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CanJam 2024

CanJam 2024, Part One

Diversity in All Things Headphones

CanJam is an audio show dedicated to headphones and their associated components: headphone amps, DACs, cables and accessories.

CanJam 2024

CanJam 2024, Part One – Diversity in All Things Headphones was originally published in Copper Magazine Issue 205

FIDELITY cooperation with Copper Magazine.
Read this article also in Copper.

It’s the premier show of its kind, with events in New York, California, London, Singapore, Shanghai and other locations. CanJam has been steadily growing, to the point where I devoted two days to the recent CanJam NYC 2024 show in Manhattan.

I admit, I spent most of the first day schmoozing with friends rather than doing my journalistic duty, but still, the show has reached a critical mass where there is now a LOT to hear and see. You could breeze through it in a couple of hours, but you’d be shortchanging yourself. More than 80 exhibitors showed an extremely diverse selection of in-ear, over-ear, dynamic, planar magnetic, electrostatic and xMEMS (yes, a new category!) models at price points ranging from under-$100 to thousands. The electronics were equally varied, with a noticeable presence of vacuum-tube hardware – off the top of my head, maybe 30 percent of the components on display. Either headphone aficionados like the sound of vacuum tubes, or tubes are an ideal sonic complement to headphones, or both.

The diversity extended to the exhibitors and the attendees. There were companies from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Korea, Germany, Japan, Austria, The Netherlands, Singapore, Poland, France, Romania, Italy and elsewhere. And for those of you who have been wringing your hands over the so-called “graying out” and even the demise of high-quality audio, I suggest attending a CanJam. There were attendees of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. At some audio shows, you’ll see a sea of gray hair. Not at CanJam. The crowd was engaged and lively. CanJam is an upbeat show with positive energy. If you’re a jaded audiophile, come to one and be rejuvenated.

I mostly listened to over-ear headphones – the idea of sticking in-ears in, regardless of how well-sanitized or newly-tipped, was something I subconsciously avoided. Maybe the fact that I’ve recently gotten over long COVID gave me a sense of invulnerability to any germs that might have been lurking on earpads.

I’m certainly going to cover what I saw, but if I was forced to sum up the show in one sentence it would be this:

Great sound was the rule, not the exception.

CanJam 2024
Attendance was robust on both days of the show.

After a few hours at CanJam, I got to the point where it didn’t matter whether I was listening to dynamic, planar magnetic, tubes, transistors, or whatever – I heard many setups with clear sound with excellent tonal balance and soundstaging.

I’ll remind everyone once again: my high-frequency hearing isn’t what it used to be, so I alternated between having hearing aids on and off in an attempt to sonically triangulate. If anything, your sonic mileage might be better than mine.

At previous shows, I thought some of the sound was exceptional, and other exhibits were good, underwhelming, or a turn off. Not at CanJam 2024 – I was notably surprised by the consistency and the excellence of the sound.

Here are some of the many highlights of the show. Actually, there was so much to see that I attended the show on both days, and will be offering part two of this CanJam 2024 show report in the next issue.

Hailing from Poland, Ferrum Audio showed its revised ERCO Gen 2 DAC/headphone amp. The ERCO Gen 2 ($1,795) features reprogrammed software along with changes in the analog circuitry. (Original ERCO units can be upgraded.) Like many headphone amps and DACs at CanJam, it offers multiple balanced and single-ended analog and digital connections. Ferrum components, which include the WANDLA flagship preamp/DAC, OOR all-analog headphone amp, and others, are easily identified by their distinctive copper-finish front panel logo. Bill Frisell’s “Shenandoah” sounded warm, spacious, and detailed through Focal headphones.

CanJam 2024
Roy Feldstein of VANA, Ltd. shows off the Ferrum electronics

Technics had a variety of its newest Premium Class headphones on exhibit, from $169.95 to the top-of-the-line $1,199 EAH-TZ700 in-ear monitor. Many featured active noise-cancelling. What really caught my eye, though, were single-piece audio systems: the Ottava Class SC-C70MK2 ($1,099.95) which even has built-in speakers, and the Premium Class SA-C600 networking integrated amp/streamer/CD player ($1,099.95). I couldn’t help but think they looked like what Bose WaveRadios could have been if the latter went all-out. The fit and finish of the Technics models, like all of the Technics products I’ve seen since the brand’s renaissance, were first-rate.

CanJam 2024
Technics’ EAH-A800 headphones and SC-C70MK2 all-in-one audio system make high-fidelity sound easy.

Meze Audio debuted its second-generation LIRIC headphones. The $2,000 closed-back LIRIC has a new QWRM Quarter Wavelength Resonator Mask, a metal plate that covers selected openings in the driver frame to provide a smoother high-frequency response. It also sports a new ebony wood finish that would not look out of place on an acoustic guitar. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the headphones sounded excellent, with smooth, well-balanced audio quality.

CanJam 2024
Look at that finish! Meze Audio’s LIRIC with its gorgeous ebony accents. Courtesy of Meze Audio

Audeze is now shipping its MM-100 planar magnetic headphones, designed in conjunction with noted audio engineer Manny Marroquin, who is Audeze’s head of professional products. At $399, they’re a lower-cost alternative to the flagship $1,699 MM-500 and are aimed at both audiophiles and pro audio users.

The Dekoni Audio exhibit was evidence that if you’re a headphones enthusiast, you can go deep – Dekoni specializes in upgraded replacement earpads and eartips made from various materials like suede, velour, leather, and sheepskin, all tailored to various headphone brands. They also offer headphones in partnership with Fostex and HIFIMAN.

I used to think that headphones sounded best for acoustic-based music like jazz and classical, but this long-held theory evaporated at the Final Audio booth as I checked out a sneak preview of their D-7000 Pro open-ear planar magnetic headphones ($3,500). The D-7000 Pro featured a new “asymmetrical sound diffusion structure” said to reduce the adverse impact of ear shape on sound quality, an improved driver diaphragm, and other refinements. Since I was too stunad to figure out how to operate their Questyle QP-something-or-other portable audio player, I just cued up the first track, “Guns for Hire” by AC/DC – and was stunned by how great it sounded, with great dynamic kick and powerful tonality. Then for something completely different I stumbled upon an audiophile favorite, Cyndee Peters’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” and just basked in the sumptuous sound.

Creative Labs is, as many of us know, a powerhouse name in gaming hardware, computer sound cards and speakers, and headphones. I was extremely intrigued to see that they offer the Aurvana Ace 2 wireless in-ear headphones ($129.99) – which utilize xMEMS high-frequency drivers in tandem with dynamic woofers. Cutting edge driver technology from a mainstream company? Believe it. Even for someone as high-frequency-impaired as myself, the transparency and resolution of the Ace 2 was obvious. xMEMS drivers utilize a piezoelectric motor and silicon membrane rather than the conventional voice coils and materials employed by dynamic-driver and balanced-armature headphones. Creative Labs also showed their X5 fully balanced “headphone bi-amplifier for audiophiles” ($239.95), which offers up to 32-bit/384 kHz PCM playback.

CanJam 2024
The Creative Labs Aurvana X2 in-ear headphones incorporate innovative xMEMS driver technology.

HIFIMAN always has a strong presence at CanJam, and this year they were featuring their EF500 DAC/headphone amp with support for streaming media. The slim EF500, available in silver or black at $459, fits compactly into a desktop setup and cleverly doubles as a headphones stand. It’ll stream from an NAS drive or portable player, or from an app.

Many exhibitors of DACS and headphone amps were using HIFIMAN Susvara planar magnetic headphones, and after hearing them in a few booths, found myself to be turning to them again and again to enjoy their exceptional pure, detailed and spacious sound. I have good taste, as it turns out – after the show I looked up the price and it’s $6,000 retail.

CanJam 2024
The new HIFIMAN EF500 DAC/headphone amp is compact and accommodates single-ended and balanced connections. Courtesy of HIFIMAN.

The Metaxas & Sins exhibit was remarkably stunning both visually and sonically. Kostas Metaxas has a unique design sensibility that merges steampunk, futurism, Art Deco, and other less-categorizable elements into something entirely his own. His Ethereal headphone amp system looks like a robotic head and torso with angular cutouts, yet the design is functional – the cutouts serve as heat sinks. (I’ll leave it to you to guess where the dual volume controls are.)

The sound was remarkable, thanks to the Tourbillon tape deck ($49,000) used as source material, connected to a Marquis headphone amp ($7,000). I listened through ZMF Caldera planar magnetic headphones ($3,499). (The booth also had Stax SR-X9000 electrostatic headphones ($6,200) driven by a Metaxas & Sins Ethereal headphone amp/energizer ($32,000).

CanJam 2024
No contest: the Metaxas & Sins Ethereal headphone amp system was the most distinctive looking piece of gear at the show. Next time I audition it I’ll listen to Kraftwerk.

I put on the ZMFs as Elton John’s “Honky Cat” was playing through the Tourbillon. I confess, I never liked this song much. I always thought it a lightweight. But hearing it at the Metaxas & Sins booth, I was completely blown away. I could hear multiple acoustic and electric pianos, a banjo, and other instruments I’d never heard before, and the fact that the band was grooving together. What a track! I gained new respect for Elton as a singer – I realized he’s far better than I’d ever given him credit for – and for Dee Murray, who absolutely drives the track with a deep bass tone and a powerful groove. The track sounded sensational. I was literally almost dizzy after hearing it. Yes, you can still have audio epiphanies no matter how long you’ve been in this game.

Grell, a company founded by former Sennheiser designer Axel Grell, debuted the OAE1 Signature, created in partnership with computer hardware company Drop. The Drop+Grell OAE1 Signature retails for $499. The drivers are positioned at an angle to the ears, rather than perpendicular as is the case with other headphones, which the company claims produces sound waves as if from a source in front of the listener for a more realistic sound field. I didn’t get a chance to listen but the buzz from listeners at the packed booth was that they were impressive.

ABYSS was another company using reel-to-reel tape as source material, in this case, via a Technics RP Series deck with an RP-2422 headblock. The tapes were early-generation masters that someone managed to acquire from Atlantic Records and other labels. I listened via the ABYSS AB1266 Phi TC $6,000 planar magnetic headphones, featuring a proprietary open-back design. At the time I put on the headphones “The Girl From Ipanema” from Getz/Gilberto happened to be playing, and…wow. By coincidence I had just finished reviewing the Impex Records re-issue (see my article in this issue), so the recording was fresh in my mind. The sound was very clear, balanced, and natural, with nuances of the percussion being especially finely rendered. Stan Getz’s sax had body and personality, albeit in a totally different way than listening through speakers. A treat.

CanJam 2024
Sonic treats: some of the reel-to-reel tapes available for listening at the ABYSS booth.

Full disclosure: I do some consulting work for Audio-Technica. That said, this show report would be remiss if I didn’t mention the North American debut of A-T’s Narukami Series HPA-KG Naru vacuum tube headphone amp/preamplifier and companion ATH-AWKG dynamic headphones ($108,000). Both models incorporate rare kurogaki wood, and the amplifier utilizes Audio-Technica-branded Takatsuki 300B power tubes. It would sound odd for me to comment further, so I’ll refer you to this YouTube video from Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity. I don’t think it would be amiss for me to say that the amplifier and headphones look absolutely striking.

CanJam 2024
Audio-Technica’s John Tarulli with the new Narukami ATH-AWKG headphones and HPA-KG Naru vacuum tube headphone amp/preamplifier.

CanJam 2024

Many headphone aficionados will not be satisfied with anything other than Stax electrostatic headphones, and the Woo Audio exhibit put smiles on many faces. They showed a wide variety of Stax models and associated electronics, including the new and very cool TUBE mini balanced headphone amplifier DAC, measuring just 4.2 by 1.4 by .28 inches. The TUBE mini uses two diminutive 6418 vacuum tubes (visible through a window in the center of the unit) and an ESS Sabre DAC, and is said to be able to drive even headphones that require a lot of power. It’s USB-powered and is available with an optional POWER BASE docking system with an external battery power supply, and vibration control system. Pricing ranges from $499 for the TUBE mini and from $299 for the POWER BASE.

I listened to Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” from the Viva Elvis Cirque du Soleil album, and it was Heavy Metal Elvis rocking out with high-energy raunchy guitars, and an on-fire rhythm section. It sounded great, with tremendous power and impact. I got so caught up in it that I forgot to note what headphones I was listening to, which is a great endorsement, I think. The King lives on in audiophile land!

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Los Angeles, California distributor High End by Oz had a suite full of enticing gear, and, being a man of refined and expensive taste (especially for stuff I can’t afford but can indulge in at shows), I went for the Italian/Latvian VIVA Egoista 2A3 headphone amplifier ($15,500), featuring, as you might guess, 2A3 output tubes. I put on Meze Audio Elite headphones ($3,999), cued up “Ipanema” (which at this point in the show had become one of my reference auditioning tracks) and basked in the warm, sweet, lush sound. The imaging was excellent – on these headphones you could distinctly tell that the acoustic bass was living in the left channel, which wasn’t the case with other setups. For me, this kind of sound is what high-end audio is all about – immersion in wonderful sound that makes you want to keep listening and listening.

CanJam 2024


Special thanks to Copper Magazine

The stated retail price of the reviewed device is valid as of the time of the review and is subject to change.