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Bluesound Pulse Wireless Loudspeaker System, Powernode Streaming Receiver, Duo Sub/Sat Loudspeaker System, and Vault CD Ripper and Storage Device
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” I’m reminded of the old adage even when encountering apparently daring new products from old, familiar companies. Bluesound is a new line of innovative audio equipment from the Lenbrook Group, longtime owners of NAD and PSB, whose pedigree and ability to make great, affordable audio equipment are the stuff of legend. But even after poring over Bluesound’s website, I still had only a vague idea of what their products actually did. So I said, “Send ’em all.”
Turns out they’re simple, elegant turns on products you’ve used and read about for years.
2014 seemed to be the year of the portable high-resolution music player. Pono was finally released, Astell&Kern released the magnificent AK240, and then came the M, from South Korean manufacturer Calyx Audio.
I was asked to compare the M with A&K’s AK240. No way. The AK240 has many functions absent from the M -- though each might be the best in its price category, the price difference is significant. At $999 USD, the Calyx M costs a lot less than the AK240 at $2499, and you get less: no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, thus no wireless connection to music stored on your computer -- and no form-fitting protective case. But what you do get with the Calyx M is very good, and makes it a reasonably good value . . . once the bugs are worked out.
In the box
The Calyx M comes with a soft carrying pouch and two USB-to-USB Micro charging cables, one short, one long. Its gorgeous copper color is matched by the cables. There’s no quick-start guide -- you download the instruction manual.
At 5.25” x 2.75” x 0.5”, the Calyx M is large -- about the size of a new iPhone 6 or Samsung phone, but thicker. Its 7.7 ounces felt a bit heavy in my hand over long periods of use. The front is almost all screen -- a handsome, 4.65”, high-definition (1280x720) OLED display covered with Gorilla Glass. On a tiny strip below the screen is an “M.” The rear panel is all smooth metal, with Calyx’s engraved treble-clef logo and manufacturing information -- the fine print. Along the top edge are a 3.5mm jack, slots for SD and MicroSD cards, and an On/Off button. On the bottom is the USB Micro jack for charging.
The headphone market is on fire these days, and not just for the “personal audio” mobile market. I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen so many announcements of new headphones and related components. Most notably, the market for headphone amplifier-preamplifier-DACs has exploded and continues to grow. But what if you, like me, already have a DAC you’re happy with, and would rather spend less to get only what you need? Thankfully, there are plenty of standalone headphone amps available, with new ones being launched regularly.
The Italian manufacturer M2Tech first came to my attention several years ago, with their hiFace USB-to-S/PDIF output interface. Since then they’ve broadened their range to include two such converters, four standalone DACs, an ADC, a clock generator, a power supply, and the subject of this review: the Marley headphone amplifier ($1699 USD). Following M2Tech’s custom, the Marley is named for a famous musician, in this case one whose first name was Bob.
Now that we’re almost half a decade into the revolution in portable hi-fi, with enough headphone and earphone models out there to saturate if not drown demand, I didn’t expect to be so taken with an earphones-and-amp-DAC package. But after a month with Alpha Design Labs’ EH008 ’phones ($239 USD) and matching A1 portable USB amplifier ($599), I continue to be surprised by just how much performance can be had for under $1000.
ADL, for short
Alpha Design Labs (ADL) is a subsidiary of well-known Japanese manufacturer Furutech. While ADL already has to its name several headphone models and a standalone DAC, the EH008 represents a new foray, into earphones. Unlike the single-dynamic-driver or multiple-armature designs available from other manufacturers, each side of the EH008s has two dynamic drivers: an 8mm midrange-bass driver directly behind a 5.8mm treble driver. Each is Alpha-Cryo treated in what ADL says is a two-stage process. First, all metal parts are frozen to temperatures below -328°F (-200ºC) with liquid nitrogen and liquid helium. ADL claims that this binds together the components’ individual molecules more tightly, the overall structure thus becoming more stable in a way that relieves internal stresses. This purportedly improves electrical conductivity and, in turn, power and signal transfer.
NuForce Primo 8 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Ever had to buy cheap earphones when you were traveling because you broke the ones you had? If you have, you might wonder why some earphones cost $500 USD. I’ve bought several cheap sets of earphones over the years, and while a few were breathtaking in their suckitude, most were OK. The $9 set I got at a truck stop in Jennings, Louisiana, sounded shockingly nice -- a little bassy, perhaps, but quite listenable overall. And the amazingly neutral sound of the $15 Panasonic RP-TCM125 creams a lot of $100 models I’ve heard.
But there must be some reason audio enthusiasts buy $499 earphones like the NuForce Primo 8, right? There are. The Primo 8s have not one, but four drivers in each earpiece. These are not the dynamic drivers found in all inexpensive earphones, but balanced armatures. A dynamic driver is basically a miniature version of a conventional loudspeaker driver. A balanced armature is like a little motorized teeter-totter that drives a diaphragm. Balanced armatures are known for more extended, delicate, and airy treble, and, to some extent, for low tonal coloration -- although dynamic drivers, too, can have low tonal coloration, as proved by the Sennheiser IE 800.
In July 2013 I reviewed the Grace Digital Mondo, a portable Wi-Fi player and radio that can easily be moved from room to room. Grace’s Encore ($199.99 USD) is a larger, more solid component that you’ll want to leave in place, but like the Mondo, it lets you experience a world of music and conversation, from stations in your hometown to broadcasts from Australia -- provided you have a Wi-Fi network.
In the box
The Encore comes with a remote control (batteries included), a power adapter and cord, and an RCA-to-3.5mm mini patch cable for optional device connection. The 54-page, single-language instruction booklet is a far cry from the “quick-start” guides that are all you get from too many manufacturers. The Encore’s manual isn’t perfect, however; here and there, it includes instructions for the Mondo instead of for the Encore.
Like them or not, Beats by Dr. Dre can take credit for lighting a fire under the headphone market. Manufacturers of much better headphones and associated gear are now reaping the benefits as consumers explore better alternatives. While the bulk of consumers’ attention seems to be on the portables market, the increased focus on high-performance audio has also shone a light on the burgeoning market in headphone amplifiers, and buyers are taking notice.
Right now, the hottest action in the amplification segment is in the category of headphone amp-preamplifier-DAC, with examples from Benchmark Media, Grace Design, and Antelope Audio (among others) receiving rave reviews. Charging into this space is Oppo Digital, already well known for their excellent-sounding universal disc/streaming players, with their HA-1 headphone amplifier ($1199 USD).
As usual, however, Oppo has not been content to create another me-too product. The HA-1 contains some notable differences from the rest of the herd.
Samsung Level In measurements can be found by clicking this link.
If someone told you that Samsung was offering new earphones and asked you what you thought they might be like, you’d probably guess a rather ordinary design with a generic dynamic driver and decent sound, for $30 or $40, right? Wrong. Like practically every other TV company lured by the promise of more lucrative margins than the 0.01% profit (give or take a few hundredths of a percent) now common in the TV biz, Samsung is pushing into higher-end audio products. Their new earphones, the Level In, cost a substantial $149.99 USD and are anything but generic.
The Level In -- part of Samsung’s new Level line of mildly upscale portable audio products (which they call “wearable tech”) -- is a pair of three-way hybrid earphones. Each earpiece contains one dynamic driver (basically, a tiny speaker, with a voice-coil, etc.) and two balanced-armature drivers (basically, a little teeter-totter suspended in a magnetic field and connected to a diaphragm). The dynamic driver is there to deliver strong, low-distortion bass, and the armatures to lend delicacy and detail to the midrange and treble. It’s like having a tiny three-way speaker in your ear.
A hybrid design is not an automatic path to sonic nirvana. Samsung had to cram three drivers into an enclosure barely larger than that of a typical dynamic earphone. Then they had to get the sound from the different drivers to blend inside a tiny acoustical chamber without introducing music-marring resonances.
Brainwavz S5 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Proof that headphone enthusiasts are a little different from other audiophiles can be found in the very name of the Brainwavz S5 earphones. Could you imagine a $10,000/pair speaker coming from a company called Brainwavz? If you had that name on your room at the Festival Son et Image or Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I bet most showgoers would silently slip past your door, assuming you’d actually intended to exhibit at the skateboarding show a week earlier.
But Brainwavz has been racking up glowing, five-star reviews on headphone-enthusiast sites, mainstream tech sites, and on Amazon.com, where the new S5 ($129.50 USD) is averaging 4.8 out of 5 stars.
What’s special about the S5? Nothing. That’s not a criticism. If you look at the products page on the Brainwavz site, you’ll find no fewer than 15 completely different earphone models, some of which will probably look familiar. While almost all earphones are actually designed and manufactured by Chinese vendors you’ve never heard of, most of the companies under whose brands the ’phones are sold have a lot of input on the acoustical and industrial design -- and, of course, the more input they have, the higher their cost, and yours. Brainwavz seems to take a different approach, cherry-picking the best designs from original-design manufacturers (ODMs) and making only minor cosmetic modifications. How much tuning of these designs does Brainwavz do? Only Brainwavz and the ODMs know for sure. We do know, though, that both approaches can yield excellent earphones . . . and horrible ones, too.
KEF M200 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Ever since the appearance of headphones from Beats by Dre, the gourmet head- and earphone industry has flourished. In the last few years, practically every big name in hi-fi has released its take on what a high-end headphone should be. Bowers & Wilkins, Cardas, Klipsch, MartinLogan, NAD, Paradigm, Polk, PSB -- even Musical Fidelity. I would have thought that the market would already be saturated, yet only recently has the British company KEF, one of audio’s biggest and most-respected names, launched its first headphone models. I suspected that this was due either to caution, or a lack of deep interest in headphones. Neither turned out to be the case.
When iTunes was launched, KEF looked at the MP3 market and chose not to enter it. But studio-quality material has changed all that. So has public opinion about expensive headphones. KEF spent two-and-a-half years in research and tests before bringing out the M500 supraaural headphones ($299.99 USD) and the subject of this review, the M200 in-ear ’phones ($199.99). That’s a long time in this business -- KEF clearly wasn’t interested in rushing to market with a me-too product, but rather wanted to offer headphones that represent what this innovative company can do. Consider their flagship loudspeaker: KEF began designing the Blade in 1998, but it didn’t go into production until 2011. Anyone who’s heard the Blade will probably agree that it’s far sweeter than just about anything else on the market. The M200s promised a lot for $199.99, but would they actually be any better than the dozens of alternatives already available for about the same price?