February was a very busy month. Two major audio shows and a first-ever headphone shootout organized by a significant A/V dealer meant racking up some modest air mileage for yours truly, but it also made for making some interesting observations about the state of audio on a few different fronts.
Florida International Audio Expo
Since the days of serious HiFi at CES are long over, the Florida International Audio Expo in Tampa is now the de-facto first audio show of the year. The timing and the locale are hard to beat. I mean, who doesn’t want to be in someplace like Tampa in the middle of winter, listening to all kinds of great HiFi gear? The show was noticeably bigger over last year and foot traffic along with general excitement seemed to increase as well. I know a few audio folks out there who bang on about HiFi in general being an “old guy’s game”, but the show had a moderately diverse makeup of attendees. No, not a ton of younger people were there, but from the mid-30s and up you had a decent age mix. There was also a modest but noticeable increase in female attendance too. And not just the stereotypical patient spouse accompanying their gearhead husband to a show, but genuinely interested female attendees, critically listening to various systems. Overall, the show has a positive and approachable vibe to it. Show organizer Bart Andeer has designs on both growing the show steadily and keeping things manageable to promote an unstuffy, family-friendly atmosphere. Now I want you to hold that “family-friendly” thought for a minute as I am going to circle back to it shortly.
When thinking about what gear stood out most in my mind from the show, I would have to first mention the Eminent Technology Model 18LS active hybrid speaker. It had that effortless speed and sound quality that you get from ribbon/planar/electrostatic designs but with a seamlessly integrated bottom end. With their moderate size, three channels of built-in Hypex amplification, and extensive DSP resources, this was an intriguing and great-sounding concept. It’s also another example in my mind of why active speakers, when done right, can be superior to any passive loudspeaker design.
The other standout to me was the updated TAD Reference 1 or R1TX-BR loudspeakers. TAD really brought their “A-game” to the show with the updated Compact Evolution 1 (CE-1TX), which was also outstanding, and the Reference 1. The room’s “demo DJ” indulged me with three music tracks that I am very familiar with, (Cousin Dupree by Steely Dan, It’s Your Thing by Christian McBride and Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Make Us Stronger by Ghost Rider). By the end of the demo, I could not wipe the smile off my face, the sound was just that good to me. Whatever the folks at PAD HiFi (the US distributor) had done during the setup of that room, it had brought out the best in both sets of speakers that they had there. An unreal experience.
Our Co-Editor, Chris Eberle, was also at the Florida show and besides being our resident video expert, he is also a working musician. A bassoon player to be precise. Chris regularly tours with several local orchestras and symphonies, and I’ve learned over time that he has a very well-trained ear. So, when Chris mentioned that he was essentially gob-smacked at the sound of the Lansche Audio No. 5.2 loudspeakers in the High End by Oz room, I completely understood why. Incredible dynamics and extension from top-to-bottom, a sweet-sounding midrange, and then there’s that tweeter! The sound coming from that crazy Corona plasma tweeter is just something so unique, I understand why he was enchanted by it. Count on Chris to dig the speakers with the “fricking purple lasers” in them! They were $48.5K for the pair, so not quite a drop in the bucket!
If there was anything I would have liked to have seen more of at the Florida show, it would have been a few more rooms devoted to good quality entry-level systems. The now-defunct Rocky Mountain Audio Fest had the idea of devoting some demo rooms to more affordable systems at two or three different price tiers. While there was certainly some more affordable stuff to listen to in Tampa, I’d like to see the show organizers take a page from RMAF and promote at least a few more entry-level and moderate upgrade gear rooms.
The next weekend I found myself about 45 degrees colder in New York’s Times Square attending CanJam NYC, the largest headphone show in the US. As a longtime headphone lover, I always get a kick out of attending this show.
Personal Audio always attracts a bit of a different crowd than your typical HiFi show. Certainly, a younger one, generally more ethnically diverse, and notably more women who are legitimately interested in what’s at the show. But we’re not simply talking bang-for-the-buck shoppers looking at earbuds for the gym or gaming headsets for their consoles, many are young, upwardly mobile professionals who don’t bat an eye at dropping hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on a pair of high-end headphones or IEMs (In-Ear Monitors), a snazzy tube headphone amp or DAP (Digital Audio Player). They are sincerely into good sound and are very passionate about it. So passionate in fact that the two seminars I attended on Saturday, one featuring Dr. Sean Olive from HARMAN and the other presided by PSB Speakers founder Paul Barton (both discussing headphone measurements and future advancements), were packed with attendees.
During the Q&A sessions, many were asking in-depth and insightful questions. It got me to start thinking about a number of these prognostications that some of my industry friends and some on social media make that two-channel HiFi is in serious trouble unless it changes its ways. How it can’t survive on the “classic” older audiophile and how the industry needs to appeal to younger people. Not to engage in ageism here but, visually, the point resurfaced later when I happened to spy veteran reviewers Steve Guttenburg, Kal Rubinson, and Herb Reichert huddled together looking humorously out of place amongst a sea of hip youths. After I was done chuckling at the initial comedy of this scene, I began to realize that I was watching two-channel HiFi’s natural process of evolution happening right in front of me.
People tend to forget that “Personal Audio” is very much part of the whole two-channel HiFi thing, and it’s how most of us got started in our personal HiFi journeys. I know it’s how I did. As much as I hung out in stereo shops as a kid and was fascinated by the gear, the first audio components that saved up for and bought were a Toshiba Walkman-style cassette player and the biggest Sony headphones I could afford at the time ($99 bucks from Bay Bloor Radio).
It’s from those humble beginnings that I worked my way up through to better-sounding personal gear, to eventually my first real home stereo system, and then on from there. Although today’s personal audio gear is far and away in a whole different league, and in some cases price bracket, than what many of us started off with, I feel the parallels in what we can call, “the evolution of the HiFi enthusiast” are still very much the same.
At the Focal booth at CanJam, I got a chance to meet and interview Mégane Montabonel, Product Manager for Focal’s impressive headphone line. A very charming and insightful woman, she has a hand in the development and marketing of every new headphone design. Just a few minutes into our interview was all it took to see that she passed the “committed audio nerd” test with flying colors. And whether she may realize it or not she is very much part of the changing face of our little hobby. Two-channel HiFi isn’t just about sound but also about personal expression. The type of gear, the aesthetics, brand loyalty, and ultimately even the sound, all say something about us as individuals. And that desire for personal expression is nowhere more keenly seen than in Personal Audio. While a few critics out there may try to keep selling the opinion that two-channel HiFi is both a culturally and gender-exclusive hobby, l disagree. It’s sure not the impression I get looking around the CanJam show floor and to a slightly lesser degree Florida’s show attendees. Personally, I am becoming more convinced that two-channel HiFi can have a bright future in terms of appeal, current economic conditions notwithstanding.
2023 Value Electronics Headphone Shootout
The last event on the calendar for me on this trip was as a judge for the 2023 Value Electronics Headphone Shootout. This took place just a short walk away from CanJam, the day after the show ended. This inaugural Shootout was organized by Robert Zohn from Value Electronics (a major A/V dealer in the NYC area) and Dealerscope and featured select brands and models of Headphones and IEMs (both wired and wireless) in five categories. The judging panel consisted of:
- Brian “Woody” Stout, Owner, Woody’s Soundup
- Carlo Lo Raso, Editor-in-Chief, Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity
- Gavin Johnson, Technical Support, AVPro Edge
- Ian White, Editor-in-Chief, eCoustics
- Michael de Nigris, Audio Engineer, Autonomic
- Shane Lee, Channel Owner/Reviewer, Shane Lee Reviews
I had a very enjoyable experience overall. It was interesting to meet and get to know the other judges and explore their backgrounds a little bit. We all took the actual judging portion very seriously as we got down to the business of evaluating these headphones. And even though our ages, experience, and musical tastes varied a fair bit, it was interesting to discover at the end how unanimously our opinions were when it came to picking the winning headphones in each category. I think it speaks (even in just a small way) to some of the findings that HARMAN’s Dr. Sean Olive talks about regarding listener preferences in speakers and headphones. You can see the chart of the contestants and winners in each category below.
Now was it a perfect event? No. Being the first of anything, there were some hiccups at the start of the day, and for a headphone “Shootout” there were certainly a few other additional brands I would have liked to see in the running. But for the first event, it was quite well put together and I hope it’s something that will continue and grow in scope.
Both Focal America’s head of PR Wendy Knowles and Focal’s Product Manager for Headphones Mégane Montabonel were also in attendance as spectators which turned out to be convenient as the Focal Bathys and the Clear-MG picked up wins for their respective categories. A quick word on the Bathys as it was the first time I really got to hear it in wireless use. It was exceptionally good sounding. Frankly, a few of us remarked how much better this wireless set of headphones sounded compared to some wired models at the Shootout. If this is the future of what’s to come from Wireless Bluetooth headphones, then I say, “Bring it on!”
In the end, Robert Zohn proceeded to announce the winners of the Shootout and crowned them the “King of Headphones,” although to be fair, with two of the awards being received by the ladies of Focal it would have been proper to pronounce them the “Queens of Headphones!” The judges then participated in a bit of a panel discussion where we were asked various questions about headphones, Personal Audio, and HiFi in general. One of the other judges raised the point of how two-channel home HiFi could learn a few things from Personal Audio if it wants to continue to be relevant and appeal to a broader audience. As I mentioned earlier, I think that is happening naturally anyway as Personal Audio and two-channel HiFi are basically two halves of the same coin. Both my sons both have small bedroom systems and their smartphones and IEMs that they listen to all the time. But more and more, they are coming downstairs to my studio and asking to listen to some of their favorite tracks on my big system. They are naturally craving a better experience and constantly ask me questions about this speaker or that component, and I do my best to answer in as unintimidating a way as possible. Because some of the equipment I get in for review is expensive and intimidating to them.
In all honesty, if two-channel HiFi suffers from anything, I think it is the attitude of some of its participants. When I was a teenager and hanging out in Toronto HiFi shops, most of the store salespeople treated me kindly and encouraged my interest. I rarely got a brush off by anyone, and most took the time to let me listen to all manner of gear and answer my many questions. They mostly seemed to understand that if I was spending that much time in their stores and showed that much curiosity, I could someday be a future customer and they helped cultivate that interest. Like in any other hobby or pastime, there is bound to be the occasional jerk who takes part in it. And in HiFi, I have sadly encountered a fair few of them. Whether it’s that puffed-up know-it-all on an audio forum or some other overly opinionated person, an elitist or generally condescending attitude does more harm to the audiophile community than almost anything else.
To take an interest in someone who is new to this hobby and spend the time to listen to them and answer their questions without puffing yourself up or pushing an agenda goes a long way to encourage folks. Especially the kind of folks who may be starting out at a CanJam but whose interest can transition to bring them to a Florida-type audio show. And I mentioned earlier how the Florida show organizers are big on keeping their show family-friendly. Another way to read that is to keep the show “approachable.” I applaud them for that. I know that some of my colleagues complain that US shows are boring and not as cool or hip as Munich High End or other European shows. Well, that may be so, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that, well…they’re in Europe, and visiting Europe if you can swing it, is cool! Bringing the conversation back to home turf though, if you want average people to experience what is so cool about what the rest of us enjoy, then we need to keep shows approachable, easy to attend and experience, and be open to helping cultivate that curiosity and interest in our own way.
So, if you’ve made it this far through my latest dissertation, let me first say Thank You. And next, let me leave you with some parting thoughts from my rather active February. First, wireless headphones (and IEMs), like the Focal Bathys, have finally come of sonic age. Be prepared for wireless and wired headphones to sound indistinguishable sooner rather than later and for the technology to compensate for people’s hearing deficiencies to be further refined and incorporated into these new wireless products. Second, active speakers will also see even wider acceptance among audiophiles in the future. The results are clearly superior over passive speakers (it has been so for years) and the audiophile mentality has finally caught up to that fact. And finally, to all the audiophiles out there, keep enjoying your music, be kind, and leave the attitude at the door.