AXPONA 2018 EarGear Expo Show Report
Perfect Seal Laboratories
As an audiophile, I was a little lukewarm on some of the models, which were clearly built to emphasize certain frequencies for musicians on stage. The monitor that really stuck out to me was the flagship Deca ($1,450). It was by far the most neutral and resolving IEM I tried from their lineup, with great tonal balance across the entire frequency spectrum, fantastic separation and detail, and very natural an realistic timbre. I think this is definitely one that could be enjoyed by audio professionals and audiophiles alike.
Enter the solid state Jotunheim Multibit ($399) and tube hybrid Lyr 3 Multibit ($499). Both of these amp/DAC combos can be ordered with your choice of a multi-bit DAC card (+$200), 4490 DAC (+$100), phono preamp (+$100), or as a standalone amplifier.
But the differences don't end there. Lyr 3 introduces two new technologies: Coherence and Continuity, eliminating the need for inter-stage coupling capacitors and providing constant transconductance in the output stage. Lyr 3 also ditches the the pair of 6922 tubes used in the first 2 generations of Lyr, substituting in a single 6SN7 – a nice move from both sonic and budgetary standpoints.
I gave both amplifiers a listen and enjoyed what I heard. Both were a little warmer and more forgiving than what I normally expect from Schiit's gear. The Lyr 3 had a nice dose of wetness and liquidity without smoothing over the dynamics like the Lyr 1 or veering a little too dry like Lyr 2. Jotunheim Multibit also packed a pretty solid dynamic punch. While I wasn't able to compare it head-to-head with the 4490 version, it seemed a little bit warmer than I remember too. From what I can tell, it seems like the multi-bit DAC cards offer a very nice compliment to both amplifiers.
I found the HD 820 S to be very similar to the popular HD 800 S with a very slightly warmer tilt. Bass response was a little more robust and the treble was also a bit less splashy relative to the HD 800 S. I was surprised to find that the soundstage and imaging on the HD 820 S were very close to its open counterpart, projecting the wide-open feel the 800 series is known for.
The HD 660 S is an update of the classic HD 650 and a nice improvement overall to my ears (read our full review of the Sennheiser HD 660 S over-ear headphones here). While the frequency balance is essentially the same, but the HD 660 S seems a little faster in decay relative to the occasional sluggishness of the HD 650. The HD 660 S also just feels a little airier overall without straying too far from the HD 650's classic dense presentation.
Of course, Shure also sports one of the very best earphones on the market today with their flagship IEM, KSE1500 ($2,999). This is a full system, complete with the IEM, electrostatic amplifier and a DAC. The one weak point of this system is the DAC, which isn't quite up to par with the rest of it. However, we got a little bit of good news after the show that Shure will be introducing the KSE1200 ($1,999), which is essentially the KSE1500 without the DAC. This is a nice option to have, and for a lot of audiophiles, I think it will make the Shure electrostatic IEMs a much more intriguing option.
The SR-L300 Limited ($720) will be a tempting option for people who are lucky enough to get an opportunity to pick one up, as there are only 800 units available. This limited edition set of earspeakers combines the drivers from the SR-L700 ($1,425), pads from the SR-L500 ($720) and the body of the SR-L300 ($420) into a single package that sounds pretty close to the SR-L700 at about half the price.
Stax has also released an 80th Anniversary edition amplifier, the SRM-353XBK ($990) in a limited run of 300 units. I heard these limited edition pieces together, and the sound was absolutely spectacular. Wide-open, effortless, transparent and detailed as the day is long. This is, without question, an end-game electrostatic rig, and for the price, it's an absolute steal. If I had the cash to swing it, I would have bought it on the spot.
Now Jeff Wells has taken the Milo design to the extreme, pairing down his flagship Headtrip Reference ($14,999) to its most essential basics to create the Milo Reference ($4,999). This ultra-powerful amplifier offers truckloads of deep resolution to milk the absolute best out of hard-to-drive planars and high impedance dynamics. I got a chance to hear it with a number of great headphones including the ZMF Auteur, Abyss AB-1266 and HiFiMAN HE1000, and it absolutely rocked with all of them, putting you right there with the musicians. It's definitely another level of transparency, and it gets you very close to the Headtrip ($7,000) sonically for about $2,000 less, and does it in a smaller footprint.
The flagship WA-33 ($7,999) is far and away one of my favorite amplifiers, particularly when it's paired with the HiFiMAN Susvara ($5,999) or the Abyss AB-1266 Phi ($5,495). It's sound is completely unrestrained, with wide-open dynamics and an airy, extended soundscape that doesn't seem to have any borders. It is simply one of the most transparent amplifiers on the planet today.
Woo has also taken some of these ideas and used them to create an electrostatic counterpart to the WA-33: the new Woo Audio 3ES ($7,649). I got a chance to listen to the 3ES with the venerable Stax SR-009 ($3,799) and the sound was elegant and effortless. The SR-009 occasionally has the tendency to be a bit too far forward in it's approach, and the 3ES was able to balance it out perfectly, giving it the hint of warm naturalness it needed. Very, very well done!
ZMF also gave a little sneak peek at their new line of cables, the 7N OCC Auteur 2K Copper cable ($299) and the ZMF Silver Michanikos ($199). Both cables are absolutely lovely in their construction, hand braided to match the hand-crafted heirloom quality of the wooden headphones they are made for.
I would say the biggest surprise that stood out to me was the JVC Exofield demo, which was able to fool my ears into thinking I was listening to speakers in the room. The technology around digital signal processing from custom HRTF measurements is truly fascinating and is beginning to really gain some steam now with products like JVC Exofield and the Smith Realizer A16. Even some of the less customized DSP technology like that of the Audeze Mobius is really captivating and immersive. I hope this technology really starts to take off and become attainable on a widespread basis in the coming years.
I was also really impressed by the excellent spread of high-end IEMs out there now. Both the audiophile and pro audio markets are really saturated with good options, especially if you've got a little money to spend.
We've got our hands on several of the products mentioned in this report and we have many more on the way, so stay tuned for a deeper dive on some of our favorites from AXPONA 2018 in our upcoming reviews!