When I first heard that MartinLogan was venturing into the headphone market, I wondered whether they would come out with an electrostatic design. After all, electrostatic speakers are the products for which this Kansas-based company has been known throughout its 30-year history. For better or worse, the new Mikros 70 in-ear earphones ($149 USD) employ 6.6mm dynamic drivers, but they’ve been developed by MartinLogan to deliver a sound that, according to the promotional literature, was "inspired by the sonic clarity and detail of our legendary electrostatic speakers."
The Mikros 70s’ housings are each formed from a single piece of black-anodized aluminum with a shiny end. Small and subtle enough not to draw a lot of attention, up close they have a quality look and feel. The 4’/1.2m, nondetachable cable has a microphone and remote for use with iDevices and other smartphones, and is terminated with a gold-plated, four-conductor, 3.5mm, right-angled plug. The cable was soft and flexible but lacks any sort of shirt clip, and I found it mildly microphonic -- often a problem with in-ear models. The box includes a small carrying pouch and a selection of eartips. There are two sizes of triple-flange tips and three sizes of single-flange -- all of them in soft, floppy silicone. The triple-flange tips offer better isolation, but require insertion deeper in the ear canal than the single-flange tips.
The first "outboard" DAC I ever heard was one built onboard a Bryston B100 integrated amplifier that I was reviewing. I’d just plugged the B100 in and was in awe of its sound, which was more transparent and natural than anything I’d heard in my system up till then. I was listening to the opening track of Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele and decided to switch from the DAC of the NAD C 542 CD player I’d been using to the Bryston’s DAC, to understand why the latter came as a $1000 option. I couldn’t believe my ears. As impressive as the B100 was on its own, its sound through its built-in DAC was phenomenal. As if a curtain between me and the music had been raised, the sound became even clearer, even more revealing, and even more intimate. At that moment, I realized I’d probably never buy another CD player.
When Google released their Correlate tool, one of the first terms I tried searching was "audiophile." At that time, the No.1 correlated search term was "B&W." The British firm has been designing and manufacturing loudspeakers since the 1960s, and you’ll find their products in many of the world’s top recording studios as well as in audiophiles’ listening rooms. In 2010, B&W broke into the vibrant headphone market with the P5 on-ear model, and followed up with the C5 in-ear headphones, which I reviewed in October 2011. The latest addition to their mobile lineup is the P3 ($199) -- a lightweight on-ear design with microphone and control for iDevices.
Calyx Audio is a division of Digital & Analog Co. of Korea, a company founded in 1999 to produce class-D integrated circuits. In 2008, the company’s CEO, Seungmok Yi, a music lover and audiophile, decided to mix business with pleasure and produce high-end electronics under the brand name Calyx.
When Calyx came up with its first digital-to-analog converter, they named it simply for its product type and resolution: DAC 24/192 ($1950 USD). Recently Calyx launched the Femto, which, at $6850, is now their flagship DAC. For most audiophiles, however, the DAC 24/192 is the more economically relevant component -- which is why I wanted to review it.
In 2009, Beyerdynamic introduced their flagship Tesla T 1 headphones. The use in the model name of tesla, the International System of Units (SI) unit of measurement for the strength of a magnetic field, refers to the fact that the driver's annular magnet achieved the unprecedented flux density of 1.2 tesla in the voice-coil gap. The higher efficiency of so strong a magnetic field allowed the designers to use a smaller, lighter voice coil than would normally be required to generate the same driving force, resulting in better dynamics and faster transients. In 2010, Beyerdynamic used a miniature version of the Tesla driver in their T 50 p portable headphones. In late 2011, they added to the Tesla line the subject of this review: the T 70 headphones ($595 USD).
There’s little sense of showmanship and panache in the world of high-end hi-fi. At audio shows, manufacturers plonk their products down with little fanfare and less style. Walk through room after room, and you’ll see the same sterile exhibits with a few rows of chairs and racks of equipment. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a potted plant or two.
But you may find yourself drawn into a swish grotto resembling a cross between a New York City penthouse as seen in Better Homes and Gardens, a sci-fi movie set, and an opium den. You’ll duck under huge tropical plants, settle into a sleek leather sofa, and gaze all stupid-like at giant murals featuring waif-like models draping themselves over equally sleek speakers. There will be music playing. Someone might slip a freshly made espresso into your hand.
The 802 loudspeaker from Bowers & Wilkins has been an audio staple for over three decades. From the Matrix through the Nautilus to the Diamond editions, few can deny the unprecedented levels of technology and value that B&W has brought to market by way of the 802 over the years. In fact, it was a pair of 802 Nautiluses fed by McIntosh MC275 amplifiers and a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable that captivated me enough to leave my roots in car audio and get serious about home audio.
However, as time passed and my listening experience grew, I came to classify the 802 Nautilus as more a "love to own" than a "must own" speaker. Despite its sophisticated engineering and luxurious build quality, at some point I reluctantly realized that I was more impressed by what the 802 embodied than by how it sounded, and I prefer that ratio to be reversed.
When Chinese company HiFiMAN developed their HE-6 headphones ($1299 USD), they used a planar-magnetic driver. This driver’s very low efficiency specification of 83.5dB meant that the HE-6 required an amplifier with a 2W output. If you try to get 2W out of most headphone amps, you’re likely to see puffs of smoke coming out of the amp. And if you try to power most headphones with a 2W amplifier, you may well see puffs of smoke coming from the ’phones. So when HiFiMAN set about designing their next headphone models, they had three goals: 1) keep the planar-magnetic drivers, 2) make them cheaper, and 3) make them more efficient.
The HE-400s achieve those goals. Their efficiency is 92.5dB, and the cost is a much more affordable $399. You can play the HE-400s directly from an iPod (I’ve tried it), though I’d want more power to achieve satisfactory volume levels -- and I’m no headbanger. More important, you can use HiFiMAN’s Express HM-601 portable player ($249) to drive the HE-400s to reasonable levels.
It’s well known that Apple’s iPod music player redefined how the world listens to music. Its sleek, stylish design and capacious storage (160GB on the iPod Classic) let you take your music collection with you anywhere: on the bus, in an airplane, to the gym -- wherever you go, your iPod goes. You can pick your preferred trade-off between sound quality (up to 16-bit/48kHz WAV or AIFF files) and storage capacity (8 to 320kbps compressed MP3 or AAC files). Much to audiophiles’ disappointment, the general public often prefers low-resolution compressed files to higher-rez WAV and AIFF files.
But suppose someone wanted to build an audiophile version of the iPod -- one that would play hi-rez computer-audio files, and had a decent headphone amplifier to boot? A few years ago, a company called HiFiMAN did just that. Their HM-801 portable audio player ($790 USD) plays files up to 24/96 (though not 24/88.2), and has a built-in headphone amp that uses the Burr-Brown OPA627 chip, prized by builders of standalone headphone amps. It would seem to be just what audiophiles want.
I enjoy visiting the websites of audio manufacturers to see what they’re up to. When I recently looked at NAD’s site, I was surprised to see the new Viso 1 iPod dock, but what really caught my attention was what NAD had to say about it. The company has never been shy about extolling the virtues of its products, but I’m not used to them trumpeting a new model as “astonishing” or “awesome” or “The best sounding Smart Music system in the world. Period.” For polite NAD, that kind of language is hard-core, in-your-face smack. When I read it, I knew I had to hear this Viso 1 for myself.
To say that the Viso 1 is an iPod dock is like saying the Space Shuttle is a flying machine. While the Viso 1 is primarily designed to work with Apple’s ubiquitous music player, it’s much more. That’s not to say that the Viso 1 has enough functionality to make it the Swiss Army Knife of iPod docks, but it should suggest that it’s something special.