In-Ears and Portable Audio
Audio Tia Fourte
Everything on the Tia Fourte seemed to be perfectly proportioned out: bass, midrange, treble – all were in the proverbial Goldilocks zone. Technicalities were also very impressive with a nice, open spacious stage and incredible levels of detail. I have a bit of a hard time getting onboard with IEMs that are way up at this price level, given how many good options are available for half the price. But if you can afford it and are looking for something that is a real all-rounder, it is definitely worth a listen.
Tune Monitors IX
While the X was lovely, refined and quite competitive among similarly priced IEMs, the piece that really wowed me was the IX. The IX has perhaps the most wide-open soundscape of any IEM I have heard. I mean shockingly expansive. Both IEMs possessed very good detail and excellent performance across all the frequency ranges. But it was definitely the IX that had me walking away thinking, "Wow, I just heard something really special." This was certainly a very interesting flagship one-two punch.
The casework is still being completed, so the amplifier appeared at the show in a 3D-printed case, however, I've been assured the design is finished and they will begin shipping in mid to late November. Given the way Periodic burst onto the scene earlier this year with it's stellar Beryllium, Titanium and Magnesium IEMs, I'm thinking this product has a strong chance to be quite good when all is said and done.
M1, M2 and M3 are really versatile little players with perks like DSD capability, USB DAC or digital output capability, and two-way Bluetooth. The one most obvious knock is the reliance on a dial vs. a touchscreen display, but for the price, the compromise is logical and more than reasonable. If you're in the market for a versatile budget DAP, these are definitely worth a serious look.
Best In Show: TOTL End-Game System
Woo Audio WA33 Elite Edition &
The Woo Audio WA33, that's a different story. This amplifier just smokes most tube amps out there, with extreme prejudice. After introducing the standard WA33 ($7999) earlier this year, Jack Wu really brought out the big guns at RMAF 2017 with the WA33 Elite Edition ($14,999). With upgraded transformers, caps, volume pot, connectors and wiring, this is what happens when you pair best-of-the-best components with a best-of-the-best design.
Paired with the Susvara, I finally saw why several folks feel the HiFiMAN flagship is the world's best non-electrostatic headphone. The WA33 Elite Edition milked every last ounce of performance out of it, projecting an ultra wide and deep soundscape, effortless dynamics and perhaps the best transparency I have heard to date. The bass impact was absolutely first class – likely equaling the Abyss for the best (and most speaker-like) I have heard. The treble and mids were absolutely effortless, and actually somewhat electrostatic-like in their presentation. It was somehow simultaneously airy and extremely weighty – I feat I have only heard from the $50,000+ HiFiMAN Shangri La and the Sennheiser HE-1. I was absolutely floored.
So what are the takeaways? First, we learned that the Susvara is a bit amp-sensitive, but almost infinitely scalable with the right chain. And second, we learned the WA33 Elite Edition is very much in the conversation for the best amplifier in the world, and should really be benchmarked against all of the very best so we can find out exactly where it stands. And third, we've reconfirmed what we already know: system synergy is everything – even after multiple listens on the Susvara, there was still a surprise waiting for me with the right amp pairing. Hats off to Woo Audio for putting together such a phenomenal pairing.
Big thanks to Jude, Joe, Brian, Warren and Ethan at Head-Fi for all your hard work in putting together such a phenomenal show. Even with three full days, there was barely enough time to get to everything.
The non-stop innovation in this category is just downright impressive. Just when you think the gear can't get any better, these folks somehow keeps finding a way to improve upon it. I'm especially excited when I see pieces like the MySphere 3.1, Schiit Gadget, and Beyerdynamic Aventho Wireless using clever design and DSP to allow listeners to optimize and tweak the sound to their preferences. Many respected experts feel this is the future of personal audio.
It is also encouraging to see new players burst onto the scene the way Acoustic Research and Klipsch have, coming out of the blue to offer some really solid earphones right out of the gate.
It's an exciting time to be an audiophile, with rapid evolution happening in every direction. Seeing changes like these gives me pause and makes me remember how young the hobby really is. Thinking back three to five years, the landscape of the personal audio market was completely different. What will it be like five years from now?
It's incredible to think that this is just the tip of the iceberg – especially in the digital realm. New players and technologies will continue to rise, and by 2022, we might need to expand this thing to a whole week to get through it all. Until then, it seems we've found more than enough hi-fi toys to keep ourselves busy and help us do the most important job of all...
Enjoy the music!