Astell&Kern AK240 Portable Media Player

August 2014

Astell&Kern AK240Astell&Kern has made quite a rumble with its earlier models of portable media players, the AK100 and AK120. With the AK240 they’ve created a model that seems to know no bounds. It’s a high-quality piece that you won’t be ashamed to plug into your main audio system, yet you can carry it with you almost anywhere. And it costs a bundle -- $2499 USD.

Description

Inside a classy black slipcase of construction paper is a box of black wood, and nestled inside that is the Astell&Kern AK240. Printed on the back of the slipcase, in lieu of the usual ad copy, are, in several languages, a brief description of the AK240 and its specifications. Lifting the player out of the box reveals two compartments. In one is a leather case; in the other are a USB-to-USB Micro charging cord a little over 3’ long, a quick-start guide, and warranty information, the latter in very small type that I found hard to read without a magnifying glass. There’s no printed instruction manual -- you have to go online and download it. One year (90 days for accessories) seems an awfully short warranty period for such an expensive portable media device.

The case is made of Minerva leather, tanned in Italy, and carries an official seal and certificate number to guarantee its authenticity. As it ages, it reveals unique veins and wrinkles, and feels soft yet durable in the hand. What impressed me most was that, even after I’d removed and reinserted the AK240 in its case a dozen times, it still fit the AK240 like a glove; it hadn’t stretched.

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NAD Viso HP50 Headphones

NAD Viso HP50 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

August 2014

NAD HP50New Acoustic Dimension, aka NAD, is a brand well known to audiophiles. Beginning in the late 1970s with the 3020 integrated amplifier, the once-British, now-Canadian company has developed a reputation for solid-performing, high-value electronics. Like many other manufacturers, NAD is now moving beyond its traditional two-channel audio and home-theater products to address, with its Viso products, the booming market of compact desktop and personal audio gear. A recent addition to the range are the HP50 headphones ($299 USD).

Why is an electronics company making headphones? NAD is part of the Lenbrook Group, which also includes loudspeaker manufacturer PSB. The HP50 shares its DNA with PSB’s well-regarded M4U 1 and M4U 2 headphones, which designer Paul Barton developed using the resources available at Canada’s National Research Council.

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Bowers & Wilkins P7 Headphones

Bowers & Wilkins P7 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

July 2014

Bowers & Wilkins P7Bowers & Wilkins, the iconic British speaker manufacturer, made their first foray into nontraditional hi-fi with the Zeppelin iPod speaker dock. That product was a great success with their established customers who wanted a small and simple one-box system for a second room, but perhaps more important, it introduced the brand to a whole new demographic. In 2010, B&W unveiled their first headphone design, the P5, which also proved successful with critics and consumers. They followed that up in 2011 with the in-ear C5, which included some genuine innovations in terms of both fit and sound signature. In 2012 came the lightweight, on-ear P3, and in late 2013 B&W introduced their first full-sized, over-the-ear headphone model, the P7, which retails for $399.99 USD.

Description

Bowers & Wilkins’ industrial-design team knows not only how to make an attractive product, but also the importance of unified brand styling. In many ways, the P7s look like a bigger version of the P3s. The rounded, oblong earcups are leather wrapped, and the brushed-aluminum metal ovals that extend out from the center of each have black-anodized end caps with the "Bowers and Wilkins" name engraved. A pair of stiff, stainless-steel wires swoop back and up to connect the earcups to the headband via sturdy metal hinges that allow the cups to fold up for carriage. This arrangement makes for minimal materials and clutter, without the headphones feeling at all fragile. Instead of a plastic case, B&W provides a semirigid pouch that is leatherette on the outside and quilted inside. Taste in such things varies, but I found the total P7 package classier than that of any of its competitors that I’ve seen.

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Aura Note V2 Music Center

July 2014

Aura Note V2Reviewers' ChoiceLately I’ve been thinking a lot about my CD collection. Even after tossing jewel boxes, tray cards, and booklets -- and, after ripping them -- I still have a lot of CDs. But basically, they’re worthless -- except to me. Then there’s the collection of songs stored on my computer. They’re mostly Apple Lossless files, but also 256kbps MP3s I’ve purchased, and even some AAC files ripped at 128kbps before I knew better, and at every rate in between. I think a lot about that collection, too. I also think a lot about putting my collections aside in favor of a streaming service, such as Spotify, which would allow me to act on my impulses to hear albums or songs I don’t own, but would discourage me from spending needlessly to achieve the same goal. J&R Music World is closed, and I don’t feel so good myself.

Apparently, Simon Lee of April Music, in South Korea, thinks about these things too. Because with his newly improved Aura Note “all-in-one music center,” the V2, he’s thought of just about everything.

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Audiofly Performance AF140 Earphones

Audio Performance AF140 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

June 2014

Audiofly AF140The headphone biz sure has changed in the last few years. Obviously, lots of companies have been getting into it, but that was 2011’s trend. Today’s trend involves what’s been happening to those companies that have been at it since then. Some of them are getting better.

It’s no secret that many, perhaps most, companies that have recently entered the headphone market began by slapping their logos on models made by some faceless original design manufacturer (ODM) no consumer in the Western Hemisphere has ever heard of. What’s happening now is that some of those companies have decided that, in order to compete, they have to get serious. Mass-marketers such as Beats, House of Marley, Skullcandy, and others have brought in heavy-duty engineering talent and spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on test equipment. As a result, their ’phones are getting better, with a more consistent “house sound.”

I don’t know if or how Audiofly has added to its engineering resources over the last few years, but it’s obvious that this Australian company has learned a lot since it entered the market in 2011. Its first earphones had an appealing industrial design and pretty good sound overall, but I found that their sonic signature varied from model to model.

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Focal Spirit Classic Headphones

Focal Spirit Classic measurements can be found by clicking this link.

June 2014

Focal Spirit ClassicReviewers' ChoiceThe French company Focal may be best known to audiophiles on this side of the pond for their flagship Utopia line of loudspeakers, formerly sold under the JMlab brand -- but this large hi-fi company has, for decades, been manufacturing a full range of loudspeakers, from the very affordable to the ultra expensive.

While continuing to serve its core market of speakers for two-channel and home-theater systems, Focal has more recently embraced small desktop speaker systems and headphones. Their first headphone model, the Spirit One ($279.99 USD), is a compact, sound-isolating design with a warmish sound, and some extra bass to compete with ambient noise. In late 2013, Focal introduced two new headphones: The Spirit Professional ($349) is built to take the abuse of the pro-audio world and render a flat, detailed sound, while the subject of this review, the Spirit Classic ($399), was designed both ergonomically and sonically for audiophile listening at home.

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Audeze LCD-X Headphones

LCD-X measurements can be found by clicking this link.

May 2014

Audeze LCD-XReviewers' ChoiceAt CanJam 2009, in Los Angeles, Alexander Rosson and Sankar Thiagasamudram showed off a new headphone prototype. Two things made these headphones stand out from the variety of do-it-yourself contrivances usually found at CanJam: though Rosson and Thiagasamudram used a commercially available enclosure, the driver was entirely their own -- a rather rare planar-magnetic design. By the end of that year, the two had organized themselves into a company they named Audeze (pronounced Odyssey) and come out with their first salable product -- the LCD-1 headphones.

In 2010 the LCD-2 ($1145 USD) was introduced, and that’s when the headphone community and professional reviewers really began to take notice. Not only was the sound surprisingly good for a product from a brand-new company, it was something very different from what other headphones offered: denser, more robust, and comfortably warm. The next few years saw incremental changes to the LCD-2 and the launch of the higher-end LCD-3 ($1945), which has a thinner, lighter diaphragm and is claimed to sound more transparent. The latest creation from Audeze, debuted at the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, is the LCD-X ($1699).

The planar-magnetic driver might need a bit of explanation. The drivers in typical dynamic headphones are similar to those of conventional loudspeakers: a dome-shaped diaphragm with a voice coil affixed to it. Current flowing through the wire induces a magnetic field, which interacts with the field of a permanent magnet placed behind the coil -- the electromagnetic force causes the diaphragm to move back and forth, and the resulting compression and rarefaction of air produces soundwaves.

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Pathos Acoustics Aurium Headphone Amplifier

May 2014

Pathos AuriumEstablished in 1994 in Vicenza, Italy, Pathos Acoustics has become widely known as an innovative manufacturer of fine audio electronics with stunning industrial designs that are as eye-catching as their sound is wondrous. Guided by a design philosophy that declares that each new product must have a technical advantage over similar gear in its category, as well as an arresting look that announces it as something unique, every Pathos model exudes postmodern Italian sophistication.

When I visited Pathos for SoundStage! Hi-Fi in September 2007, I saw this rigorous standard applied to each product made, and came away impressed with the company and the leadership of its founders: research-and-development director Giovanni Borinato; Gaetano Zanini, who fine-tunes the products and is responsible for production; and industrial designer Paolo Andriolo. It was a treat to witness Pathos’s meticulous manufacturing processes: the exposed inner complexity of the Endorphin CD player (like a pod of Abu-Dhabi condos), heatsinks being cut and polished, a case being machined for the gorgeous InPol2 amplifier.

So when SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider asked, soon after the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, if I’d be interested in reviewing the new Aurium headphone amplifier ($1495 USD), I jumped at the chance, not only already confident in the quality of the product but also intrigued that, after 20 years in mainstream audio, Pathos was now expanding into head-fi. I expected to be delightfully surprised.

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Alpha Design Labs X1 USB DAC-Headphone Amplifier

April 2014

ADL X1Furutech, a Japanese maker of audio accessories, has been on a tear lately through its Alpha Design Labs (ADL) brand. When I reviewed their Esprit USB DAC, in April 2013, I found it a great-sounding, versatile addition to a small home system. To supplement its home-audio USB DACs, ADL has also introduced a series of portable DACs and a pair of headphones. The subject of this review, the X1, is the smallest and newest DAC-headphone amp of the three in ADL’s line. At $479 USD, the X1 packs some high-end technology into its diminutive case.

Description

The ADL X1 is designed primarily for use with Apple devices -- not coincidentally, at 4.6”L x 2.7”W, it’s close to the size of an iPhone or iPod Touch. You could easily place it under an iPhone and bind them together with a couple of rubber bands. The X1 has a clean, classy appearance: brushed-aluminum face, rounded corners, and inset switches. The X1’s sides are finished in a rubbery material -- it won’t easily slip out of your hands. The only odd feature is the rotary volume control at the right of the faceplate -- the other switches can’t be inadvertently bumped, but the volume control, which doubles as an on/off switch, is vulnerable.

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NAD Viso HP20 Earphones

Viso HP20 measurements can be found by clicking this link.

April 2014

NAD Viso HP20To say that Paul Barton set the audio world on its ear when he introduced the PSB M4U 2, his first headphone design, wouldn’t be exaggerating. Before Barton created the M4U 2, he read all the research he could find about voicing headphones. This led him to design the M4U 2 with a response that, while somewhat idiosyncratic, made many other headphones suddenly sound a lot less good. Barton was attempting to better re-create the sound of real speakers in a real room, and according to most listeners, he succeeded. He called his new voicing RoomFeel.

Since then, Barton has incorporated RoomFeel into more headphones, including the PSB M4U 1 and the NAD Viso HP50, both of which have gotten rave reviews. Now he’s incorporated RoomFeel into a pair of earphones: NAD’s Viso HP20 ($169 USD).

The HP20 is obviously a serious effort, incorporating Barton’s voicing, elegant and rather macho-looking (for earphones, anyway) industrial design, and a machined-aluminum shell that encloses each 8mm dynamic driver. It’s available in black or silver finish.

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