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Head-Fi National Meet 2007
Head-Fi National Meet 2007
Head-Fest Report By Jim "Stoney" Stoneburner 
Page 2

  I also on display the tiny, Ray Samuels portable The Hornet, and the even smaller The Tomahawk, in various colors of enclosure. The less diminutive SR-71 was in black, appropriate to the airplane. The smaller two models were also used down the aisle at the Shure exhibit to demonstrate their new line of IEMs. Ray also brought the Stealth phono section and XR-10B phono section.

Across the aisle, Ping Gong of AAA Audio was demonstrating a few interesting units. The Original brand was represented by their Master headphone amplifier ($200), driven by an Original CD-2008 Mk-II HDCD player ($700). With my own headphones, I found the sound smooth, natural, extended, but perhaps the tiniest bit muted and lacking in the last bit of timbre and texture I sense from the best tube amps. At such a low price, one shouldn't nitpick. Next to this was a Dussun DS99 integrated amplifier, whose speaker outputs are defeated when headphones are plugged in. I believe the Original CD-A8T tubed CD player with black finish was in use. I found the treble to be less refined in this demo, but bass was solid and deep.

I met the friendly Dee Oliveira of Hearing Components while her husband, Dr. Bob Oliveira, was away from the booth. They were showing snap-on tips for Apple's iPod earbuds that serve to funnel the sound into your ear canal, much like an in-ear monitor. Oddly, the tip didn't seal in the canal, but it didn't need to. They still provided a huge increase in bass and sensitivity, but at the cost of a dark midrange and treble roll-off. Also on display were other products, including their Comply noise canceling in-ear phones said to have up to 42dB isolation.

Steve Nugent of Empirical Audio showed a variety of products, including his well-known modified units from other manufacturers, all driven by Toshiba laptop. This is Steve's mission, to eliminate rotating optical discs and replace them with rotating magnetic ones, so it seems. Seriously, his method is to provide buffering and reclocking of streaming data to reduce jitter, combined with custom component and topology modifications to already great products. His top tier of mod packages is termed "Turbomods." Products on demo included the Offramp I2S interface, which implements the superior but rarely seen I2S standard for digital transmission. A Benchmark DAC-1 with Turbomods sounded very clean and smooth, striking me as "solid state at its best." Also on hand was the Spoiler USB Tube DAC driving a modified Antique Sound Labs MG-Head OTL-H tubed headphone amp, of course with Turbomods.

Shure's new SE line of in-ear monitors seems intended to bring the design approaches that performed so well in last-year's E500 to a variety of price points. The well-regarded E500 is now called SE530, with a new color scheme but otherwise identical innards (which my audition seemed to confirm), selling for $449. This unit contains two woofers and one tweeter, per ear of course. An additional $50 adds the push-to-hear module that allows you to chat with those annoying people who interrupt your musical pleasure, all without having to remove the canal phones. The next step down in price is the SE420 at $349 with a tweeter and one woofer. At $249, one can pick up the SE310, equipped with one driver and bass port. Finally, the SE210 uses a single driver at $149. Each comes with a short cord so you can select a length of cable that suits your portable configuration. Also a big hit were Shure's new line of foam sleeves (in addition to their regular line of sleeves) which now have a smooth surface. These squishy gems can be washed and reused endlessly. These tips were launched at January's CES, and reportedly got more response than anything else in Shure's headphone line. The Shure IEMs were demoed using Emmeline Tomahawk and Hornet portable amplifiers and various iPods. Don't look for the E3, E4, and so on… these have been replaced with this new line.

Ultrasone Showed a prolific array of headphones. Each model shares a key innovation – an off-center transducer, set forward in the spacious round earcup, pumping sound through a spiral of small holes grouped in front of your ear. The intent is for sound to pass over your ear's pinna, relying on its transfer function to make the soundstage seem in front of you instead of inside your head. A quick listen confirmed that it is partially successful at higher frequencies. I imagine this off-center approach reduces the tendency for headphones to set up a resonance between the eardrum and driver, a phenomenon that leads many manufacturers to tailor the frequency response to compensate. However, given that ear canal lengths differ, the frequency where such notches should be placed may differ between listeners. I suspect this may be why there are such varying opinions about models such as the Sennheiser HD650, known to be carefully tuned in this way. One man's resonance reduction is another man's suckout.

The plate through which the sound escapes is made of mu metal, a heat-treated nickel-iron alloy known by engineers to have high magnetic permeability. In other words, it can shield your noggin from electromagnetic radiation, even at the relatively low frequencies of audio signals. Apparently we have one more source of pollution to worry about!

The PROline models have a nice touch – screw-in detachable cables. In fact, Ultrasone supplies you with one straight cable and one coiled. They also ship in the box a spare pair of ear pads. Drivers are Titanium-coated Mylar. At least one of the models is available in open or closed back configuration. I tried the PROline 2500 ($400), and heard a quite different sound character than I am used to. The music seemed bright, jumbled, and unappealing. By substituting my HD650, I determined that the source disc or equipment was contributing some brightness. The system used an RPX-33 dual mono headphone amplifier from RudiStor Sound Systems, driven by a Tascam CD-160. Switching to the NX-02 Sistema, also from RudiStor, didn't make an easily discernable difference. I'm sure none of these were being exhibited to their potential.

Also on display was the $1500 limited edition Ultrasone, the Edition 9. This uses a 40mm titanium driver spanning 8Hz to 45kHz, with an impedance of 30 ohms (the others are closer to 40). The 9's ear cup is oval, leaving less distance between the ear and driver, resulting to my ear in slightly less sense of the soundstage being in front of you. Sound quality was a step up from the 2500. 


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