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CES 2015 Show Report & Live Streaming Coverage by Enjoy the Music.com  Sonic Santori: RAL KEB02iP Battery-Powered Headphone Amplifier / DAC Review
CES 2015 Show Report By Michael Mercer
Gear and Roaming In Las Vegas

Just a backpack and headphone rigs 'n' bit o' fun!

Possibly the most fun ever this go-round...


  Next thing you know somebody is tugging at the bottom of my shirt. I thought it was Warren or one of my other friends who were there hangin' out. So I turned around quickly as if to say f__ off! But, it wasn't them. It was this short older woman named Janet (who totally reminded me of my aunt Eunice). I felt bad jerking around so fast, I told her that one of my closest friends was the CEO of Audeze, and if she had any questions I'd be happy to get somebody for her! She was listening to Audezes' LCD-XCs on-display on the Deckard next to me. She took a look at my press pass, and said to me: "Michael Mercer, I want to feel like you do right now!" A woman after my own heart. So, I immediately put my LCD-XCs on her head without changing the music (remember, I was still playing Recondite – basically clubby tech-house music) I wasn't sure if she was going to like the music. Well, next thing you know she starts dancing! After letting her boogie for a few moments, I put on Tori Amos' "Wild Way" off her latest album Unrepentant Geraldines in 96kHz/24-bit. I wanted Janet to experience a female vocal, some piano and other acoustic instruments through the LCD-XCs. She looks like she was in sonic heaven. She took my headphones off, and told me that she was "still dancing inside" that the experience "left an amazing sensation" with her even after taking the headphones off She said she "enjoyed the emotive power of the music" through the headphones. I mean, was Janet speaking my language or what? She said this was the first time she ever experienced music like that on a pair of headphones. She introduced me to her husband, and I helped them audition the LCD-2 and LCD-3 as well. By the time we were coming to the end of our chat they told me they were buying two pairs! One pair of LCD-XCs and an LCD-3. They also wanted to pre-order two pairs of EL-8s for their family. I felt like asking for commission (joking Audeze, just jokes). That experience just lit me up. What an amazing way to kick off CES 2015! That experience validated that way I've felt about personal audio and headphone culture since I dove straight into it in 2009: This is not merely a young man’s game. Headphones have become an integral part of many lives! People use them to speak on the phone, at work (when allowed) and in all sorts of places. Janet was exploring the high end headphones section as she and her husband were looking for an alternative to a large stereo system. As I remember, they told me they had just purchased a condo where they like to take vacations, and they wanted to be able to play their music loud and not disturb anybody! My favorite thing that she said came as we were parting ways. I encouraged her to check out other headphones in the Convention Center as well. She said "why would I do that Michael?" "I found exactly what I was looking for with Audeze". "We've made up our minds." Right on! Glad I could help. Sometimes that's more fun than anything: Turning somebody new onto something that I feel passionate about.

My next stop was to check out the HiFiMan HE1000 prototype. Admittedly, I'm not a big fan of HiFiMan headphones. I'm not sure exactly why – they usually sound great technically, but it's almost as if they sound like terrific hi-fi, not music. However, the HE1000 was the first HiFiMan headphone that I really enjoyed. The full audio spectrum was alive, excitable, and I was drawn into the music like no other HiFiMan I'd heard before. Unfortunately the HE1000 is probably going to be priced around 3K, and I don't think they're twice the headphone the LCD-X is, but they were a sincere pleasure to experience anyway. I thought their styling was a bit over-the-top. To me, they looked like Aviators on acid (lots of thin metal bars and such) but I didn't care about that once I put 'em on. For HiFiMan fans, I'm sure these are going to be a big hit. And even for other headphone enthusiasts like me, who haven't been attracted to previous models of theirs, I think the HE1000 will be a winner for them, because to my ears, they did a far better job of capturing the sonic and emotive power of the music. Bravo HiFiMan!

Following those listening sessions it was time to head back to The Venetian for the first High-Resolution Audio panel. I wanted to be there to support my friends: Owen Kwon from Astell&Kern and Alex Rosson of Audeze. Luckily Ryan Origin was there too, (Ryan works for Audeze, is a helluva guy and also cracks me up) and we made perfect heckling partners! Don't get me wrong we didn't disrupt the joint, but we had to say something here and there to keep things lively. Besides, there was also a guy from Sony on the panel, and we kept crackin' up as he used every seeming opportunity to throw "Sony" into his responses. C'mon jack, we all know who you're with! No need for constant plugs when you're representing the largest and oldest company up there! After the panel I got some lunch with the Audeze crew – including " " their on-site camera man who was capturing everything. Unfortunately that also meant covering me sing New York New York and a couple other Sinatra songs with our cab driver on the way back to the Convention Center. I hope none of that gets released for public consumption. As much as I love listening to artists sing, I'm sure the fellas wanted to shut me up midway through the improvised performance. But they didn't stop me. Now that I think about it – it makes for great blackmail material. And you wondered why I enjoyed the new Audeze products so much! I kid (well, maybe). Upon our return I dashed over to the CEntrance booth as my friends Warren Chi and Michael Liang were there. Plus: I had to check out the progress Michael Goodman had made with their up-coming HiFi-Skyn! I heard a prototype at Canjam at RMAF back in October 2014 and I was very impressed. Goodman just keeps on innovating, and I'm psyched to see CEntrance going strong. I worked for that team for a little while, and Michael and I have remained good friends since. He's a top-notch engineer, and I don't say that because he's my friend. Many of us get to know each other in the personal audio/Head-Fi community. It's the same in the high-end stereo world. Anybody who denies that for the sake of "objectivity" is just lying. We're still a niche, therefore we see each other at all the shows and our paths cross constantly. Whether that be via the component review process, or in the forums at Head-Fi.org. It feels like one big family.

Anyway, the Hifi-Skyn by CEntrance is a very cool concept. It's a shell that fits around your iPhone (the current models cover iPhones 5-6, and I hear there are Android versions coming in the future) and the "skyn" is just like those cases that used to house a battery under-neath the phone in order to extend its battery-life. Well, the HiFi-Skyn packs a high-quality headphone amp and DAC into the case (also at the bottom of the iPhone) turning your iPhone into a high-performance DAP (digital audio player) and it also extends the battery-life of the phone! Sounds like a winner to me. And the sound? My music played through the Hifi-Skyn dazzled me at Canjam at RMAF. I drove my Beyerdynamic T51is (east-to-drive and wearable) as well as my Audeze LCD-XCs with the Hifi-Skyn and it handled both beautifully. I don't think you can pigeon-hole the CEntrance "house sound" but I was pressed to offer sonic character traits that seem to bleed from one product to the next in their line – the most obvious word that comes to mind is "neutral". Because Goodman and the CEntrance team have a firm footing in the pro audio industry, and many of them are also musicians, their products often get the hell outta their own way and place all the emphasis on the music. Talk about transparency: Goodman's got the Midas touch when it comes to that. I mean, his small, cigar-sized DACport headphone amp/USB DAC (a Head-Fi favorite) still has one of the lowest jitter measurements John Atkinson has ever come across over at Stereophile. That's damn impressive! The Hifi-Skyn carries on that sonic tradition. My music sounded lush and life-like. Everything from top to bottom was acutely detailed and controlled. The spaciousness was also superb considering the diminutive size of the headphone amp and DAC sections! I was sold after my first listen back at Canjam, so I'm getting one of those suckers for sure. I should have one here for review next week as well. So things are starting to get really interesting in the personal audio hobby/industry. It's great to see all this innovation happening. It keeps us all on our toes. By the way: CEntrance is currently running a crowd-funding campaign for the Hifi-Skyn where you can still grab em at half-price. If this sounds interesting for you I highly recommend that you check it out. Mr. Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity also stopped by the CEntrance booth while we were there. Tyll is truly one of (if not the) Godfather of the personal audio movement. We may have completely different styles when it comes to reviewing, but I like that, as I learn something new from Tyll every-time I hang out with him. He also likes to have fun, which is what we should all be doing. We're very fortunate to do these things for a living. This year was no exception, we had a blast with Mr. Hertsens. So after all those exciting demos, positive vibes, and seeing friends on the first day, it was time to get ready for the Audeze party at Dreis Afterhours that night. The event was co-sponsored by Subpac and Questyle. They also booked FreQ-Nasty, one of my favorite breaks DJs, who’s' manager happens to be  good friend too). I knew we were in for a fun evening.


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