We had great luck with the weather this year, but construction work on the main part of the suburban train network and a soccer match on saturday ruined public transport for most of the weekend.
First up, headphones. I mainly focused on speakers, but I was still interested to hear some of the new stuff:
Talked to Axel Grell. This is the final tuning, unlike the last shows where there was some leakage negatively affecting bass response. Production is supposed to start this week. He also told me the glass is concave because it helps to reduce a strong resonance it would otherwise have between 2.5 and 3.6kHz (essentially lowering its Q), instead of "directing" soundwaves into the absorber. This helps the HD820 to have less of a cupped hands coloration than most other closed headphones. He also told me that it uses the HD800S driver, not the HD800 driver and confirmed that there are differences between the two other than the resonator. The HD820 also has a flatter baffle and deeper earpads to have roughly the same distance from ear to driver. He replaced the metal ring with rubber now, so technically reflections in the midtreble should be less of an issue.
Note: I only listened WITH the dust covers and from the HDV820.
I thought the isolation was decent, on par with other closed headphones, but not nearly as good as IEMs. Even without glasses I couldn't get a good seal, so the bass was still slightly south of neutral, albeit a bit more extended than the regular HD800. Pressing on the earcups to get a better seal I could get much more bass than neutral, so YMMV regarding the bass tuning - I liked it from a FR perspective, but the bass quality wasn't any better than an HD600. Upper bass still sounded blurry like with most closed backs and the bass just never sounds as effortless as even the open HD800S, let alone the HD800. I know some people prefer closed back bass, but I can never listen past the mud.
It definitely has more upper mids than a regular HD800, especially >2kHz. This is not a surprise given the closed cups, but overall I find it a welcome change. It does sound poorly integrated making the midrange balance a bit wonky and makes the mids more off-sounding than even a regular HD800S. You can hear that it's coming from cup reverb instead of regular driver/baffle/earpad tuning. Just guessing here, but I think 2kHz is still recessed, while 3-5kHz are too high in level.
Staging is a lot more closed in sadly. It just feels like the stage is artificially compressed by the cups.
I don't agree with Bill-P that these are dark, or at least when I listened to them the sibilance in the mid-treble that I heard couldn't make me focus on the rest of the treble. That these headphones are still too damn sibilant almost 10 years after the original HD800 released is beyond me, especially when mods can get rid of that completely.
Overall I didn't think they were total trash and I can see how Axel Grell (who told me he has been working on them for 6 years or so) finally gave up and decided that they're good enough to make money. I do think making stuff "good enough" is a practice that will hurt Sennheiser in the long run.
I got to compare the SR-009S vs the SR-009, both driven by a SRM-T8000 fed by god knows what source playing random tracks (including Hotel California from HFO) in succession.
First up, the SR-009 here had pretty worn earpads while the SR-009S had brand new earpads. I'm sure this will change things, but I didn't try to swap the pads at the show.
The three main things I noticed were a tighter and much more impactful bass from the SR-009S, (sadly) a slightly more forward upper midrange and what felt like a slightly less sibilant treble, without a reduction in overall treble level. I also felt that it sounded a tad cleaner overall, but I was sceptical if this wasn't caused by the slight difference in midrange tonality which felt a bit smoother despite the forward and lean DF voicing. Which changes are due to the earpads and which due to the new driver, I don't know. Overall I felt they were close. If you didn't like the SR-009, the SR-009S is not going to change your mind.
The SR-009S also seemed to have a slightly larger soundstage, but I definitely attribute this to the pads.
I listened to these on friday and honestly don't remember much of these other than that they were closed in sounding, lacking resolution and had a sibilance spot in the treble. Otherwise the tonality was decent. NOT GOOD.
Did they listen through a measurement rig? Tonality is good, but everything else is a disaster. Most closed in sounding headphones ever. Terrible. Get an HD600 instead.
Sonoma Model One (USB input)
LOL. The tonality is shit. Bass boost, complete suckout from 100Hz to 1kHz and then quite linear again. What's the point of using DSP to correct the FR if the tonality ends up sounding artificial? Even ignoring tonality these are terrible: No dynamics, completely falls apart at realistic volume levels, no sense of space, etc. Just generally NOT GOOD.
These look a bit like an Audeze by EAR, but they sound much, much worse than the Audeze and HFM competition.
Heard them from the EAR Acute Classic. When I first heard them with the covers on I thought they might have potential: U-shaped tonality with a very annoying spot in the mid-treble, sucked out and reverby mids and a stage that's nearly as claustrophobic as the Final D8000. I just hoped most of these issues could be fixed by removing the covers, but that didn't happen. The stage seemed nearly just as closed in, just the midrange tonality improved. The midrange itself was still very veiled with recessed upper mids. Vocals were distant and muffled.
According to Tim de Paravicini these are accurate sounding and it's the final tuning. I guess Tim figured there are lots of EAR fanboys that will buy these regardless of sound.
I love my RE-272 so I was hoping for the new ones to continue to legacy of the RE-262/272 series instead of being a continuation of the inferior RE-400/600 series. I tried both with the small double flange tips and driven by my Galaxy S8. I can never be bothered to take anything other than my phone with me, so no dedicated player here.
I also tried the other headphones they had at the show. They had a small closed room so it was actually possible to get an idea of the sound. To get the best possible bass extension I listened to the planars without my glasses on.
They used an Esoteric audio dac (possibly the K-03XS) as source, the Shangri La amp for the estats and a Viva 845 amp for the orthos.
Fit is awkward and they're very heavy. Oh well.
The sound is definitely warm and bassy. Bass is good quality and has good extension. The treble is very well controlled, but doesn't have the extension of the RE-272. Unfortunately I felt the upper midrange a bit shouty, but centered higher than on the RE-272, closer to 3kHz than 2KHz. Staging seemed smaller than RE-272 or UERM, but bigger than RE-400 and the resolution at least didn't seem any better than the 272, if not actually worse. Obviously the FR will mask lots of information, so it's not entirely fair.
Knowing that the RE-2000 was tuned too warm for me I decided to give the RE-800 a try since I read that they're less warm and bassy.
Definitely way leaner and brighter, but sadly still a bit bassy. Shouty. And then there's a spike somewhere in the upper mid to lower treble transition that makes everything sound unbearable. Staging and resolution seem RE-400 tier. Yuck.
A bit midrangey, warm with rolled off bass. Still has that HFM house sound 2kHz dip, but not as strong as the HEK and also has more upper mids in general. Otherwise a very smooth and easy going, relaxing sound ignoring a peak in the sibilance region. These have the Stax sound, but turned up a notch and with HFM tonality. Staging seemed nebolous, dynamics very mellow and while they did seem decently resolving they definitely weren't TOTL level.
I thought these were U-shaped with the same treble peak and smaller staging. They actually seemed less resolving, but also seemed to have less of the 2kHz dip. If it wasn't for the staging and lack of resolution I would've preferred these for a more vivid sound. Oh well.
I actually quite like these. I'd still take an SR-009S over them as a 2nd headphone next to my HD800, but they're not bad overall.
Less sensitive than HE1000v2. Definitely has less of the upper midrange dip than the HE1000v2. Treble is smoother tonally and bass actually has some impact. I'd definitely take them over both of the Shangri-La things, but I still felt they were lacking dynamics and impact. The stage seemed decently big and open, but not at HD800 level. Bass was kinda blurry, but it could be the amp.
Initially I was quite impressed, but as time went by I found them more and more boring.
They're definitely more sensitive than the HEK. Tonally more neutral than HEK, but with a peak in the lower treble. Staging is smaller than HEK, but it can appear to have more precise imaging. I felt that comparing them against the HEK actually made them look like a good deal, but while they're tonally quite neutral I just felt like they couldn't even keep up with the technicalities of the HE-560. This is more of an Edition X v2 replacement. Note that I never heard the Edition X variants, so I can't compare against those. It could very well be a big improvement over the X, but I still didn't find them "better" than the 560. But I know the 560 tonal balance is a huge turnoff for most, although the new ones seemed to have a worse treble spike.
Don't even bother. While the tonal balance is good, they just sound so boring dynamically and in terms of transparency that you'd be much better served with an HD600. These are supposed to be HE-400i replacements and they do sound like it.
I do admit that I could only plug them into a tiny HFM player since the cables aren't interchangeable with the more expensive headphones. I tried plugging it into a R2R2000 prototype they had, but although its amp had an easier time driving it, the DAC section sounded broken, something that I couldn't fix in the settings when I tried.
BTW: I very much disliked the new headband construction the Ananda and Sundara have. It feels cheap even by HFM standards and doesn't work very well.
I listened to the two AcousticWing headphone prototypes and was quite impressed. That's all I'm going to say for now as they're obviously far from a real product, but there's some potential with their technology.
What I love about the High End is that you can listen to most of the TOTL speakers and electronics from all kinds of manufacturers set up in similar rooms and talk to the engineers about the compromises they made. It shows which people can very quickly make the best of a non-optimal room and which speakers work best in what I find are generally quite realistic conditions for a normal room.
There were really only two speaker rooms that I liked a lot, the others were just varying degrees of mediocre to me. Note that I'm used to widebanders, 2x15" driver OB bass and 1st order crossovers with time-aligned drivers, quite the opposite of most skinny floorstanders, so I'm far more critical of their shortcomings than most.
Holger presented their new Ampeggio X, which is basically an Ampeggio redesigned to fit the field coil drivers.
I thought it sounded awesome, probably my favorite Voxativ speaker yet. After listening to it extensively on the first day I actually avoided the room on purpose so I could listen to other speakers forcing myself to find a multi way room that I liked. Otherwise I knew I'd get sucked in and spend hours listening. There's a certain magic to the field coil sound. This one uses the BLH to fill in the "warmth and body" region that I've always found their other speakers to lack. It essentially uses the horn for baffle step compensation. The downside is the lower mid and upper bass region where the driver crosses over to the horn is a delayed muddy mess, but at least it's present. This does fuck up the imaging where instruments and voices that cover this range are very clearly below the main image and much bigger in size with inverted polarity. The bass itself seemed quite decent with impressive extension considering that the efficiency is probably a genuine 100db/W or so. It did seem to reach about 40Hz with back wall reinforcement and some rolloff, but not much happened below that. Bass quality wasn't bad, but I expected better since a lot of people seem to like BLH bass. It's about average for what an 8" driver can do, maybe a bit better than most. However above 300-400Hz or so the speaker was awesome with amazing dynamics, resolution and speed and a tonal neutrality an 8" widebander shouldn't have. I do think the paper drivers sounded smoother with a less peaky upper midrange and a smoother treble, but they also seem to sound smoother dynamically and have worse imaging. At the right listening position the imaging was probably the best at the show, with images seemingly floating in 3D space. I do feel the off-axis response is more screwy than the paper widebanders too, where you need to sit at exactly the right position or else there's an unacceptable upper midrange peak or dip (depending on the angle), but maybe this a matter of cabinet reflection or diffraction issues. I also think they used a different DAC now which might very well sound worse than the specially modded TotalDAC they were using before.
I sadly didn't get to hear the new amp, but I know the other one sounds inherently too warm for me and the high OI causes the bass and treble to rise according to the impedance - makes it generally a bit forward in the upper bass/lower mids and the upper treble to me.
This one was my 2nd favorite room at the show and my favorite multi-way room and I think most would take these over the Voxativs. More tonally neutral. 90% there in terms of resolution and dynamics. Very good speed and clarity. Less of a driver coloration, although these drivers still have a bit of a sound, especially when driven to their limits. And they really don't go super loud without starting to sound thin and distorted. They also have the worst vertical off-axis response I've ever experienced in a speaker. If you're just a tiny bit above or below tweeter height there's some very bad comb filtering going on making the upper mids and lower treble sound like they're coming through a tube or something. This is probably the main reason why I thought they sucked two years ago when they were playing Kraftwerk at 100db and I just walked into the door with my head definitely not at tweeter height. I also felt that the vertical off-axis response is part of what caused the problems I had with the imaging and coherency.
Imaging from the midrange on was awesome, second only to the Voxativs. Great three dimensionality with images that were just slightly too large in the midrange due to the two midrange drivers being too far apart and only slightly lacking in depth and height rendition. For the most part the sound was just incredibly natural, with the exception of a bit of a weird spot in the upper mids/lower treble from the crossover. After talking to Manuel Podszus I found out that the optimal listening distance was somewhere in front of the last row, whereas I'd been sitting much closer to the speakers. With more distance the coherency did improve quite a bit, but it was never quite seamless. I still had the feeling that the tweeter was a bit ahead of the midrange. Sounds more like a (very coherent) widebander with supertweeter than a regular multi-way. Still the treble was some of the most natural I heard, which I'm sure also has to do with the cables. I really want these cables.
He also confirmed that while the tweeter and midrange are connected with positive polarity, the woofers are inverted. It's just not possible without moving the woofers forward a lot, which he told me wasn't going to happen because they still need to sell the speakers so the looks play a role. To me that explained why the bass didn't have the same realism and purity that the midrange had. I will say that the open backed construction worked wonderfully in eliminating room modes in this room, but it also wasn't the cleanest and most extended and I wish the imaging was better in the bass. I'm sure adding another two woofers would hurt the imaging even more, since the woofers already seemed too far apart, so the bass quality is just limited by what two 11" woofers in a skinny U-Frame can do.
Tier 2 speakers:
Really only two speakers come to mind:
As far as traditional multi-way speakers go I quite liked the new Audio Physic Midex. Great clarity, very well controlled bass, good soundstaging and just what felt like a very transparent sound in general. I do wish the midrange and tweeter had a better integration though. You could still hear the individual drivers. Audio Physic seems to do the side-firing woofer thing very well. The bass was good for the size of the speaker, but it doesn't compete with bigger speakers.
I also liked the Canton Reference 2K. I've always thought the Reference K series (especially the 1K) were some of the best no BS designs with pretty good price/performance ratio. I don't like any of the other modern Canton designs though. This new model now has three 9" woofers (vs two 12" woofers for the 1K and two 9" woofers for the 3K) and while I thought it didn't quite reach the 1K in bass clarity and distortion it was very respectable. I thought it was a good compromise in terms of size/performance. The 2K had a better integration between midrange and tweeter than the Audio Physic (probably helped by the waveguide and the midrange mounted above the tweeter) and a smoother, more neutral and more natural sound with better bass quality and power handling, but seemed less clean and clear with worse imaging precision. If you're willing to give up that last bit of resolution that better crossover components, more uncompromising crossover choices and drivers can give you I'm sure you'd be very happy with these.
I can't believe they already decided to release them. They need much more work. I thought the bigger 10" speaker with 3 whizzer cones sucked with a big peak in the upper mids and treble and sounded super rolled off and the smaller one while less rolled off actually had an even less smooth FR. Resolution doesn't even come close to Lowther level, let alone Voxativ. (I did prefer the smaller 8" speaker FWIW since it seemed faster and more extended.) The bass, while soft and blurry, was actually the best part. But the sound wasn't the biggest issue. The build quality was absolutely terrible. They didn't have a single driver with a round cone, they all had very visible kinks in them. And I'm not just talking about the whizzer cones, even the large 8" and 10" cones were visibly not round. Also the voice coils weren't centered in the magnet gap and the formers weren't the right length. Maybe all their drivers got damaged in shipping or something and that explains the bad sound? The 3rd party measurements I have do show the upper midrange and treble peaks and lack of extension though.
From what I heard you'd be much better served by the Zu Audio speakers.
Wolf Von Langa brought his three way speaker (Audio frame London) with a Lowther in an OB with his own field coil motor and a field coil woofer and dome supertweeter aimed at the ceiling. Unfortunately he only had it connected for maybe 10-15 minutes on sunday morning, but what I heard didn't impress me. The Lowthers are colored, but I was surprised that I thought the treble could nearly hang in there with the AERs for smoothness (which is not very smooth in the grand scheme of things). Maybe it's that super tweeter - but I didn't find it particularly extended. The midrange has an unacceptable "quack" sound to it though and transparency was surprisingly limited. These didn't have the speed, clarity and resolution of the Voxativs at all.
There were many AER speakers at the High End and hifideluxe shows. The one I liked best was the one with the BD4B in a big circular baffle and a sub. Unfortunately the left driver appeared to be damaged as there didn't seem to be any treble coming from the left speaker. But even with the other drivers I felt they were closer to the Lowthers than the Voxativ - just not the same degree of transparency. I do wish someone brought an Oris horn or a Lamhorn though. The Pnoe that I heard which had a BD4 driver had a terrible integration between the horn output and the driver.
I didn't like their new Coltrane Momento 2. I felt the integration between the three midrange and treble drivers didn't work since they now use a 7" midrange. From memory the Supreme 2 with a 5" midrange had a better integration and I also thought even the Mingus 20 in another room had better mid-treble coherency. There was some very evident lobing towards the floor. Also not sure why, but I thought the 6 8" bass drivers just weren't enough for a low distortion bass. Either the amps weren't up to the task or these new woofers just sound worse than the old ones. They do allow for a "faster" or at least better integrated bass because the acoustic centre is moved forward quite a bit so they don't arrive with as much delay.
I wish they'd presented their smaller speaker with the 5" midrange since I also thought the integration didn't work here. Maybe crossing from a 6-8" midrange to a tweeter requires a waveguide for the tweeter to get acceptable coherency. Also they were tuned for a very bassy sound which the three bass drivers just couldn't handle. They started to get blurry, slow and muddy at higher levels.
Kii Three BXT
I still don't like the Kii Three speaker, but the BXT subwoofer was much needed to get the bass quality to acceptable standards. Very much recommended if you have the Kii Three.
I thought it was funny that for their flagship speakers they decided to ditch their bending wave driver. Definitely a step in the right direction.
Every time I visit their room I wish they were more coherent and uncolored. Aside from that they're pretty good.