Symphony 1
- Soundmagic E80
- Phiaton BT 110
Note: 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.
As usual, Urbanears shared a large booth with the other Zound Industries-owned headphone brands – Marshall, Molami, and Coloud. I was hoping the new Plattan Adv ($60) would be an all-around improvement over the original Plattan – and it certainly is in terms of construction and design. The new one is lighter, more flexible, and more comfortable, and has a detachable cord and second plug for daisy-chaining another pair of headphones in order to share a source. The design is very good. Unfortunately the sound is similar to the original Plattan – on the bassy side with mediocre clarity and dull highs. There are better options for sound at this price. A Bluetooth Plattan Adv Wireless ($100) will be available as well, but I don’t expect it to sound any better.
The Humlan ($49) model features removable, machine-washable headband padding and earpads – a great idea for a rugged portable headphone. However, as bad as the Plattan sounds, the Humlan is worse. Its bass doesn’t have the impact of the Plattan, and yet overall clarity is even poorer with a muffled, unpleasant sound. I recommend staying away from this sonic turd.
The Zinken ($100) offers the best sound of the bunch but is still not very special for $100 – the clarity and balance just aren’t there compared, for instance, to the Fidelio M1 I tried at the Philips booth. I do, however, like the reinforced hinges, built-in 6.3mm/3.5mm plugs, and the fact that, like other Urbanears models, the Zinken can be daisy-chained with another headphone for audio sharing.
The Marshall booth was toasty thanks to a heat lamp battery at the entrance, and largely empty with only two headphone models on display.
The new Major II ($120) is very similar to the original Major. There are some cosmetic differences but otherwise it has the same pros and cons. Construction is nice and compact, no complaints there, but the fit is still a little tight. The sound seems slightly bassier but unfortunately not any clearer, and is generally warm and smooth, as expected. I quite like the detachable cable, which is coiled but lightweight enough for use on the go and has a built-in mic/remote. The Major II also has the same daisy chain capability as the Urbanears sets, but for $120 I still think you can do better from a sound quality standpoint.
The Marshall Monitor ($130) was on display again as well, and I was just as underwhelmed with its performance as last year. It delivers good bass impact and I like the small over-ear form factor, which reminds me of the Sony MDR-V6, but the top end us just too dull for my taste.
There were two dozen or so different headphones and earphones at the MEElectronics booth, second only to Sennheiser in number and variety. I was led straight to the Pinnacle ($200), the company’s upcoming flagship IEM. The Pinnacle is a metal, ergonomic-style IEM with MMCX detachable twisted cables. It’s a bit on the large side but not nearly as heavy as the RHA T10i. The shape is somewhat odd at first glance but fits well. I was told it was specially designed to be worn both cable-up and cable-down with a swap of the left/right cable connectors. The driver is single dynamic, with the internal chamber designed to work in concert with the tuning to deliver a balanced sound.
I found the sound of the Pinnacle quite impressive, though it was also the priciest of the in-ears available to demo at the show. In my brief listen it sounded quite balanced, with a mild bass boost (akin to a VSonic GR07 or maybe GR07 Bass Edition) and slight warm tilt. Clarity was also on par with the GR07 I had with me as a benchmark, but the top end was noticeably smoother.
It did seem a little low in sensitivity, requiring a click or two more from my HM-901 than the other in-ears I demoed, which means it’s possibly not aimed at the consumer market at all. Call me selfish, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my book.
This was my first experience with the A-Audio lineup, which currently consists of three headphones. The Lyric ($199) is the base model, a wired headphone that’s very well-built and nicely cushioned all around. It is billed as an on-ear but I thought it was a little on the large side – for those with very small ears it might even fit as an over-ear. The sound is a little muddy but not overwhelmingly bassy and overall good for a consumer headphone. I couldn’t try them with my own source and the demo standard was limited to pop music, which, admittedly, sounds very pleasant on them. Still, at $199 they’re a maybe for performance.
I tried the Active Noise Canceling Legacy ($299) and the Bluetooth + ANC Icon ($379) models as well. These are slightly larger than the base Lyric and marketed as over-ears. The performance is similar – pretty good from my brief listen from a demo source, but not convincingly outstanding.
The Soundmagic booth had the company’s entire IEM line on display, including two brand new models – the E80 and E50. The E80 is the company’s new in-ear flagship, though from what I understand the price should still be well under $100. It shares the general aesthetic of the E10 and other popular Soundmagic IEMs with lightweight aluminum housings in a conventional straight-barrel configuration. The demo unit also had an inline mic/remote with a TRRS switch built in to accommodate a wider variety of smartphones. There is a new cable across the entire line as well – the familiar internally-twisted cable of the type often seen on Brainwavz products.
The sound of the E80 is good – nice and clear, with punchy but controlled bass and energetic highs. At first listen it definitely seems like a spiritual successor to the E10 – hard to say whether it’s a full-blown upgrade, but I’d be glad to hear it again. The E50 is a little warmer and sounded muddier next to the E80. Its construction is a little less like the E10 and more like the old Soundmagic PL11. It could still be an interesting earphone depending on price, but from my brief listen the E80 sounded more promising.
I’ve wanted to true Blue’s Mo-Fi ($350) for a while now – it’s a very unique-looking headphone and makes a lot of promises in regards to performance. First impressions – it’s quite heavy on the head, but extremely well-made and not immediately uncomfortable. The arms holding the earcups have good freedom of motion and headband clamp can be adjusted via the built-in tensioner. You still feel the weight, of course, which makes me question long-term comfort, especially if using them on the go. There are other questionable design choices, too, like a cable socket that is very unfriendly towards aftermarket cords.
The performance is good, however – the Mo-Fi sounds punchy and a little on the warm/dark side tonally. Clarity is very decent, and overall it is pretty balanced and refined. It didn’t blow me away, but I have no complaints barring the fact that I’d take a Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 over these at a similar price, at least for sound and comfort.
The Mo-Fi also features a built-in amplifier with three settings accessed via a switch by the cable connector – off, on, and on+ (bass enhancement). In the less-than-perfect listening environment of the show, it didn’t really sound any better with the built-in amp turned on, but I was already using a decent source and the amp definitely works as a volume-boosting function. The “on+” setting boosts mid-bass a little though, happily, not by a huge amount. It’s a good feature for a consumer headphone to have, but with this design and weight it really seems like the Mo-Fi is more of an audiophile- or studio-targeted set. Then again, there is also a mic and 3-button apple remote on the cable, which implies portable applications.
On the whole, the Mo-Fi definitely stands out on the market, but seems a bit confused – I don’t see any of the unique features as being a must-have for audiophiles and think there are better was to spend $350 on a headphone – it just won’t have the novelty of the Mo-Fi.
CES saw the unveiling of the first-ever headphone from Polk Audio’s sister brand, DT. The Symphony 1 ($399) is a full-sized, closed-back portable headphone with both Bluetooth wireless and active noise cancelling functionality. The design seems to prioritize comfort – the plastic and aluminum build of the headphone is very lightweight and the pads are deep and have a large internal diameter. It’s not the softest padding, but the deep earcups and light weight of the headphones make up for it. The unit also comes with a large padded carrying case.
The headphones weren’t charged, but trying them in wired mode with ANC off yields an impressive audio experience. The sound is very clear and surprisingly neutral, perhaps even a bit bright. The bass seems a touch rolled-off, but otherwise the sound is quite balanced – a breath of fresh air coming from the A-Audio and Blue Microphones booths. Lots more listening would be necessary to gauge absolute performance, but considering the Bluetooth and ANC functions, as well as the comfortable design, the Symphony 1 seems promising despite the relatively high price.
The latest release from Audeze – the EL-8 – has already made quite a splash on audiophile forums – it was a must-listen for every audio fan at CES.
The EL-8 ($699) was developed in collaboration with BMW DesignWorks USA and comes in both open and closed variants. The design and construction are both excellent, as expected. The headphones are a little on the heavy side but quite comfortable on the head and very solid. It seems the closed design, medium size, and stylish looks were intended to make Audeze’s new entry-level model the first planar magnetic headphone for more than just home listening.
This hinges on making the planar magnetic drivers efficient enough to perform well from a wide range of sources. To that end, the company has developed what it calls “Fluxor” technology, where the magnet arrangement is stronger on one side – the side with the diaphragm – greatly increasing the flux density there. This boosts efficiency, allowing the desired magnetic field strength to be achieved with a smaller magnet and reducing weight.
Subjectively, the headphones seemed very efficient, requiring input power similar to many of the more portable dynamic-driver headphones at the show. They produce a really nice sound, too – warm, smooth, and powerful, even straight out of a portable device (Audeze had Pono players on the demo stands, and I had my HM-901 as well). For some reason the open demo was slightly more efficient. The closed-back EL-8 was also a little colder-sounding, maybe perhaps even more neutral than the open-back version, but both are very good.
Gauging minute aspects of headphone performance in a show environment is impossible, which makes testing high end headphones – and saying something conclusive – difficult, to say the least. I can’t say anything other than I found both EL-8 demos to be impressive, albeit not as impressive as the LCD-3 found nearby.
It’s no secret that my old LCD-2 rev1 is not my favorite headphone – in fact, I prefer the HiFiMan HE-560, OPPO PM-1, and even Sennheiser HD600 to it – but the LCD-3 ($1945) is a different beast. In a sentence, it seems to retain all of the positive characteristics of the LCD-2 – end-to-end presence, smoothness, soundstaging, and dynamics – with none of the slight boom and excessive warmth of the old LCD-2 I have at home. Suffice it to say that the LCD-3 really stole show for me, and I would love to pit it against my favorites in a quiet setting and from a familiar full-size source.
Though it’s been a while since my last full review of a Phiaton product, there are always some great-looking headphones to be found at the company’s booth. This year, there were new earphones well.
The new MS 100 BA ($99) are Phiaton’s first new Balanced Armature IEMs in several years. The aluminum shells look quite nice and cable has an oval cross-section to reduce tangling. The earphones also feature a built-in mic/remote. I was told that the drivers are designed and manufactured by Phiaton’s parent company, Cresyn – not outsourced to one of the large BA driver manufactures (e.g. Knowles or Sonion). This makes Cresyn/Phiaton only the second headphone company (after Sony) with the capability to manufacture their own BA drivers.
The performance of the MS 100 BA is a welcome change from the warmer sound of Phiaton’s recent dynamic-driver IEMs, with a more balanced and neutral tonal character. It’s certainly a competent-sounding earphone, though (based on my short audition) I didn’t think it had a clear leg up on some of the better single-armature designs already on the market.
The BT 110 Bluetooth earphones ($129) are wireless sports IEMs, as is the trend, but to Phiaton’s credit are easily the most stylish and upscale-looking Bluetooth earphones I’ve come across. The earphones feature IPX4 sweat/water resistance and a 4.5 hour battery life. Under the hood is a Bluetooth 4.0 chipset with aptX codec support and Multipoint connectivity for simultaneous connection with up to two devices (more info on the various Bluetooth technologies can be found here). One other interesting feature is something Phiaton calls “ShareMe” and which allows two BT 110 earphones to connect to each other and share the same Bluetooth audio source.
I quite liked the way the BT 110 feels in the ear – its form factor has more in common with older wireless earphones like the Jaybird Freedom, but it is sleek and lightweight. In addition to eartips, it has removable earfins that provide a more secure fit. The performance of the BT 110, while certainly tolerable for a wireless set, was not as impressive, delivering a bass-heavy, dull, slightly muddy sound.
Sennheiser’s booth showcased all of the company’s new releases in the portable, sports, and TV wireless lines. In fact, I was told that every single headphone in the booth aside from the high-end sets in the closed listening room was either new or updated for 2015.
The new Momentum 2 ($270) boasts slightly improved ergonomics, a new cable, and has gained headband hinges giving it the ability to fold – a definite plus for a portable headphone. The drivers are unchanged, which is hardly a limitation seeing I really liked the sound of the original Momentum. Overall, a very impressive headphone – it sounds awesome, offers excellent built quality and comfort, and is now more portable than ever before.
The Urbanite XL ($250) was not quite as Hi-Fi – a little on the bassy side and generally more colored – but still quite good for a portable consumer-oriented set. I wasn’t a huge fan of the aesthetics. Interestingly, with the Urbanites it’s harder to say that the over-ear model is superior to the on-ear one – I actually thought the on-ear Urbanite ($200) may have been more balanced and smooth, though I did prefer the fit of the over-ear XL. Both the Momentum and Urbanite over-ear headphones will get wireless versions this year as well.
Sennheiser’s new sports earphone weren’t available for demo.
On my way out, I tried the Orpheus but, while performance was certainly at a very high level, wasn’t as impressed as I was last year by the STAX SR-009 demo. Probably a matter of preference as fans of warmer sound may prefer the Orpheus but the brighter, more open-sounding SR-009 appears be more my speed.
This completes my brief headphones impressions from the 2015 consumer electronics show. Admittedly, the headphone end of things seemed relatively slow this year. There weren’t as many “wearable” audio devices as I expected, and it looks like 3D audio might become the next new niche of headphone tech (see my article on 3D audio here).
Higher-end audio is alive and kicking, with lots of buzz surrounding hi-res audio playback devices and new high-end headphones such as Audeze’s EL-8. Excitement about IEMs, however – at least at CES – continues to decline. There, full-featured, gym-worthy in-ear wireless sets are looking like the next big trend on the consumer end of things. The first ones to get sound, fit, and functionality 100% right will get my recommendation, but so far the search continues.
CES itself continues to break attendance records and remains an excellent showcase for emerging technologies and new brands, as well as the best way to get some one-on-one time with a variety of industry insiders, movers, and shakers. What we sometimes forget is that there is a team of real people behind every product, good or bad, and the chance to take a step back and add that human element back in with the products is one of the reasons I’m already planning my trip back next January.