Walking through Times Square early Saturday morning, I was reminded that while things have returned to normal in New York and New Jersey on the pandemic front, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not just a series of TikTok videos we’re all watching on Twitter and digesting over Starbucks.
A group of young American Ukrainians from the New York area were standing on Broadway carrying “Russian warship. Go F!@# yourself” signs and those of us paying attention with roots in far away places like Lviv, Kyiv, Warsaw, Radom, and Bucharest truly understand the history and how all of this can go sideways very quickly.
I can hear the online mice already.
“Stop talking about politics. We just want pretty pictures and boring drivel about bit/sampling rates and new headphones that cost $3,000.”
If you have not figured me out yet — I really don’t play by the traditional audio press rules and I see life, music, war, history, culture, and technology from a very different perspective. Everything is connected. As you will soon discover.
There’s No Place Like Home
Walking into CanJam NYC 2022 and seeing people for the first time in over 2 years was both surreal and somewhat emotional.
CanJam NYC 2020 was the last major high-end trade show that many of us attended; it was weeks before life completely shut down here in New Jersey and New York and the impact of COVID-19 could still be felt at this weekend’s event.
Spending quality time with David Solomon of Qobuz was a joy; he has done a masterful job growing the hi-res streaming platform here in America and he’s a wonderful guy to be around. The industry needs more people like him.
It was wonderful to see Steve Guttenberg (The Audiophiliac) and Herb Reichert (Stereophile) at the show as well; we all agreed that it felt somewhat surreal that two years have gone by — but that it was really obvious that the headphone industry has done better than most during the pandemic.
What makes the CanJam Global Tour so interesting is that it brings so many interesting and somewhat eclectic people out of their basements.
Was that a dig? Indeed it was.
I love listening to music through headphones but I’ve never really been an active member of the Head-Fi community and probably never will; I’ve never really been comfortable on forums and I prefer the friendships I’ve made within the community like Warren Chi, Jude Mansilla, Ethan Opolion, Michael Mercer, Nicholas Tolson, Antonio Meze, and others.
The Head-Fi is community is pretty hardcore in their beliefs and defending their desktop and portable rigs that can easily top $10,000 in some cases.
That being said, I don’t have any issues with the current prices of the best headphones or headphone amplifiers because they’re dramatically cheaper than a comparable 2-channel high-end system.
I know people who own $20,000 worth of headphones and that’s their chosen path to enjoy music.
On the other end of the spectrum, you could spend under $500 for a pair of headphones, Dongle DAC, or desktop DAC/headphone amplifier and have a great sounding rig.
That’s what makes the headphone experience so unique and personal.
Jude, Ethan, Warren, and a cast of others deserve a lot of credit for making this show happen and for putting on a first-class event that is well worth the time to attend.
The number of exhibitors at CanJam NYC 2022 wasn’t enormous but the quality of the experience was one of the reasons this global showcase of the best portable audio technology has expanded to Singapore, London, China, SoCal, NYC, and Chicago in June 2022.
Yes — there will be a CanJam Chicago 2022.
Who wasn’t at CanJam NYC 2022 in an official capacity?
Sony, Bose, Grado, Sennheiser, AKG, 1More, Apple, Beats, PSB, Focal, Schiit Audio, Linear Tube Audio, Astell & Kern, and other brands that couldn’t attend due to travel restrictions and other logistical issues.
That’s a pretty sizable list but you are never going to see Apple, or Beats at these shows because it would only give consumers the opportunity to hear just how mediocre their products truly are.
From Ukraine and Romania with Love
As I mentioned at the very beginning — everything is connected.
I was both thrilled and amazed to see Meze Audio at CanJam NYC 2022 for the simple reason that the war in Ukraine impacts them in a very real way; their corporate and R&D offices are based in Baia Mare, Romania which is rather close to the Ukrainian border and the city of Lviv.
Lviv is a 4-5 hour drive from Baia Mare, but Meze Audio have technology partners based in Lviv and things right now are not business as usual for the obvious reasons.
After the end of the Cold War, what was once a dead market for high-end audio has become a thriving scene with dozens of domestic manufacturers. Eastern Europe is not only supporting its own domestic consumer electronics industry but exporting reference-quality level equipment to the finest audio stores to the rest of the world.
Meze Audio have grown in the right way; after a few missteps at the beginning the brand has built a strong foundation in the market and now offer some of the best headphones in the world; with the Empyrean, Elite, and Liric leading the charge.
The interesting news from CanJam NYC 2022 was the working prototype of the forthcoming “109” open-back headphones that will be in the $600 – $700 range when they are launched later this year.
If you love the sound of the 99 Classics, the 109 are cut from a very similar cloth but with a far more open and spacious sounding presentation. The 50mm driver is brand new and my listening experience using Qobuz and EarMen portable headphone amplifier was quite positive.
There is no firm release date but we will stay on top of this part of the story.
Meze Audio’s growth in the Head-Fi space was quite obvious walking around the show; the 99 Classics, Elite, Liric, and Empyrean were being used in many booths and show attendees brought their own pairs to use with the wide range of headphone amplifiers on display.
The Show Floor
EarMen, Chord, HiFiMAN, Rupert Neve, Dan Clark Audio, and Audeze were some of the other notable brands at the show and the tables where I spent the most time on Saturday listening.
Audeze had the largest booth at CanJam NYC 2022 and it was nice to spend 20 minutes with Audeze CEO, Sankar Thiagasamudram. The lines around the Audeze booth were long and it’s pretty clear that the company has developed a huge following outside of just the Head-Fi space.
Gaming has become a big part of their business and we are already seeing companies like Beyerdynamic moving into the category with multiple models.
EarMen is a European manufacturer of portable amplifiers, battery-powered Dongle DACs, and desktop headphone systems that were on full display at CanJam NYC 2022.
The larger “Hummingbird” Dongle DAC is rather unique in one respect; there are 2 USB inputs that allow you to power it and send the data separately. It’s about the size of a small cigarette lighter and sounded rather powerful with Campfire Audio Holocene IEMs.
The Staccato Wi-Fi Network Streamer ($1,400 USD) is a brand new product that will be available in March (TBD) and is compatible with TIDAL Connect, Spotify Connect, and Apple AirPlay.
The products are currently manufactured in Europe but starting in 2022, some of it will be made in the United States.
Chord had the DAVE, Hugo 2, Mojo 2, Qutest DAC, and Anni Desktop Amplifier/Headphone Amplifier in action at CanJam NYC 2022 and it was my first opportunity to try all 5 with headphones that I’m familiar with.
The Qutest/Anni combination was one of the best things I heard at the show; the resolution, detail, transparency, and pacing were state-of-the-art with my HiFiMAN Sundara and Meze 99 Classics.
The tonal balance was slightly cool for my liking but I can see this combination working for a lot of people with specific headphones. The Anni and Qutest fit easily on the desktop and the build quality is excellent.
As we reported before the show began on Saturday, HiFiMAN announced two new products this weekend and we were able to have some quality alone time with the HiFiMAN EF400 Headphone Amplifier/DAC and do our best at not losing the HM800 Dongle DAC which is insanely small. Perhaps too small.
The HM800 is about the size of a piece of Bazooka gum; it’s almost impossible to believe how much they have packed inside of it.
The EF400 is an affordable desktop amplifier/DAC that is built like a tank; I was quite surprised by the weight and robust nature of the design and can see it lasting for many years even with daily use.
The unit has multiple gain settings and I was surprised that I had to turn the volume all of the way up with the HiFiMAN Edition XS Headphones to really achieve loud listening levels. When I switched to the HiFiMAN HE-R9 closed-back headphones, I achieved really loud levels at “12” and didn’t see any advantage to pushing it any further.
Clean, detailed, and decidedly neutral sounding were my early impressions. We have a review sample coming in April.
My last stop on Saturday was with the very kind people from Rupert Neve Designs who were demonstrating the $4,995 Precision Digital-to-Analog Converter which is part of their Fidelice Series.
Rupert Neve products are now manufactured in Texas and I was slightly floored by the quality of the sound with a pair of Rosson Audio RAD-0 Planar Magnetic Headphones.
Alex Rosson co-founded Audeze before leaving to start his own brand and he’s clearly not lost one step when it comes to design.
The 32-bit/384kHz PCM DAC can also handle MQA and DSD; the Precision DAC is also a fully balanced headphone amplifier and pre-amplifier making it rather ideal for active loudspeakers.
I’ve definitely listened to headphone amplifiers with more force and control but the tonal accuracy of this combination was breathtaking with horns and vocals.
After almost 8 years of listening to some of the best headphones and headphone amplifiers available, I would rate this combination near the top of the list; instruments sound so natural and real with no unnecessary fireworks.
The price is obviously on the higher side, but I really want to hear the entire lineup now with other headphones.
The Future of Head-Fi
With the pandemic winding down, the CanJam Global Series is moving on to Chicago, Orange County, London, Singapore, and China and it will be interesting to see how things progress.
There wasn’t a lot of new innovation at CanJam NYC 2022 but I suspect supply chain issues and the notable absence of some big brands had something to do with that.
There are no shortage of new headphones being released each month and it would appear that the desktop DAC/Amplifier category is really starting to build some momentum with mainstream consumers who are still working remotely.
Wireless headphones are going to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room for years to come but it’s clear that the wired high-end headphone crowd are quite happy with where things presently sit.
For more information: canjamglobal.com
Related reading: CanJam SoCal 2021 Show Report