Shenzhen SoundMagic Technology Development Co. is a Chinese company that develops and manufactures earphones under their own SoundMagic moniker as well as for other, better-known brands. (I’m not being coy, nor are they. Keeping mum about such matters is usually part of any sourcing contract.) They have earned, on the various headphone-related forums, a reputation for producing exceptionally nice-sounding earphones at attractive prices. For this review, they sent me two very different models: the PL50 ($55) and EH11 ($50). Each comes in a hangable white box with a display window for the earphones, and includes a handy leatherette carrying pouch with a drawstring -- a nice bonus at these modest prices.
The PL50s are in-ear ’phones -- instead of resting against the pinnae (outer ears), they’re inserted into the ear canals. Since not all ear canals are the same size and shape, they come with a few sizes of foam tips and a set of silicone tips, none of which need to be inserted very far into the canal. Listeners new to in-ear ’phones may find the shallow insertion comfortable, but it means that the PL50s provide only modest isolation from ambient noise -- and if you wear them with their cord hanging down, they tend to fall out. However, a small piece of foam is included that routes the wires comfortably up, over, and behind the ears, and does a fairly good job of holding the ’phones in place. All in all, the result is a good if unexceptional balance of comfort, security, and isolation.
Located in Esbjerg, Denmark’s fifth largest city, Densen Audio Technologies has been making hi-fi components since 1992, when it was founded by Thomas Sillesen, who built his first amplifier at the age of 13. In his teens, Sillesen worked in audio retail, and later began importing and distributing audio in Denmark while attending business school. Sillesen wasn’t particularly excited about the products he was distributing, so he decided to try to make something better.
The very first Densen product was the DM-10 integrated amplifier, which made its debut at the London HiFi Show in 1992. At that time, the DM-10 was one of the most expensive integrated amplifiers on the market. That didn’t keep it from being very successful, and ever since, its model name has been synonymous with Densen. Twenty years later, Densen is still squarely focused on manufacturing integrated amps, while also making preamps, mono and stereo amplifiers, CD players, a tuner, and a phono stage.
HiFiMAN is the creation of Fang Bian, a headphone enthusiast with the knowledge and contacts to turn his enthusiasm into commercialized products. His firm designs, manufactures, and distributes high-end portable music players, headphone amplifiers, in-ear earphones, and full-sized headphones. The latest offering among his full-sized cans is the subject of this review: the HE-500 headphones ($899 USD).
The first thing that sets the HE-500s apart from the vast majority of headphones out there is that they’re a planar-magnetic (aka orthodynamic) design. In the typical dynamic headphone, the driver is attached to a voice-coil mounted in front of a magnet. In a planar-magnetic headphone, the driver is a thin membrane with a conductive layer that has been etched into a specific pattern, mounted in a nearly uniform magnetic field. There are two theoretical advantages to this latter arrangement. First, because the membrane can be lighter than a driver and voice-coil, it should be able to move faster. Second, the membrane is driven over its entire surface, which should reduce resonance modes and distortion. In most planar-magnetic headphones, including the HE-500s, the field is created by magnets placed on both sides of the membrane in a balanced configuration. Historically, planar-magnetic headphones -- and those from HiFiMAN in particular -- have been very hard to drive. The HE-500s are the most efficient design yet from HiFiMAN, with a claimed sensitivity of 89dB at 1mW. You probably won’t get a lot of volume or good control out of the average portable player, but any competent headphone amplifier should have no trouble getting the job done.
Over the last several years, Polk Audio has fought hard to earn its reputation as one of the scrappier speaker companies around. Never a darling of audiophiles, Polk has persevered through a combination of technical innovation and savvy marketing to become one of the leading high-volume speaker makers in the world. Well, we’re writing about them, aren’t we?
The speakers in Polk’s Blackstone TL350 system -- four identical TL3 satellite speakers and a TL3 Center (complemented for this review by Polk’s DSWpro 550wi powered subwoofer) -- are very small. Sometimes, small is beautiful. Sometimes, small is -- well, just small. I was interested to hear which kind of small the Polks would turn out to be.
In 1991, Etymotic Research launched the first commercial earphone for music playback that was designed to be inserted in the ear canal. This created a whole new product category that goes by various names: in-ear headphones, canal phones, insert phones, etc. I prefer the widely used term in-ear monitors (IEMs). Whatever you call them, these types of earphones have a few basic characteristics. Insertion into the ear canal avoids many of the variations in outer-ear (pinna) shape and headphone positioning that can affect the perceived sound of normal headphones. Depending on the design of the eartip, IEMs can offer a significant amount of isolation from ambient noise, which allows for much lower and thus safer listening levels, as well as increased perception of details. Many IEMs are also highly efficient, so they can be adequately driven directly from the output of a portable audio device. Those characteristics, combined with their very small size, make IEMs an excellent choice for listening on the go.
From their extensive work with developing tools for audiologists, the engineers and scientists at Etymotic came up with a target curve that represents the ideal frequency response for earphones. They then tweaked that curve to account for the 5dB boost in the top octave on most CDs, and an equivalent 5dB cut that they found was characteristic of most professional studio monitor speakers. The result was the ER-4 S -- their first product, launched in 1991 and still available today. The only trouble with that original design was that its low sensitivity -- 0.1V for 90dB at 1kHz -- requires dedicated headphone amplification. In 1994, Etymotic introduced the ER-4P. It had a higher sensitivity -- 102dB at 0.1V -- and could therefore be driven directly from the output of almost any portable audio device.
Ask an audiophile for a list of iconic speaker brands, and Britain’s Bowers & Wilkins is likely to be at or near the top. Since its founding in the 1960s, B&W has produced a range of loudspeakers offering truly exceptional performance at their various price points. Their flagship 800 series delivers a world-class listening experience for what is, in high-end-audio terms, a relatively reasonable price. Use of B&W monitors in many of the world’s preeminent studios makes them a literal reference for how recordings are supposed to sound.
In recent years, B&W has targeted the lifestyle market. Their one-piece Zeppelin iPod dock and speaker system introduced the brand to a new group of consumers who may never have considered venturing into a hi-fi shop. In addition to an updated version of the Zeppelin, B&W has expanded its lifestyle offerings to include a computer speaker system and two headphone designs. The in-ear C5 earphones ($179 USD) -- with their built-in microphone and control for iPods and iPhones -- are squarely aimed at the mobile user rather than the studio professional.
Smyth Research calls its new audio algorithm Smyth Virtual Surround (SVS), and makes some very big claims for it: “SVS is a revolutionary audio process that emulates, in headphones, the complete experience of listening to actual loudspeakers in an actual room, in up to eight-channel surround sound.” The inventor of the SVS algorithm is Stephen Smyth, PhD, who was for some years the technical director of DTS; other members of his staff have also worked with DTS. Smyth Research was founded in 2004.
What comes in the box
Anyone foolish enough to equate quantity with quality would already be happy with the Realiser A8 ($3670 USD). The package contains the Realiser A8 itself; the TU-1 Head Tracker; the TR-1 Head Tracking Reference; a pair of HTM-1 miniature microphones, which look much like earbuds, along with three pairs of washable earplugs, in different sizes; an RC3 remote control; and a set of Stax SR-202 headphones with their own small amplifier (5” x 5” x 0.25"). You’ll need two AC receptacles.
April Music is a name with which frequent readers of the SoundStage! Network will be familiar. Based in South Korea, this audio company has been building high-end components since 1998, and over the years several of their products have been reviewed on the SoundStage! Network websites.
April Music is the parent company of the Aura, Stello, and Eximus brands, each of which offers components to fulfill a certain level of aesthetic appeal and sonic performance at their given price points. The Eximus line comprises two CD players, while the Aura and Stello brands each offer an integrated amplifier and a CD player. The Aura line also includes the Note Premier, a single-box CD player and integrated amp.
The subjects of this review are the Aura Groove integrated amplifier ($1895 USD) and the Aura Neo CD player-DAC ($1795). Essentially, these models are the result of splitting the Aura Note Premier into separate components. However, the Groove offers 25Wpc more power than the Note Premier. An advantage of the two-box approach is that the buyer can experiment with CD players and integrated amps from other manufacturers to achieve another sound. However, given that the Groove and the Neo are the perfect aesthetic complements to one another -- and because their cabinets are much narrower than the 17” standard adopted by many manufacturers -- one might prefer just to keep them together.
The headphone market is dominated by a few very large professional-audio companies, but there are some smaller firms -- e.g., Grado and Ultrasone -- that offer significant products at various price points. What haven’t historically been seen in the headphone world are the one- and two-person garage operations that make up a substantial part of the rest of high-end audio. Designing and making your own headphones generally means designing and making your own drivers, and neither is a trivial task. The mounting structures/enclosures can be very different for different driver types, and their production requires either dedicated tooling or substantial amounts of labor. When a small company comes out with a pair of headphones, these are usually modifications, or even mere rebadgings, of someone else’s product. That’s not the case here. The Audeze LCD-2 headphones ($945 USD) were designed from scratch and are built entirely by Audeze in the USA. That’s a huge undertaking for a small company, but Audeze thinks they’ve got something special and can directly compete with the big boys.
PSB’s new CS1000 ($499 USD per pair) isn’t the first outdoor/indoor speaker on the market, but it’s the first from PSB, which automatically makes it one of the most interesting: it was engineered by Paul Barton, one of the world’s leading speaker designers. Barton told me that he didn’t want to offer a merely decent product, but one that produced the legendary sound quality and possessed the high value that PSB is known for worldwide.
The feel of strength and durability of the CS1000’s enclosure at first made me think it was made of aluminum; instead, it turns out to be of UV-resistant polypropylene, available in black or white. The removable grille is aluminum, and the binding posts, which are concealed by a robust rubber cover, are said to be rustproof. Each speaker is about 12.25"H x 11.75"W x 9.25"D and weighs ten pounds. One handy design feature is that the cabinet’s rear is quite a bit narrower than its front, for easier mounting in corners.